There’s nothing like a work crush to make you excited to go to the office. You get butterflies in your stomach whenever you cross paths in the hallway. Your heart thumps when your crush approaches your desk to ask you if you know how the printer works. You might even step up the quality of your work in the hopes of making a good impression.
The conventional wisdom is that you shouldn’t get involved with a co-worker—or, more colloquially, that you shouldn’t shit where you eat. Office romances are fraught with potential for professional repercussions, or at least pervasive awkwardness in the event of a breakup. But Americans are ignoring the conventional wisdom, apparently: 22 percent of married couples met at work, according to a survey of Americans who wed between 2005 and 2012. And if you discover that your feelings are reciprocated, it can feel masochistic to resist the urge to get involved for the sake of professional propriety. (This is, of course, assuming you’re both single.) “You spend so much time at work!” said one woman who met her long-term boyfriend at the office. “It’s such a great place to get to know people in a real-life context, where you can see how they interact with people and how their brain works and their sense of humor and what kind of human they are.”
But dating a co-worker—or working with a significant other—is a social and emotional minefield, even if you don’t break up. How do you avoid making things weird for your colleagues? How do you avoid making things weird for yourselves? I asked friends, colleagues, and strangers who’ve been in workplace romances for their advice. (Many of them did not want to give their full names to protect their privacy.)
Some parts of making a work romance successful are common sense: Keep your office conversation professional. Save the physical affection for after hours. Make sure you’re not violating company policy—and if one of you is in the other’s chain of command, you might have to consider making some changes.
But some of the other advice I gleaned surprised me. For instance: Don’t worry about how and when to tell your colleagues—that will take care of itself. One person I spoke to just posted a picture of herself and her boyfriend to her Facebook feed. Slate news director Allison Benedikt and her now-husband got caught kissing on the sidewalk after going out for drinks with colleagues. “The awkwardness for us did not come from people knowing, but rather from us trying to pretend we weren’t a couple, entering work from different doors at different times,” Benedikt told me. “It was exciting, actually.”
Don’t expect that early excitement to last. Benedikt says she discovered that being a “known and public couple” at work was different from the secret office romance they’d had before. “I was basically just a human ATM for John—someone in the office he could go to for cash when he was hungry and wanted to go buy lunch,” said Benedikt. Falling in love at work is great, she said, but “working together when you are just in the normal relationship phase—no more intrigue or butterflies—that’s not great. It’s nice to have a bit of your own life, and nice for the people around you to not have to always consider one extra layer when dealing with you or your spouse.”
So keep in mind that a relationship might make you want to leave your current job sooner than you otherwise would. One woman who started a relationship with a superior (though not her direct supervisor) at her company says moving to a different firm was good for her relationship (although, she says, she left not because of the relationship but because she got an enticing offer). “Not working together is definitely preferable to working together in the long term,” she told me.
Many couples who work at the same company try to keep their distance in professional life. But some, like advertising creatives Dan Young and Kimb Luisi, choose to collaborate closely. Young and Luisi met in Ad Club at Temple University in Philadelphia, started dating their senior year, and decided to pitch themselves to potential clients and employers as a team after they graduated from college in 2007. They ended up getting hired at advertising agency DDB in 2008 and have been working together ever since. Their advice? Be careful about disagreeing publicly or people may read more into the disagreement than is actually there. “My parents own a Christmas tree farm together, and I grew up with all my friends working on it and having just this super awkward thing when my parents would disagree or fight about something in front of all the workers,” said Young. “I think maybe that ingrained in me early on … trying to be conscientious of how those verbal disagreements can come across.” Young and Luisi are now married, and they say working with each other has been good for both their work and their relationship. “It’s good for creative development, because there’s a lot of honesty and we know what we like,” said Luisi.
But there’s another possibility—and when you start an office romance, you need to be prepared for the possibility of things not working out. I spoke to A., who works in media and who has been in relationships with two colleagues over the years. She confirmed that going through a breakup with someone you see every day was incredibly difficult. “I ended up walking around the office in fear of turning a corner and running into him,” she said. “You’re just trying to go about your day and do your work and move on with your life, and all of a sudden there’s this reminder of pain and heartbreak.” A. thought about leaving her company after the second relationship ended, and she ended up taking positions in different departments after each breakup in order to distance herself, physically and emotionally, from her exes. She’s now wary of getting involved with co-workers: “I have this maybe old-fashioned but maybe still-relevant fear of having a reputation for doing that sort of thing,” she told me. “I don’t like the optics of it, I guess.” (Research does indicate that women bear the brunt of negative perceptions about office romance.)
Would A. advise people against getting into workplace romances? Maybe—but she wouldn’t expect anyone to heed her advice. “It’s not ideal, but it’s almost inevitable,” she said, since co-workers spend lots of time together and tend to have shared interests. “Saying it’s a bad idea is probably not going to stop people from doing it, in my experience.”
A. is right—but her story is a reminder of why it’s important to take your blinders off when it comes to office romance. When you start dating a colleague, the upside is a special intimacy and excitement, and perhaps a blissful long-term relationship. The potential downside is the most painful breakup of your life. Happy Valentine’s Day!
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