Dear Wayne and Wanda,
A few years ago, my husband had an affair with a co-worker. We separated, but recently he reached out to see if I would be open to reconciliation. We never did get divorced. I've discussed getting back together with him and haven't ruled it out. We had a good life — I thought — and we have three children together (ages high school through college now). He says he is single and not dating and is focused on "fixing us." I have dated some but nothing serious, and there is no one official right now, although I have formed a big crush on someone despite my best efforts.
I have fallen for a co-worker, we'll call him "Paul." Paul is friendly and outgoing and was so supportive while my marital problems peaked. He is close to my age and also separated from his wife, and also has kids. Paul and I are technically at the same level in our company although when our boss is gone, he runs the team, and that has made me cautious to say anything to him. In the "me too" era where everyone is hyper aware of sexual harassment in the workplace, I'm hesitant to do anything that would put Paul in a bad position.
But I really like Paul, enough that I can't imagine really repairing things with my husband right now. I would be too conflicted and distracted by these emotions. And short of telling Paul how I feel, I don't know how to make these feelings stop. I really believe they're reciprocated. We have grown so close and enjoy each other's company so much. But I also know Paul has a reputation as a flirt … I heard his marriage might have ended due to infidelity, though he has never said. I do take my career seriously and am worried about jeopardizing that. I'm torn between what my head and heart are saying. Can you help?
There are very few good reasons to get involved with someone in the workplace. It raises complex issues of conflict of interest, complicates lines of delegation and authority, can potentially make other employees uncomfortable and disrupt office dynamics, and at day's end, if it goes south, it generally can just screw up the culture for everyone involved.
And yet, it happens all the time. Jim and Pam, Sam and Diane, Agent Booth and Bones, pop culture is rampant with workplace love stories — and so are our real-life landscapes. A survey by Vault found that more than half their respondents had engaged in an office romance, and just 5 percent believe office relationships are never OK.
It makes sense that we connect with co-workers; with them, we enjoy remarkable highs and terrible lows, successes and disappointments, suffer stressful workloads and insufferable supervisors, develop inside jokes based on shared experiences, and spend an incredible amount of time together. But is this enough? And is this actually love? It's easy to mistake a crush for something substantial, or to misinterpret a platonic bond for mutual interest.
I'm not saying go fix things with Hubbie. In fact, that prospect has you so unenthusiastic that I'd wager you could take that option off the table with little heartache. But say no to the office romance. Paul isn't even divorced, right? He's just separated, and is probably on a similar path to yours, rebuilding and reconsidering and trying to figure out his right next steps. Pitching a relationship to him at this point is too big of a risk — to your career, to your reputation, and to Paul's, too. Be glad to have a friend who's a kind sounding board, and leave it at that.
Amen, Wanda. These special relationships with co-workers are so prevalent and powerful that the term "work spouse" is part of professional parlance. And for all the reasons you mentioned and more. Hey, it really is great to have someone who's got your back, who's in the trenches with you and understands the struggle, and whose presence makes work more enjoyable, if not at least more sufferable.
That's where those relationships thrive and that's where they should stay: at work. In most of these relationships, the lines between professional to personal are already blurry. Once you go full romantic with it, there's no coming back. And for every fairy-tale ending in co-worker coupling, there are a handful of regrettable rejections, hookups you can never take back and HR horror stories.
Think about this for a minute, letter-writer: Where did you find solace when you were going through your marital struggles? The workplace. And who was there for you? Your work spouse, Paul.
Now consider this: If you and Paul do somehow do get together and magically make it unscathed through the office politics and hurdles, what happens if he cheats on you, if you two split up, or even if you catch him flirting with someone/many someones?
Work will no longer be your respite in the midst of a mess; it will be the epicenter of your emotional storm. The mistake and pain of Paul will be in your face every workday. And it won't just be the workplace: You'll be exhausted every night after work and dreading the day ahead on the way to work in the morning.
Don't mess up a good friendship, a cool crush and a great career. Wait for someone new and unconnected to your previous marriage or workplace to come along.
Want to respond to a recent column, point out a dating trend, or ask Wanda and Wayne for wisdom regarding your love life? Give them a shout at email@example.com.