Letters to Kool Kanya: He calls me his work wife. I want a work-divorce

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In Kool Kanya’s theme for November﹘ Challenging Gender Roles ﹘ we unpack the stereotypes and biases that govern women in the workplace. 

Dear Kool Kanya,

I have a coworker who once asked me for help on a project he was to present the next day. I had a more relaxed workload that week so I agreed to help immediately. He was easy to get along with, and I agreed to take some time the next day to help him make his presentation slides as well.

His presentation was a huge success and he personally thanked me later that day. He called me the perfect ‘work wife’. This was on brand for his sense of humour and I laughed it off.

As the days went on, however, he would come to me for help more and more. He would look up from his computer and loudly ask, ‘Where’s the work wife? I can’t do this alone.’ Everyone around would laugh or smilingly shake their head. People began to think we were great friends, but beyond helping him with his work we didn’t really have anything in common or a reason to talk.

Anytime I refuse to help with his work he acts offended and behaves passive aggressively for the next few days, but goes back to being friendly and plays the ‘work wife’ card anytime he needs help again. Nobody at work seems to realise this because ‘why wouldn’t one friend help out another?’.

But I’m not a friend to him, or even a coworker – I’m the ‘work wife’.

I don’t like, and never did like, being pushed into this strange role of the ‘work wife’. How do I ask this coworker for a ‘work-divorce’?

Sincerely, never A Work Wife

Dear Never A Work Wife,

We can understand what you’re going through. The label of a work wife – even when used jokingly –  can often be toxic for the people involved. The most basic reason is that a work wife is often compartmentalised into the same gendered box as a wife or mother.

She is expected to support the coworker through it all and drop everything to be there for them whenever she is needed.

It’s a role that can put unfair gendered expectations on a working woman.

Here’s what you can do to deal with this toxic work marriage.

Stop doing the work for your coworker

We understand that it will be difficult to deal with his passive aggressive behaviour, and be vilified in a way, but this is the starting step towards the divorce.

If the coworker’s key reason for being friendly with you is to get you to do his work for him (which it sounds like it may be), start consistently and clearly refusing to help.

Focus on your workload, explain that you do not have the bandwidth, or, to be honest, come up with any excuse necessary to not fall back into old patterns of being the work wife.

Chances are, after not getting the work wifely duties he expects of you, he won’t continue to bother you anymore.

Ask the coworker to share credit where due

If it becomes impossible to keep refusing to help him as his ‘work wife’, tell him that you expect him to share credit with you for helping with the work. Make it clear that you aren’t so much helping him as much as you are helping ensure that the work is done well.

You deserve to be given credit, not just privately later on by the coworker, but publicly so the team is aware that your help isn’t just a friendly gesture. It’s you being a good team member and coworker.

The coworker might not like having to give someone else credit for his work so often, and will not come to you so casually and so regularly for help again.

Talk to your other coworkers about the situation

You might feel like your other coworkers don’t understand the situation, but that might be because you haven’t explained your point of view to them.

Tell other coworkers who you trust about how you aren’t pleased with how the coworker in question treats you. Talk about how you have no interest in being a ‘work wife’ and ask them to not encourage his behaviour.

This way, you will have a group of people in your corner who can discourage his behaviour and defend you if the coworker takes offence and vilifies you.

Be upfront and talk to the coworker in question

The quickest and most clear way to initiate a divorce? Ask the person for it.

The conversation doesn’t have to be with the aim of cutting all ties or parting on bad terms, but with the aim of making the coworker see that you are uncomfortable with your relationship at the moment.

Be honest and open with the coworker without trying to attack them

Tell them you cannot and do not want to be anybody’s ‘work wife’, and that you dislike the term. Explain that you cannot always be expected to help them.

The conversation can go one of two ways – the coworker understands, agrees to back off and you remain good coworkers to each other, or the coworker takes offence and cuts off ties with you.

While the former is the ideal option, the latter still helps you end the strange work marriage. After all, the single life after a tricky breakup is still often better than being in a toxic relationship.

We hope this helps. Happy divorce proceedings to you.

Team Kool Kanya

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