How should I proceed with this confusing crush?
November 1, 2013 7:03 AM   Subscribe

What should you do when it would be inappropriate to be romantically involved with someone, yet the attraction between you is so strong it feels like the relationship is gathering momentum and heading towards the inevitable?

I have a professional relationship with a man (let's call him James). He's in his late thirties and I'm a girl in my early-mid twenties. I am almost certain he is romantically interested in me. We email all the time and get on really well. He is always lending me some book/CD/DVD he'll think I'll like, he's always eager to help me with stuff, he sits really close to me and his friends say he speaks very highly of me. The problem is, I think he's quite depressed: he's always extremely emotionally guarded and seems to have very little self-confidence. As a result I don't really know much about his life at all, other than his interests and specific things I've asked him directly. Lately I've found myself thinking about him all the time, wondering what he's thinking and wondering if something could happen between us.

The reason why this crush is especially confusing is that I recently broke up with my long-term boyfriend. My interest in James was sparked before my relationship ended (and probably contributed to my wanting to break-up) and has just intensified now that I'm single and missing the comfort and reassurance of a boyfriend.

I don't want a serious relationship with James for a number of reasons: a) I just got out of one and would like to be independent for a while, b) I don't think I could emotionally support someone who is depressed at this point in my life c) it would end our professional relationship (he is a client of mine, and I receive regular payments from him) and d) I am unsure about my feelings for him and don't want to hurt him by acting on my attraction and then pulling away if/when I change my mind.

I am certainly attracted to him and would like to form some sort of intimate emotional/physical connection with him. I just think there would be a significant disparity between my fantasy and the reality of what it would be like to be with him. Having said all that, I am crushing hard, and I can't stop myself from flirting and teasing and wanting to get physically close to him.

He hasn't asked me out, but I think he's being cautious and is afraid of rejection (I am sort of in a position of power to him). I also think he's intimidated by me, as I appear confident and I seem to have a lot going for me, while he seems incredibly anxious all the time (except for a few moments where I've managed to make him smile/laugh/relax). I generally always encourage his attempts to get closer to me, and I think that if I tried to backpedal now it would seem as if I've been stringing him along.

I definitely want something to happen between us (maybe even just sexually), even though I know it would probably end badly. I find his caginess mysterious and attractive, and part of me wants to be the girl that could bring some more light into his life (without having to deal with all the dark stuff). The fact that he's older and totally not my usual 'type' makes me want him more. I think we could have fun together and I would genuinely like to get to know him better, though sometimes I wonder if I'm just at a weird transitional point in my life where I want to be reckless and irresponsible.

Has anyone else been in this kind of situation before? Is so, how did you proceed?
posted by sweetshine to Human Relations (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Has anyone else been in this kind of situation before? Is so, how did you proceed?

Start dating. Find other people to have sex with. Mid-20s is the OKCupid sweet spot. Have fun!
posted by phunniemee at 7:11 AM on November 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

If you're in any kind of position of power to him, you can't proceed, full stop. It's not only deeply unethical, but an anxious, depressed person who you intimidate and are in a position of power over is not going to feel free to say 'no' if they're not interested. This is highly unprofessional at best, and could very realistically end in sexual harassment.
posted by Jairus at 7:13 AM on November 1, 2013 [21 favorites]

Yeah, all of the reasons you think it's a bad idea? Those reasons are you trying to protect yourself. This won't end well. There are tons of people out there who are mysterious and hot and who -- this is the important part -- you don't work with that would be up for a reckless fling with you with and that wouldn't, when/if it turned bad, have any impact whatsoever on how you pay the rent.

It's totally common to have inappropriate crushes on people who you know would be bad for you. It's totally common to have crushes in professional settings. But it's still a bad idea to act on those crushes.

So, how do you manage them? By managing them. By knowing when they are happening and what they are doing to you. By noticing how you're finding reasons to swing by his desk and not indulging those reasons. By getting really into something else or someone else. By knowing that it's just a crush, not a sign that you have to have him right now.

It's at least probable that you are going to have these crushes for most of your adult life. How you teach yourself to live with them is going to be important for how you work for your entire career.
posted by gauche at 7:14 AM on November 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

sweetshine: I am crushing hard, and I can't stop myself from flirting and teasing and wanting to get physically close to him.

Yes you can. You are an adult with full command of your faculties. If you choose to flirt and tease him, you must take ownership of your actions and accept the consequences. Don't allow yourself the false relief of saying that your actions are "inevitable". If you really are having trouble acting appropriately with this person, you need to figure out a way to separate yourself from him.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:16 AM on November 1, 2013 [45 favorites]

This is a great opportunity for you to be a grown-up and do what you know is right rather than something which will create a number of messes in your personal and professional life. There are many, many people out there for you to date and have sex with. This person is not one of them.
posted by something something at 7:17 AM on November 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

You are not beholden to the whims of the universe. Contrary to your belief right now you can intervene in this situation and not act on your feelings because you are an adult with choices. Use them wisely.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:19 AM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I generally always encourage his attempts to get closer to me, and I think that if I tried to backpedal now it would seem as if I've been stringing him along.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't backpedal, though. You know it would be a bad idea for many reasons, you've said so yourself. There's no such thing as something that is inevitable when it comes to starting a sexual relationship. You have free will here. You don't have to do it. Better to backpedal before the crash than after.

You can be in control if you want to. If you don't want to be, then fine, but don't chalk it up to a natural endpoint that you can't possibly stop.
posted by inturnaround at 7:27 AM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I definitely want something to happen between us (maybe even just sexually), even though I know it would probably end badly.

See the second part of that sentence? Remember that. There are few other things people decide to do, knowing that they'll "end badly."

Find a relationship you expect to end well, or maybe not end at all. It's what you deserve, really.
posted by xingcat at 7:27 AM on November 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

I just think there would be a significant disparity between my fantasy and the reality of what it would be like to be with him.

Yeah, that's why you don't do it. Because you can see that it's a bad idea. It sounds like you can even see that it would be a bad idea for him as well. Why is it still even under consideration?

I can't stop myself from flirting and teasing

If this is actually true you need to focus on your compulsive behavior issues and impulse control. You do not need to be in a relationship right now.

If that's not literally true it sounds like you're selling yourself out for the cheapest most easily available attention rather than someone who likes you for you in an age-appropriate and emotionally healthy way. Now is the time to put on your coat of professional behavior and your boots of self esteem and repeat to yourself that you are better than this and you deserve better than this until you either believe it or at least believe you do not want to turn into the kind of person who acts this way at work.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:29 AM on November 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think that if I tried to backpedal now it would seem as if I've been stringing him along.

OR, it would look like you realized you'd been (ahem) flirting with disaster for a while and that you have decided to steer clear of the wreck before it was too late. You're not obligated to keep doing anything you don't want to do. You could be in an actual relationship with this guy and decide you were done with it and that would be totally, 100% okay. You can certainly tone down the flirting at work without committing a faux pas.
posted by gauche at 7:29 AM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm the opposite here - sever the professional relationship and then date all you want. I don't see a problem. Depressed people date too. Low self esteem people date too. People just out of relationships date too. Just be honest at every step, don't hide from your feelings of the previous relationship, do everything above board work-wise and see what happens.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:30 AM on November 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

One way to make quality decisions when you are uncertain is ask yourself the following question: "What path am I less likely to regret?". Of course none of us have access to complete information at any time, but we often have access to all the information we need yet pretend that we do not.

You already know well what the answer to this question is, but you wish it was otherwise. The longer you live, the more sorrow the burden of regrets will bring you. Act wisely, and kindly, and you will most certainly lighten your load for the future. Short term pain for long term gain is invariably a good investment.
posted by jcworth at 7:42 AM on November 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

This needs to be a growing/maturing moment for you. Time to start controlling your emotions and yourself, instead of having your emotions control you. Time to own the fact that YOU get to decide what you do. Nothing and no one can make you do anything, not even your attraction and spark for someone. I get it, I really do. I fell completely in love with a co-worker/friend who was married. Every bit of me felt like he and I were meant to be together, and suspected that he had feelings for me too. But I knew that it was a bad idea. I refused hit on a married man, I am not that person. I will not end a marriage. So what I did was actually to carve out some distance from him. When I was feeling especially drawn to him I actively behaved a little more coldly so that I wouldn't tip him off to how I felt. As much as it sucked, I made the choice to not give in to my emotions. It was a hard choice, an uncomfortable choice, but it was the responsible, respectful, correct choice. Eventually his wife asked for a divorce for reasons totally unrelated to me, and when he finally became available I told him then. We got married 2 months ago. We both agree that if anything had happened before his first marriage ended we never would have had the healthy, amazing, trusting relationship we have now.

So speaking as someone who married her older-than-her co-worker who developed feelings for him when it was inappropriate, I think you need to take a huge huge step back. Nothing in inevitable or out of your control. Of course you have the capacity to keep your relationship platonic/professional. Of course your emotions and attraction are not some sort of unstoppable tidal wave pushing you towards each other. Life isn't a romance novel, you absolutely have a choice in the matter. If you initiate something with him, you need to own the fact that it was a choice YOU made.

You know this is a bad idea.
You know it won't end well.
You (may or may not) know that when it ended badly it could very possibly have ramifications on both of your careers.

I really don't think you should pursue this while you are still working together and while you know it doesn't make sense. You say there is attraction and spark, etc, and that it seems mutual. Yet you don't want anything serious with him. So what if the feelings are mutual, only he went in to it expecting/wanting something serious?

Also, you sort of are going in to this with a hope to change him. You said : I find his caginess mysterious and attractive, and part of me wants to be the girl that could bring some more light into his life (without having to deal with all the dark stuff). I think you're being pretty unrealistic with this as well. I'm a depressive, and I can tell you that in my experience, you don't get to bring light into their life while totally avoiding the dark stuff. You don't date parts of a person, you date a person.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 7:54 AM on November 1, 2013 [13 favorites]

First, stop telling yourself it's "inevitable". That's just your brain trying to set up an excuse for you.

Second, stop telling yourself it's "confusing". There is nothing to be confused about. You have an inappropriate crush that you are not going to act on. Again, this is your brain trying to work you around into a state where you can feel justified in doing something you know is wrong. Ignore these tricks! Remember the facts: this crush is inappropriate, and to act on it would be unacceptable.

Third, avoid any non-pofessional contact. If he gives you a cd he thinks you'll like, say "thank you, that's really thoughtful! But I'm actually not accepting gifts from clients anymore, i find it unprofessional"

If he says something like "I thought we were friends", say "I need to keep my personal and professional life seperate". If it hurts his feelings, think how much more it will hurt his feelings if he does ask you out and you reject him, or if you accept and then he feels used.

What's most likely to happen is that he'll take the hint and cool off towards you. Deep inside, you probably know that. And since you're sore and vulnerable from your recent breakup, and because flirting and wondering and having a man pay attention to you feels really good and soothes and distracts from that, there's probably a part of you that doesn't want the attention to stop. Which is perfectly natural, and is the reason you neee to go find some non-client single guys to flirt with (or hell, flirt online), and shut this right down.

You can do it.
posted by windykites at 7:58 AM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

(he is a client of mine, and I receive regular payments from him)

This, all by itself, is a fantastic reason to not get involved with him.

if I tried to backpedal now it would seem as if I've been stringing him along.

This is really, truly, seriously, not your problem. You are in no way obligated to continue flirting with him or even maintain non-business-related contact just so he doesn't think you're some kind of "tease." If you need to cool things down for the good of your career and your own mental or emotional stability, do so. How he chooses to interpret this is on him.

part of me wants to be the girl that could bring some more light into his life

Sooooooo . . . . . . you want to be his Manic Pixie Dream Girl? (or here's a TV Tropes link if you like that better.)

Even besides that, the idea that you are the Special Woman Who Is The Only One Who Can Fix Him is itself a romantic fantasy that gets a hell of a lot of play in pop culture, to the point of being a cliche. But it's a fantasy. Reality is far messier, and I think you know this.

how did you proceed?

Since it doesn't seem that you can completely sever ties for business reasons, you should reduce your contact with him. You don't necessarily have to do this in one fell swoop. You can do a gradual fade. Yes, his feelings may be hurt, but again, you are not the sole person in the universe responsible for his feelings. Meet with him in person only when absolutely necessary. Don't be flirtatious when you do meet. Sit further away from him. Don't touch him. Delay replying to his emails. Keep the emails shorter and business-related. Rarely (if ever) reply to emails that aren't about business. The same with texting or Facebook, if you do those things. When he tries to lend you books/CD's/DVD's, start turning them down, maybe using the excuse that you're just overwhelmed with other things and wouldn't have time to properly appreciate them. Or (on preview), windykites' statement of "Accepting gifts from clients is unprofessional."

And get out and socialize more. It's such a common piece of advice but it does actually work. When you meet more people who would be just as if not more appropriate for you to date or flirt with or have some NSA sex with, even if none of these things actually happen, your attraction to this person starts to die down, because you begin to recognize that you've got other options.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:10 AM on November 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

heading towards the inevitable?

Don't kid yourself. Nothing about this is inevitable. Characterizing it that way is a way of giving yourself permission to proceed with something that you seem to know you shouldn't proceed with.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 8:16 AM on November 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

It really does not matter if you seem like you're stringing him along or not. You're giving yourself excuses here as to why pursuing a romantic relationship with this guy is inevitable, because you know it's a bad idea and want it anyway.

When you have a crush on someone, it's very easy to read into every little thing he does as some kind of indication that he feels the same way about you. He speaks highly of you and helps you out with things, well, he's your client, he's hiring you, so clearly he must think well of you in a professional capacity. He sits close to you? Some people just do that. He lends you books and CDs--some people just love to share their interests.

You think he hasn't asked you out because he's being cautious and intimidated by you, but it's also entirely possible he's just not interested in dating you for personal or professional reasons.
posted by inertia at 8:28 AM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you aren't willing to quit the professional relationship before dating/sleeping with him, then it makes zero sense to risk the professional relationship by dating/sleeping with him anyway.
posted by juliplease at 8:43 AM on November 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you had to choose between a personal relationship with him and your professional one, which is more important? If its the business relationship (if there's no way to extricate yourself/you can't replace him as a client etc) then take a big step back. Don't email outside necessary business contact, politely and kindly refuse loans or gifts ("thanks but I have it/a friend just lent me that") and don't be alone with him. Be kind - he has done nothing wrong - but don't say or do anything to him that you wouldn't say or do to any other client. Before you interact, consciously ask yourself "would I say/do this with Mr X from accounts?" If the answer is no, don't do it. It will be hard but the feelings will pass and you will both survive.


If you don't need his business, if the potential you see with him might be something you'd choose over another paying customer? Go for it. Not immediately. Sever the business relationship, and tell him why. He is a grown-up and if he can't handle a direct conversation about how you're feeling it won't work anyway. You have chemistry, he likes you too, you are both single. No one will die if it won't work out. Your fears about it not working out are projections "what if the fantasy won't match the reality? What if he's too depressed? What if...?" Who knows this stuff, in any relationship? You can only go with the Now, in which you want something to happen and potentially so does he. Chemistry is rarer than people think and the world is full of lonely people. Make the space for him, consider it carefully, be honest and upfront. Do it right, then just do it. Life is short.
posted by billiebee at 8:49 AM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was going to say you should go for it, but then you described him as being emotionally guarded with potentially low self-esteem and you aren't sure where you would want this to go... I would say no.

I consider myself a fairly guarded person with low self-esteem, as much as I hate to admit it, so I'll tell you my story.
I had a coworker come onto me when he wasn't sure what he wanted; just sex or some sort of emotional connection, and he yo-yoed so much it just became a big puddle of mess for me. I don't know what line of work you're in that he's a client of yours, but presumably he can end the client/something relationship if he finds the situation to be too uncomfortable. In my case I had to work with this person, and only this person every single day because our boss noticed we were "friendly" and would put us together.

That was hell. And the thing is, I would have been 100% on board if he'd just wanted to be fuck-buddies. It was the obvious confusion about the emotions/wanting more part and the waffling that ended up causing me a shitload of pain. So I'd say refrain from making moves (even flirting/innocent touching!) until you're 100% sure what you want to get out of it. Anything else isn't going to end well, mostly for your client.
posted by Autumn at 8:52 AM on November 1, 2013

it would end our professional relationship (he is a client of mine, and I receive regular payments from him

He's your client, but you're in a position of power over him? That usually isn't the way the power dynamic works in client relationships, so I'm wondering if you're a teacher or therapist of some kind. Getting involved with a client is definitely a bad idea, but getting involved with someone where you've had a mentor/coach/therapist/guide type role is even worse.

This is not something you want to mess with.
posted by sweetkid at 9:35 AM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is simple. Which do you value more for the long term - your professional relationship, or the chance to date this guy?

(I say that as someone who has been happily married for years to someone whom, when I met them, was absolutely not logistically appropriate. But I knew that our connection was more important than any other thing. This is rare, but it makes me believe that sometimes it's ok to go with your heart. But you have to be ready for everything else to change.)

If you don't want to lose the professional relationship, you need to let him know that you're only flirting for fun, not serious about him and not interested in a fling. Next time you're flirting, stop for a moment and say something like "Bob, you are seriously the awesomest. I wish I could ask you out! But since I can't because of the work stuff, I'm glad we get to work together."

If you are ready to jettison the professional relationship, then say something like "Bob, you are seriously the awesomest. I'd love to ask you out, but would that be too weird because we've worked together like this?" and see what he says.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:47 AM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

fingersandtoes : Next time you're flirting, stop for a moment and say something like "Bob, you are seriously the awesomest. I wish I could ask you out! But since I can't because of the work stuff, I'm glad we get to work together."

Dude, THAT would be teasing him and leading him on, much moreso than anything you have done so far. Don't say that. That would be a mistake.

Also, I missed the part when I first answered that he was a client of yours and that you received payments from him. Come on now... really? You're considering throwing away a regular customer and their business for a relationship that you think won't last long and that will end badly? Seriously? You need to give your head a major shake and think about this more rationally. I really hope you see this for the disaster waiting to happen that it is.

Go find someone else to date. THAT is how you get over an inappropriate crush.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:57 AM on November 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yeahhhh, rebound alert? I think so. Sorry. I agree on the either client or relationship, but I strongly advise you to go on other dates first. Spread them out with some you time and figure out if you want THIS dude, or A dude. Or even just Something to Fill the Relationship Void.
posted by Jacen at 5:09 PM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had a very similar crush this summer, minus the depression and the professional relationship. I was getting over an unrelated romantic disappointment when the crush developed, there would have been a big time power imbalance in our relationship, I knew that it was a bad idea to pursue her for multiple reasons, but was crushing very hard, and she seemed attracted to me.

Here's what happened:
Phase 1: I'm having a very hard time resisting flirting. In fact, I fail to resist pretty often. It feels so good though. I think about posting an AskMe, but don't bother, because I know the answer to my question anyway.
Phase 2: I remind myself (daily/hourly) that crushes go away, and that my better judgement is called "better judgement" because it's a lot more reliable in producing good outcomes than obeying crushes. Still flirting a little, but much less than before.
Phase 3: At this point I become pretty sure that my brain is going to win this fight, even though the crush is still there. I learn to enjoy the little rushes I get when I think I might see her somewhere, or when I speculate about how she'd react to something I saw/experienced/read about, etc.
Phase 4: The crush fades, because that's what crushes do. A few of my friends are mildly disappointed that I did not throw caution to the wind, as they advised during phases 1-3. I declare victory over the crush. Feelings are not hurt. Drama does not ensue.
posted by Courage is going from failure to failure at 1:27 AM on November 2, 2013

I can't stop myself from flirting and teasing and wanting to get physically close to him

You mean you literally can't control your actions and words?

Sorry, no one else can prevent you from saying and doing these things but you. If for some reason you aren't able to control your actions, you'd best get ready for them to lead you off someplace you don't want to be.
posted by yohko at 4:09 PM on November 4, 2013

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