Why I Wish People Would Stop Calling My Best Friend My ‘Work Husband’
Mark is the most essential person in my life, and he's also happily married.
I was getting a lot of questions about “work spouses.” I knew the label was supposed to be a cute and harmless way to characterize a specific kind of friendship—the natural, intense coupling than can happen at the office—but referring to a work friend, even a close one, as any kind of “spouse” seemed wrong and misleading.
I did understand why people wanted to come up with a new term for their close office relationships. Those friendships were often more intimate, complicated to describe, and, sometimes, tricky to navigate.
I knew this well—because I had Mark.
In many ways—which I was soon to discover—Mark was the most essential person in my life.
I can’t remember when Mark went from random coworker to the guy who knew the rhythms of my menstrual cycle, which celebrities I want to sleep with, and how my voice gets an octave higher after a second glass of Riesling.
The transition must have happened before I got my first iPhone, because he’s always been the first contact under Favorites. It goes Mark, Mom, Brette (my sister), and Jess (my best friend), in that order.
Mark became a special kind of companion because of our proximity to each other in the office. Unlike my regular friends, whom I probably saw a few hours a week if I was lucky, Mark was omnipresent almost immediately. He was everywhere in my life, all day—sometimes the first person I talked to in the morning and the last person I texted at night. Some weeks, Mark spent more quality time with me than with his wife, Michelle. They lived together, but during their hours at home, they were often asleep or focused on their two young kids.
I remember the first time I met Mark, in 2004. I was new to the arts department at the paper and followed some coworkers up to the cafeteria for coffee. Mark was the tall guy from Northampton, Massachusetts, with pale skin and graying spiky hair that stuck up in all directions. Despite being forty at the time, which seemed old to me then, he appeared to have the energy of a teenager. He bounded up stairs and down the office hallways like he was dancing. He made weird noises to punctuate his statements. He reminded me of a more corporate version of Mork from Ork.
After a few months, we started hanging out after work. It became normal for both of us to check in via text on weekends. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I would check my email and see Mark’s name, and then I’d have a dream that we were doing mundane things like going to the bank and grocery shopping. Even when I was alone, it seemed as though Mark was there—in the walls, in the air, whispering tasteless jokes and tapping his feet while listening to music at his desk.
I acknowledged to myself, as our relationship evolved, that I gave Mark a lot of time and energy—maybe the kind of energy that could be saved for a friend my age or maybe even a boyfriend—but I couldn’t stop myself from leaning into the bond. Our connection reminded me of the kind of close friendships I’d had time to make in college. Our interactions were platonic and fun and natural. We held no power over each other at work, and we just wanted to hang.
One of the first things I enjoyed about Mark was that he liked to do a dumb thing where he arbitrarily put the letter R into random words. He’d go to a Starbucks and order a “larte.” He liked to refer to Ben Affleck as “Ben Arfleck.” I don’t know why that amused me, but it did.
Another dumb thing he did—once all boundaries of decorum were gone, and our friendship had clearly transcended the walls of the office—was tell me which celebrities have big penises. He’d memorized a “celebrities with big penises” list he’d found online, so whenever I happened to mention a name from the list, like Huey Lewis, Mark would ask, with great excitement, his eyebrows high, “You know what they say about Huey Lewis?” and I would say, “Yes, Mark. Yes, I do.”
"It's a work spouse thing, right?"
It’s complicated, because at some point, when you’re a straight, single woman in your thirties, it can become difficult to develop close platonic relationships with straight men, especially when they’re married. Most of my straight male friends were grandfathered in from high school and college. It was becoming difficult to go up to someone’s husband—even a coworker—and say, “Hey, let’s go to the movies or get drinks.” Sometimes people got weird about it.
But with Mark, it happened organically, and it would have been a bigger effort not to be close friends.
He was there when my body rejected the many apple martinis I consumed at Lucky’s Lounge on my thirtieth birthday, and I was probably the one childless adult guest at his daughter’s Harry Potter–themed tenth birthday party.
One time, Mark and I got stoned in an alley near Boston Common and then went to see the James Bond movie Skyfall. I consumed a super-sized box of Junior Mints while he got paranoid. During the scene where Javier Bardem takes out his teeth and reveals that his face is deformed from cyanide, Mark leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Promise you’ll never do that to me.”
I didn’t know what he meant, but he looked scared, so I vowed I wouldn’t.
Mark’s wife has always understood our relationship. Right off the bat, she was like, “Have fun with Meredith,” because I guess our intentions (or lack thereof) have always been clear.
Michelle, who also became my friend, told me, not long after I got close to Mark, that when you have kids, especially in the beginning, you often wind up befriending other parents whose children know your own. Those people are nice, she said, but some of them aren’t the companions you’d choose if it wasn’t about convenience. She acknowledged that on paper, I wasn’t the most obvious close friend for Mark, but in the same way we can’t help whom we love, we sometimes can’t help whom we like. If she was jealous of anyone, it was Mark. Making friends as a grown-up wasn’t usually an effortless process.
Not everyone was as open-minded as Michelle. Once Mark and I got close, I could tell that some coworkers assumed we were having sex. The people who asked about the nature of our relationship tended to be men around Mark’s age, which said more about their desires than anything else.
“So. . . is it like . . . siblings? Like brother and sister?” one boss asked.
“It’s a work spouse thing, right?” asked another.
“No,” I said, annoyed because I was sure that if Mark were a woman, no one would pay attention to us.
But even Mark’s son tried to put a name to it. He’d seen his parents with friends, but I was younger than those people and I didn’t have kids, which made me different. “Daddy, is Merevis your girlfriend?” Mark’s son asked before he was old enough to pronounce my name. Mark’s daughter, who’s four years older than her brother, had an answer before her father did.
“No,” she said, “Merevis is Daddy’s colleague. Mommy is daddy’s girlfriend.”
That was almost right.
It was my mom—who’d never questioned my friendship with Mark—who explained it best.
“He’s just our Mark,” she said, when I told her people were confused.
She added, with more thought, “You guys are also a little like Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock.”
“Except Mark and I are both Liz Lemon,” I said.
My mom agreed.
Finding the line
I know Mark probably skewed my perspective when it came to the many letters I received about workplace relationships. It was a big topic from the start—about thirty percent of all Love Letters entries in the first few years mentioned work in some way.
The easiest questions were about dating in the workplace and whether people should “dip the pen into the company ink.” I usually responded “go for it,” because even after losing my ex-boyfriend/colleague Patrick and having to see him in the Globe cafeteria, I still thought office romances were worth a shot. I told readers that as long as they were respecting the rules of the human resources department, they might as well dip their pens.
I also knew the Globe employed many married couples who met on the job. Those people all seemed content, probably because they’d married someone with similar priorities.The harder workplace questions came from people who were concerned about their partners’ close friends at work, or their own blurry office relationships, assuming they were already coupled. One letter was sent by a woman who wrote in to ask about her husband’s new coworker, who liked to text him late at night, long after they were off the clock.
“My issue is that this woman (who is single) texts my husband, ‘Jason,’ during off-work hours. Their conversations revolve around personal things, not work-related topics. Nothing incredibly personal, but it’s still clear she’s reaching out just for an excuse to talk. I realize that when you work with someone closely you’ll develop a relationship and get to know them, but her texts are downright flirty.”
My instinct was to defend this other woman because maybe she and Jason were super-friends, like Mark and me. What did it mean to be flirty, after all? Inside jokes? Comments about sex? Mark and I texted jokes off-hours, and some of them were about sex (usually about me not having any, after Patrick). With all of the hours we spent at the office, Mark and I needed humor. We needed to talk about Huey Lewis’s penis.
Michelle understood. Or at least I hoped she did.
I told the letter writer she was focusing on the wrong problem. "It sounds like the real issue here is the amount of time your husband spends on his phone. Is Jason paying attention to these texts when he should be engaged in conversation with you?"
For the record, I knew that sometimes I was too defensive of these workplace friendships. I knew that Mark and I might be an exception to the rule and that many “work spouse” couplings did turn into affairs.
I tried to figure out the line for my readers. The big thing I noted, as I considered why Mark and I worked so well, was that he and I never used each other to escape our real lives. I liked Mark even more when I was exposed to his marriage and family. I loved how he talked to his kids and how excited he got whenever Michelle got a cool haircut.
I liked Mark because he liked his life.
He also joined my world, as opposed to being an alternative to it. Very early on, he met my friends and hung out with my family. He made jokes about giving me away at my wedding and said he wanted me to meet someone after Patrick so we could have double dates.
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As much as I don’t remember when Mark became the first contact in my phone, I do remember when it became clear who he had become in my life—what it meant to have a Mark.
During a January weekend, a year after I’d started the advice column, I took the train from Boston to Maryland because my mom was having stomach issues and was ordered to get a colonoscopy. My mom had avoided colonoscopies—even though she was about ten years past the recommended age to get one—because the procedure scared her.
Once, years prior, she’d been on her way to the hospital to get the test when she abruptly turned the car around, all of a sudden rejecting the idea of someone snaking a tube up her rear end.
But because of her new symptoms, she couldn’t avoid the test any longer. She asked me to travel to Baltimore to take her to the appointment. Mark helped me keep up at work while I was gone.
I drove my mom to the doctor’s office and made her listen to my iPod, which I’d loaded with her favorite Sting songs to soothe her before the procedure. Her eyes were shut tight while she sat in that waiting room, her fingers clutching the tiny old Apple device.
“What if it’s something bad?” she whispered.“It’s not,” I told her, trying to get her to focus on Ten Summoner’s Tales. “People have stomach issues all the time. It’s probably a polyp. A hemorrhoid. We all get the ’roids. Avoid the Roid!”
“Okay,” she said, not laughing.
The doctor—who happened to be the father of one of my old schoolmates—found me in the waiting room about a half hour after the procedure. He was holding a picture of my mother’s insides and his expression was grim.
“Meredith, we’ve finished the colonoscopy.”
He sat down next to me and pointed to the image, his finger on a pink area near another pink area that looked like construction insulation. “This right here—this large area—this is cancer,” he said. “It’s not confirmed, but, Meredith, I’ve been doing this a long time. This is colorectal cancer.”
Then he said about fifteen other things about how we needed to set up appointments for scans, and how my mom didn’t know the diagnosis yet because she was just waking up. He said I should call Brette and make a plan.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
I remember moving my legs, which felt like stilts, out into the hallway, and then calling Brette, only to get her voicemail. Voicemail over and over.
My next instinct was to call Jess, but I wasn’t ready for that. Telling her my mom had cancer would frighten her, and then we’d both be scared, and I didn’t know where we’d go from there.
For a split second I thought to call Patrick, but he wasn’t my person for this kind of thing anymore. He never really was, even when we were dating.
My real practical emergency contact was Mark. When you work closely with someone, they know your every move and what you need to accomplish each day. Mark was the only person who understood all of my hourly needs and obligations. That meant he was the best person to talk me through the next scary moments of my life. How would this work? Where were the best doctors? What if the cancer had spread? What if this was really bad?
For a minute or two, Mark and I were the only people in the world, besides the medical staff, who knew the diagnosis. I don’t remember what I told Mark or how he responded, but I do remember feeling stronger when I heard his voice.
It was clear that whatever happened next, he was with me. I squatted in the hospital hallway talking—not to someone who felt like a spouse, an officemate, or a friend, but to someone who was . . . Mark.
We were doing what we did best, devising a plan and tackling our to-do list, one task at a time.
From CAN'T HELP MYSELF: Lessons and Confessions From a Modern Advice Columnist by Meredith Goldstein. Copyright © 2018 by Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.