Thanks to trend pieces on the “Work Spouse” phenomenon, pretty much everyone is well aware of its meaning. The Work Husband is the guy you joke with as you go get your daily Starbucks run together. You swat him playfully as you tell co-workers, “We spend so much time together, I call him my Work Husband!”
But I ask you this: Who’s your Office Daddy?
What’s the difference? You share sexual tension with your Work Husband. You share your need to please with your Office Daddy. A Work Husband likes to flirt. An Office Daddy likes to fret. Your Work Husband gives you love advice. Your Office Daddy gives you life advice.
There’s an unmentioned potential to sleep with either.
Hence, the problem.
If Work Husband and Wife had a mascot, it would look a lot like Jim and Pam on The Office before they actually got together (perhaps the best advertisement for why the Work Spouse can be so insidious in the first place). An Office Daddy would look more like Dr. Mark “McSteamy” Sloan and his off-limits gosh-she-has-so-much-to-learn-about-darn-doctoring Office Daughter Lexie Grey on Grey’s Anatomy.
Or consider an even more egregious Office Daddy dynamic: the one between Lieutenant Debra Morgan and Special Agent Frank Lundy from Dexter. Thirty years her senior (you read that right), Lundy observes of the smoking-hot Morgan, “You’re very fidgety. Anyone ever tell you that?” Morgan: “Yes, my father. You applying for the job?” Lundy: “Just an observation.”
Omigod, Da-ad! So embarrassing.
In a more risqué convo, she thanks him for all that sweet, savory Office Daddy wisdom he’s throwing down, gushing: “I took your advice … to get out and have some fun. Got laid big time.” She is momentarily embarrassed at her silly girlish reveal of too much information to her gray-haired fox Office Daddy. Blushing, she titters: “Really, you have to save me here, or I’m gonna go outside and shoot myself.” He quips back, “The way you’re going, you’d probably miss.”
There it is. That wry paternal amusement, the distinctive cooing approval, the twinge of pride at the shaky training wheels coming off for the first time — mixed with a healthy sprinkling of some good old-fashioned joshing around.
Later (stop reading if you don’t want the predictable spoiler), inevitably, they have sex. Multiple times. Because that can happen with those spry old Office Daddies. Since it’s only a faux familial relationship, none of those pesky incest laws apply.
I’ve collected my fair share of Work Husbands and Office Daddies, none of whom I thought posed any real danger to my love life. Why? Because until recently, I didn’t have a fully transparent or fully mature or fully brutally honest love life with a partner.
All’s fair in love and war, I figured. I’m gonna get me one of those. And I did. There were some I sought out (“Can I pick your brain over lunch?”) and some who sought me out (“I have no dog in this fight, so can I give you a little fatherly advice?”). They’ve accumulated in my Rolodex over the years like a fragmented dysfunctional family tree, filled with split loyalties, secrets, and extremely blurry emotional lines.
Recently, I made the mistake of calling one such Office Patriarch to have an Office Dad to Office Daughter heart-to-heart.
When my husband came home, I confessed, casually, in that way that emphasizes how it’s definitely no big deal or anything, “So I called that old friend who I know from work to get advice. I just … I really needed an adult male perspective and reassurance, you know.” I was upset, I said. There was a fight with my real-life family, and I was spiraling.
Pat looked at me sideways. He repeated my words back to me. “A ‘male perspective’?”
“Yeah, because I had a really bad fight with my family, and I was really upset, and I didn’t want to bother you right before you went onstage,” I explained.
I could tell he was annoyed and frustrated. So I kept filling the space, rambling on and on about why it was all kosher and why was he being weird, anyway?
“Really?” Pat asked. “So how would you feel if I did that, Mandy, if I called a close female friend for her to nurture me when I needed it, to provide that level of emotional intimacy and support — instead of going to you first?”
“Oh, wait,” I said. “Yeah. I don’t want you to do that. Please don’t do that, okay?”
And with this one conversation, my official stance on Office Daddies was born.
I had never thought about the man I was calling in this way before. He counseled me when I needed it. He told me I would eventually find someone. He steered me when I was lost and he comforted me when I was down.
But I did find someone. I married him, in fact. He’s the best, smartest, kindest person I know. So why was I still running to my Office Daddy when times got rough? Why was I so impatiently seeking that sugary “let me kiss it and make it all better” platitude-filled solution?
I have someone far more primary, far more important than that now. No, my husband is not a father figure. He transcends that. He’s everything.
“I’m sorry,” I told Pat. “I wouldn’t want you running to some chick like that so she could nurse you back to good happy feelings with her tender loving care. I don’t want to have a double standard like that.”
It wasn’t that I needed to give up my relationship with this longtime friend — not at all. I just needed to transition him from Office Daddy to Office Mentor. Without all those squishy emotional-juice “benefits” of “there, there, baby”–style intimacy that might still take a turn for the sexual, particularly if the woman in question has a Daddy Complex. (I do.)
I simply ditched the “Daddy” and I kept the “Office.” It’s actually quite possible to have a healthy level of intimacy with a guide and mentor that doesn’t teeter on the inappropriate and boundaryless.
I needed to recalibrate the parental-bordering-on-perverse power dynamic. For example, here are some appropriate questions one might ask a mentor: Should I take this gig? Should I trust this person in business? How does Google Cardboard compare to Oculus Rift? All totally aboveboard. A mentor will be expertly qualified to address any of these — without any of that grimy sitcomesque will-they-or-won’t-they stink.
When in doubt, I examine every situation as honestly as possible. Because when there are a whole lot of “you had to be there” moments with someone, would I really have wanted my husband there?
It’s such a wonderful experience to enjoy how firm and strong (just like Daddy!) actual healthy boundaries feel.
Because when it comes right down to it: Office Father doesn’t always know best.