Hi Suzie, I had an affair with a coworker (we are both married with three kids). One month ago, he decided to try to repair his marriage. It took him a month to “go back”, and during that time, he continued to tell me that I was his one true love, that he belonged beside me, that he would never stop loving me. We have had no contact for one week now — in his last email, he said he missed my company and that his actions in no way represent his feelings for me, that repairing his marriage “no matter what” (even if he settled for less than happiness) was the path he felt he had to take. I never responded. I know ending it is the right thing to do, but I’m heartbroken and stuck. I can’t seem to move on. Please help me move on.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve. First of all, it seems to me that you’re dealing with three separate issues right now:
So let’s talk about each one.
(1) Processing the end of an affair
First of all, this is never easy. You’ve probably heard me say this more than once, but affairs are like lobster pots — far easier to get into than out of. And one of the main reasons is that the “end” of the affair is never neat or clean. It’s messy and emotional and filled with lots of unanswered questions, guilt, anger and a lot of ambivalence.
It helps to have a guiding metaphor to help you process the “end” of the affair. And the one I often use with my clients is that the end of the affair is like getting fired from a job. There’s going to be anger, hurt, humiliation and feelings of abandonment. And like getting fired (even if you didn’t really like the job), the experience is unpleasant. Even if you know you can find a better job, the act of being fired still hurts pride and wounds the ego. And yet, this metaphor of being “fired” can help you process the disappointment because the rules that apply to being fired also apply to processing the end of an affair.
End of the Affair Rules
- The end is abrupt and permanent.
- No happy endings.
- The end is not “neat” — it’s often messy and awkward.
- No going back and begging.
And perhaps the most important thing…
Like getting fired, the end of the affair hits you hard… often, the disappointment and sense of abandonment can be stunning in their intensity. Your job is to give yourself a chance to regroup… and know that these feelings — as painful as they are — do pass.
(2) Healing a broken heart
The disappointment, sense of abandonment and loss of specialness all merge together to create what’s often called a “broken heart”. And if you look at this experience, you may notice that heartbreak mimics the stages of grief. But heartbreak has a couple of other components that grief does not. For example, heartbreak includes hurt pride… and real grief does not. And heartbreak isn’t just about the loss of a person… it’s also about being on the losing end of a competition. What was the competition? You guessed it: the competition for his love and attention, going on between you and his wife and family. Now I know this type of stuff isn’t easy for anyone to own up to. No one likes to admit that they were mentally competing for another person’s attention, but once you’re in a love triangle, it becomes a fact. The good news is, you don’t have to admit this to anyone… you only have to admit it to yourself.
Tips to Heal Your Broken Heart
- Recognize you didn’t “lose” anything valuable. You only lost something pleasurable (which also came at a heavy price).
- Recognize that by “bowing out” of this three-way competition, you win back your self-respect.
- Recognize that heartbreak is a temporary state. It will, and it does pass.
- Lean into the sadness and loss (don’t run from it) and you’ll emerge wiser and stronger as a result.
(3) Being in close proximity to ex-affair partner
Of all the things you’re dealing with right now, having an affair with a coworker, in my opinion, is the one that deserves the highest priority… because proximity has power. And I’m not surprised to hear that the person you had an affair with is a coworker because statistics show that upwards of 60% of extramarital affairs happen between co-workers. So take heart — you aren’t the only person who’s having to learn how to do what you’re going to have to do… which is learn how to deal with working in close proximity to an ex-affair partner. So here are some rules to help you.
4 Rules for Working in Close Proximity with an Ex-Affair Partner
Rule #1: Firm conversation boundaries.
Keep it professional. Stick to neutral topics (this includes email conversations, etc.) This means no talking about his marriage, your kids, or what TV shows you watched. This means no responding to his “I miss you” and “I’m still thinking about you” messages. Your job is to ask him to respect your boundaries. Because as long as you stick to neutral and professional topics, you won’t be lured back in. By the way… it’s okay if you’re accused of “being cold,” of being a “B-tch”, or of acting insensitive. The fact is, people with strong boundaries are often seen that way by people with weak boundaries. Don’t allow the need for approval to wreck your boundaries.
Rule #2: No hostility. No attack. No sour grapes.
This is key. It’s important that you not send negative vibes or hostility towards your ex-affair partner. Remember: You chose to have the affair… and when it comes to extra-marital affairs, selfishness is the name of the game. So when it ends, don’t cry foul, don’t whine, and don’t expect concessions and exceptions to be made.
Rule #3: No privacy.
Another important rule. If you are in the conference room, leave the blinds/doors open. If you are in your office, invite a colleague to join you, or leave the door open. The important thing to note is that privacy breeds sexual awareness — don’t allow yourself to be drawn in.
Rule #4: No sexual signals/no responding to their sexual signals.
This means no flirting, no twisting hair, no sexy dressing, no wearing the bracelet he got you, no trying to communicate “unconsciously” that you’re still sexy, no attempting to remind him of “what he lost,” etc. And the opposite is also true. Don’t respond to his innuendos, his signals, his “gambits”, his “fishing trips” and his attempts to lure you.
Rule #5: The goal is neutrality, not hate.
One of the big mistakes ex-affair partners make is to assume the only way to protect themselves is by moving into anger, hate or hostility towards the affair partner. I am not saying those feelings aren’t effective barriers. Maybe they are. But what I’m saying is that those feelings harm you as well. And I believe that what is harmful and what is helpful cannot be the same. So the goal, in my opinion, is to allow your feelings to go back to neutral… like when you could take or leave them as a person.
So there you have it.
My advice for how to handle getting past your affair with a coworker. I have faith that you found something here that you can take with you to help you move forward with your life. The key is to remember that affairs are not relationships, and so normal “break-up rules” don’t apply. It’s going to be awkward and unpleasant for a while… but with T&D (time and distance), it all goes back to neutral.
Until we speak again...
Remember... Love Wins!