When You Fall For Someone Who’s Taken

November 16, 2009

Kama Sutra in the Office

Kama Sutra in the Office

I’ve been getting a lot of questions from readers lately, which is awesome! Recently, a number have touched on the same dilemma: how to handle a strong chemistry with someone who is already in a committed relationship. Obviously, circumstances and details will vary considerably from case to case, but there are some general rules that I believe should be followed in all such cases. The following letter is pretty representative of how this happens, and how it affects the people involved. Read on, I think you may be surprised by what I have to say. And don’t forget to vote in the poll at the end!

Dear Susan,

I am in the most confusing situation! HELP! There’s a guy at work who I’ve known for about six months. I’ll call him Jason. He’s in another part of the company, but recently our departments have been cooperating on a project, so we’ve been thrown together quite a bit. He has a girlfriend, I’ve known that from the start. We get along really well and we’ve become pretty good friends. I don’t want you to misunderstand, nothing at all has happened between us. But there is SO MUCH going on below the surface. When we first met and started hanging out at lunch, etc. he would talk pretty openly about her, their social plans, etc. He has never indicated how serious they are, but I know they’ve been going out for a couple of years (we’re both 25). I’m not in a relationship right now, but I’ve always told him my crazy dating stories. We laugh about them, and he gives me really good advice from a guy’s point of view.

At some point, I’m not sure exactly when, things really started to feel different between us. I would catch Jason staring at me in meetings, getting distracted when we were talking, etc. I know he’s off-limits but once I noticed his attention, my attraction for him began to grow. He is a really good guy, and we are very compatible. This chemistry between us has changed everything. He never mentions his girlfriend anymore, and when I try to bring up another guy, he changes the subject. It’s obvious his days of giving me advice are over. The last couple of weeks have been really awkward and intense. He alternates between acting like he hardly knows me, and seeming really close and connected. He’s hot and cold, but I totally understand it.

I don’t want to be a homewrecker, I am not that girl. The project will be over soon, and then I’m unlikely to see him much unless we plan it. I don’t want to lose Jason or his friendship, but I don’t want to just stay platonic either. And I don’t even want to go out with any other guys right now! Obviously, the timing is terrible, but I really think he could be the one for me. I suspect he feels it too. I am miserable, and would appreciate any insight you might have.


Dear Courtney,

This is indeed a very complicated situation, with a number of moving pieces, and a couple of elephants in the room. Let’s tackle them one at a time. First, let me say that I am not going to tell you to forget about him. Strong chemistry that grows out of friendship is a great foundation for a relationship, and it doesn’t come along often, so I’m reluctant to dismiss it.

The Facts

  • Neither of you is married.
  • You have behaved with good character.
  • He has behaved with good character.
  • It sounds like you are in love with him.
  • You want an action plan that will get you the guy.
  • You work for the same company.

Appropriateness of Your Behavior

No one ever wants to be “the other woman,” but you don’t see men getting all hung up on the guilt thing. It’s another antiquated double standard. You go so far as to refer to your role as a potential “homewrecker.” For me, the word implies that the man is married at the very least, and probably has children. It’s an old-fashioned term that recalls the days when women were financially dependent on their husbands, raising the children full-time. If a husband left his family for another woman, he would often be putting his family in a precarious financial position, leaving them to fend for themselves. I don’t find the term relevant today, especially if there is not a physical home being shared.

Having said that, I do believe that deliberately setting your sights on someone in a committed relationship is deplorable. It is natural for us to find others attractive even when we love our SO, and for someone to capitalize on that for personal gain is inexcusable. That is not what you are describing. You portray a situation where the attraction snuck up on the two of you as you got to know each other, with neither party trying to “lure” the other in any way. It happens, and from what you’ve written I can’t see that you have done anything wrong.

Appropriateness of Jason’s Behavior

Again, I really don’t find fault here. Jason has not flirted with you openly; you have caught him watching you. That’s hardly an offense. He didn’t get drunk at the company picnic and try to hook up with you, as many guys would have done! He has redefined your relationship by changing what he is willing to discuss, and how much time he is willing to spend with you.


It seems pretty clear that both of you have caught feelings for each other. I have to assume that Jason is perfectly aware that you have feelings for him, and is ambivalent about that. It would be easier for him if he had a crush, but knew that you were not interested. The sexual tension has been ratcheted up because both of you sense that it’s mutual. I have no way of knowing whether Jason is considering a) leaving his girlfriend or b) getting involved with you. If he is, it needs to happen in that order. When there is a third person in the picture, there should be no overlap. If he feels strongly enough about you, he will end his relationship in order to explore a relationship with you. If he feels that he’s got a good thing going with his gf, and may see her as “the one,” he will continue to drift away from you until the project ends and the two of you are not thrown together anymore.

A Strategic Plan

You are in no way obligated to remove yourself from the picture. I don’t know what your chances of success are, but if you’re all in on this guy it doesn’t matter what the odds are. I am not suggesting that you go after him, flirt with him, entice him in any way. But I would certainly let him see how wonderful you are at every possible opportunity.

  • Be professional. You are paid to do a job, and you need to do it to the best of your ability. Do not allow yourself to become distracted and preoccupied at work.
  • Be a good friend. Try to put him at ease about the situation by dialing down the tension if you can. Avoid the topics of his gf or other guys. Recall why you got along so well from the beginning and nurture those platonic aspects of your friendship.
  • Don’t take the bait. Even though he is not being open about what he is feeling, he has created the awkwardness by giving you those longing looks. Ignore them. Return to working productively by not allowing those moments of intensity to occur. You do that by not playing. Your goal is to be neither avoided by him, nor feel “close and connected” to him.
  • Work it. Make every attempt to be your most fabulous self. You are strong and confident. You have a life filled with friends, dates and social plans. You do not pout. You do not give him angsty looks. Your mantra is, “I am the object of desire.”
  • DO NOT stop seeing other people. Waiting around for a man to leave someone is a very bad idea.

Jason is not married. People break up all the time because one of them has met someone they like better. That’s life. You are not obligated in any way to help Jason preserve his relationship. I am more concerned about your own emotional well-being. I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on Jason. Many women have sad tales to tell about men who never did get around to making up their minds. If what Jason feels for you is real, he’s likely to figure it out sooner rather than later.

Office Romance

Whether or not you wind up in a relationship with this guy, the question of romance while working together is one that must be addressed. As the average age of marriage keeps getting pushed back for both women and men, college is no longer a place to meet your future spouse. Americans are also working longer hours than ever before. The workplace becomes the next logical place where young people get to know one another outside the singles/online dating scene. Research shows that 47% of Americans have dated in the workplace. Anthropologist Helen Fisher likens the modern-day office to a “romantic Petri dish.”

It’s definitely happening. Therefore, it is essential that we find ways for co-workers to date successfully, rather than ruling it out categorically.

If you follow these rules, you should be OK:

1. Understand your company’s rules or culture around this issue to avoid blunders.

2. Minimize career risk by not dating a boss or a subordinate. Office politics are often ruthless, and any suspicion of favoritism can be very destructive to your career.

3. If you do date a co-worker, you need to stay 100% professional at the office. Absolutely no PDA. Don’t keep it secret, but don’t broadcast it either.

4. If things get really serious, it’s often best for the relationship if one person leaves the firm.

Of everything I’ve written, I would have to say that the most important take-away is NO OVERLAP. Don’t even kiss this guy if he’s attached to someone else. He needs to make a clean break or it’s no-go. Because otherwise, you really will have become the other woman, and that is something to feel terrible about.



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