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The Boston Globe

It's a marriage of sorts

By Kate M. Jackson, Globe Correspondent, 10/23/2005

''Workplace spouses'' Duncan Gilkey and Alexis Contant of the Boston Design Center discuss marketing strategy. While they are both married to other people, their professional devotion to each other has not wavered.

Alexis Contant and Duncan Gilkey love to be together. They finish each other's sentences, share a palpable fervor for design, and gaze affectionately at one another across the conference table as they recall the ''instant connection'' when they first met 10 years ago.

''We just knew,'' said Contant.

Gilkey, 43, of South Natick, is the president of the Boston Design Center, and Alexis Contant, 37, of Newton is the vice president of marketing they are both married, but not to each other. While they have worked together on and off throughout their careers, their professional devotion to each other has not wavered; her sense of humor grounds him, she is more jocular in his presence.

Gilkey and Contant are classic ''workplace spouses.'' With people spending so much time at the office these days, the notion of work wives and husbands is a growing phenomenon in offices across the country. While platonic, an office matrimony is rooted in the intimacy of common goals and shared experiences. Some workplace spouses act as creative muses; others bicker and nag each other. They do not exchange rings, but vow to critique each other's presentation honestly, or take a lint roller to the other's jacket before a big meeting.

While alliances have always existed in the workplace, ones between men and women are invariably different, say relationship specialists, because of the sexual dynamic. As for work wives and husbands who have contractual spouses or significant others outside of the office, specialists say it is their management of boundaries that will ultimately determine whether their office marriage is annulled.

''The workplace spouse is a relatively new concept and not yet part of a company's organizational DNA,'' said Dory Hollander, an executive coach and workplace adviser. ''Many people don't know what to make of it yet.''

It is only within the last 25 years that men and women have become peers in the workplace, said Hollander. This new camaraderie, coupled with long hours spent at work, has caused a fundamental shift in the way people conduct business and interact with one another, she said.

As the workplace continues to evolve, specialists say this type of relationship will likely become more and more common, and as Hollander notes, will be mostly harmless.

''Most people don't go to work hoping to find a work wife or husband,'' she said.

These workplace relationships are often sprung from inevitability rather than an intention, said Scott Haltzman, an assistant professor at Brown University's department of psychiatry and human behavior and author of ''The Secrets of Happily Married Men.''

In the workplace, the boundaries are much more clearly defined, as are the specific goals you're working toward, he said.

''When you're dating someone, you're often putting your best face forward, trying to win someone over,'' said Hollander. ''When you're working together, you get to witness someone in real time, how they handle crises, how they interact with other people. Someone walking down the aisle after knowing someone for two years may not have this kind of first-hand knowledge or have logged as many hours with this person. On some level some people will never know everything about their spouses' work lives, just as the office spouses will never know everything about each other's home lives.''

Gilkey has been married to his wife, Alison, for 18 years and has two sons. Contant has been married for seven months to Jordan Smoller, a geneticist and physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. Gilkey said both of their spouses have met and approve of their workplace ''marriage.''

''At home, we're married to very different people who complement us and we embrace the differences,'' said Contant.

''My husband is saving lives, we're hocking furniture, but my career is just as important to him and we talk about it.'' But Contant notes that because she has an outlet in Gilkey, her work life does not consume her home life and vice versa.

This is one of the aspects of such a relationship, adds Hollander. While your significant other's eyes glaze over as you rehash the details of a dysfunctional staff meeting, your work wife or husband is intrigued.

''They want to know who was there and who said what,'' Hollander said. They are plugged into the inside jokes, the office politics, and the passive-aggressive co-worker in the next cubicle.

Gilkey also points out that because he is so intense about his work, he relies on his wife, Alison, to keep his priorities straight. ''I don't miss my sons' games. We have dinner together,'' he said, ''but she is still supportive of my work and relationships.''

''If I was married to someone who was jealous or insecure, I could not have the relationship I do with Alexis,'' said Gilkey. ''I would adjust my behavior to defend and protect Alison's feelings.''

Still, it's not always easy for some committed couples to see their mates develop intimate connections with other people, said Haltzman. ''It's important for men women too to be very sensitive to how their workplace relationship will be perceived at home.''

Haltzman said the most important thing workplace spouses can do from the very beginning is ''demystify'' the office relationship.

''If you can, introduce the at-home spouse to the workplace spouse to prove it's a nonthreatening relationship that's a good start,'' he said. ''Be explicit from the very beginning about what the relationship is and isn't.''

''At the office, don't set up the impression that there is anything intimate going on. Leave doors open when you're alone in your office. Always take phone calls from your spouse. Don't set up an environment that makes it easy to go over that line or where there is too much physical contact,'' Haltzman said.

Taking these measures will also help demystify the relationship at the office where co-workers are always nosing around for rumor mill fodder, said Hollander.

''There are many workplace couples out there who love each other to pieces platonically, but when other co-workers observe that level of synergy or exclusivity, they begin to feel out of the loop,'' she said.

Diana Downey, an editor at Standard & Poor's in Boston, said she thinks workplace camaraderie is important but treads cautiously in her office relationships with men. ''I'm more careful. I won't stop the friendship, but I'm mindful of what others might be saying or speculating. You can suffer from that, especially if you work in a close-knit team environment or small office.''

As for Gilkey and Contant, they continue to live in wedded bliss at the office until 7 p.m. do them part.

Secrets of a successful office marriage
  1. Maintain boundaries. Keep work and home lives separate.
  2. Demystify the relationship at home and at the office.
  3. Be explicit from the very beginning about what the relationship is and is not.
  4. Leave office doors open.
  5. Always accept phone calls from spouse or significant other.
  6. Introduce at-home spouse to workplace spouse.
  7. Don't set up an environment that makes it easy to cross the line.
  8. Minimize physical contact.

Sources: Scott Haltzman, assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Brown University; Dory Hollander, executive coach, workplace adviser, and founder of WiseWorkplaces Inc.

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