Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. This week, she counsels a wife who is ashamed of her part in a career-threatening “emotional affair” with a subordinate. She is ready to leave her company, to her financial disadvantage, because of it.
Dear Dr. Ford:
I am 49 years old and the head of a division in a large bank. I married at 39 and have no children. My husband is an artist, and we have a long and comfortable relationship and a great “business marriage.” I mean that we have wonderful friends that we share, a vacation home with friends in another part of the country, and our extended families love us as a couple. We enjoy spending time together, but there isn’t much passion in our marriage anymore.
My problem is that I have developed a “crush” on a man who not only works at my bank but reports directly to me. He is 45, married, and has two children. I am sure you know the story: “There is nothing in his marriage anymore but the children.” I should not even have this information, but it gets worse. “John” and I travel together for conferences on occasion, and on a few of these occasions we’ve had a few drinks together at the end of the day. He is charming, smart, and a real go-getter—a lot like me and not like my husband. We decided to get a second cell phone that we use to text during the day and on the weekends. Nothing sexual, just gossip and fun. I never had the opportunity to have fun like this, because I was so driven and my work was my life. I began to look forward to weekdays much more than the weekends, because “John” and I saw lots of each other. He is on track for a promotion within my group, however, and I am not sure he is ready for the job he wants. I became concerned when he recently began to bring up the subject on a rather frequent basis, pointing out how important this promotion would be for us so that he can have more time with me in the new role.
I really regret that I have had this emotional affair at work, and, worse, that I was stupid enough to agree to a secret second cell phone. There is zero tolerance in our company for this kind of behavior. The only good news is that there has never been more than a few slightly inebriated kisses. I don’t know how to extricate myself from this potentially dangerous situation. I have been offered a job in another bank with a similar position, but would lose my stock options if I left now. However, I would rather lose my options than lose my job and be unemployable. I told my husband the whole truth this weekend, and he was certainly unhappy with my adolescent behavior and that I have been “emotionally unavailable” for the past year in our marriage. He feels that I should take the offer of the new job, end the relationship, agree to support “John’s” promotion, but ask that we both destroy our cell phones together. His determination to get his promotion is the only leverage I will ever have. I can tell “John” the truth as well. There was nothing wrong with my marriage, and my husband has asked me to cut out the late nights at work and not travel without him for the next year. The job offer would require me to leave after John’s performance review.
I have been successful at work for a reason: good judgment, hard work, team-building, and careful oversight. Why did I place my career in jeopardy? Why did I risk losing my marriage? Is it the right thing to support “John’s” promotion when I am concerned that he is not ready for the responsibility—and, yes, concerned that he played me to get my support for this job?
Dr. Ford Responds:
It’s not uncommon for people who work closely together to develop feelings for each other. The intensity of mounting a play or making a movie, for example, leads so naturally to “backstage romance” that it’s the rare show-business marriage that endures. You and “John” have spent a great deal of time together, sharing common goals, interests, and having fun. Because of the nature of your work, you may have been spending even more time with him than with your husband.
The real danger may lie not with the amount of time you two spent together, but with the quality. The intimacy that developed between you is what opened the door to the romantic feelings. When a man and woman confide in each other and know more about each other than about their respective spouses, then a fundamental boundary of marriage has been crossed. Not only did this put a “silent” wedge between you and your husband but it also created a special bond between you and the other man (made concrete by the private cell). Your husband became the “odd man out.” It’s not surprising that cuckolded spouses often find this the most painful aspect of a love affair.
You did just the right thing by telling your husband and making him once again the person with whom you are most intimate. Now that he is in the loop, the danger that John represents is greatly diminished. Nevertheless, it is best that the two of you not work together much longer.
I am surprised that the only solution you are considering involves sacrifice on your part. Why are you the one who has to leave your job? John will come out of this with a promotion, but you will lose your stock options. Perhaps you are feeling more guilt, or are more worried, than you should be, given that no “affair” took place. I do think you should discuss the matter with John to see if he has any ideas about how he can share the responsibility for figuring out a solution to your problem. It seems to me that you, as his boss, hold more cards than he (unless you are afraid he will be vindictive), and that it is unfair for you to be the only one to suffer the consequences.