He's awesome and I need him, but he's also my boss...
February 20, 2010 7:20 PM   Subscribe

What is acceptable for a mentor/mentee relationship? I feel like I'm taking mine too far...

I was raped. Later I was abused by my live in boyfriend. I took MeFi's advice and ran far and fast to a domestic abuse shelter. Between them and my mentor I was able to DTMF and relocate. My mentor and one of our superiors are the only two people who know about the rape and relocation (until now, but I'm still semi anonymous), meaning I've come to rely on my mentor since it happened. A lot.

I fell in love with my mentor shortly after, then realized that I was mixing up the concepts of being "in love" and just loving someone. Emotions came with that time I spent "in love" with him. The more sexual ones subsided, but there are others which I am now associating with him being a father-figure to me.

Out of control emotions, for example:
- We were talking about self esteem. It's pretty evident I have none, and yet I've made some real achievements in the past few weeks. I admitted to him that I like to make people happy and to be honest the only reason I've done stuff of late is for his approval/praise/happiness.
-Indirectly admitted that he's the only one I trust anymore. I thought it was obvious, but knowing this puts a lot of weight on his shoulders.
-We have a dangerous job. One screw up could lead to a fatal accident. I've admitted to him that I had no issues taking a bullet for him. He has a lot more (family, career, etc) to lose and I view his life, as well as the lives of many of my coworkers, as more valuable. (In my defense this one was in a conversation about the topic of the dangers of our job and the selfishness of the assholes we work with)
-Tried to explain/justify my love for him TO him. I've never directly told him I loved him, but I feel l need to justify why he's better than my parents who all but abandoned me, for no particularly good reason, at the age of 17 (I'm 22 now).

I used to look at this as a mentorship-friendship, but the more I look at it the more I'm seeing my leeching behavior. He promised me recently that no matter what came between us (I'm looking to get moved in the company to get further away from home) we would always have our monthly dinners and he would always be my mentor. This is great but I feel like I'm infringing on his family life. He's happily married and old enough to actually be my father. I've gotten past the misplaced puppy love and have no intentions of harming his relationship with his wife, but I feel as if his fatherlike role in my life is vastly inappropriate and is going to hurt him if I continue my behavior. I'm considering ending our relationship, but I don't want to if it's not really wrong.

Do I have inappropriate love/feelings for my mentor? Is this grounds to end or reevaluate my relationship with him? Are my actions acceptable/unacceptable for someone in my position? I'm not sure how to act. I don't want to lose him but I don't want to hurt his relationship with his family as well as my chances of getting better.

(To clarify, my mentor is my direct superior, but he's my direct superior much in the way that the person who sits at the desk next to you, has been at the company longer than you and answers all of your questions is your direct superior. It's a very informal superior-subordinate relationship which mostly spans from him taking me on as a mentee)
posted by semp to Human Relations (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I hope you are in therapy? Other than that, I would suggest changing mentors. When you are trying to sort out a lot of past trauma, the last thing you want to do is be put in a position of current drama which is building between you and your mentor. I don't know what kind of job you have but jobs that involve life and death and lots of hours together and mutual admiration can quickly evolve into something else (like affairs, and divorce, and ...well you know what I mean). Your first priority is to get your life stright before stepping into a serious relationship (no matter what you term it, mentorship, friendship, etc). Hopefully you can transfer and get a new (maybe female) mentor.
posted by MsKim at 7:31 PM on February 20, 2010

You have a lot of history that you have not (and should not) shared with us. From what you have shared I think you would benefit from some counseling. None of us should judge the appropriateness of your feelings. It looks like you know what your boundaries should be but are having trouble dealing with those boundaries and the actions you should take or not take to keep from hurting your mentor or yourself.

These are not unusual feelings.

I strongly suggest that you contact the abuse shelter that you went to, see if they can recommend one in the town you have moved to, and ask them to refer you to a counselor. This will help you to explore your feelings in a safe environment and to help you define what steps you need to take.

Best wishes.
posted by Old Geezer at 7:41 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is an important relationship for you to experience on your process (journey) towards getting past your past.

Whatever happens here is a joint effort. Your journey will be shorter if you don't fuck up his marriage - but that's not my call.

Make this insight count.

posted by jbenben at 8:22 PM on February 20, 2010

The intense feelings of inappropriate longing for the person who helped you get away from the situation that caused your rape are keeping you from feeling some of the feelings associated with that rape.

I'd seek therapy for that.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:41 PM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

I used to look at this as a mentorship-friendship, but the more I look at it the more I'm seeing my leeching behavior. He promised me recently that no matter what came between us (I'm looking to get moved in the company to get further away from home) we would always have our monthly dinners and he would always be my mentor. This is great but I feel like I'm infringing on his family life. He's happily married and old enough to actually be my father. I've gotten past the misplaced puppy love and have no intentions of harming his relationship with his wife, but I feel as if his fatherlike role in my life is vastly inappropriate and is going to hurt him if I continue my behavior.

It sounds like he's on top of things. Promising you dinner once a month is actually setting out a pretty clear boundary for where your personal and work lives intersect. Monthly dinner doesn't seem like an infringement on his family life - that idea plus the idea of harming the relationship with his wife seems like it's coming more from your own feelings than from anything that's actually between the two of you in real life.

To me it sounds like you need to look after you. Therapy, yes.

It seems like you've gone from seeing this man as a romantic object to seeing him as a father figure. Is his role in your life really any more "fatherlike" than it was romantic, when it was just that you had a crush on him? It seems plausible that they are both just ways for you to create a bigger space for him in *your* (emotional) life, without necessarily having anything to do with your actual relationship to him.

To me the relationship with him seems inappropriate not in that there's something objectively wrong with it, but in that the emotional role it's playing in your life isn't actually productive or healthy any more.

Therapy, yes.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:17 PM on February 20, 2010

It sounds like he is a pretty awesome person and that you, quite naturally due to stress and danger, developed temporary feelings for him. It also sounds like he has been nothing but professional and is genuinely looking out for your best interests and has not done anything inappropriate or tried to take advantage? If so I think that he probably understands your feelings better than you do and that he is playing a bit of a father figure role in your life, which is perfectly OK for a mentor to do.

Give yourself a break, you've been through a lot and you are already creating more potential heartbreak and loss where it doesn't exist (thinking of yourself as a threat to his wife or family, for all you know they are madly in love and she knows all about you and 100% supports his efforts). You are coming up with reasons to break this relationship off before it turns on you. Consider the possibility that it won't ever turn on you and you will continue to enjoy support and advice or an older colleague.

This guy is a good person in your life when you needed one, accept that and move on with what you have to do to get your head back on straight. Everyone deserves good people in their lives.
posted by fshgrl at 9:59 PM on February 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

And btw, your relationships with your mentor will change over time. I am not considered an equal colleague with two people who mentored me a lot because one of them offered me a partnership and the other used me as a professional reference. This is a long way from where we started when I was in my teens and early 20s and somewhere lower than dirt on the pecking ladder.
posted by fshgrl at 10:05 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Since it seems to be a common theme - I have tried therapy and therapy made things worse. I plan to try it again, but that's after I know what I want from it.

Is his role in your life really any more "fatherlike" than it was romantic, when it was just that you had a crush on him?
The feelings I had when I had a crush on him were very forced. Anything sexual with him always felt wrong. Never having had a strong family relationship, I didn't realize what it meant to love someone like a family member. When I realized that I was more jealous of his daughter than his wife I started being able to put the two together. His fatherlike role and my feelings never actually changed, it was just my perception of it.
posted by semp at 10:09 PM on February 20, 2010

Though I've never been through anything as remotely traumatizing as you have, I do understand, to a certain extent, what it is like to become attached to a mentor-figure. I'm currently in university and there was a point in my life where I was going through a lot of very tough, difficult issues with my family. At the time, I was enrolled in a core class for my major which was taught by a wonderfully kind and intelligent professor who, over the course of the semester, I grew to admire a great deal and view as a father-figure.

The problem began when I wanted to see him more often than my once-a-week class allowed. He did have office hours, but he was (obviously) very popular and nearly always had some other students in his office already, most of the time just hanging out. He was also very busy with various projects, so it became nearly impossible to see him alone. In truth, all I wanted was to be around him, because he was an island of normalcy and when I talked to him, I felt like he listened and understood. This was something I needed very badly at the time. I had foolishly taken a large load of very heavy classes and combined with unusually poor health and intense family problems, I was ready to fall apart. But instead of falling apart, I started looking for someone to cling to and it happened to be him.

I don't think I've ever held a romantic attraction towards him, but he was definitely a major father-figure in my eyes. And it became an added source of stress to me that semester that I couldn't see him often. In addition, like you, I worried that I would appear clingy, or worse, infatuated with him. Over all it was very confusing, and I wasted a lot of time thinking about him when I should have been doing homework or trying to sort myself out rationally.

I'm glad to say that as intense as my feelings were back then, I recovered the following semester.

It's useful to try to distance yourself, even if it's just in your mind, from the person you're idealizing. Because that is what is going on; we tend to put people on a pedestal, because it satisfies our need for a father-figure, dependable-authority-figure, anchor of stability, whatever. It doesn't matter if they actually live up to our perceptions in reality. Even if it's difficult, try to analyze the situation rationally.

Ask yourself, is it realistically possible for this person to fulfill the role I would like them to in my life? If the answer is no, then work on quashing that expectation/wish.

For me, it was a matter of greatly wanting my professor to be a father-figure in my life that I could turn to and who would look out for me. Would that be remotely possible? Despite his kindness, I had to admit to myself that it would not be possible. I cannot have someone looking out for me. I'm 20+ years old. I have to do that myself. Regardless of whatever issues I may have with my real family, I cannot be searching for "replacements". It's not realistic. That's something that was hard for me to accept, but in order to be able to move through life healthily, I have to face the facts.

So, it might be the same for you. You have to examine with extreme rationality, the relationship you have with your mentor. A lot of people suggested therapy. While I've never been through therapy, I would agree with the suggestion. Your therapist can help guide you along in this extremely rational analysis of your mentor relationship. He/she will be able to act as an impartial 3rd party, whose judgment is unclouded by emotion. They can show you ways to deal with your needs and wants.

Best of luck! It's hard to deal with your feelings when you view someone in this way and harder to let it all go, because all of this arises out of a need for stability, normalcy, and comfort. But you can do it! Someday, you'll reach a point where you'll have a wonderful friendship with your mentor without all the awkwardness you feel now. And don't be too hard on yourself -- I'm sure your mentor thinks approvingly of you. He seems like a very understanding person.
posted by joyeuxamelie at 10:13 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Also, his wife does know about me but has never met me. There was some tension early on, long before I told him of any of my problems, but that I think comes with telling your wife you're spending time with someone who is half her age. He promised to her that he would make it perfectly clear that our relationship was non-sexual, which he did. Since then she has had nothing but support for him.

Otherwise, they have one of the best and strongest relationships I have ever seen. I would never, ever want to do anything to hurt that.
posted by semp at 10:17 PM on February 20, 2010

if you're moving on and he's promised you once a month dinners, you're good to go for right now. it sounds like the relationship will naturally evolve to something more appropriate, since you will have more distance between you and less daily interaction. its important to have people in your life you can trust, and as you heal you will find that you won't feel so dependent/needy on the people who are there for you. but while you need them, and they are there, appreciate it, because you won't always have people there when you need them (Im sure you know this all too well)

I won't make any steps to change the relationship until you are well settled into your new job location, as the transition will be hard enough without you trying to break this bond which seems important to you right now. later, if things don't naturally subside, reevaluate how to decrease your dependence, or maybe just revaluate how to find other people in your life that you can ALSO trust and go to for advice, so that its not a matter of decreasing people in your life, but increasing, which will naturally even out the burden on him.

i'm sure he is getting something out of this relationship too that is meaningful to him

by the way, my last supervisor was like a father to me in some ways, and also my strongest mentor, and i really cherish all the guidance he's given me, and i've moved on to another job since, and although i'm not as reliant on him for advice on my current position (considering he's not my boss anymore) I like knowing he existed, and still does exist even if in a different capacity.

be easy on yourself. life has been hard enough as is, don't make it harder on yourself by worrying too much.
posted by saraindc at 2:43 AM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

As others have said it sounds a lot like he is very clear about how confused you are at this point and is setting appropriate boundries to keep your relationship at the mentor/friendship level. So you should be fine as long as you follow his lead.

But you do need to go and get help to deal with the vast amount of trauma you have suffered. If you don't want to try therapy again at the moment are there any support groups locally? Look into a few and find people other than your mentor to support you.

Finding somebody else to support you would probably take care of any overreliance you place on your mentor as well. You will feel less close to other people but they could still help you in small ways and every little helps. Think of it as sandcastles on the beach. If you have only one you are devastated if it is swept away by waves. But if you have built ten of varying shapes and sizes chances are each individual one is less crucial to your happiness.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:49 AM on February 21, 2010

oh, but one step you could take in the right direction, now, is to find someone else to share these feelings with about your rape. the more you share, the less it will make you feel terrible, and the less dependent you'll feel on anyone. i was almost raped once, which isn't really the same thing, but i can understand some of the feelings you're going through. its embarrassing to talk about, but the more you can process it by talking about it, the better you'll feel. and look! you just told all of metafilter. we're all your confidantes now, not just your boss. think about that, and feel proud at how openly you told us, without even being anonymous. and you said you asked us for advice before, and took it, and that it worked well for you! :) there are a lot of people in this world.
posted by saraindc at 2:51 AM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

i can't echo sara indc's comment enough!

i'm a rape survivor too, and it has helped SO much to talk to other people about it. something about acknowledging it verbally and publically makes it so much less scary, and way more like you're a total fucking badass awesome superstar for having toughed it through something so totally gross and violent!! if it makes people uncomfortable and they make you feel bad for bringing it up, eff them -- they didn't get raped. by talking about it, you'll find more and more people who have similar stories that you can relate to -- like, hi! it's happening already! :)

it sounds like you are doing so many things right. for now, enjoy having the support of a friend, and know that it's going to grow and develop into something that you'll less and less "need," and more into a fixture that will be there when (and if!) you ever need it. i think the progression of things sounds pretty normal, and you sound totally on the ball. be gentle with yourself, above all.
posted by crawfo at 7:11 AM on February 21, 2010

I feel as if his fatherlike role in my life is vastly inappropriate and is going to hurt him if I continue my behavior.

How, exactly?

I'm considering ending our relationship, but I don't want to if it's not really wrong.

This all seems very black and white. Several people have mentioned that your mentor is setting good boundaries, and this seems like a good time and place for you to experience what healthy boundaries -- both his and your own -- feel like in a close relationship.

You need to let him be responsible for his own decisions and their outcomes. At the same time you need to keep your integrity intact and not purposefully harm him in any way.

The second one you seem to be doing very well at, the first one not so much.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:12 AM on February 21, 2010

I've been in your situation, only from the other side. I've been a mentor for a female friend of mine for several years, and the role I play in her life is very paternal.

I don't want to make generalizations or engage in armchair psychology; obviously people can and do follow vastly different courses in their lives. That said, I've known many young women who were abused or neglected as children, and they almost invariably seek out a strong male figure in their lives, and they almost invariably develop intensely strong feelings for this figure. I don't state this as a fact, but simply as my repeated experience.

There is nothing unhealthy about this tendancy in itself. It only becomes unhealthy when that male figure is himself abusive or neglectful. It sounds like your mentor is responsible, trustworthy, and has your best interests at heart. This is both rare and fortunate.

I wouldn't worry too much about being a burden in his life. He's the one setting the boundaries and staying in control. That's one reason why you trust him so implicitly. If he feels things are becoming inappropriate, he will either let you know or subtly steer things in the right direction.

This mentorship will not and should not be permanent, but for right now, it sounds like it's serving you well. This is your chance to work on you. Your mentor is there to help keep you stable and oriented while that happens. Right now, you depend on him. Slowly, you will begin to develop your own self-confidence and sense of security. What you do for his approval now, you will one day do for yourself, and that's as it should be.
posted by dephlogisticated at 3:36 PM on February 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

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