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3 Signs You Might Be In an Unhealthy Office Romance

Are you too close?
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Art Credit: Nima Salimi

Scandal’s alpha female and chief gladiator, Olivia Pope, confuses me. Despite being the smartest, most capable woman in prime time, she has somehow gotten herself caught in a toxic workplace relationship that cannot possibly end well. President Fitzgerald Grant—her interoffice lover—is a whiny man-child with a fragile ego and questionable ethics. Even if he wasn’t also married, he’s still not worthy of Olivia Pope.

But the appeal of workplace relationships is undeniable. When you share the same piece of carpet with someone 40-plus hours a week, it’s easy for friendships to form. It’s not uncommon to hear colleagues refer to coworkers as their “work wife” or “work husband.” But the line between platonic friendship and inappropriate office relationship is often blurry, especially if one or both partners are married or in a committed relationship.

If you think you or someone you love may be dangerously close to the line, keep an eye out for these red flags:

If Secret-Keeping Begins

Remember that time you went out for drinks with the team and then you and that one guy from down the hall lingered after everyone else left? No big deal . . . until that extra happy hour becomes your little secret. Most inappropriate relationships and affairs aren’t motivated by lust as much as the desire for empathy and understanding. When a relationship at home is struggling, it’s easy to seek intimate connection at work. When that connection becomes a secret, that’s a red flag.

If Walls & Windows Reverse

The late psychologist Shirley Glass was a leader in the field of office-infidelity research and recovery. In her book Not “Just Friends” Glass notes that in healthy committed relationships, partners have windows into one another’s lives and walls around the relationship as a whole. The walls are designed to protect (not isolate) the relationship by providing appropriate boundaries. When walls and windows begin to reverse, that is, when you start erecting boundaries to protect your work relationship from the chaos and stress in your personal life, your primary relationship is in trouble.

If the One in a Committed Relationship Talks Down About Their Significant Other

At some point, there’s a conversation (or many) where one person speaks pejoratively about their primary relationship. Once your “work-husband” begins to trash his real wife, it’s only a matter of time before he invites you to replace her. This happens very gradually of course, but, as Glass' research shows, once these initial boundaries get crossed, you're statistically on a likely course for the infatuation to snowball into a physical affair. Then you’ll both look back and see “the line” very clearly. But by then it’ll be too late.

Consider this general rule suggested by Dr. John Gottman: If you think your partner would be uncomfortable watching your interactions with your work friend, or be upset by the confidences you’ve shared, the closeness is dangerous.

Scandal’s featured workplace relationship definitely qualifies as what these psychologists would call “dangerous closeness.” No doubt, it makes for good drama on television, but in real life Olivia Pope's story would have an unhappy ending. And she deserves better.