Office Love - After The Breakup
So you dated a co-worker, and now it’s over—really over? Here are your crisis-control instructions.
oelle sat in her cubicle feeling sick to her stomach. Over the partition, she could hear the former love of her life making plans for the weekend with his new girlfriend—the same girlfriend with whom he cheated behind Joelle’s back. “There were days where I could barely make myself go to work,” recalls the San Mateo, CA–based systems analyst. Financially, Joelle wasn’t in a position to quit her job, and because she didn’t want to share details of her private life with her boss, she was forced to sit next to the cad for several months. Eventually, her group was moved to a new building and Joelle got the separation she desperately desired.
This kind of scenario is more common than you might think, says Bonnie Jacobson, Ph.D., a New York City-based therapist and author of The Shy Single. “If you’re single and you spend most of your time working, then the office is the most natural place
to meet someone and start a relationship.” The problem, of course, comes when the relationship fizzles and, like Joelle, you’re forced to see your ex day in and day out. “But no matter how uncomfortable it feels at first, the situation will calm down and your relationship can get reconfigured into more of a friendship,” explains Jacobson. Following these office breakup rules can help speed the healing process along:
|A quick smile, followed by a brief greeting is the stand-up move—even if met with stony silence.|
Be a grownup
It’s inevitable that the person who’s been dumped is going to feel like scowling, pouting, and doing whatever he or she did during their tantrum phase of childhood, explains Jacobson. But reining in that hurt and anger — even if it seems like the hardest thing in the world — is important when you’re at work. “You may feel like giving someone the silent treatment, but if your ex needs to work with you on a project, that behavior is not okay,” says Jacobson. If you must blow off steam, talk to a friend who’s outside your office—but not via company email, please. Take your cell phone outside, or wait until you get home.
On the flip side, if you were the one who did the dumping, it’s important to be sensitive to your ex’s needs. “As the leaver, you have every right to go, but you also have a responsibility to help them through this difficult stage,” says Jacobson. When Bob Jennings, of Everett, WA, broke up with his colleague/girlfriend, he began taking an alternate route to the cafeteria to avoid his ex’s desk. “Every time I saw her, she gave me a startled, distraught look. I felt that seeing me all the time was causing her pain.” Yet while Jennings may have had the best of intentions, Jacobson feels this kind of avoidance tactic can actually backfire. “If you circumvent the person in the halls, it causes the one who was left to suffer more and feel like an outcast.” A better bet is to go about your business as normally as possible, being friendly but professional when you see them. A quick smile, followed by a brief greeting is the stand-up move—even if your attempts at decent behavior are met with stony silence. (One note: Try not to have that brief greeting be “How are you?” with a look of pity etched across your face.)
Edit the news for co-workers
If colleagues were privy to the relationship, it’s important to give them a status report, but avoid the nitty-gritty of who-did-what-to-whom. “When an office romance sours, it’s unethical to tear
down someone else’s reputation, and it only makes you look bad in the end,” says Jacobson. Instead, reveal a modest amount of information about the breakup—but be generous when praising your ex’s professional skills and reassuring colleagues that you two can get along well at work. A simple, “Yes, Joe and I broke up. We had our differences, but I think he’s a good person and I’m thankful he’s part of our department here,” should do the trick.
|Gossip dies down quickly—if you don’t engage in the discussions.|
Leave your boss out of the loop
Remember, the office isn’t your personal playground, so put the work before the mess. Unless your supervisor specifically asks you about the relationship, it’s best to keep mum — as Joelle did — even if that means being forced to work side by side with your ex. If your boss does mention the breakup (i.e., “Do you mind working with Gail on that project? I heard you two weren’t dating anymore…”), put a smile on your face and say, “Not a problem—she’s very talented. I know we can get the job done.” Doing so shows your employer that you have the maturity — even amid hurt feelings — to make work your top priority.
Stay away from gossip
Gina, of Portland, OR, found herself surrounded by whispers and chit-chat when her boyfriend dumped her and quit his job at their seven-person office. “He may have been gone, but I was left with co-workers telling me things like, ‘We knew he was cheating on you, and we felt so badly!’” she recalls. “I was totally embarrassed and no longer trusted my colleagues. Eventually, I left the job because I couldn’t take the gossip anymore.” Gina may have felt unable to handle the water-cooler talk, but it’s important to know that while you can’t control what others say, rumors and gossip die down quickly—if you don’t engage in the discussions. “As long as you’re not perpetuating things, the subject gets boring and people stop talking,” says Jacobson.
Know when to take a break
On days when you feel truly awful — think of Joelle in her cubicle — it’s OK to get away from the pain. You might, for example, pursue an out-of-office business task for an afternoon or take a personal day off. “If you’re feeling that terrible, you won’t be productive in the office anyway,” says Jacobson. Just limit the number of breaks you give yourself, so you don’t risk looking like you’re slacking off.
Quit only if you must
“If someone has blackened your name or you feel that staying will cause you to end up in a lawsuit, then by all means look for another job,” says Jacobson. Otherwise, remember that although you’re experiencing the pain and awkwardness of a fresh breakup now, a good working relationship is possible in the future. “This is just a moment in time,” says Jacobson. “Eventually things will get better.”
Hillary Quinn is a Seattle-based writer who has been published in many national magazines, including Self, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and Maxim.