Emotional Affairs At Work: Understanding The Limits For Close Office Relationships
By Nate Miller
Updated March 12, 2020
Reviewer Laura Angers
It's natural to feel attracted to other people - that in and of itself is not a transgression. You are going to meet coworkers or friends who excite or impress you. Your relationship may experience changes that leave you feeling less invested in maintaining it. It is fair for you to feel drawn to other people. What matters is what you do with those feelings and how you share those feelings with your romantic partner.
We all know that sleeping with someone else is out of bounds, but what about emotional affairs? These can develop from innocent beginnings and can be just as damaging to your relationship as physical intimacy. One of the most common places for emotional affairs to develop is at work. It's a place where you spend a lot of time together and can develop close bonds.
Understanding the limits for close office relationships is a useful skill for maintaining a healthy relationship and professional life. Similar to protecting yourself against most relationship problems, the goal is to maintain healthy boundaries, foster a safe space with transparent communication, and overall prioritize your relationship.
This article will review what emotional affairs are, why they are a problem, the damage they can do, how to avoid them, and how to get out of one.
What Is An Emotional Affair?
One of the hard things about being in an emotional affair (or having a partner who is in one) is, how do you even know? It can be hard to conclusively determine what is and is not an emotional affair. The signs of one seem similar to the signs of being friends, or even good friends. Furthermore, if you are in an emotional affair, you are subconsciously going to resist calling it that. No one likes to define themselves as disloyal, and we want to think well of people we like.
Nevertheless, as friendly as you may want to be, emotional affairs are real, and should be taken seriously. Emotional affairs are characterized by two people who are not just emotionally invested in the relationship, but receive support and/or companionship from that relationship that they are not receiving from their romantic partner. The depth of this bond leads to a growing connection that often creates a sense of sexual tension or chemistry, and eventually dishonesty.
The biggest sign that you are in an emotional affair is you are starting to feel like hiding it or even protecting it from your romantic partner. This manifests in different ways. Maybe you start wanting to text them rather than your wife. Maybe you don't tell your husband about the conversation you had at work. However it happens, you start putting up a barrier between your emotional bond with your coworker and your partner. That is the cause of most of the problems and pain that results.
How To Tell If You Are In An Emotional Affair
This list is not definitive, but all of these may be warning signs that you are developing an emotional bond with a coworker that is threatening to the stability and strength of your current relationship
- You think about your coworker early and often
- You and your coworker start to talk more and more at work and outside work hours
- Your spouse/partner seems uncomfortable with the relationship
- Other coworkers comment on how much time you spend together
- There are things you share with each other that you don't share with anyone else
- Emotional distance begins to emerge between you and your partner
- An urge to keep the relationship secret begins to develop
- You are emotionally invested in your coworker's approval/disapproval
- You start comparing your partner to your coworker
- Problems in your relationship are brought to your coworker instead of your romantic partner
It is worth noting that some of these signs are ones that are a matter of degree, and should be investigated, not just taken as a sign of disloyalty. Developing a bond with a coworker may involve some conversations outside of work, for example, and other coworkers may comment out of jealousy. Overall, however, if bad feelings start to develop between you and your partner, they should be addressed immediately.
Why Are Emotional Affairs A Problem At Work?
It may seem surprising that emotional affairs can happen at work, but it's actually very common. Some people like using terms like "work wife" or "work husband" to describe close relationships they develop at the office. While they don't intend this other person to replace or threaten their relationship, it can easily go there.
When you think about what work is, it's not all that surprising that emotional affairs at work are such a danger. You spend a lot of time with your coworkers, perhaps over 40 hours a week, 8 hours at a time. That's a lot of time to get to know one another and get comfortable with the other person's company. When you add some bonding over shared stresses and accomplishments, maybe some tight quarters here and there, and it may be surprising more people don't develop feelings for coworkers.
As stated, it can be hard to separate emotional affairs from friendships. One of the ways emotional affairs develop is from innocent beginnings. We rarely see coworkers as potential romantic partners when we first meet them. You learn enough about each other to get along and do your jobs. But over time those simple beginnings can turn into something deeper before you even realize that's what's happening.
Modern workplaces are also an interesting blend of people that can be very different from the rest of your life. Depending on the company, there can be a wide spectrum of ages and experiences. That much variety can be very exciting and expose you to ideas and people you wouldn't meet otherwise. That's an easy way to be tempted to explore something new.
Emotional Affairs Can Be Damaging
Acknowledging that workplace affairs are easy to develop and can be hard to distinguish from platonic friendships, some people still doubt that emotional affairs are a problem. It may not seem as bad as kissing another person or sleeping with someone else, but emotional infidelity can be just as damaging to your relationship. They can also do harm to your professional life.
All of the damage that can come from more 'traditional' infidelity can be caused by emotional infidelity. Your partner will lose faith that your relationship is trusting and open, and start to feel undervalued. Even if they don't find out, whatever energy and investment you are putting into a workplace connection is energy not being put into your relationship. The damage that lies can do to a relationship is high.
Furthermore, workplace relationships, even just emotional ones, can damage your professional prospects. No matter how close your bosses want everyone to be, there is still an expectation you will keep it professional. When you show people that you can't be trusted to not get too entangled with your coworkers, it will reflect poorly on you. Finally, if things fall apart with the emotional affair, it can suddenly be like working with an ex, and no one benefits from that.
How To Avoid Emotional Affairs At Work
There are clear guidelines to help you and your romantic partner ward against close office relationships that can become problematic. Some of them are general principles to be followed no matter the work environment. Some of them are more deliberate depending on your circumstances. If you are starting to feel some distance in your relationship, for example, or find yourself drawn to a particular coworker, then limiting contact or having open conversations with your partner become more important.
Set Clear Boundaries
This is a fundamental relationship tactic. Both of you are going to come into contact with other people that are going to interest you. You will handle those interactions better if you do two things: (1) Have some conversations with each other about what is and isn't acceptable behavior. (2) clearly state that your objective is to grow and protect your relationship, not explore exciting opportunities with other people.
Setting boundaries can be hard depending on your work environment. Some cultures encourage everyone to be friends and develop close bonds. If you've ever heard bosses refer to their employees as family, you know what we're talking about. Barriers against that may come across as unnecessary, but they can do a lot for the safety of your romantic relationship.
In general, try to keep communication with coworkers limited to work issues and during work times. One of the ways emotional affairs develop is because you start chatting with each other much more of the time. Avoid sending texts later at night or during any time you should be with your partner. Don't meet coworkers alone where intimacy can develop. In general, assume that emotional intimacy can easily lead to physical intimacy, and avoid it.
This is another fundamental tactic. It is always tempting to dismiss concerns about issues like affairs. 'No big deal, we're just friends' rolls off the tongue very easily. But if you are honest with yourself, you have a much better chance of spotting problematic feelings before they grow into something more.
You know when your feelings and actions are problematic. If you are feeling guilty and/or keeping secrets, you owe it to yourself and your partner to take a serious look at why.
Talking To Your Spouse About Work
You should practice full transparency. Be clear about what you did during the day. They don't need a detailed breakdown of every little thing, but talk about what you enjoyed and what you didn't. Let them be your primary emotional connection. Secrets are the death of stable relationships, and the starting point for all sorts of infidelities.
Micro-expressions Of Affection
As the saying goes, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. If you feel like there is potential at work for something to distract you from your relationship, take a step towards strengthening your relationship. Be intentional about expressing affection and appreciation for your romantic partner. If you can set up a little ritual to connect with each other as you head out the door and when you get back home, that can go a long way to keeping your head and heart at home, not at the office.
We all need help sometimes. Romantic feelings can develop whether we want them to or not, and can emerge from surprising places. Having a professional counselor to help you understand how to follow-through on the guidelines listed here can be invaluable.
How To Get Out Of An Emotional Affair
Confess to your partner that you have been keeping these things from them. Give them space to process their feelings around your dishonesty, and if you can, commit to moving forward together. You violated the boundaries of the relationship and damaged their self-esteem. It is now on you to give them whatever space and attention they need to overcome that.
Start limiting or eliminating your contact with the other person. You can take the step of telling them that you feel like your relationship with them isn't healthy and you are prioritizing your relationship, but after that, cold turkey. Any more contact risks heading right back to where you started, and anything gentler than severely limiting contact can send the wrong signal.
Even though your relationship with your coworker was inappropriate, you may feel sadness after it ends. Nevertheless, you need to focus on working with your partner to process this damage together. It will take time, but trust can be rebuilt.
Understanding The Limits For Close Office Relationships Is Crucial
It's often easier to find a spark of passion with someone new than it is to rebuild a spark of passion that has faded with someone you already know. Nevertheless, you owe it to yourself and to your partner to focus on the relationship you committed to. It is tempting to say that emotional connections are no big deal. But they can quickly turn into damaging secrets that take you away from your partner.
Understanding how to follow through on healthy tactics for maintaining a healthy relationship takes practice and patience. Navigating connections with enticing coworkers or the damage from dishonesty are challenging as well. Professional counselors like the ones at Regain are ready to work with you to navigate these issues.
Emotional affairs are real and do real damage. We all like making friends, and coworkers have a lot of potential to turn into something more. If you are careful about conducting yourself with true professionalism and recognize when feelings become an issue, you can avoid these problems before they begin.