Julie called me yesterday and explained that she recently learned that her husband, Todd, was having an affair at work with a co-worker. Julie confronted Todd about the affair, he admitted that he had been cheating, but told her he wanted to stop and to save their marriage.
Julie was thrilled to hear this, but a couple of days later, Todd told her that he really couldn't stop talking to or seeing his affair partner because they work on the same project at work. Todd went on to explain that sometimes they might even have to go on business trips together, since his whole team goes and he couldn't refuse to go.
Julie was crushed and wondered what to do about this. Was this ok? Should she just let him stay in contact with his affair partner and trust that everything would work out ok? If he was willing to go to counseling and work on the marriage, should she just learn to live with Todd working with his affair partner?
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I want to share with you what I told Julie because this is a really common and very tricky situation, so here goes...
No, it's not ok and it's not going to work out well. I think of it like this: if someone told me they were an alcoholic and really wanted to stop drinking, it would not be ok for them to go work as a bartender.
When someone ends an affair, it's much like someone who is going "cold turkey" and trying to quit smoking (or drinking or drugs). It's really hard! Your brain is telling you that your drug will make you feel better and will take away your pain. For a while, you can resist, because you have some willpower and a spouse who is looking at you with deep pain in their eyes. But after a while, you start suffering and realize that your spouse isn't going to get better right away, so it's hard to believe that the situation will get easier. And pretty soon, you're thinking "Oh screw it, this is so painful and so hard, it's never going to get better, I just want my cigarette (or drink or drug or girlfriend)."
When you think about it like this, you can see how dangerous it would be for someone to keep working with their affair partner. That person will have the "Oh screw it!" thought and if their affair partner is over at the Xerox machine looking lonely, guess what will happen?
Ideally, no one should continue working with their affair partner. It's just too risky for all involved and it makes it very hard (if not impossible) for the injured spouse to completely heal from the affair.
But this is not always possible, so what do we do about it?
Affairs are common among co-workers, so how do we handle it when we want to end the affair? The answer is not simple because we have to look at the work roles of each person and see what possibilities exist.
If the straying spouse can be transferred to another position, division, team or shift where he/she will have NO further contact with the affair partner, that is ideal. Depending on the company and the straying spouse's relationship with his/her boss, he can tell his boss why he wants the transfer. If there's a chance that the boss will not respond well to this information, it shouldn't be shared. Instead, the straying spouse should explain that a transfer is desired because he/she is really excited about the new project or the new division and wants a change of pace.
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If it is a small company where there is no way of eliminating contact with the affair partner, the best thing to do is change jobs. I know this is a major production, but it really is the best and wisest course of action. It doesn't have to happen right away, but the two of you should talk and come up with a timeline that makes sense for your family.
What if the person who had the affair is the boss or owner of a small company and the affair partner works for him; should he just fire the affair partner? No, probably not. Firing someone is a complicated process with legal consequences and I'd encourage anyone in this position to consult with an employment attorney for guidance. If there is an employee handbook in place, you must follow that handbook to the letter or risk being sued by the disgruntled employee (affair partner). The best plan might be to help find the affair partner a "better" job with another company and try to grease the wheels for such an opportunity behind the scenes.
For example, I helped a couple recover from an affair where a prominent physician was having an relationship with his nurse. The affair was discovered, the doctor wanted to rebuild his marriage and his business, and there was no easy way to remove the nurse from his practice. She was an experienced, well-regarded nurse and firing her (even following all office manual procedures) was not going to happen.
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We handled it this way: The doctor hired an office manager to come in and become the direct supervisor of all staff members, including the nurse. Once the office manager had been there about a month, some scheduling changes started to take place so that the nurse no longer had her ideal schedule anymore. Simultaneously, the doctor started talking to his friends/colleagues about his amazing nurse and how she wasn't really happy at his office anymore and that anyone would be lucky to have her. To a few close colleagues, he shared the real reason he wanted to help his nurse find another job. He essentially started networking for her behind the scenes and when any opportunities for a new position came up, he informed his office manager who sent emails to the whole staff informing everyone that "Dr. Jones down the street is looking for a nurse, if you know anyone, please let them know about this job opening." As we'd hoped for, the nurse decided to apply for one of those positions herself and within a couple of weeks, she had a new job and things were back to normal. The doctor and his wife continued to work on their marriage and are doing very well today.
Another complicated situation is when your spouse is a CEO, elected official, or public figure and their affair partner is likely to cause significant damage to your spouse's career or reputation. In these cases, you need to be really strategic about how to handle the ending of the affair, as everything and anything can be used against your spouse in the court of public opinion or the board room. Now, you might be thinking that it doesn't matter. That you have been hurt, that your feelings need to take priority, that your spouse made this mess and that he/she deserves whatever the fallout might be. I get it, I really understand how you feel and you're not wrong... but think about the long term consequences. What happens if your spouse is fired and struggles to get another leadership position? What happens if your kids read about the ordeal on the internet? What if your spouse can never hold office again? We really need to handle this type of affair situation very, very delicately and I'd encourage you to work closely with your spouse's PR team (and/or your marriage counselor) to come up with a plan that will cause the least damage to all of you. If you need help navigating this situation, please reach out to me.
In all of these cases, it's important to realize that it's going to take some time to make changes. Few of us can get a new job overnight or help transition an employee to another company right away. While the straying spouse is working on finding a new job or relocating an employee, you must be patient and resist the urge to make the situation worse by confronting the affair partner or telling the spouse's boss about the affair.
Need help getting over an affair? Download my free Affair Recovery Roadmap, so you'll know exactly how to rebuild trust and heal your relationship.
Even though some well-known relationship books encourage the injured spouse to expose the affair to the world, I really encourage you NOT to do this. Exposing the affair, where you tell anyone/everyone about the affair in an attempt to get it to stop, does much more harm than good. Telling professional associates of your spouse about an affair is a very damaging thing to do. It will harm your spouse's reputation and their ability to trust you in the future. We want to make it as easy as possible for your spouse to get a new job. That's not going to happen if people are gossiping about your spouse as "that guy who had an affair with Kim from accounting," or if his superiors think he is problematic because he has bad judgment. I understand that it's very tempting to call and inform people about the affair and hope that it just hurts the affair partner, but this is rarely the case. Usually both people involved in the affair get hurt. Let's not add more hurt to the pile of hurt and pain that you already have to deal with.
Now what if your spouse has a very, very specialized job or there are no other jobs in your area for your spouse? Most therapists would advocate for you to move and find a new job. I agree that this is the very safest thing to do, but it may not be what you want to do. If your spouse loves his/her job and you love your home and your kids are happy in school, uprooting everyone might be too much. Only you can decide if moving is really necessary to help you recover from the affair; if it is, it's worth doing. But if you want to stay put and your spouse will stay in his/her job with communication with the affair partner, here's what I recommend:
- Ask your spouse to limit communication with the affair partner to the greatest extent possible. If communication must happen, chose the least personal way possible (i.e., an email is less personal than a phone call or face-to-face meeting).
- Encourage your spouse to install someone as a go-between or intermediary between himself and the affair partner (i.e. the office manager in the story with the doctor and nurse above).
- Have a full disclosure policy, where your spouse is to tell you any/all communication and interaction with the affair partner.
- Use all of the tech tools to help rebuild trust, like Skype or FaceTime (which shows you are where you say you are and who's with you), Find a Friend App or other GPS tracker. Look for other apps that might be helpful.
- Talk to your spouse about this week's work schedule, so you'll know what to expect. Plan to touch base every few hours with a quick text or phone call. Do this for as long as you need to.
- Ask your spouse not to work late without informing you first. If it's an emergency, your spouse should call you and ask for your blessing and the two of you could discuss further options (i.e., you could go to the office and make sure everything is ok...)
- Ask your spouse not to ever be alone with the affair partner, which means no driving in the car alone together, no work lunches together, no business trips together. Exceptions could possibly be made in time as your comfort/trust increases.
- Keep an eye on how money is being spent. It's really hard for someone to relapse and have an affair if he/she doesn't have access to secret money.
Your relationship can heal from your spouse's affair with a co-worker. Ideally, your spouse would change jobs and have no further communication with the affair partner. If that is not possible, because your spouse is the employer of his affair partner or because he/she is in such a specialized job that changing jobs is not possible, there's still a lot you can do to make things better. Please be patient with each other, this is a painful process and you'll only get through it by being kind, compassionate, and working together. I know you can do it. I believe in you.
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