Can Spouses Stay Friends In Spite of Workplace Problems Between The Other Half of the Couples?

A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors:
How can I find out if  the wife of my husband’s former coworker
wants to stay friends with me? 

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Question:

My husband and his good friend/co-worker applied for the same job and my husband got the promotion. My husband was able to overlook some of his coworker’s faults because of their friendship, but when my husband moved into a supervisor role he has had to address some of the ongoing issues and they are no longer friends.

We use to spend a lot of time with my husband’s co-worker and his wife and we became really good friends. I haven’t heard from her in a while and our last contact was brief. I don’t want to assume our friendship is over because of our husbands’ issues, but how do I ask if it is?

Answer: 

Hello and thank you for your question about what to do to keep a friendship when the husbands are having work conflict and organizational positions have changed. Your friend is probably wondering the same thing!

Our advice about almost all concerns is to have a direct and to-the-point conversation, but I don’t think that would work as well in this case. In fact, this is one of the few times when I will advise someone to be less than completely truthful. You can still be truthful, but you don’t need to share all you know.

Here are some things to consider before you decide what to do:

If you do contact your friend and find a way to get together on your own, without husbands, both of you will have a big thought in your mind, “What about the problems our husbands are having and will we ever be “couples” friends again?” If you say things to indicate you know about the details of the work conflict between her husband and yours and she tells her husband, he would strongly resent the idea that his supervisor/former friend is discussing work issues in that much detail at home—and may wonder who else the former friend is telling about it. It could make things much worse, especially since inevitably his side of the story will be different than that of your husband. There could even be a workplace confrontation about it, which could become very bad.

In addition, there is the issue that the best way to deal with work stress is to leave it at work and not to spend very much time at all thinking or talking about it at home, unless it’s with a counselor. So, if either you or your friend are as honest as you should be about your activities, you’ll mention your meeting and that might start a frustrated and angry conversation about the work conflict—even if it’s just, “It’s a shame her husband isn’t as nice as she is.”

There may also be a feeling by each of your husbands that a wife should be loyal enough to cut ties in those cases. Although your husband may not feel that way, her husband might.

All of that is to say that keeping the friendship strong may not be able to happen right now. You may find that time will reduce the work conflict and you and your friend will be able to reconnect in a few months. If that seems best, you can at least send an ecard now and then, send a text message occasionally or call when you know she will not be answering her cell phone and leave a message. If she doesn’t want to talk to you she won’t respond to any of those and if she does, she will know the door is open.

If you want to try to get together, ask her to meet you for lunch or breakfast at a place where you and your husbands did not go as couples—maybe a tea room or favorite coffee place, or a bakery with tables, or similar casual place. If there is a Farmer’s Market in your area or craft or arts market, you could tell her you are going and ask her to meet you there. If there is a store where you both liked to shop or walk through, tell her you’ll be there.

For example, send a text: “Going to the Hobby Shoppe to get stuff for holiday decorations Wednesday after work. I’ll be there at about 5 pm. If you want to look around too, it would be fun. Let me know. XOXO.”

Or, you could write or call her as though the only issue is that you haven’t seen each other for a while. “Hi! It seems like ages since we’ve had a chance to chat. What about meeting me at the Grindhouse Coffee Shop Saturday afternoon? You say the time and I’ll be there.”

By doing that, you are establishing a new way to connect and be friends and you are letting her know you care about her as a person, not just as part of the couple. You are also allowing her to not respond if that’s not good for her situation.

When you do get together, keep in mind that most likely anything you say about your husband or her’s will be repeated. Maybe not, but it’s a good way to think about it. Continue to ask how her husband is doing, share appropriate things about you and your husband, and let her feel that you truly mean it when you say the work situation isn’t on your mind.

Instead of indicating you know about the conflict, you could take the approach that it is the preference of the organization, rather than the work conflict, that has changed your social relationships. How you handle that will depend on how close you were before and the personality and communications style of both of you. If she is quiet, less confident and more of a peacemaker, she may feel most comfortable with just a reassurance from you that you want to stay friends. If she is brash and not one to mince words, you can be more direct, if that’s comfortable for you.

“Here’s the way I see it: The fact that ACME has policies that will keep Tom and Craig from socializing while they’re working together, shouldn’t interfere with our friendship. So, we’ll just have to find a way to keep in touch on our own!”

Or, “I know Craig and Tom might feel they can’t socialize away from work the way they used to, but that doesn’t apply to us. Right?”

If she refers to the conflict at work, you can say, “Tom doesn’t say much about work anymore, but I do know all of them are really being kept busy. I’ve got so many things to deal with at my own work that I’m kind of glad we don’t talk about it too much at home. Don’t you find that too, where your work has so much stuff going on that you just want to get home, relax and do something fun?” That will help redirect the conversation and help stop further discussions about the conflict.

I realize you may feel very tempted to say something more specific, to let Rita know you don’t care about the work conflict and you are more interested in your friendship. But, there’s just no way to do it without having the conversation go down paths you should avoid. You would not want to say anything disloyal about your husband, “I know he can be a nag sometimes.” She does not want to say anything disloyal about her husband, “Trust me, I would hate to be his boss.” But, neither of you wants to hear anything unpleasant said either. “If your husband would just stop doing that, my husband wouldn’t be so upset.”

If your friend insists upon discussing the work conflict, tell her directly that you don’t know anything except your husband has said things have been tense at work. You could say, “I hope the two of us can let Tom and Craig have their work situation without it bothering our friendship.” Then, just stop talking about it. Her reactions will help you know whether or not the two of you can maintain a friendship outside of the couple’s connection.

Best wishes to you with this situation. If you have the opportunity and wish to do so, let us know how this worked out. Your experiences would be helpful for others.

Tina Rowe
Ask The Workplace Doctors