Q&A with Geoff: How do I deal with my romantic infatuation for a work colleague?q&a with geoff Mar 30, 2022
I am completely, head-over-heels infatuated with a woman on my team who reports to me. She is basically all I think about, day or night, and this has been the case since I hired her this past year. Because of COVID-19, I have only been in the office with her a couple times, but we talk virtually all the time throughout the week. We have traveled together for work several times, a few times with only the two of us.
I would describe our relationship as being good friends. We laugh, engage in good-natured gossip, share stories about our weekends, our children, activities, hobbies, political views, extended families, work issues, just about anything appropriate that you might hear at the water cooler. I feel extremely comfortable around her and believe she trusts me.
Nothing inappropriate has occurred between us, either in action or in conversation. Once on a long drive she told a story to me and another male coworker about when her husband had been critical of her, and I made it a point to not engage in that topic since complaining about spouses can be a precursor to an emotional affair.
When we travel, we eat together for dinner and authentically enjoy each other’s company. On a recent trip, I asked if I could finish her soup (using her spoon) and finished the bowl while she laughed. She is not particularly religious but has high standards and in my estimation, she has sent clear signals that she would not be open to anything other than a warm friendship.However, the way she smiles at me is so incredibly warm that it melts my heart. The way she talks to me, looks at me and seems to like me is almost more than I can handle. I have to believe that, given a woman’s intuition, she is well aware of how much I like her and even of my crush on her. I guess there’s a chance she is naïve and can’t see it, as she is only about 30 years old.
My marriage of 22 years has never been great, we have kids and are in the grind. My wife has been struggling with depression and anxiety for over a decade, leaving her incredibly difficult to connect with and hiding out in her room every spare minute of the evenings and weekends. The vibe I get from my wife is, “I don’t care about you.”
She won’t go out on dates with me because she’s always tired and depressed; she barely kisses me, although we are sexually intimate. We have met with a counselor and rarely argue or fight, but our relationship is a dud. This causes loneliness and frustration, but I’ve learned to turn to God for support over the years.
But it does leave me starving for warm human interactions, so when a beautiful young woman gives me respect, attention and oh-so-comforting emotional warmth, it leaves me yearning for more, almost addicting.So basically, so far, I am guilty of the sin of coveting and not cleaving unto my wife. I am almost always able to control my thoughts and don’t engage in lustful thoughts or feelings. I have tried to grow close to my wife for years but at times it’s like trying to hug a cactus. I met with my church leader and described my feelings.
He said I haven’t done anything wrong but to be careful; his advice was to not text her about personal things and to try to avoid going out to eat unless it would be awkward otherwise, i.e., business trip. But otherwise, no spiritual advice.
My question is – is there something wrong with me? Why am I so obsessed with her? How can I change these incredibly deep feelings and desires? This is a pattern that has occurred since the earliest days of my marriage. It’s one girl after the other – a coworker, someone in my ward, a neighbor, etc. I have fasted every weekend for the past six months pleading with God to change my heart and redivert my mind to my wife.He has given me great insights and support and guidance, and I believe I am making very slow progress. But it feels like when I gain some ground, these feelings of love or obsession or infatuation or whatever come roaring back with a vengeance, and I feel powerless to stop them.
I’m open and honest with God and I feel I can set my heart on my commitments and hold those ideals in my heart. I just finished a business trip with the co-worker, which I spent weeks emotionally and spiritually preparing for. The context I held throughout the trip was to be warm, upright and professional – which I pulled off well.
The more I am trustworthy, professional, warm and upright to her, the more she seems endeared to me. On the trip, our conversation led to me sharing my thoughts about marital fidelity, integrity, etc. which she seemed to really appreciate.
If there’s any advice you have, I would love to hear it. I am willing to do anything to bring my feelings in line with my commitments.
I hear your pain about living in a lonely marriage and I also hear your desire to stay faithful to your wife and your commitments as you deal with these strong attractions. It seems like you’re reaching out for support because you recognize the precarious nature of your situation and don’t want it to advance.Although you technically haven’t committed infidelity, much of your mental real estate is crowded with your infatuation for this other woman. You’ve indicated your awareness that this is a very slippery slope. You also describe this as part of a larger pattern you’ve been contending with for much of your marriage. Let’s talk about how you can reclaim that space for your own marriage.
You have been experiencing our natural desire to receive warmth, responsiveness and reciprocity from your wife. We are hardwired with this need for closeness and security as a survival system to keep us safe. Isolation is both deadly in the wild and in modern life. It’s not something we outgrow or can easily suppress.
And, when it gets misdirected outside the primary bond of marriage, it can trick you into believing you’re experiencing a higher form of love. Because of these survival instincts, unless you work on repairing the issues in your marriage, the siren song of emotional affection from other women will only grow louder.
I recognize that you’re starving from a lack of emotional connection, warmth and desire from your wife. While I can’t begin to guess the causes of your wife’s struggles, it’s imperative that you make sure you are doing everything in your power to not be an additional source of disconnection for your wife.This includes taking a closer look at the impact your long-standing struggle of routing your energy to other women might have on your wife. She’s clearly struggling in the marriage and, while I’m not excusing her need to confront her own accountability for how she’s showing up in the marriage, it’s imperative you take a closer look on how your wandering heart has impacted her.
I have worked with countless couples where one partner acutely felt the split attention from their partner. It didn’t even have to be focused on another person. It could include interest in other areas such as work, hobbies, church service, extended family, friends, children and so on.
I hear that you’ve been working hard to re-energize your marriage and engage your wife through creativity, conversations and seeking outside support. I do not want to minimize your efforts and pretend that there are simple solutions. However, your fixation on other women’s responsiveness from the beginning of your marriage dulls your ability to give to and receive from your wife.
I believe it’s also highly likely that your wife has felt your split attention even if she didn’t know the specific details of your thoughts and behaviors. Look closely at how this pattern may have impacted her throughout your marriage. You can blame it on her, but if you’ve struggled with these thoughts and feelings for your entire marriage, understand that it will have an impact on her.
You mentioned that you’re aware of women’s intuition and I’m certain your wife has felt many things you thought she wouldn’t detect.
In short, as the old saying goes, “The grass is greener on the side of the fence you water.” Yes, you’re tired and frustrated with your wife’s depression, anxiety and non-responsiveness. I have worked with enough couples over 23 years as a therapist to know that there are terribly challenging individual and relational dynamics that can make marriage feel like the loneliest place on earth.I’ve also seen marriages wake up from a deep sleep from the committed efforts of one spouse who refused to settle for a parallel existence. You are making the choice to hold a certain line in your marriage, but it appears that your gaze is fixed away from your wife as you covet the possibilities with other women. This preoccupation robs you and your wife of your best energy to engage in the work of true love.
You’re already working to set some limits with this co-worker, but the way you describe your interactions with her sounds like active flirting. If you want to truly keep this relationship professional, I believe there is more you can do to draw more boundaries. You’re having to manage so many feelings for her because you’re still allowing yourself to be too familiar with her.
For example, I would guess that you eating her soup with her spoon wasn’t about you being hungry, but, rather, about you wanting to make her laugh while sharing a more intimate moment. It seems that in all your pain and loneliness, you’ve been seduced by the romantic and flirtatious version of love while avoiding the sacrificial version of love marriage requires of us.
While there’s nothing wrong with romantic love in a committed relationship, if it’s valued equally or above a more mature love, you’ll always feel ripped off when your wife is struggling and can’t reciprocate.
I’ll share a couple of quotes on this concept from authors who point out that our idea of love is often warped by the cultural stories we are told. First, M. Scott Peck wrote:
“Our use of the word ‘love’ is so generalized and unspecific as to severely interfere with our understanding of love. As long as we continue to use the word ‘love’ to describe our relationship with anything that is important to us…without regard for the quality of that relationship, we will continue to have difficulty.”
Robert Johnson reminded us:
“We use the term for many things that are not romantic love at all. We assume that if it is love, it must be ‘romance,’ and if is romance, it must be ‘love’…we have lost the consciousness of what love is, what romance is, and what the differences are between them. We are confusing two great (dynamics) within us, and this has a devastating effect on our lives and relationships.”
The problem with romantic love is that it doesn’t have the power to carry us through these soul-wrenching seasons of marriage. Romance carries us along without much effort. Real love is less about how we feel moment to moment and more about what we choose. It involves daily choices to care for another person even when we don’t always feel like it.
Romantic love has a place in marriage, but if you want to experience the beauty of what marriage can offer us, you have to engage your heart by choice in those moments when the romance has waned.
As you begin turning away from your co-worker to face the challenging task of turning to your wife, consider the counsel from Dr. Jacob Hess: “(Do) your best to hold your expectations gently, practicing openness, and curiosity. Rather than just hard work in a relationship – this is about heart work: ensuring your own heart and mind are fully open to the face in front of you.”Ask yourself if you’re fully open to your wife’s experience of what it’s like to feel depressed and anxious. I’m not minimizing or simplifying how difficult this is and how lonely you feel. I’m also not suggesting you don’t keep expressing your concern for your marriage. It’s critical that you continue to invite her to connect to you and join you in shaping a healthy marriage.
However, if much of your energy has been spent trying not to engage with other women, what impact has that had on investing energy toward better understanding your wife’s experience? This isn’t just about fixing her but working to gently and consistently invite her to join you in strengthening your marriage.
If you’re going to loosen the grip of the infatuation you have toward this other woman, your heart has to stay open to your wife’s experience. Your commitment to her opens up your capacity for deeper curiosity and compassion for her.
I’ll conclude by sharing a wise observation from Dr. Bill Doherty, a marriage and family therapy professor from the University of Minnesota.
I think of long-term marriage like I think about living in Minnesota, in Lake Wobegon, perhaps. You move into marriage in the springtime of hope, but eventually arrive at the Minnesota winter with its cold and darkness. Many of us are tempted to give up and move south at this point. We go to a therapist for help.
Some therapists don’t know how to help us cope with winter, and we get frostbite in their care. Other therapists tell us that we are being personally victimized by winter, that we deserve better, that winter will never end, and that if we are true to ourselves we will leave our marriage and head south. The problem of course is that our next marriage will enter its own winter at some point.
Do we just keep moving on, or do we make our stand now – with this person, in this season? That’s the moral, existential question. A good therapist, a brave therapist, will help us to cling together as a couple, warming each other against the cold of winter, and to seek out whatever sunlight is still available while we wrestle with our pain and disillusionment.
A good therapist, a brave therapist will be the last one in the room to give up on our marriage, not the first one, knowing that the next springtime in Minnesota is all the more glorious for the winter that we endured together.
I’m not your therapist and I recognize that I’m missing important information from both you and your wife. However, I’m going to err on the side of commitment and encourage you to make more active efforts to close the windows that you’ve left open to other women’s attention and continue to engage in the slow work of rebuilding your connection to your wife.
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