Do I tell him why I am not being my normal, friendly self?
May 6, 2013 7:54 PM   Subscribe

I am married and recently realized I had developed romantic feelings for a friend/coworker (also married). I have stopped speaking to him for the sake of my marriage. He really wants to know why I am avoiding him. What's the best way to handle this without making him feel bad?

To sum up everything as quickly as possible, I met someone at work and became fast friends. Due to having a lot in common with this man, and having a good deal of respect and admiration for him, I caught feelings for him. Bummer. I did not realize I had developed such strong feelings until I began to notice a good deal of distance between myself and my husband, and was starting to look forward to our conversations in a very unwholesome way. I am normally excellent at keeping platonic things platonic. Our marriage is not so great at the moment which I suspect is also contributing to my current state. Husband and I are working on it.

I decided that it would be best if I went no-contact, or as close as possible to no-contact when working together. This is becoming somewhat painful for me because he seems a little bewildered about the sudden change in my demeanor and the way I speak to him. Despite being a pretty great person, he does not have high self esteem and has made this known to me in the past. I do not wish to add to this.

I need advice on how best to handle this... Have any of you had situations where you developed feelings for a friend and were able to ditch the mushy stuff and keep the good-time-friend-vibe?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Continuing to worry about this is just a way of extending the mushy/emotionally inappropriate relationship even though you've officially cut it out (for another example of similar behavior, witness every OED length but otherwise more or less identical AskMeFi question-without-a-question about a breakup).

Telling him the real reason you are cutting down on contact is definitely not going to help further your number one priority goal, improving your marriage. Give a plausible explanation (I might say "Busy with some family affairs") and then pull out of there and focus on you and your husband.
posted by telegraph at 7:58 PM on May 6, 2013 [42 favorites]

No, don't tell him. Make something up -- telling him you have feelings for him is just looking for a way to keep them alive (and get him thinking along the same lines).

No harm in considering it, but don't do it. You can still be nice to him, just watch your boundaries. And kudos to you for heading this off at the pass.
posted by wrok at 8:11 PM on May 6, 2013 [13 favorites]

Not talking to the coworker is just sort of white knuckling it. Instead of dealing with the issue that exists in your own head, you are just ignoring it and hoping it will go away. That probably won't work. There will probably be someone else that comes along and then you'll have those feelings as well as the unresolved emotions of this current crush.

Needlessly cutting people out is mean, and hurts them much more than it helps you. If it does at all.
posted by gjc at 8:12 PM on May 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have been the recipient of unrequited workplaces crushes, so this may color my response. For your sake and his, please don't tell him. Creating this sort of drama at work is bad for both of you. Try to treat him with professional courtesy and respect, and if you can't, take a vacation or leave until you can. If that doesn't work, try to find a new job; please don't make this his problem.
posted by snickerdoodle at 8:25 PM on May 6, 2013 [33 favorites]

Telling him you have a crush on him is just another way of indulging the crush and magnifying the butterflies-in-the-stomach drama. I can't tell you what to do but I can tell you what not to do, and that's, telling him.
posted by ftm at 8:30 PM on May 6, 2013 [8 favorites]

It's kinda not-nice to do such an abrupt about-face without giving the guy some sort of explanation. I'd be hurt, too, if a workplace friend suddenly started being less-than-friendly with me. I think you need to say *something* to him.

Perhaps a vague, but truthful "I realized it's better for me to keep my work-life strictly separate from my personal life. I don't really socialize with co-workers, as a rule; and I'm feeling like I'd be more comfortable with us being a little less personal with each other."
posted by nacho fries at 8:31 PM on May 6, 2013 [9 favorites]

Don't tell him. It's not a responsible thing to do. But find a way to be pleasant to him for the time being. "No contact" is for situations where the other person knows about your feelings. This person has no idea why you withdrew. Even just saying "I'm preoccupied, but I'd rather not talk about it. It's not you." could help.
posted by Miko at 8:34 PM on May 6, 2013 [31 favorites]

I think it can be done but it is not easy and could get bumpy in the short term. I cooled things off with a warm friendly schmoozer. It was initially not well received. I stuck to cool but very, very respectful. He eventually got over it and grew as a person. We parted on friendly terms when he left for a different job.

But, from the other side: I knew a young married guy who got all friendly and one day called me "darling." Then got all weird and avoided me. Then apparently quit his job and I kind of wondered if he did that because he had feelings for me.

The point I want to make is that his marriage was in ZERO danger from me. For a long list of reasons, there is no way I would have slept with him. If, in fact, he quit his job to protect his marriage from the possibility of an affair with me, he was waaaay overreacting. For that matter, even just avoiding me was overeacting. Unless he intended forcible rape, nothing was going to happen. I was neither interested nor remotely willing.

So maybe consider the possibility that you are making a mountain out of a molehill. It takes two to tango, not just one person having fantasies because things aren't so hot at home.
posted by Michele in California at 9:10 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

"For private reasons, I need some distance. I'm sorry I can't be more specific. Thanks for understanding." This says 1) you're not going to share your reasons, 2) you need the distance that you've been taking, and 3) you expect him not to be an ass about it. This is all the emotional paperwork that needs to be filed. If he pushes you for more explanation, reiterate that you have your reasons, and they're private, and please respect the distance you're trying to establish.
posted by fatbird at 9:17 PM on May 6, 2013 [13 favorites]

Practical ways to be cool but not rude:
- Don't pointedly avoid him. That makes things weird for him and everyone else. Obviously, don't seek him out, either.
- Keep conversations short. Pleasant greeting and close around necessary business only; maybe one merely polite question/answer exchange around 'life' stuff. No in-jokes, no references to private confessions, nothing you wouldn't say to the coworker you know the least. ('Oh you went hiking at x? That's nice, that hill has a great view, glad you enjoyed it. See you later.')
- Non-verbal stuff, also brief. No meaningful glances. Smiles are ok. Brief.
- Eat lunch away from him until it all cools off.
- If you find yourself in a slightly social group situation, where he's there, acknowledge his presence, but focus your attention on other people.
- You're just always 'so busy'. Busy, busy, busy. I wouldn't even hint at 'needing' space, because that already elevates & makes intimate what's happened so far.
posted by nelljie at 9:51 PM on May 6, 2013 [7 favorites]

Telling him will make it more of A Thing than it already is. Also, if you tell him and he reciprocates, it will makes things way worse. And even if he doesn't reciprocate but really likes the attention or knowing someone likes him, he will feed it and make it worse.

He doesn't need a reason and he will get over it. He may eventually just take the signal if you keep avoiding him and he won't push it. Or you can make something up. Maybe something like "I've been dealing with some personal stuff. I don't really want to talk about it, but sorry -- it's not you," and then continue avoiding him. Since you have to work together, be friendly but professional. Avoid flirting or friend stuff, like grabbing lunch together or gossiping or any of that. Just stick to work and be polite.

But if you are serious about wanting to prevent something that could hurt your marriage, you really can't tell him or keep being friends with him, that's for sure. (IMHO.)
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:30 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just something to think about -- a lot of people have 'work spouse' relationships with co-workers which can be kind of emotionally intense, but relatively harmless as long as it stays at work. If you think you can keep it at work, I don't think there's any reason not to indulge it a little bit. And if you need to tell someone about your crush, tell your husband. Maybe some more open communication about your emotions and needs can help you guys somewhat.
posted by empath at 11:19 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

You shouldn't tell him about your feelings. However you can tell him something along a similar line. "You know, it's really been best for my family and for me to focus more on my husband(family) lately than on my friends/work/co-workers." -or- "I've just been focusing on my family lately."

That's the 100% truth - just not the entire full feelings truth, and how often do people divulge all of that truth anyway?

You should only tell him that if he asks. However he will probably only ask if you are outright avoiding him. As others have said, remain casual and courteous.

It also sounds like you need to date your husband again. I'm not sure of your problems, but many problems are caused by a lack or romance, intimacy, and communication - all of which can start to unravel when you focus on your family.
posted by Crystalinne at 11:29 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

OP, you are my relationship HERO!

" I did not realize I had developed such strong feelings until I began to notice a good deal of distance between myself and my husband...."

Good for you. This is how married life is supposed to work. You are doing it right.

- Agreed you don't want to tell this guy, EVER, what was going on in your head.
- Agreed you should make up a plausible and benign excuse.

I really really like the advice to tell him you usually to keep work separate from private, and you're sorry if you crossed any boundaries. Tell him you enjoy working with him. And then leave it at that.
posted by jbenben at 11:31 PM on May 6, 2013 [12 favorites]

Men and Women (even if they are already emotionally entangled) can be friends. Without sexual tension, unless it's already there, and then you have to smash it.

The beginnings of things are always magnified. Step back, take a deep breath. If you are happy with where you are, you can be friends with anyone, even men who make your heart flutter... it just takes some self discipline and some street smarts.

If you are unhappy with where you are... c'mon, do I need to even say it?

If you want to stay married, work on the marriage. Really. re-find the center and the joy together.

if you don't think you can get there... spilt and figure it out from there.

Chemistry and connection are awesome, but sometime just knowing someone can be true and good and there 100% trumps all of the hot hot hotness.
posted by bobdow at 11:32 PM on May 6, 2013

"You know, it's really been best for my family and for me to focus more on my husband(family) lately than on my friends/work/co-workers."

The problem with this kind of statement is, you're not supposed to be focusing on your family or husband at work. It's an inappropriate contrast that basically announces that the two are comparable along some dimension in your mind, and that that dimension probably doesn't have anything to do with widgets.

"I realized it's better for me to keep my work-life strictly separate from my personal life. I don't really socialize with co-workers, as a rule; and I'm feeling like I'd be more comfortable with us being a little less personal with each other."

Except, it sounds like OP is fairly sociable with probably a few coworkers (so, above not really believable), and I think the second part amounts to a kind of admission, in a similar way to the first example I quoted.

This is one of those times "it's not you, it's me [and I'm just so busy]" is necessary, I think. Explanation for your total avoidance of him lately, as has been said: "I have some stuff going on. Nah, don't really want to get into it."

If he feels he's owed an explicit conversation about this, that's a confirmation your step back is indeed wise. His self-esteem - well, I know you care, but it's not really your problem. Someone is bound to get a little hurt or uncomfortable here, them's the breaks. But making it about you might make it sting a bit less.

(I've been able to steer unsmart mutual crushes back into something like acquaintance-level grooves, and later, authentic friendliness, if not friendship. But that 'you're one of my kind' business, where you finish each others' sentences, just ends.)
posted by nelljie at 12:01 AM on May 7, 2013 [10 favorites]

Sorry also re the first quote: it suggests husband and work/co-workers are opposed in a zero-sum game. The only way for this to be true or relevant is if you're crushing on your workmate, which is why it's an admission. Ditto apologizing, unnecessary, or a de facto admission. Denial and politeness and diffusion, all the way.
posted by nelljie at 12:14 AM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm conflicted about what to tell you as I have been there on two occasions.

The first time I did what you are doing. I realised the feelings were getting too strong and I knew a line was coming I didn't want to cross. So I basically stopped talking to him unless I had to. He was obviously confused and hurt and I refused to be drawn on why I had changed so dramatically towards him. He left the company about 6 months later. I still have guilt about this because - everything else aside - it's just not a nice way to treat a fellow human. I know some people are saying he'll just have to suck it up, but he hasn't actually done anything wrong, and it's hurtful to be suddenly iced out without an explanation.

However, the second time I was there I decided to tell him I had feelings for him and I wanted to keep things platonic. But it turned out he had feelings too, and telling him that kind of opened the floodgates for what would turn into an affair. I think the mistake I made there was expecting him to somehow know how to manage things, mainly because he was older (and, I mistakenly thought, wiser.)

So I would use a combination of:

Tell him you are keeping him at a distance because you know what you're feeling isn't totally appropriate, and you don't want anything to progress.
Have a plan of 'safe' behavior in place like neljie suggests, and let him know this is how you will be with him from now on.

So rather than cutting him out with no explanation, or opening up the possibility of something happening, you're treating him like an adult by saying "this is the problem" and you're acting like an adult by saying "and this is how I'm going to handle it."

Good luck and I applaud you being able to see the warning signs and do the right thing.
posted by outoftime at 1:51 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is for you to work through without declarations of any kind in my opinion.

I would make a decision in my own mind about how I felt about that co-worker. ie recognise the crush and be certain that I did not want to continue along that path. Really think through what you feel about this person and make a decision: "I am letting these feelings go."

Once this was done I would believe absolutely that doing things like having a coffee together with a colleague is just what it is. A coffee with a colleague. Most of the crush kind of thinking dissipates when that mental u-turn is made I have found.
posted by honey-barbara at 3:23 AM on May 7, 2013

The answer where you shoulder the burden is actually the one where you start being nice to him again, and try to turn it into a real friendship.
posted by Mistress at 4:37 AM on May 7, 2013

I was in a situation close to what you're going through, only I wasn't married. I became close friends with a married co-worker and then one day I realized that I had fallen in love with him. I did what you are doing, and that was to majorly step back and be a bit chilly. He was bewildered the way your crush is bewildered, but I believed then (and still believe now) that having him confused and bewildered and maybe even a little hurt was BETTER than telling him "Hey, I'm having more-than-friends feelings for you and that is why I am stepping back.". His marriage was very rocky at the time and I am pretty sure and admission of my feelings could have contributed to his marriage ending and that wasn't something I wanted on my conscience. So I majorly scaled back the friendship, was distant and occasionally even a bit bitchy to him (over-compensation I suppose). Then a few months later his wife decided to call a spade and spade and they began divorce proceedings. THEN, a month after that, during a drunken book club BBQ, I told him my feelings. He shared them. We kissed. This was two years ago. We're getting married in a few months. High fives all around.

He and I have talked about my bitchy period in there where I knew I was in love with him but was working really hard to hide the fact. He agreed that had I told him the truth about why I was being a jerk and distancing myself from him it possibly could have affected how his marriage played out. It allowed his focus to be on his marriage with a clear head. Neither of us have any regrets.

I'm not saying all this because I think you and this guy are meant to be or that your marriage is doomed. I actually think the fact that you recognised this situation and have stepped back on your own to be a BIG sign that you really respect your marriage and your husband and you have a lot to build off of. I think you are pretty awesome. My point in telling my story is to just point out that I know first hand that a truthful explanation would have affected a marriage, most likely negatively. It would have made it harder on him, and it would have been harder on me, and it would have been WAY more awkward and uncomfortable at work. I strongly feel that what you are doing now (being distant and busy, scaling things way back) is the most responsible thing to do, especially in terms of what is best for your marriage.

Don't tell him the real reason why you're stepping back. Nothing good will come of it. Like someone mentioned above, it only serves to keep the emotion and involvement going, it will make it harder on you, and if he has any feelings for you that aren't entirely platonic (which is pretty possible) that is probably only going to make it harder on him as well. Disengaging from all of this and not doing anything that could make emotions hightened (and a truthful explanation would do that) is absolutely the right way to go.

Despite being a pretty great person, he does not have high self esteem and has made this known to me in the past. I do not wish to add to this.

That can't be your problem right now.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 4:54 AM on May 7, 2013 [8 favorites]

I am normally excellent at keeping platonic things platonic. Our marriage is not so great at the moment...

This is the part most striking within your question. Why did you share this?
It's at the heart of your problem.
posted by Kruger5 at 6:22 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

he does not have high self esteem and has made this known to me in the past. I do not wish to add to this.

Nthing this isn't your problem and hanging on to it is a way of remaining connected to him emotionally.

He really wants to know why I am avoiding him.

You're colleagues. You don't owe him any explanation about non-professional interactions. "I'm not avoiding you. I'm on deadline with those TPS reports though. Bye."
posted by headnsouth at 6:46 AM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your husband is more important unless you want to be divorced. This guy is not your husband and his feelings are not your priority. There is such a thing as being nice to a fault and too nice for your own good. Don't let your "guilt" or concern for his feelings or self-esteem cloud what is most important and that's how your husband is feeling about his wife distancing herself from him for a reason he might not know and can't understand.

Put yourself in his shoes, are you being the best wife you could be? Does he deserve it? Does he respect you? There you will find your answer as to how to solve this weirdness that has now become an issue. Find out what caused you to lean on this co-worker in the first place. Don't let your marital issues become a breeding ground for negative emotions that result in inexcusable actions.
posted by lunastellasol at 6:59 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Except, it sounds like OP is fairly sociable with probably a few coworkers

I didn't read that anywhere in the OP's question.

If that is the case, though, then yes, she should word her explanation to remove any untruths. I'm not a fan of lies in the workplace, or anywhere else.
posted by nacho fries at 7:02 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is tough because you don't want to hurt this guy, and yet, confiding in him is problematic.

I'm always up for honesty, but don't disclose your crush.

"Bob, I know that we were pretty tight there for a while, and I think it's a good idea for us to back away for the time being. People could get the wrong impression and frankly, I need to concentrate more on my family."

It's honest, it states that your intention is to remain faithful and to get some distance. It doesn't put anything on poor Bob, and only a yutz would find fault with it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:09 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've been here and there is only one way to handle it if you are really, truly interested in nipping your feelings in the bud and focusing on your husband. Seriously, only one way. The good news is, it works!

1. Tell your husband that you had these feelings. Tell the truth; you wanted to be friends, but you were surprised that you developed feelings for him. Assure him that you are no longer speaking to the man on anything other than a professional basis, and you are relieved to have the space to focus on your marriage.

2. Stop speaking this to other dude on anything other than a professional basis. He is not stupid. He knows you're married, he knows your relationship was trending towards inappropriate, and he will understand why you are being more distant. His low self esteem has nothing to do with it (and is not your problem in the first place). Don't explain anything or open any windows for drama. If you are consistently cool, cordial, and professional whenever he attempts to interact with you, he will get the picture.

3. Reflect on the nature of limerance and realize that these feelings are more of a fantasy and escape for *you* rather than any kind of reflection on how awesome Other Guy is. You aren't walking away from anything but heartache and disappointment when reality sets in.

Best of luck to you.
posted by annekate at 10:09 AM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Stop speaking this to other dude on anything other than a professional basis. He is not stupid.

Stupid or not, he still probably has feelings and deserves respect.

he knows your relationship was trending towards inappropriate, and he will understand why you are being more distant.

He may not know these things. He may have suspected them, or he may not have. If you suddenly friend-dump him, he may think "gee, I wonder if she has a crush on me that she has decided to handle appropriately" but it will be just one among many possible explanations, including "I wonder if I did something so offensive as to deserve this".

His low self esteem has nothing to do with it (and is not your problem in the first place).

No, but see above re: feelings/respect.

Don't explain anything

A blandly truthful explanation is probably the best thing. Don't say "I've resolved not to socialize with colleagues" and then let him see you socializing with colleagues, because that's adding insult to injury. But do think of something you could reasonably say to him.

or open any windows for drama.

Now this I do agree with. If he weren't a coworker, I would wholeheartedly agree with the advice to admit to him that you have a crush and you're going to handle it by taking a step back. I think that as long as you maintained control and said "this is what's going to happen" then you make it clear the confession is not a catalyst for an affair. The reason I counsel against telling the actual truth is because a) if you told him this, but you didn't tell your husband this (which you shouldn't), then your husband and your cow-orker would be in an unequal knowledge state, and b) confiding in cow-orkers can be used against you when you least expect it. For that reason, especially b), I wouldn't tell him the truth. But do tell him some higher-level truth that isn't going to turn out sounding like bullshit.

Disclaimer: I once had a cow-orker in a superficially similar situation, who handled it in what seemed to me to be the most offensive and hurtful way he could devise. The similarities were only superficial, which is why I'm not going into detail here. But it did get me thinking about what he could have done to make me feel I'd been treated with the maximum respect possible in the circumstances.
posted by tel3path at 10:33 AM on May 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Advice from the people who are telling you to get all stuffy and colleagues-only might work in some settings, but if you're in an informal, friendly work environment, you can't just cut the guy off and ignore his feelings; you'll need to maintain some kind of social relationship.

I've been around for long enough now to have weathered a dozen-odd work crushes: mutual and both kinds of one-sided. Here's what works.

- DO NOT mention your feelings to your co-worker: too much drama, not helpful. He probably has an inkling already; if he doesn't, don't burden him.

- Continue to interact with him, but until the feelings go away, not one on one.

- If that's such an abrupt change that it's likely to hurt his feelings, use something like Miko's or AppleTurnover's script: "I'm preoccupied, dealing with some stuff, but I'd rather not talk about it. It's not you." As tele3path put it: higher-level truth, no bullshit.

If you keep a handle on this, the intensity will eventually fade down into a calm, mildly affectionate, and completely manageable friendship. But don't expect it to happen overnight.
posted by tangerine at 1:38 PM on May 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

it sounds like OP is fairly sociable with probably a few coworkers

I didn't read that anywhere in the OP's question.

Good point, you're right; I totally inferred a sociable inclination from OP's writing style and choice of certain words, stated ability to maintain properly platonic relationships with members of preferred gender, and sensitivity to the feelings of both her husband and co-worker, but mostly the first two. Should have said that was 'possible'.

posted by nelljie at 5:41 PM on May 7, 2013

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