My ex-wife is my coworker. How do I make this work?
August 6, 2017 6:08 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I have worked for the same small company since we got married 15 years ago. Lately, things took at a turn, and after years of counselling, we're getting a divorce. I'm having trouble figuring out how to have a relationship with her on a day-to-day basis and could really use some advice. No kids, no debts, btw.

Since we separated 2 months ago, I received permission to work from home. It's been nice, but I really want to be back in the office. Over the past two weeks, she's been on a vacation in Europe, so I've gone into the office every day. I had forgotten how much I actually enjoyed being there.

She gets back from Europe this week, and I want to stay at the office. But this has been a really painful process for her. She was hurt and stressed out. I had to cut her off from text and messenger bc she said and did some really terrible things. She's gotten some help in the meantime, and I think all of that stuff is over with, but the idea of being around her or communicating with her directly really makes me extremely anxious. I can't really even visualize how I want it to go.

Anyone have any thoughts / advice on this? Specifically, what can I do to protect myself emotionally while working in proximity?
posted by joebakes to Human Relations (40 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Have you considered continuing to work from home while looking for another job? It sounds like working in proximity to each other would be very uncomfortable for both of you, especially since the divorce is still in progress. It's not difficult at all to imagine that attempting to work side-by-side at this time. could be bad for your performance and hers, and distracting to your colleagues.

You might also consider using a coworking space to have the experience of going into an office while not putting either of you in that situation.
posted by bunderful at 6:29 AM on August 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

This is a difficult situation, because your wife has crossed some boundaries in a way that was very hurtful. It seems normal that you would feel hurt and unsafe working in close proximity to her. I agree this was an extreme situation, but I still would not feel comfortable.

I think you need to except that your ex may be inappropriate to you at work. She may feel very hurt to see you there and say and do out of character things, since she has in the past. She may also feel that she got the work place in the divorce at this point. If you can except a rough transition, it may go more smoothly. Counselling and meditation may help. Meditation especially from a, this is not something that I can control and I am just going to let it wash over me, kind of way. I am a very mentally tough person and I would not do this, but ymmv. Bunderful gives good advice.
posted by Kalmya at 6:34 AM on August 6, 2017

If you're the one who ended the marriage, the ethical thing for you to do is to quit or continue working from home.

If that's not the case and you really want to stay with this company despite the drama, talk to her about what kinds of things you both could do to make the situation more professional and less miserable. This might include whether you want to avoid interaction as much as possible, whether you'll each work from home a couple days a week, etc.
posted by metasarah at 6:36 AM on August 6, 2017 [21 favorites]

Response by poster: I did end the marriage. I never really considered it as an ethical dilemma though.

My dad's perspective is that I need to continue working there if I want, can't continue to let her run my life, have to go about your business, etc.

FWIW, my wife would say that she has no problem seeing me, and is always an open invitation to talk. Some of my friends have said that this is manipulative. There was a fair amount of emotional abuse in our marriage, so I'm having trouble knowing what is normal anymore.
posted by joebakes at 6:43 AM on August 6, 2017

The only advice I can give is if you do decide to go back to the office, never talk about your ex with coworkers. Even if they bring her up. Don't burden others at work with that drama (and don't feed any potential gossip hounds).
posted by blackzinfandel at 6:44 AM on August 6, 2017 [8 favorites]

I agree that if you're the one who ended the marriage, you really ought to cede her the office presence. You may need to get another job. People do that all the time, for much less obvious reasons than this one. And divorce always involves dividing up previously shared arrangements.

I think it's pretty clear one of you is going to have to leave*, and if you ended the marriage then it seems harsh to kick your ex out of her job as well.

*I mean, really? How many divorced co-workers do you know? If you were a hiring manager would you hire a divorcing couple? No, right? Because that is obviously a big problem.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:46 AM on August 6, 2017 [26 favorites]

I can't imagine wanting to work at the same place as my ex. How awful and awkward for both of you. One of you should go.
posted by shoesietart at 6:58 AM on August 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

It is normal to divide assets in a divorce - you got the girlfriend, she gets the office. You should really stop taking advice from your father and your friends, they sound like they want to stir up shit and have their own agendas instead of looking out for what is best for you long-term. Do you feel like your wife used to tell you what to think/feel/do? Because that may be a pattern in relationships you need to break - where you cede your agency to others as a way of avoiding responsibly. Good luck in creating a new life for yourself.
posted by saucysault at 7:00 AM on August 6, 2017 [29 favorites]

If this was a big company where you never see each other that would be one thing, but if the job dictates you'll have to see each other on a regular basis, this isn't workable. If your boss has been kind enough to let you avoid that situation and work from home and yet your not even willing to do that because it's not what you want... then someone has to find a new job, full stop. This isn't workable. It doesn't matter who's being manipulative or is in the right - this is business, and life isn't fair unfortunately. The workplace here is yet another thing that will be divided in the separation. This is how it will end up regardless; at some point when things get really bad the company will force your hand because it's simply not good business. You can spare yourself the additional pain and start looking for a new job now. I'm sorry you're going through this.
posted by cgg at 7:05 AM on August 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Not all jobs are exchangeable. If you're working at a Home Depot and can easily go across the street to work at Lowe's, that's one thing. If you've built up your career and it would be difficult to simply change jobs, in my opinion you don't have to quit your job just because you initiated the divorce. We don't know why you initiated it -- it certainly does not mean she wasn't an equal force in making the marriage impossible and so actually deciding enough is enough doesn't mean it's your fault the marriage finally did not work.
I think if you want to stay at your job, which is yours, and is part of your identity apart from your marriage, you are allowed to ethically do so. If it gets untenable you might want to leave, but you don't have to gallantly cut off part of your own life just because you needed to end your marriage.
We had divorced people in a small department where I used to work. Even more, they divorced because one of them had an affair with someone else in my department who he eventually married. This was in a dept. of < 30 people. There were some unspoken uncomfortable moments in meetings at the beginning, but everyone stayed professional while at work.
My advice is: Obviously maintain boundaries but don't pretend you don't know her, or that you're just colleagues. Don't freeze her. That would make me crazy if I were her. Instead convey or even say directly that you have such a history that you both need some boundaries, but don't invisibly perform complete indifference -- rather a little smile and sad nod is better than nothing. People hate feeling completely erased after a relationship like a real marriage. That said, do not engage in emotional conversation, continue not to receive personal emails from her, etc.
posted by flourpot at 7:11 AM on August 6, 2017 [18 favorites]

Couldn't you go into the office one or two days a week and work from home the rest of the time? Should be easier for both of you to tolerate seeing each other if it's on a set restricted schedule and not every day, and I think that's usually recommended for remote workers anyway, if they're in the same city as their company, just so people don't forget you're there.

FWIW, my wife would say that she has no problem seeing me, and is always an open invitation to talk. Some of my friends have said that this is manipulative.

That would not be manipulative even if it turned out to be an outright lie (what else could she possibly say that would be any better -- that she can't stand the sight of you, so you have to quit your job? I can't believe your friends would approve of that either.) pretending to be fine so your ex doesn't get to feel superior is what divorces are all about. If you can muster the will to pretend, likewise, that you have no problem seeing her, that will help.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:39 AM on August 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

(In other words, a career is not a join asset like a house, even if you both work at the same place. People often need to cling to and focus even more on their work identity when their personal relationships aren't giving them a sense of identity anymore. This is true for both people in a divorce, both the one who initiated and the one who had to accept it. It's disorienting to both parties. You also don't have to be kept isolated working at home, because your career, which includes collegial work relationships, is your own.)
posted by flourpot at 7:40 AM on August 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is making you anxious and sick because it's too much drama, professional and emotionally healthy people don't ignore drama, they actively seek out situations where drama is not a feature.

There is zero reason for you to stay in this workplace, you are setting this up like it's a custody battle. It's not. Divorce isn't fair. When it happens, you do your best to respect yourself and the other person and you move on. Nothing stays the same. Nothing. That's why divorce is difficult.

You're already involved in another relationship and the divorce is fresh and you and your ex work at the same small firm. I'm tempted to make a joke here about gasoline and matches, but this isn't at all a joking matter.

This whole thing about setting boundaries for your ex on text and messenger after 15 years of marriage, while you still work daily together, is precisely what I mean when I diagnose this as a recipe for inevitable trouble. By design, because of the factors making up the situation, it won't end well. There will be a blow-up, or you will suffer anxiety, you will misinterpret each other endlessly, the wounds from that relationship will be picked over daily. It will be hellish.

The emotionally mature thing to do is to find a new job.
posted by jbenben at 7:49 AM on August 6, 2017 [17 favorites]

Leaving your job may be the best option for you. Flourpot has some valid points above regarding why it may not be, but my feeling is that if you can change jobs with a manageable amount of disruption, then you probably should. Setting aside who "should" be the one to leave, it's obvious that you can't control whether she leaves or not but you can control whether you do. Fairness isn't really relevant here.

Regarding your dad's advice and your friends', consider whether changing jobs is exactly what you need to do in order to free your life of her influence once and for all. Working in the same space as her is going to be awkward at times. There will be moments where you will have work-related disagreements and you'll be wondering if it's professional or emotional. There will be gossip. There will be increased scrutiny from management. There may even be attempts by your ex or her allies at work to undermine or subvert you. And at very least she will have the same influence over your work life as any other coworker would, except laden with way more emotional baggage.

You're going to have a harder time moving on and carving out a new life for yourself if you have to work with and interact with your ex-wife all the time. Doesn't matter whether she's being intentionally manipulative or not, that's just how it's going to be from now on.

If you want freedom from your ex-wife's influence, you're going to have to start some parts of your life over. I think that one of those parts is your work life, unfortunately. Maybe it's just not feasible, but if it is then I think you should. It may seem like a huge, painful, totally unjust sacrifice to make right bow but I bet you you'll look back on it in five years' time and think that it was absolutely the right decision. I mean, do you really want to still be dealing with your emotionally abusive ex five years from now, even if she's totally profrssional from here on out?

Now, if you just can't leave then I think you need to do what others above are saying and start laying down boundaries immediately. Specifically, you should only talk to your ex-wife or about your ex-wife on entirely work-related subjects. Polite professionalism is what you're going for here. Not only do you not want to continue dealing with the emotional aspects of your divorce any longer than you have to, you also don't want to give even a whiff of an appearance at work that you are bitter or backstabbing or anything other than a total stoic about this situation. Your response to any attempts by any of your coworkers—including your ex—to talk about anything other than strictly work-related subject matter needs to be "I'd really rather not talk about that."

Also, continue to telecommute at least some of the time. It will give you a break from her and help keep you sane. Suggest that she do so as well, possibly by gently and privately asking your manager if they would be willing to make the suggestion to her. It might be the best thing for both of you and for the company as well.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:06 AM on August 6, 2017 [7 favorites]

joebakes: FWIW, my wife would say that she has no problem seeing me, and is always an open invitation to talk. Some of my friends have said that this is manipulative.

queenofbithynia: That would not be manipulative even if it turned out to be an outright lie (what else could she possibly say that would be any better -- that she can't stand the sight of you, so you have to quit your job?

Can't agree with QOB enough. You separated 2 months ago. You refer to her as an ex but the divorce is not yet final. She was very stressed out and hurt and acted out badly - which sounds like a reaction to intense emotional pain. It takes more than 2 months to have no problem seeing someone who causes you that kind of pain.

Even if she had really said that (it sounds like you believe this is what she would say if asked) I would put absolutely no credence in it. It's one of those things you say when something ends to save face.
posted by bunderful at 8:24 AM on August 6, 2017 [8 favorites]

You are under no compulsion to behave nicely. You can go back to work. The ethics of the situation are what you make them. If you go back because your father says you should, or go back to "show her" you're not moving on from the situation. If you are willing to go back & work, just work, not to try to prove anything to anyone but yourself then it might work.

Avoid engaging her in anything but work communication at work. Do not engage in any games that she or other staff play running gossip back & forth etc. Do not talk about your divorce at work. Act professional. Keep work communication in writing, do not be alone with her at work if possible. It could work.

If you want to spend some time in the office, look at doing it part time at least to start with. Give yourself & your workmates a break from the drama.

I really don't get why you want to go back to the office if she's so manipulative etc, but hey I'm not you, some people like ripping a band aid off slowly. But you won't have moved on until you well move on.
posted by wwax at 8:30 AM on August 6, 2017

You're entirely within your right to continue working there. However, you'd need to LITERALLY treat her as just another coworker that is simply an acquaintance, as in, don't ignore her, but don't speak with her unless it's about something strictly related to work that is essential to do your work.

Hold to that line. If she's not able to do that, then let your supervisors deal with her.
posted by stormyteal at 9:21 AM on August 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

You have the option to work from home and that seems ideal if you really don't want to find a new job. I can't understand trying to go back to the office. It doesn't seem necessary. Yes, you miss it, but your ex wife is there. How great can it be? What aren't I getting?
posted by kapers at 10:17 AM on August 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's going to be difficult. Be cordial, i.e., more than just basically polite and civil. You could stop by her desk, or email, and say I'm concerned about it being awkward with me back in the office, but I wanted to assure you that I will keep things professional and keep any personal issue well away from the office. This is also a way of defining what you feel are the boundaries, and I think they are the correct boundaries. You have a responsibility to your employer and colleagues to be professional and keep your personal life well away from work. She does, too, but now that you are divorced, that's not your concern. Be as silent as possible on any issue concerning your ex. I think you'd be wise to continue working from home part of the time.
posted by theora55 at 10:25 AM on August 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

It seems to me that you're looking at this almost entirely from your own perspective and I'm struck by how little compassion you seem to have for your wife in this situation. You've painted yourself as the victim here and of course I don't have enough information to really know. But I'd question that based on what's happened and the way the situation has played out (you falling in love with another woman, possibly her friend, and leaving your wife to be with her). You say you want to be back in the office because you enjoy being there. But if you're able to telecommute surely you can find somewhere else you'd enjoy being that doesn't involve emotionally torturing someone you used to love? You say you never considered this an ethical issue and I'm struggling to understand why not. Your dad and friends think it's okay for you to be back in the office, sure, but they're biased and they would think that.

In a previous question you mentioned that your wife is alcoholic. So she's clearly someone who struggles but this situation would be incredibly difficult for even the most emotionally healthy person to deal with. In the horrible situation she's in where her husband has left her for another woman, it would at least be a positive thing if she could throw herself into her work to drown out her sorrows for a little while. And if you're able to give her that with not a lot of sacrifice on your part why wouldn't you? If you can telecommute for say a year to give her space and then come back, that's a short time in the course of 15 years with the same company.

In a previous question you said your girlfriend felt incredibly guilty about her part in what happened with your wife. I'm curious therefore to know what her view is on you going back to the office and what she thinks would be the kind thing to do? I ask because you seem to have outsourced some of your feelings to others in this situation, you've assigned self-protection to your dad and guilt/compassion to your girlfriend. So what is the compassionate thing to do?

I'm sorry I don't mean to be harsh towards you. It's just that based on the limited information you've given my heart really goes out to your wife here.
posted by hazyjane at 10:29 AM on August 6, 2017 [45 favorites]

I don't think your dad's advice sounds healthy here. If you go back to show her "she can't run your life anymore," that is bitter, vengeful, drama-seeking behavior, not mature professional behavior.
posted by kapers at 10:58 AM on August 6, 2017 [26 favorites]

I'm not sure why you're asking for advice and then ignoring anything that tries to give you a different perspective. You ended the marriage and basically, perhaps, ruined your wife's life. Now you expect her to be miserable at work or quit her job on top of it. Of course you should either suck it up and work from home or try to find a new job. I mean, what were the circumstances here -- did you cheat on her? From your previous question, it sure seems like it.

This strikes me as being rather selfish and also just a very untenable situation -- there is no way working together is going to magically be ok for the both of you. Instead of cherry-picking the answers you agree with, I'd actually listen to the advice you're getting here. The answer that you marked as "best answer" has some flawed reasoning -- yeah, you can't go across the street to Lowe's, but your company is not the only company is the world that does whatever it is you do. I'm not sure this should be breaking news, but your dad is pretty biased in this situation and not giving you good advice. You seem to be projecting a sense of entitlement that, forgive me, is a little staggering -- you have showed absolutely no empathy for your ex-wife and your only concern is making it less uncomfortable for you, when you're the one who left her for another woman.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:59 AM on August 6, 2017 [30 favorites]

If your job is very important to you, please also consider your manager and coworkers, as well as your reputation. This is such an obvious disaster waiting to happen and I'm concerned that you don't see that. Nobody wants to work with two months' separated, not yet divorced, guy already has a girlfriend couple. Nobody wants to see your "sad nods" as you were advised to give in your favorite answer-- and that would be the best case scenario, which seems highly unlikely since you just separated messily.

As a manager if this happened in my department I'd sit down with HR to figure out how I could legally end this situation.
posted by kapers at 11:23 AM on August 6, 2017 [6 favorites]

Wow, folks. You can't legally fire someone for getting divorced, not even if they got divorced from someone in the same company.
Divorce is a sad, personal, private thing; work is work; and the most compassionate thing is to try to not blame people for getting a divorce when we don't know what happened to make it necessary in their own personal lives. It's far fetched to suggest to someone that they ruined someone's life by ending a failed marriage especially if no kids were involved. It really is jumping the gun to automatically assume adults can't separate their personal lives from their work lives. We live in time when it's hard to find good work. Yes, if it becomes an issue that explicitly impacts the workplace, then it has to be dealt with by managers -- certainly not before!
. I"m pretty shocked that people are ganging up on the OP like this, suggesting he make his entire life go into chaos.
posted by flourpot at 11:30 AM on August 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

It is definitely legal to fire people for getting divorced under many circumstances in the US.
posted by bq at 11:33 AM on August 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

On a practical level, try adjusting your hours so that your schedule overlaps less with your wife's schedule - that will give both of you a coupe of hours a day in the office free of tensions.
posted by bq at 11:36 AM on August 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

of course you can fire someone who causes problems in the office.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:46 AM on August 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

Add me to the chorus of people saying the ethical thing is to give the wife you are leaving for another woman the office. You don't have to give up your job, they are letting you work from home. You only miss how "nice" being in the office is. That is not enough to create an extremely difficult situation with your ex wife, even if she didn't struggle with alcohol.
posted by corb at 11:52 AM on August 6, 2017 [19 favorites]

Truly, there is no safe space or safe emotional refuge from the ending of this 15 years long marriage for you, your ex, and during the work day for any of your coworkers. I forgot that all of your fellow coworkers are also naturally effected by your divorce.

Ask yourself if you really need an audience for the end of your marriage?

It looks a little bit that by labeling your wife of 15 years as manipulative, abusive, and alcoholic, and by starting a romantic relationship with a mutual friend, and then pressing to stay on in the same small workplace as your ex... it looks a bit as if you are the one that is at fault here. If you don't want folks to have doubts about your character or the role you may be playing in the troubles swirling around you, look for a new job. Release your ex and your coworkers AND YOURSELF from this torture. You can do the right thing for yourself! Why wait! Polish your resume and find a new, better place to spend 40+ hours of your precious life each week.
posted by jbenben at 12:04 PM on August 6, 2017 [19 favorites]

Going back to work in the office to show your not-yet-ex that she can't run your life per your father's suggestion, when you have the extremely convenient and generous option to work from home during a volatile time, when you haven't worked out how to interact with her because it's so fresh and was so messy, does not indicate to me a situation where adults will be deftly separating personal and professional lives.

I haven't said I would fire someone for getting a divorce. But I'd have the work and my team as priority. I'd certainly question the professional judgment of an employee who rejected my extremely accommodating offer to work from home in favor of using their presence in the office to get back at someone else on my team.

OP, I would advise you to work this out outside the workplace and only return if and when you're both ready. Are you sure you're ready? It really doesn't sound like it to me. Two months is nothing. The divorce isn't final. Your ex very recently was behaving in ways that indicate it's not smooth sailing. What's the rush, really? Seems like you already have the perfect solution-- you can keep your job and not have to see her-- why push it?
posted by kapers at 12:05 PM on August 6, 2017 [14 favorites]

I'd certainly question the professional judgment of an employee who rejected my extremely accommodating offer to work from home in favor of using their presence in the office to get back at someone else on my team.

Yeah, even leaving your wife out of this, I'd note that I think that it might actually be BETTER for your career to find a new job, rather than being The Dude Who Cheated On Our Other Co-Worker, Then Made Things Real Awkward At the Office. (Regardless of how things shook out with your ex, your having cheated on her is going to make you seem like the one at fault to many third party observers.)

Why don't you want to be as above-board as possible about this? Work from home, look for a new gig, fresh start for everyone on all fronts?
posted by Countess Sandwich at 12:10 PM on August 6, 2017 [11 favorites]

If you cannot think of this as being sympathetic to your soon-to-be-ex-wife, try to consider that changing your work situation (new job, telecommuting to old while you look for new, etc.) is a gift to yourself and your new girlfriend. Why would she, who feels so lousy about how your relationship started, want you working there? Aim for less daily drama with a fresh start, and a new environment and new professional challenges to discuss off-hours?
posted by Iris Gambol at 12:15 PM on August 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

OP didn't cheat on the ex-wife. They tried an open marriage and it didn't work.
posted by delight at 4:19 PM on August 6, 2017 [4 favorites]

It seems like the telecommuting option is a great one except that you prefer the social interaction of the office. I would recommend finding a coworking space or working at a cafe or library where you can get some of that office-y feeling without making things awkward for everyone involved. It doesn't have to be forever, but certainly I would do this while the divorce is being finalized and you guys are still both clearly in an emotionally raw state. The type of interactions you're describing -- on both sides -- just sound like mega drama for the office and if nothing else, have some sympathy for your coworkers and don't subject them to this! It sounds like the telecommuting option is fine with your boss, so I can't really understand why you wouldn't take advantage of it other than to spite your ex.

After a few more months, you can decide whether you'd rather search for another job (while still getting a paycheck, so you can be a little choosy!) or if things have calmed down, consider working in the office more often. The alternative seems to be going back into the office with a high chance of drama, and then potentially losing great references when you end up deciding to move on anyway. Not worth the risk!
posted by rainbowbrite at 4:27 PM on August 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you can, I would suggest you still telecommute one or two days a week (at a coworking space if you can't take being home). Also, if it is an option, maybe change your hours so there is less overlap with hers. If you can give each other a bit of breathing room at work, things may possibly go better.
posted by gudrun at 4:54 PM on August 6, 2017

Very tough situation. I agree that continuing to work from home is a good option. I don't think you need to quit your job for ethical reasons. But if it gets too awkward eventually one of you may naturally find it's best to find another job. But for now just do your best to keep your relationship strictly work related.
posted by ljs30 at 7:11 PM on August 6, 2017

If she has said some really terrible things over text, and her one haven at escaping you has now been cut off, because you're working with her even when you have the option not to, I would expect drama at the office. She could spin the whole thing to make you look like a cheater and turn your office against you. (I have no idea if this is true but it seems it could be interpreted that way.)

Why would you want to invite drama into your life if you have the option to not? You've already said this has been very painful for her and unless you really hate her, it seems she's already been hurt enough. Do both of you a kindness - and the professional thing - and just telecommute until things have blown over or you find another job. You don't need to work at her office to 'show her' or prove that you 'won.' You left her for another woman, trust me, she got that message. Now everyone just needs space.
posted by Jubey at 8:28 PM on August 6, 2017 [9 favorites]

Oh my god you cannot stay there.
posted by jessca84 at 10:00 PM on August 6, 2017 [5 favorites]

How many divorced co-workers do you know?

Why is this such an issue? You can both stay there if it's working OK. Evidence: divorced co-parents can work together for years and years. Get some third-party input (therapist, work friend?) to help you feel better about this.
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:13 AM on August 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

There is literally an entire family court system set up, 99% of which deals with the inability of divorced couples to resolve their issues amicably. The great majority of divorced couples are not equipped to resolve their problems without rancor, and absolutely nothing in your narrative, OP, suggests that you and your ex are going to be that tiny minority for whom everything goes swimmingly.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:46 AM on August 8, 2017 [6 favorites]

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