Dial it back

Dial it back

Put the brakes on workplace affections before they ruin your marriage

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 07/05/2012

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Dear Patti,
I’ve been happily married for nine years and have two wonderful children. I’ve always known I’ve been lucky since I found my wife. Chloe’s naturally beautiful, keeps a lovely home and is a great mother and an artist in her own right. She’s always interested in my work and truly makes the effort to be close to me.

I honestly can’t believe it happened, but over the last two years I’ve become extremely close to a co-worker. Gina and I share a lot of corporate responsibility and have not only endured the company’s numerous ups and downs, but have also accomplished a lot through mutual support. We often take cross-country business trips together, and while we’ve never been sexually intimate or acted on our quiet, underlying chemistry, I admit I’ve come to rely heavily on her and am very fond of her. I’ve been as emotionally open with Gina as I have my wife, maybe more so. I think about Gina a lot and worry about her over the weekends, when I’m home with my family.

I’m starting to realize that my relationship with Gina may be slowly undermining my relationship with Chloe, and yet I don’t want to overreact and make this bigger than it really is. I love Chloe and the girls and would never leave them.
  — Brian

Dear Brian,
Deep friendships and attractions are normal when men and women co-workers spend long hours, solve problems and experience personal and professional crises together. Unfortunately, as you’ve been experiencing, the workplace can be an opportunity for an emotional bond between two colleagues to become an emotional affair that subsequently creates or contributes to emotional distance in one’s marriage.

As in your case, many of these workplace interactions involve people in relatively happy marriages. Many who end up having affairs with co-workers never intended their relationships to become inappropriate. They can become so accustomed to the close camaraderie they share at work, however, that they’re often unaware when the dynamic starts to escalate as a result of two major factors: proximity and opportunity.

What happens is that these individuals start to look forward to talking and seeing each other every day and, over time, sharing more personal details about their lives and becoming more and more dependent on the relationship. This is especially true when one’s job has a lot of autonomy where there is travel or a flexible schedule that gives more opportunity for an affair to develop, and be sustained.

Many mental health professionals believe that emotional affairs are one of the biggest threats facing marriages today. This type of affair begins with a platonic friendship that develops almost imperceptibly over time until it exceeds in importance the relationship with one’s mate. Even without sex, an emotional affair is an overly intimate friendship characterized by deep feelings of connectedness that can be passionate and fulfilling. In fact, sometimes the lack of sexual behavior can be a justification for allowing the relationship to occur, mature and become as damaging to a marriage as a sexual affair.

The difference between a dear friend and colleague and an emotional affair can be subtle, making it difficult to detect at what point it poses a threat to the marriage. What starts out as harmless gradually becomes an allegiance that shifts from a spouse to another. Are you daydreaming about Gina, exchanging gifts, spending an inappropriate amount of time together or having special secrets that exclude your wife? When something happens during the day — positive or negative — is it Chloe or Gina that you tell first?

You’re right to be concerned. Although setting appropriate workplace boundaries will be challenging, it’s essential you do so. Maybe because you loved Chloe and had a good marriage you neither worried about the psychological impact of an emotional affair nor established the necessary boundaries to keep your marriage safe.

To prevent this relationship from deepening, it’s best not to travel or make a habit of taking private lunches or dinners with Gina. It may actually be a very long time before you stop missing her. You have a difficult choice to make because of your current feelings for her but once you do, you can focus on transforming your marriage with Chloe into an even stronger, happier one.

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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