Workplace Infidelity: Dangerous habits that lead to no good

Workplace infidelity is an unfortunately common problem in just about every country. While affairs happen even with unemployed partners, the truth is that people tend to have affairs with those they have access to most. It’s just a matter of timing, logistics, and plain old laziness. But I got a very direct question specifically from one of my couples counseling clients recently that sparked the topic of this blog.

“ Can spending a significant time with a coworker ignite romantic feelings?” That was a question I was asked by a client and I thought I would spend some time talking about why it happens so often. Because yes, it can indeed spark a romance. Not always, but I want to go into what causes people to have romantic relationships when they’re already in a relationship or a marriage. 

Also, I’d like to explain why it happens so often at work, how to avoid it, and how to talk about it with your partner if you’re suspicious, or even if you’re not suspicious, if they’re starting a new job.

Workplace Infidelity: The Friendship Aspect

The first thing I want to mention is that whenever the idea of affairs or extramarital relationships comes up, I try to steer the conversation back to the fact that typically people don’t cheat when there’s good friendship in the relationship.

Relationships thrive on the friendship aspect. Sex is kind of a bonus.

I remember I visited a rabbi before I got married, and he described sex as “the oil that keeps the squeaky wheel quiet”. With regards to men, he’s like: “look, sex can shut an upset man up, but you can’t rely on that to fix everything”. And sex is just an expression of that intimacy that you get in friendship.

Now, obviously, there has to be physical attraction, which is why it’s dangerous that men and women are friends when both of them have some attraction to each other, in a heterosexual relationship of course. But when you’re at work and you’re with someone regularly, you’re just providing an opportunity to grow a friendship.

And that’s usually where the romantic aspect of the relationship starts to poke its head around and say “maybe there’s something more here”. And if you are not close with your romantic partner, or your wife, or whatever, then that friendship happens to be non-existent.

Maybe you have a lot of kids, and everything is transactional and feels like running a nonprofit with your spouse. Then that friend you have at work will start looking a lot more attractive because there’s a friendship there. 

Now, obviously, if you are in a place at work where you have a boss and the relationship is very cut and dry and cold, it’s rare that would ever turn into an actual romance or anything like that. Because it goes back to the question: How comfortable do you feel with the person? 

There is a time in your life when you’re in your early twenties, sometimes late teens, sometimes into your thirties, or oftentimes after someone is divorced or separated when sex becomes like a conquest, but that is not a healthy time in your life.

If I may speak bluntly, in my opinion looking at sex as conquest is damaging not only to your sexual partner but to yourself. It’s not the healthiest way to go about it. Sex is about invigorating that closeness and safeness you feel, in a physical way. It’s the manifestation of an emotional relationship, of being secure and safe, while addressing those physical desires. 

What do you Talk About?

Now, a question you should ask yourself is: What are you guys talking about? or What do you think your partner is talking to this coworker about on a regular basis? Again, if you’re in a high-pressure environment, like an assembly line in a big warehouse where you have to pick things off the line for packing and shipping, and there’s not a lot of conversation, it’s rare that you’ll actually develop enough feelings to have an affair with someone.

Sexual Fantasies vs Friendships Outside of the Relationship

It might turn into a sexual fantasy, but as a relationship coach, I’m less concerned about sexual fantasies, than about friendships outside of a relationship. Because sexual fantasies are appropriate, as people, you’re allowed to fantasize, you’re allowed to let your mind wander, and engage your imagination. 

If you have a libido, you’re going to have sexual fantasies about people you find physically attractive, or sometimes just because they’re there. And that’s where your mind wanders to. It’s almost like your brain has these different compartments that it has to hit every so often to make sure it’s alive and then it hits onto the sexual desire part and looks around.

If you think back to when you were in high school, it wasn’t about finding the most gorgeous man or woman in the world. It was about: Who’s the best-looking person here? What’s available to me now? It’s about how much opportunity is around, that’s where your sexual fantasies tend to go.

If you’re in a place where you’re having sexual fantasies, but there’s no real friendship, I wouldn’t get too concerned about it unless your own sex life with your partner is diminishing and they’re emotionally withdrawing, because that’s a sign of a bigger problem at work.

If the sexual fantasies are just fantasies, that’s okay. I mean, pornography as an industry is all about sexual fantasies, and I know you can get addicted to porn and that can be a monkey wrench in your relationship. But visual stimulation from time to time is healthy. It’s healthy for couples to do it even with each other, to buy some lingerie or do something that turns each other on. It’s part of a healthy sexual relationship to engage the physical and the visual.

How do I make sure it doesn’t happen to me?

If you are at work and you’re worried about developing a friendship that will evolve into having sexual fantasies or an affair you may be asking yourself how to make sure that doesn’t happen to you.

If you are a little weak in that area of your life the first question to ask is: “What do you guys talk about?” If you have a coworker and you spend a tremendous amount of time together, often more time than with your actual romantic partner, ask yourself:

  • What do you guys actually talk about? 
  • Are you bringing up your marriage?
  • Are you bringing up their relationships?
  • Are you talking about your emotional states in a vulnerable way?

Because it’s a little dangerous when someone feels close enough to have these emotional relationships and there’s a mutual desire to have that emotional closeness. From my experience, the only thing stepping in the way of that becoming a physical relationship is somebody setting a boundary. And that’s a lot of pressure. If you have a conversation with someone at work where you feel it’s getting kind of intimate and emotional, you might want to withdraw, especially if it’s a potential partner.

Certain things that are not appropriate to share. The old saying that men and women can’t be friends because one of them always wants sex, is kind of true. When you develop that emotional closeness, unless they’re completely not your physical type, and there’s a repulsion of some sort or something about their character that compels you not to want to have sex with them, there’s always a danger.

Having relationships at work, or even socially, is dangerous. I get a little suspicious when I hear people telling me their partners have a close friend that is of the opposite sex and it’s a heterosexual relationship. Then I ask, “How long have they known them?”

How long have they known them?

That’s usually my first question because if it’s someone they’ve known since high school it’s a relationship they’re never going to let go of. I understand that. But if it’s someone they met after they’ve already started the romantic relationship, it’s a little confusing to me what they’re getting out of that relationship that they can’t get with their current partner and what’s going to separate those two.

As a coach, I get a little suspicious, so I start asking more questions to try and figure out what’s really going on in the relationship. Now, if you’re in a work situation where you just don’t talk about emotional stuff, it’s all about work, or about your kids, that’s a different thing. 

I’ve been in situations where I’ve been around colleagues and we talk a lot about our children, about parenting, but I make a point not to transition into any kind of complaints about my wife or about my marriage, or anything like that.

In fact, I will often talk about how great my wife is, just as a reminder to myself to set some boundaries, for my own well-being. It’s not like I’m saying “Oh, by the way, I have a great wife” in the middle of a random story. You don’t want to do that. That’s awkward. But you know there are certain lines you don’t want to cross.

So, if you’re just talking about parental stuff, that’s fine. But again, the more vulnerable you come emotionally, the more you are going to be attracted to the person you’re talking to, and the more the person listening to you is going to get attracted to you. And the proof of this is that therapists often have emotional feelings for their own clients at some point in their careers.

Even Trained Therapists Develop Feelings

I was a little shocked when I first heard this. I was going through the different tests that therapists have to take. My wife’s a therapist, many friends are therapists, and I thought about becoming a therapist myself. One of the questions was “What percentage of people will have romantic feelings for a patient at some point in their career?”

And the percentage was crazy. It was in the 70th or 80th percentile because that vulnerability creates that affection in you and that will trigger something in your brain to say: “Oh, affection. Is this a sexual partner? Hello, let’s start looking at them in this light.” And you have to be very strong to cut it off.

The fact that a lot of therapy, and my own personal work coaching has gone virtual (I know many therapists are completely virtual) has brought about a healthy professional distancing. 

Virtual at Work, Real at Home

And most careers where you can be virtual are healthier in that sense because it creates these boundaries where you won’t run into an issue like an affair. It’s a huge benefit. Obviously, you can’t do everything that way, but if you have the option to do things virtually, you should consider them for the sake of your own relationship. 

Also, you get a lot more done. If you haven’t jumped onto the virtual train yet, you’re going to want to try it because it’s incredibly productive.

You can have a meeting with someone in Florida and then Canada and then Asia all back-to-back in a three-hour span, and it’s incredibly productive. Video calls especially because you get about the 90% (I’m just pulling the number out of the air, but that’s what I feel) of meeting someone in person.

The only thing that is a drawback with meeting someone virtually is that oftentimes the meeting is shorter because you don’t get that hangout time to get a drink at Starbucks, and walking around, or showing them around the office. You don’t get to see every physical mannerism. But again, 90% of it is there because you see the nonverbal communication and you’re able to bond.

 And yet you can’t reach through the screen, so you can’t give someone one of those inappropriate hugs timed at the wrong time that might lead to something else. Virtualization is something you should explore in your own profession if you can, and if your partner can start working virtually and you might not want them to because you’re like: “it’s my space at home”, or whatever, try to find a way to make it work. 

Try to clear out a corner of a room. I’m shooting in an office that I use for many things, but I make this section my recording station, and it’s great. If I’m going to have a call, I know this is where I go. 

Proximity as a Key Factor

And the last thing I’ll say is that proximity is a key factor in developing any kind of relationship. So if you’re at work with someone all the time, just being around them, that proximity presents the opportunity that usually isn’t there. And it’s really interesting if you look at the data that’s been collected, if you look at the studies, women have been having affairs much more aggressively over the last generation or two than they used to.

And that’s not because women’s sexual desires have changed, and it’s not because the gender norms have shifted, it’s because women are in the workforce and the opportunity is simply there where it used to not be. If you’re a stay-at-home mom ,or a stay-at-home dad and you don’t have exposure to other people, there are no opportunities to develop those intimate relationships; they’ll never happen.

Unless you actively go out and look for them, obviously. But that’s not what people are typically worried about with a work relationship, where it could accidentally happen because somebody’s not watching, their hands aren’t on the wheel, and they’re not steering their romantic direction back home towards their partner.

So, it’s a very different type of an affair when someone’s a stay-at-home mom or dad and they  actively go onto a dating app and are looking for a partner versus when they just develop a relationship with someone they’re forced to be with a lot because the need to earn a living and then those feelings just emerge.

So proximity is a huge one. It’s huge for many people. Going back to the high school relationship, when people start pairing off, if you were one of those people who didn’t have a  date or a prom date, at a certain point you were like: “What’s wrong with me?” And the reason people think that there’s something wrong with them is because they see people are naturally compatible with other people.

So, if in this “vast sea” of a couple hundred students I can’t find a partner: “What’s wrong with me?” Because people want to connect, that’s the struggle with being around a lot of people for extended amounts of time, those feelings are going to come up.

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