Work infidelities

Dallas Morning News April 30, 2003

Dangerous liaisons: Work infidelities


It happens like this: You’re working long hours on a project. The co-worker you’re teamed up with is funny, smart, and, well, yes, attractive. But you’re happily married with children, and straying is morally wrong and far from your thoughts.

Or is it? Instead of eating dinner at home, you end up grabbing a quick bite with your colleague. Instead of confiding to your wife your deepest fear about work, you talk to your co-worker. Then one day you tell her that you and your wife are drifting apart. With work and tending to the children, you just don’t talk anymore.

Your colleague is a good listener. And she knows how you feel. She wishes her husband could be more open like you. It’s late. Your hands touch, and there is a spark. It might take days, weeks, or even months, but you slide from being “just” friends to becoming lovers.

It’s an old story with a new twist. Infidelity is blossoming at the workplace, says Dr. Shirley Glass, a psychologist from Maryland and infidelity expert who has written a new book, Not “Just Friends”: Protect Your Relationship From Infidelity and Heal the Trauma of Betrayal (Simon & Schuster, $25).

“Men and women are forming strong relationships based on respect, common interests and working together in an environment that is either exciting or stressful, and that creates a strong bond,” says Dr. Glass.

“The relationships can become more personal, and then they become emotional affairs. If they slide further down the slippery slope, they are having sex with someone they are in love with. Certainly that is much more threatening to a marriage than casual sex,” she says.

According to Dr. Glass’ research, 46 percent of unfaithful wives and 62 percent of unfaithful husbands in her practice over the last two decades had affairs with someone at work. And for women, the number of those having affairs has steadily grown — from 1982 to 1990, 38 percent of unfaithful wives had work affairs compared with 50 percent of cheating wives from 1991 to 2000.

Extramarital affairs have probably been around as long as marriage. But what has shifted over the last few decades is that women have grown up with greater sexual freedom, they hold positions of equal power with their male counterparts, and women are no longer financially dependent on their spouses, Dr. Glass says.

But don’t put the blame on working women. It takes two, and plenty of men are also finding themselves sliding down that slippery slope. The current crop of cheating spouses has never strayed before, says Dr. Glass. And the affairs aren’t necessarily happening because partners are trapped in horrible relationships.

“What causes both men and women to get involved in workplace affairs is that so much of their energy and the best part of themselves is experienced at work. Then they come home depleted and have to give time to the children,” she says.

In her book, Dr. Glass hopes to make couples aware of the danger signs of deepening work friendships and ways to help strengthen their committed relationships. She says that many couples are able to heal from infidelity, with time and help, and can build stronger relationships.

Couples raising children appear to be the most vulnerable. In child-centered relationships, couples often are able to communicate about their children and running the household but no longer spend time working on their intimacy, Dr. Glass says.

It’s a notion that rings true with other marriage and family therapists. Andrew Bulino, a marriage therapist in Plano, says that he is seeing seven couples struggling with the trauma of an affair.

“In all of these cases, there is no history of infidelity,” he says. “They all have made fairly traditional decisions where the husband was the primary wage earner and the wife stayed home … nurturing the children.”

Mr. Bulino says the men report feeling low on their wives’ list of priorities and that intimacies begin with co-workers as they emotionally begin to withdraw at home.

“These aren’t bad people who start out to have affairs. I ask, ‘How did you give yourself permission to have an affair?’ It doesn’t matter who initiated the affair, the justification is: ‘I am not important at home. We don’t have any sense of closeness.’ They don’t want to hurt their spouses, but it does end up being a trauma,” he says.

Some emotional affairs can occur without sex, Dr. Glass says. She points to the growing number of Internet relationships. People share intimate thoughts with e-mail buddies that they don’t share with their significant others. The conversation can become sexually arousing, and it can do damage.

“People become so obsessed with them. They can’t wait for a partner to go to sleep so they can rush down to the computer,” Dr. Glass says.

So can men and women be “just friends”? According to Dr. Glass, work-related friendships, or those anywhere else for that matter, can greatly enrich most couples’ lives. What the couples need to do, she says, is establish boundaries for friendships and find ways to keep emotionally connected with each other.

“We need to have some walls in our friendships so that they don’t become overly intimate or personal, and with our romantic relationships, it should be reversed,” she says. “If a friend knows more about what is going on in our marriage than our spouse, it’s a friendship that has gone astray.”

Lance Dunahoe, a flight attendant for American Airlines, hasn’t read Dr. Glass’ book, but he understands boundaries and echoes her advice. His wife, Danielle, is also a flight attendant. They have set clear boundaries for work and keep an open line of communication.

“There’s this whole perception of the airlines being loose, and it’s really a lot more professional than that,” says Mr. Dunahoe, who works on lengthy international flights. But he does acknowledge that, as in any workplace, affairs happen.

“It’s still such a social job, and you are talking about putting people in a confined area for a long time. Dynamics seem to accelerate in some way. Then, after a long day, you end up on a layover in Aruba, and there is a beautiful sunset. The whole crew goes for a beer, and you are in this romantic environment,” he says.

Mr. Dunahoe has a few simple boundaries: He never goes into a female flight attendant’s hotel room alone. He keeps his marriage in mind whenever he speaks. And he and his wife openly share work stories.

“My wife will come home and tell me about some idiot pilot who hit on her. And I just flew a trip and learned more about these two flight attendants’ past sexual experiences than I ever wanted to know,” he says. “You really have to define those boundaries for yourself in any relationship you have. When you can’t talk is when you get in trouble.”

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