After two years of being in a difficult relationship, Ronita, an architect from Chennai, decided to call her office romance off. The pressure of attending the same office, after having bitter fights with her partner, had turned their relationship toxic. “Since nobody knew we were dating, we had to put on a ‘we-are-just-colleagues’ show even when we were frustrated with each other. No wonder the relationship failed,” she says.
Experts claim that most people, while dating colleagues, find it tough to compartmentalise personal and professional lives, leading to messy breakups. What Ronita and her partner experienced was what many colleagues-turned-couples live through: the initial highs of romance, the stress of segregating work and personal life and eventually heartbreak.
Tanvi Jajoria, a counselling psychologist from Delhi and co-founder of MentAmigo, works with clients who have had such challenging separations. “Most find it distressing to work together while remaining detached from the person they were once so intimate with,” she says.
We spoke to experts to understand how to survive office breakups.
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Keep it professional
When Aindrila, a postdoctoral associate, separated from her colleague, she found it tough to go back to the same lab and pretend to be unaffected. “I found the first few months difficult but he didn’t care,” she says. Since there was continued proximity even after the breakup, it was important for her to set boundaries.
Jajoria suggests analysing what one is okay with and what is non-negotiable, and to convey those to the ex-partner. “It’s important to have clarity around issues like the capacity in which you would be comfortable staying in touch, sharing expectations and setting boundaries around physical touch and closeness,” she says.
Prachi S Vaish, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist from Lucknow and co-founder of The Emotional Wellness Initiatives, advises her clients to recognise the fact that they don’t enjoy partner privileges anymore. “Try not to read too much into things and refrain from making remarks like ‘you do have a tendency to overlook the other person’s perspective’,” she says.
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A useful ‘protection tool’ is self-work, where one invests time and energy in figuring out what went wrong and what could have been done better. Vaish suggests journaling these thoughts and figuring out lessons from them. “If you experience anger, find outlets outside of the office to release it. If the ex is interfering with your work or acting out of malice, have a rational conversation with them, without trying to appeal to their emotions. If that doesn’t work, gather evidence before approaching your supervisors,” she says.
The most unprofessional behaviour, Vaish adds, is trying to make the former partner jealous by fostering closeness with another colleague. An office rebound is worse than an office breakup.
Talking about her separation from a senior colleague, Payal, a sales executive from Delhi, says changing cities helped her. “Although things turned hurtful in the end, I survived by focusing on my new job in a new city,” she says.
While things worked out for Payal, not everyone going through a breakup is able to change jobs or cities. This is when repair conversations become important. One way to initiate them is to set up a meeting in a neutral place with the intention to end things in an amicable manner. “Be prepared with your points and be ready to listen to the other person, but avoid meeting them if you secretly hope for the relationship to be rekindled,” Vaish says.
Jajoria suggests using ‘I statements’ during repair conversations to focus on how one felt, what they experienced and what they expect. “Avoid using ‘you statements’ like ‘you did this’ and ‘you are responsible for this’. This can make the other person defensive,” she says.
“However, be aware that things may not end amicably even after such conversations. Closure is great, but one can move forward in life without it as well,” Vaish says.
Take care of your mental health
Ronita claims that although things were exciting in the beginning, the separation was bitter and affected her mental health. “I experienced extreme highs and lows, from looking forward to attending office to dreading work,” she says.
Colleagues who start dating often become support systems in a stressful work environment. Hence, when the comfort of that relationship ends, it creates a void and affects people’s wellbeing. “Although there can be no ‘one size fits all’ solution, it may help to take some time off work to process the loss or reach out to a mental health expert,” Jajoria says.
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When Sanah, an IT professional from Mumbai, met her new colleague, she was just out of an unfulfilling marriage. She soon fell for this motivating co-worker and they began dating. When the enamoured couple went for a week-long trip, she noticed how incompatible they were. Sanah wondered how a man so lively at work could be this irritable in a personal setting. Disillusioned, she felt certain that he had deceived her.
“To be fair, the man must not have been faking his entire personality at work. Most of us wear different masks in different settings, which is not necessarily to manipulate others. It is important to see beyond these masks to identify like-minded people,” Vaish says.
Since incompatibility is a common reason for break ups, every time someone talks of a budding office romance, Vaish encourages them to spend time outside the office. “Go grocery shopping or spend a weekend together to understand if you’re both well-suited outside the cocoon of the workplace,” she recommends.
Take care of your productivity
An otherwise highly productive and dependable employee, Joshika lost interest in her work after her separation from a colleague. As the team leader, her lack of motivation soon started affecting her team’s performance.
According to experts, office heartbreaks, if not addressed at an early stage, can lead to sleeplessness, lack of appetite, procrastination and lack of concentration, all of which can lower work efficiency. “The more you fight this, the tougher it is to heal. It’s okay to lower productivity standards during this vulnerable phase,” Jajoria says.
“In certain cases, HR teams can propose a brief leave of absence to help the affected individual heal,” Neha Mehta, an HR consultant from Mumbai, says.
With her many years of experience, Mehta is witness to breakups affecting employee morale and efficiency. “Long working hours and a high level of interaction often result in affairs between peers. Although these relationships are initially perceived to foster a motivated persona, they mostly have a negative impact on the work culture,” she says.
Be aware of company rules
After struggling to maintain professional behaviour at work, when a Mumbai couple informed the office about their breakup, the HR moved them to separate teams.
“Such an arrangement is ideal, as the two employees needn’t interact any longer. Other solutions such as quick exit plans are also offered if someone wishes to leave,” Mehta says.
As different companies have different guidelines for dating colleagues, it is important to be aware of these rules. If discovered, colleagues involved in a romantic relationship may receive anything from a severe written warning, suspension, relocation or even termination. “This is why most companies establish their policies through induction, orientation and regular channels of communication with employees,” Mehta says.
“I come across so many cases where people have abused their authority or gender to target former romantic interests. That’s a big threat and must be heeded to before engaging with a colleague,” Vaish says, adding it is a good idea to keep the HR informed.
Mehta agrees that keeping the HR in the loop helps weed out favouritism or unethical behaviour by senior or powerful colleagues.
Since power equations at work can play a subconscious role in precipitating a relationship, it is important for a person to be cognizant of their own patterns and how they can be impacted by such equations. “Due to social conditioning, some people mistake subconscious psychological conflict at work for chemistry. My advice is to steer clear of such complicated relationships,” Vaish says.
Debarati Chakraborty is an independent journalist, who writes on wellness, relationships and sexuality