Emotional Affairs At Work: Understanding The Limits For Close Office Relationships

Medically reviewed by Katrice Hollins, LCSW, LICSW
Updated March 26, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

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; it is fair for you to feel drawn to these people. 

Concerned about your relationship with someone at work?

We all know that, when you are in a committed, closed relationship, sleeping with someone else is generally considered cheating, 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. 

What is an emotional affair?

It can be hard to determine what is conclusively and is not an emotional affair. The signs may seem similar to strong friendships. 

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 would usually be 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.

How to tell if you are in an emotional affair

An emotional affair may look similar to the early stages of a romantic relationship. This might include the following thoughts and behaviors.

  • You think about your coworker early and often.
  • You and your coworker crush start to talk more and more at work and outside work hours.
  • Your spouse/partner seems uncomfortable with the relationship.
  • Emotional distance begins to emerge between you and your partner.
  • An urge to keep the relationship secret develops.
  • 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.

This list is not definitive, but may offer warning signs that you are developing an emotional bond with a coworker that threatens your current relationship's stability and strength. It is worth noting that some of these signs are a matter of degree and should be investigated, not just taken as a sign of disloyalty. Developing a bond and an emotional attachment 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?

When you think about what work is, it's not 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. 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 become the reality of the situation.

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. Over time, this camaraderie can turn into something deeper.

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 may feel exciting and expose you to ideas and people you wouldn't meet otherwise. 

Emotional affairs can be damaging

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. All of the damage 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 great.

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 not to get too entangled with your coworkers, it can reflect poorly on you. 

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 becomes more important.

Set clear boundaries

You can handle those interactions better by having conversations with your partner and your coworkers about what is and isn't acceptable behavior and by clearly stating that your objective is to grow your own relationship, not explore 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. Barriers against that may come across as harsh or overcautious, but they can do a lot for the safety of your romantic relationship.

Getty/Luis Alvarez
Concerned about your relationship with someone at work?

Limit contact

In general, try to keep communication with coworkers limited to work issues and during work times or to limit these interactions to group settings.

Avoid sending texts later at night or during any time you would usually be with your partner. You may also choose not to meet coworkers alone where intimacy can develop. Instead, socialize in groups with your coworkers to create reasonable expectations of friendship.

Talk to your spouse about work

Practicing full transparency in your emotions can help you avoid emotional turmoil. You may start discussing with your partner what you did during the day more often. Let them be your primary emotional connection. 

Show micro-expressions of affection

If you feel like there is potential at work for something to distract you from your relationship, consider taking a step toward strengthening your relationship. Be intentional about expressing affection and appreciation for your romantic partner and set up a little ritual to connect as you head out the door. 

How to get out of an emotional affair

If you feel you may be having an emotional affair, it is often best to confess your feelings to your partner. Give them space to process their feelings, and if you can, commit to moving forward together. 

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.

You may choose to attend therapy together. If so, you do have the option of online therapy for your convenience. Research shows that online therapy for couples is just as effective as its in-person counterparts, so you don’t need to worry about losing efficacy by attending online according to your schedule.


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.

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