What is it with office affairs? Why do affairs frequently occur within the workplace? Maybe it has something to do with the sheer amount of time we spend with our coworkers. Whatever the reason, office affairs are so common, and there’s no denying it. (Hello, Pam and Jim from The Office). Let’s delve into why office affairs are so common, the potential consequences of workplace relationships, and how to handle these situations if you find yourself in one.
The psychology behind office affairs
You may be thinking, “If office affairs are so frequent, there must be a reason!” And you’d be right. Let’s dive into the “WHY” below:
The impact of proximity and shared experiences
One reason why office affairs are so common is the proximity and shared experiences that colleagues have. People tend to become attracted to those who they spend a lot of time with and share common interests and experiences. In the workplace, colleagues often have shared goals and experiences that can create a sense of camaraderie and closeness.
Along the same vein of proximity and shared experiences is repeated exposure to one person. If you already have a little “spark” there with someone, repeated exposure to that person is going to make it full-blown explode. According to Time magazine, first impressions are critical because they create a “snowball effect,” which is caused by repeated exposure. You start off with a great impression, then see that person EVERY SINGLE DAY for years? It may create an attraction.
The allure of forbidden fruit
Another reason why office affairs are common is the allure of forbidden fruit. The workplace is often a place where people are expected to be professional and maintain boundaries. When these boundaries are crossed, it can create an exciting and exhilarating experience for some people (but not everyone, of course). The risk and thrill of engaging in an office affair can be tempting for those who are adrenaline junkies.
If someone is already a serial cheater, they may simply look to the workplace for their next lover because it’s easy. You see these people almost every day; you have shared goals, and you spend arguably more time with them than your spouse. If you’re looking to cheat, this may be serving you up your next “thrill” on a silver platter.
Consequences of workplace affairs
Now that you understand the “why,” let’s talk about the consequences of having an office affair (and buckle up because they’re heavy).
Office affairs and workplace relationships can have a negative impact on professional careers. They can create conflicts of interest, result in biased decision-making, and lead to accusations of favoritism. In some cases, these relationships can lead to legal action and even result in termination from employment.
Here are all the different ways one may experience professional repercussions from a workplace affair:
- Coworkers may gossip and spread rumors about the relationship.
- Coworkers may begin to form resentment towards either or both parties.
- The relationship can create tension between coworkers due to various reasons (being uncomfortable, jealousy, resentment, etc.)
- The people in the relationship could be fired from their jobs if it is against company policy or if it’s creating too much drama within the office.
- Accusations of sexual harassment may occur.
- Loss of trust from coworkers and supervisors (they may not feel that they can trust someone who would cheat).
The personal consequences of workplace relationships can also be just as severe, if not worse. They can lead to hurt feelings, damaged relationships, and broken trust between the original couple.
Here are all the different ways someone might feel the personal consequences of a workplace affair:
- Loss of trust in their relationship
- Loss of trust from other people in their life (family and friends)
- Loss of their original relationship altogether if unable to repair the damage
- Feelings of shame, guilt, and even depression may happen to the cheater
What to do if your partner is having a workplace affair
Communicating openly and honestly is step one. We know this is easier said than done and can be extremely emotionally draining, but it’s necessary. Make sure you set aside a good time to speak your mind to your partner and make sure you’re able to get all of your feelings out on the table. If you’re having trouble thinking of what to even say in this situation, consider the following:
- Tell them how you feel about the situation
- Express your sadness, anger, and frustrations
- Ask questions that will help you heal
- Setting expectations/boundaries
- The future of the relationship
They should reciprocate by actively listening and hearing you out; after all, you are the one who is deeply hurt in this situation.
After putting it all out on the table, you may want to start setting some boundaries. This may involve what you expect from them regarding communication, how you believe they should interact with the person they cheated with, and possibly even the future with the company. For example, if you expect them to quit their job now, then this needs to be discussed and you need to lay out what your boundary is. For example, “In order to start our healing process, I believe you need to terminate your employment with this company within the next few weeks.”
Consider the future of the relationship
Another important thing to consider is if you even want to continue the relationship. If you’re 100% sure you don’t want to continue the relationship, this should be one of the first things you tell them. If you’re unsure, then also let them know. But most importantly, do some introspection with yourself to make sure you know what you want and if you want to continue the relationship. Whatever you choose is okay; just make sure it’s really what YOU want.
Seek professional help
If communication or boundary setting isn’t going well, but you’re set on continuing the relationship, you may want to consider contacting a therapist to help with communication (i.e., couple’s therapy). Couples therapy can be a great way to facilitate effective conversation.
Maybe you simply want to speak with a therapist one-on-one to help you decide what you should do and/or work through your feelings. Speaking with a therapist about your feelings and being able to get experience from a professional in this situation may help you begin the healing process.
Focus on personal growth
At the end of the day, whether you choose to leave your partner or stay with them, focusing on personal growth is a great way to help you heal. It can build confidence and give you something to focus on rather than dwelling on the negative thoughts you’re having.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about office affairs
Q: Are workplace affairs ever acceptable?
A: In our opinion, no “affair” is acceptable, regardless of whether or not it took place within a workplace.
Q: What should I do if one of my coworkers is having an office affair?
A: This is a personal decision. It depends on your relationship with your coworker, your status at the company, how comfortable you feel with your supervisor and other things. At the end of the day, if the office affair is affecting YOUR life negatively, it may be worth considering.
Q: Do most companies have anti-workplace relationship policies in place?
A: It’s unclear what most companies do, but there are many companies out there that prohibit any romantic relationships between coworkers, and the punishment is typically the termination of one or both people. You’ll need to check out your company’s HR handbook to see if your company has a policy on this matter.
Q: Should companies have an anti-relationship policy in their HR handbook?
A: In our opinion, yes, companies should outline their expectations of the workplace, and strictly prohibiting romantic relationships with the consequence of termination can help protect the integrity of the company and avoid unnecessary workplace conflict.
Q: Why are office affairs so common?
A: They’re so common because of a few things: proximity, repeated exposure, shared goals, convenience, and the allure of forbidden fruit.
Q: Can a relationship survive an office affair if the person stays employed at the company?
A: If your partner cheats on you with a coworker and then stays employed at the same company (and so does the lover), then it may cause issues, but it depends on your situation. It is reasonable to think that this would cause you to feel extremely uncomfortable with the idea of repeated exposure to the person that your partner cheated with.
In conclusion, office affairs and workplace relationships can be a complicated and risky situation. While they may seem exciting and alluring at first, they can quickly turn into damaging situations that can impact careers and personal lives. By setting clear boundaries and seeking professional help, individuals can navigate these situations in a professional and healthy manner.
David F Khalili is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, board-certified sexologist, author of Mental Health Workbook for Men, founder of Rouse Relational Wellness, a boutique sex and relationship therapy center serving San Francisco and all of California, and recently started Rouse Academy, an online learning platform to address sex and anxiety. You can learn more about David’s practice at rousetherapy.com.