How Can I End an Affair with a Married Person at Work?

Question:
I have been having an affair with my company’s HR manager off and on for over three years. It’s toxic because she is the one that is married and all actions are dependent on her marriage. If everything is OK at home for her, I’m just a friend. If she and her husband are at odds she wants to engage with me.

I care for her immensely but this has to end. I’m afraid that if I end it she will make sure that there is retaliation. I try to get her to end it but it just continues to be ongoing. It’s a game of cat and mouse. I’m not sure what to do but it has to end. It’s taking a toll on my work performance and my emotional state. What do I do? Please help.

Response:
I often remind people that it’s understandable that personal and romantic relationships develop in workplaces. Shared experiences, mutual friends and enemies, and the fact that most people are well-groomed and find it helpful to be pleasant at work—all of that adds to the potential.

Unfortunately, few of those relationships last very long and even if they do, they are merely part-time, compared to the “real” relationship at home (even if the home situation isn’t doing well.) That fact is especially awkward when one of the people is married and the other is not. Everything tends to revolve around the married person’s schedule and availability and how they are feeling about their spouse that day or week. On the other hand, the married person may have more to lose if the situation is discovered and if there are children there are added pressures.

As you have acknowledged, it’s time for this to be over. It keeps you from having a life of your own, because some part of that life is always tied up with thoughts of the status of your relationship, what she’s doing, will she be available, and how long it will last this time. If you really care about her, think also about the fact that the relationship may keep her from whole-heartedly trying to strengthen her marriage.

Further, you can bet that the management hierarchy above the HR director would not approve of her being involved with you or any other employee, given her role. If it was discovered, she could lose her job or be demoted or transferred and the same could happen to you. It will be best for both of you to keep the friendship you’ve established but stop the sexual and romantic relationship you’ve had.

If you recall the song, “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover”, you probably remember the general idea: Just do it. Probably the easiest way is to not mention it until she suggests getting together again, then blurt a one or two sentence statement that will burn your bridges so you can’t go back: “This is tough to say, but I have to say it. My feelings for you haven’t changed, but I’m not going to get together with you away from work anymore.” (Or something like that.) Don’t waste time with a long speech—you’ll have to talk about it enough anyway. Just say the basics so you can’t go back easily and get your point across. Then stick with it.

Keep this in mind: You’re in the right with this. She’s married and apparently intends to stay with her husband. If she has children, she shouldn’t mess up their lives. You’re both in jeopardy in the organization if the affair is discovered. You both are being distracted by this situation. You have a life to live and you can’t live it in bits and pieces of time left over from when you’re with her.

There are no logical, moral or ethical reasons for the two of you to continue your affair and plenty of reasons to stop. The main reason is that you need to and want to. Those really are the most important reasons—you need to and want to. So, do it and stay strong about it.

That brings us to the concern that she might retaliate by hurting your reputation in some way or recommending more severe action if you are involved in a disciplinary matter. Or, she might withhold support if you want to accomplish something at work.

However, in your case, the person you’re involved with is higher in the organization than you are. Gender doesn’t matter when it comes to the potential for claims of coercion being used to keep an employee involved in an affair. The coercion doesn’t have to be at the beginning of the affair, it can be at any time. For example, you were willing to have the relationship previously. You aren’t now. If you want to stop it, the HR director could be held liable for retaliating against you. And, if you are not a willing participant, but feel you have no choice but to continue, she could even be held criminally liable.

Further, as I mentioned before, she could lose her job or be transferred or demoted and she knows it. She also knows that she can’t treat you differently than anyone else, without risking you appealing her actions and saying why you think you have been harmed by her actions. You might not like to do it and may not intend to do it, but she knows it is possible.

Thus, you hold all the cards—certainly the best ones. I realize that you care for her and don’t want to hurt her career or marriage and you don’t want to have bad feelings between the two of you. But, if she is serious about her career and her professional reputation, she probably would rather lose you than lose all of that.

One way to guard against even inadvertent actions by the HR director is to demonstrate your good work to those who have influence. Do your job very well and be supportive of the entire team. Give her nothing to use against you and plenty for others to see as positives about you.

I also want to warn you about the temptation to make this a long, drawn-out process of getting together, talking about it endlessly, trying to say goodbye, then getting together again. Stop it and get it over with.

Don’t do “one more time” to have the memory. Don’t meet for lunch or after work to talk about it. Don’t go into private areas in the office where you might be tempted to touch or kiss. Whatever you did to be close at the beginning of the relationship, be sure to not do that again. Just stop it and make it easier for both of you.

It may seem like mental torment at first, but you can get through it by replacing the relationship with something else that is better for you. Get in your best physical condition, focus on a new hobby or sport. Spend more time with family and friends. Allow yourself to heal.

You both may always have regrets about not being together, but it’s certainly humanly possible to move on when a relationship isn’t right. One day things may change, but it’s not likely in the near future and time is going by—don’t waste your life. It’s far too precious to lose days and nights or even hours, because of uncertainty or unhappiness.

Best wishes to you as you work through this situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, please let us know how things work out.

Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.