The Work Spouse Finally Gets The Real Spouse To Work

I’ll admit it, I like Kelly Ripa more than I should.  I was not a fan of ALL MY CHILDREN, where she captivated daytime audiences for a decade as the troubled party girl Hayley Vaughn, but I knew darn well an awful lot of women 25-54 who watched ABC stations did.   When she married her co-star Mark Consuelos IRL during the peak of her story arc’s popularity, in the fantasy world of soap opera fanaticism she was a de facto princess who snagged her handsome Latin lover.  Her fans saw a lot of themselves, or at least their aspirational selves, in her.

So when she emerged as the replacement for Kathie Lee Gifford on the LIVE! talk show that Regis Philbin started as a local New York show in the early ’80s, which Gifford joined just before it went national, many of my peers were surprised, but I knew enough from the gushing praise she received from her fan base that she was an ideal choice.  When Kathie Lee teamed with Philbin, she was younger, married to a handsome ex-jock (and, of course, legendary Monday Night Football announcer) and showed a natural chemistry with “Reege!” as the epitome of the work spouse.  Regis was extremely happily married to Joy, who would often fill in when Kathie Lee was sick or off on other work, and would playfully chide Regis about his spending more time and being more emotionally invested in Kathie Lee, teasing him about the younger girl at the office occupying his time.   But, at the time, the work spouse was a highly relatable concept.

I was always blessed with several “work spouses”, particularly when my actual marriages were struggles, which was often,  And in that era, I wasn’t alone.  Indeed, over the years, plenty of women’s magazines spoke gushingly about the value of having such a relationship.  Take Elizabeth Blanchard’s views, expressed in Women’s Health:

If you, like the rest of corporate America, spend most of your weekly hours at the office, you probably have developed some seriously strong friendships. But there’s one in particular you may have acquired: a work husband.

In fact, more than 50 percent of women surveyed by Simply Hired said they had a colleague so near and dear to their heart, they labeled them a “work spouse.” (Aww.)

“Well, there’s no Webster’s guide,” jokes WH advisor “Dr. Chloe” Carmichael, PhD, a psychologist in New York City and author of Dr. Chloe’s 10 Commandments of Dating. “But the term usually refers to a colleague of the opposite sex [if you’re heterosexual], who’s someone you can trust, who’s got your back, and whom with you have a close relationship.”

But despite the long hours you might spend Slacking your work husband across the office—in addition to, you know, spending time in person by the coffee machine or at happy hour—there’s usually nothing too suggestive, salacious, or romantic going on.

That’s pretty much the dynamic I had over the years, and may I say I benefitted greatly from those relationships.  So when Ripa became Philbin’s “work spouse” despite the 30-ish-year age gap between them, it reignited the show, bringing in a younger female demo who discovered Philbin as he was reaching his career zenith as the host of the immensely popular WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE.   During the 2000s, following the lead of Joy (and, occasionally, Kathie Lee’s husband Frank) filling in, Consuelos would sometimes serve as guest host.   While he had an obvious bond with Kelly, one that Kelly has not held off luridly describing in interviews, it was not the same kind of rapport she had with Philbin, who saw her more as an adopted daughter and who would ultimately endear herself to him, and the generation of older women who once saw Regis as their TV fantasy.

But in more recent years, between the pandemic and the rise of #metoo, the work spouse notion began to fall out of favor and opportunity.  And after the acrimonious parting of Michael Strahan, Regis’ replacement, Ripa’s reputation as the sweet, coquettish sidekick devolved.  She had an extremely public meltdown when Strahan was surreptitously approached and eventually recruited by ABC network management to move to the struggling GOOD MORNING AMERICA, which presented opportunities for far more financial upside than the steadily-rated but lower-CPM ones that the syndicated LIVE! did.  I had seen that side of Kelly during her frequent attempts to pitch half-baked concepts with Mark to my Game Show Network colleagues.  So when Strahan winced when I mentioned her name when we met, for a change, I immediately shut up.   It was very clear that he was never a work spouse, just a co-host.

Ryan Seacrest was a better fit, but with frequent coast-to-coast travel for his radio work and AMERICAN IDOL, and eventually the awkward zoom call like production of the shows produced during the start of the pandemic, he and Ripa never did quite develop the same level of chemistry that she had enjoyed with Philbin,  And at the same time, the concept of the work spouse truly began to fall out of favor.  The tone of the opening grafs of a more recent article  penned by Stephanie Murray in The Atlantic shows pretty much where its stands these days:

The Bizarre Relationship of a ‘Work Wife’ and a ‘Work Husband’

The work marriage is a strange response to our anxieties about mixed-gender friendships, heightened by the norms of a professional environment.

It started out as a fairly typical office friendship: You ate lunch together and joked around during breaks. Maybe you bonded over a shared affinity for escape rooms (or board games or birding or some other slightly weird hobby). Over time, you became fluent in the nuances of each other’s workplace beefs. By now, you vent to each other so regularly that the routine frustrations of professional life have spawned a carousel of inside jokes that leavens the day-to-day. You chat about your lives outside work too. But a lot of times, you don’t have to talk at all; if you need to be rescued from a conversation with an overbearing co-worker, a pointed glance will do. You aren’t Jim and Pam, because there isn’t anything romantic between you, but you can kind of see why people might suspect there is.

The term for this type of collegial relationship—work wife or work husband—has become a feature of American offices. The meaning can be a bit slippery, but in 2015, the communications researchers M. Chad McBride and Karla Mason Bergen defined a “work spouse” relationship as “a special, platonic friendship with a work colleague characterized by a close emotional bond, high levels of disclosure and support, and mutual trust, honesty, loyalty, and respect.” Other scholars have argued that the connection actually sits somewhere between friendship and romance.

The article goes on, but the balance is behind a paywall, and as many of you are sick of being reminded, times are real tough financially here.  If you’re a subscriber, feel free to read on and clue me in, but I suspect it will continue to bash the whole idea of a work spouse as being antitheatical to what so many in the WFH era consider a threat to their work/life balance.

Besides, as Ripa confessed to People Magazine last fall, her own marriage was reaching a turning point, roughly around the time she was returning to the office herself, as the New York Post’s Riley Cardoza reported:

Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos’ marriage changed when their kids went to college, making the talk show host worry they would “get divorced” as empty nesters.

“It’s scary, thrilling, liberating, shocking … and quiet,” the “Live with Kelly and Ryan” co-host told People of her new dynamic with the “Riverdale” star in an interview published Monday.

“There were moments when I was like, ‘We’re going to be that couple: Our third child goes to college, and we get divorced because this is it,’” she explained.

So when Seacrest dropped the surprise announcement yesterday morning that he was stepping down from LIVE!, it was all the more understandable that unlike past situations where a lengthy on-air series of auditions would produce the new sidekick, his replacement was already determined.  And it will indeed be Consuelos; LIVE! WITH KELLY AND MARK, as the show will be rebranded, will debut this spring.  So as Ripa gushed on social media yesterday, her real spouse will now become her work spouse as well, entering, as she snarked “the contractual obligation portion of our marriage”.  And it will give them something to do besides miss their kids, I suppose.

And truth be told, a husband-wife team seems to work well with audiences.   Such pairings have been common in local radio and TV news for decades; Bostonians long watched co-anchors Chet Curtis and Natalie Jacobson.  New Yorkers of a different era woke up to Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy.  Even today, MORNING JOE fans gush at the chemistry between Joe and Mika.

But it’s more than a notch ironic that the very same corporate entity that recently tossed T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach out the door when they committed the taboo of becoming the minority of work spouses who actually did fall in love–the very same corporation that paid no mind to soap opera co-workers falling in love when they met on the job and yet kept them both on their show for many years–is the one that will benefit as LIVE! enters its fifth decade of service and significant profit.

I never did find any happiness beyond needed emotional relief with my work spouses, and as I lamented a few weeks earlier I truly envy the many I know who did.  I truly take issue with people who simply cannot grasp what I acknowledge is a rapidly less popular approach to the concept of work and camaraderie.  Last winter’s Omicron outbreak returned the show to remote status, a move that Ripa was particularly honest about bothering her despite what I suspect were (and are) the feelings of so many of her fans.  It’s extremely clear to me that that resurgence, and the lingering hesitation that the cycle of news on new variants reinforces with the daily reports from doctors and health officials, has all but doomed the concept of work spouses to the trash bin of fax machines and 8-track players.

So good for Kelly and Mark, who are among the lucky few that, even in this era, won’t ruffle any feathers when they leave the office and wind up in bed together.  And she seems quite happy about that, so yay for her adoring fan base.   She’s a lot more likable when she’s happy.  Let’s hope it stays that way.

Until next time…



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