Sunday, December 29, 2013

In the Ethical Grey Zone: My Workplace Romance

Dear Viny,

I love my husband, but I have always had a feeling that I am unable to be emotionally monogamous. Two years ago, I started a new job and fell hard for my supervisor (we can call him “Brandon”). He does not have the authority to punish or fire me – it's more of a leadership role. We work in a very liberal field so there is lots of talk about social issues such as race, gender, feminism, sexuality, identity, and so on. Everyone knows that he is pansexual and that his wife has given him the ok to have a relationship with any man that he wants...but unfortunately for me, she hasn't said the same about women.

There were no confessions of romantic feelings until 8 months after I started working there. He was in a bad mood one morning and I asked him privately if everything was ok and he confessed that things were really bad with his wife. He had found out that she had been sleeping with a childhood friend while he was out of town for work. He told me he was moving out and getting his own place. A little later, he admitted that he had feelings for me (without any prompting from me) and said that he thought we should be careful that we didn't cross any lines since he is a supervisor.

Around this same time, I realized I wouldn't want to leave my husband for Brandon. I feel like I need Brandon in my life, but I don't want to become Brandon's wife or live-in girlfriend. I don't think we'd have a very healthy relationship as we are too much alike for a traditional relationship to work. We don't think about practical things often, and especially not when we are with each other. Our spouses help to balance us.

I spoke with my husband about a poly relationship. He was ok with it for me but wasn't really interested in pursuing anyone himself. Because I felt so much guilt and shame for how I felt about Brandon, I didn't mention that I already knew someone I wanted to pursue a relationship with. Meanwhile, Brandon and his wife worked things out, and so things between me and Brandon went back to how they were before our confessions of mutual attraction, except with more sexual tension since I knew that on some level he felt the same things I did.

Then, this fall, Brandon and I had to spend a lot more time together because of a major project our company had. For 3 days we made out like teenagers all over the building. We were irresponsible in regards to our jobs. We never had sex but pretty much everything else happened. I haven't told my husband this part of the story, but he does know that I care for Brandon deeply, and feels a bit jealous.

Brandon and I put a stop to things but work has become difficult since then. We are back to an emotional affair (though with more knowledge of the other person's feelings and more consideration of the other person's feelings) but the electricity between us now feels painful. We have both become depressed and we aren't getting as much work done. We are committed to making things between us as platonic as possible, at least for now, but there is a pain (emotional, that turns into physical symptoms like nausea) that we are both feeling by being separated. It's probably the worst pain I've ever experienced emotionally.

So that's my story of infidelity and shame that is more in a grey zone than what it would have been in a traditional relationship. I don't even know what question I'm asking. I'm sure there is part of me that wants to hear that everything I'm doing is justifiable, but really I just want all four of us to be happy...both with our primary partners and with each other. And I don't know if that is possible. I think perhaps Brandon's wife is more open now to a poly type of relationship, and I know my husband is, but I don't think either of them would be ok with us seeing each other. Any advice?



Dear Nadya,

One thing at a time, my sweet-n-savory sesame snacklet, one thing at a time!

You're in quite a tangle. Let's see if we can separate out the strands.

One: you are suffering, because you are madly in love and cannot be with the person you desire.
Two: you and your supervisor at work are in a relationship that would generally be considered inappropriate.
Three: although your husband has agreed, at least in theory, to allowing you to explore polyamory, you haven't been completely upfront with him about your relationship with Brandon.
Four: Brandon and his wife have a rocky marriage, and a lack of clarity around sexual boundaries may be part of their problem.
Five: you are suffering, because you can't imagine a situation in which everyone involved in this mess can be happy.

With regards to Issue Numero Uno, a bit of emotional triage is all I can offer. We both know that the only cure for what ails you is blissful, guilt-free union with your beloved – and unfortunately, there are some pretty formidable obstacles in the way of that happening any time soon. I'd advise you to cope with your emotional pain the way you would deal with a chronic physical illness: accept it, and work on managing your symptoms. In your current frame of mind, you will need to be very cautious about “medicating” yourself, because you could easily slip into substance addiction. You'd do best to focus on eating right, sleeping as well as you can, and getting an appropriate amount of exercise. Of course, you don't feel like doing any of these things. You are under the influence of powerful hormones (most likely a cocktail of adrenaline, phenylethylamine, and testosterone) that make it hard to focus on anything but Brandon. So, find out what you can about these hormones, then try to work around their effects. And don't despair: this too shall pass.

As for the second issue: I haf some gut news, und I haf some bat news. The good news is that there isn't much of an ethical distinction between the inappropriate relationship you and Brandon already have and the inappropriate relationship you and Brandon would like to be having. Your emotional affair is already wreaking havoc on your productivity at work, and it sounds like you've already done some cavorting in back rooms and stairwells, so why not just fuck and get it over with? (Ah, if only it were that simple!) So here's the bad news: if you and Brandon want to continue your affair in good conscience, you will need to either change the current system or change jobs – and this is true whether or not the two of you choose to indulge in the pleasures of physical contact. As you might have guessed, I am all for reforming the current social system, and the asinine “Just Say No!” approach to dealing with workplace romances is just one of many things I'd change if I could. This is a big ol' bear to tackle, though. Your best bet may be to redefine your roles at work so that Brandon is no longer your supervisor.

The third issue is probably the simplest to solve: you need to come clean. I realize that a simple confession isn't necessarily easy. If spilling the whole story is too difficult right now, you can at least begin by telling your husband that you are interested in exploring a relationship with someone specific, namely Brandon, and ask him how he feels about that possibility. In my opinion, polyamorous relationships work well only when current and prospective partners are committed to being honest and open with each other, about all of their sexual and/or romantic involvements. If you want this to work, it's time to begin establishing clear lines of communication with your husband. Talk to him about your feelings and hopes for the future, and make sure you understand what his expectations are. You are probably afraid your husband will say, “Y'know, on second thought, I don't think I'm okay with this whole poly idea,” or, “No fucking way – anyone but Brandon!” – and I understand that living with the fear of a possible “no” seems easier than living with the certainty of a “no” that's been uttered aloud. I've been in your shoes, and they weren't very comfy. The night I realized I wanted my theoretically open marriage to become a for-real open marriage, I didn't sleep a wink: as I lay next to my sleeping husband, all I could do was rehearse what I planned to say to him in the morning. I was falling in love with another man; I very much wanted my husband's express permission before beginning a physical relationship; and I was terrified he would refuse to give it. I still remember what that fear felt like. But I pushed through it, and you can, too. Be courageous. Tell the truth about what you want.

There's not a whole lot you can do about the fourth issue. You can provide support and counsel, of course. For example, you can suggest that Brandon ask his wife how she would feel about him seeing another woman. If she is open to that possibility, perhaps you and she might even one day become friends, and when she and Brandon start chucking the good china at each other, she'll invite you to play referee. (Stranger things have happened, believe me!) Ultimately, though, you have to accept that Brandon and his wife have their own little red wagon to pull. You can't pull it for them. You can hope it doesn't come careening down the hill one day, but it might, and if it does, it could easily crash right into you. That's one of the risks of being involved with people who are involved with other people. Practice letting go.

Finally, here's my advice for tackling Issue Five: imagine the future you want – and I mean imagine it in detail – and then start moving toward it, one step at a time. If all of your problems were magically solved overnight, but you didn't know this had happened, how would you figure out that you had begun living your ideal scenario? What would clue you in to the fact that something had changed while you slept? What would you spend your day doing? With whom would you interact, and how? Your best chance of achieving what you want – happiness for yourself and others – begins with imagination and faith. Don't fool yourself: no one can be happy all the time. But when we are fully engaged in our lives, working toward goals that benefit not just ourselves but also others, and expressing our love openly and fearlessly, we are free from the shame that keeps us small.

You've got your work cut out for you in 2014, that's for sure – but if you're willing to keep at it, bit by bit, you just might create something beautiful. Okay, I'd best sign off before I turn into one of those tacky motivational posters!

Pinecones and petunias,


  1. Hmm. And would you have any advice for one in a situation like the husband here who, once his wife comes clean is having difficulty getting past her deceptions?

    1. Are you stepping on my burgeoning sense of professional pride? Of course I have advice! ;-)
      Seriously, your question is a great one, and if you want to send me an official letter (via the Blogger Contact form on the right side of your screen, or via the email address on my Blogger profile), I will post an official response.
      For now, I'll just say that it takes time to heal a relationship when there has been a significant breach of trust. As the wronged party, you have to take on the difficult task of forgiveness -- and this can feel really unfair. After all, you're not the one who did something wrong! Meanwhile, you are probably on perpetual alert: you've been fooled once, and you fear you will never be able to respect yourself if you get fooled again. In short, all your ego defences are at their spikiest right now -- but forgiveness requires an open mind and an open heart. It's easier said than done, I know, but don't let your ego run the show. There are better ways of standing up for yourself.
      Best wishes, and a big virtual hug!