I had an affair with a co-worker that lasted several months. Though I had reservations about his character, we had an intense sexual connection. Due to the small, gossipy nature of our workplace, I repeatedly demanded discretion. He promised to never discuss my private life at work.
I found myself falling for him and needed to set boundaries, so I ended the affair. Soon after this, my co-worker’s supervisor revealed he’d been hearing about our relationship from Day 1. He knew details about my sexuality (I’m bisexual, but not out at work) and our affair that he could only have learned from my ex, who it seems was seeking validation from his buddies by bragging about our involvement.
I was devastated, but I also blamed myself. It’s not against company policy to date co-workers, but I should’ve trusted my gut. Instead, I was guided by my lust. The consequence is that my co-workers now know private details about me that may affect how they perceive me. Also, someone I cared about lied to me for months.
My ex’s supervisor should have sanctioned him when he began telling him about our relationship, because he violated company sexual harassment policy in doing that. They’re friends, so this isn’t going to happen. I barely interact with my ex at work, so I asked his supervisor to tell him that if he speaks about me again, I’ll file a grievance and pursue having him fired. He told me he did so, and my ex said it wouldn’t be a problem again.
How can I get over my sense of betrayal, my rage and my desire to punish this man for the disrespectful way he treated me? I want him to be appropriately sanctioned for violating workplace policy, but as a woman in a male-dominated setting, I know pursuing such action would make the environment hostile and stressful for me. The stress from this is already negatively affecting my work. How can I get closure and let this go?
Learned the Hard Way
Steve Almond: You’re dealing with two forms of betrayal here, Learned, both painful and infuriating. The first is personal. Given the fact that you ended the relationship because you were “falling for him,” it seems that part of you hoped the erotic connection you felt for this man would lead to a loving relationship. Your ex didn’t provide that. He then violated your trust by bragging about intimate details of your sexual life with co-workers. That betrayal is both personal and professional. If your ex violated the company sexual harassment policy — and if outing a co-worker isn’t a violation, I don’t know what is — he should be held accountable. The fact that his supervisor is his “friend” doesn’t matter. He either broke the rules or he didn’t. I realize pursuing this course could make your work environment stressful and hostile. But I’d suggest that a workplace where any employee with a penis gets to flout the sexual harassment policy is already hostile and stressful for every employee without one. Threatening to file a grievance to silence this man hasn’t resolved your feelings because he’s already said too much, and you know it.
Cheryl Strayed: I think you should file a grievance. Not because doing so will undo the damage that’s already been done to your sense of well-being at work, but because it may prevent further damage. You did not share the details of your company’s code of conduct with us, but it seems you’re sure that your co-worker/ex-lover violated it when he shared information about your sex life with his supervisor. By reporting this occurrence, you’d be formally documenting this ethical breach, rather than relying on the good will of two people who have already demonstrated they don’t have your best interests in mind. And I will note, it isn’t only your ex who behaved badly. His supervisor was complicit in the violation of your privacy by virtue of the fact that he allowed it, by his own admission, “from day one.” I understand your fear of increasing the stress in your workplace, and yet, as Steve points out, it’s already pretty stressful. Addressing the wrong that’s been done to you through official channels will give you a sense of agency in a situation that rightfully feels victimizing to you. It may also lead to meaningful consequences for your co-worker and his supervisor that could improve your work environment.
SA: In his own reckless way, this guy broke your heart. That’s something for you to confront, and even mourn, in your private life. But he also broke company policy. Seeking to hold him to account for that is a matter of professional justice, not personal vengeance. You may have exercised poor judgment when you got sexually involved with this man in spite of your reservations. Or you may have simply hoped (as we all do) that you would discover a better person. Or some of both. Part of your own healing process will require sorting this out. But don’t let that sorting obscure the decision he made: to speak about your intimate life in the workplace. The effort to hold him responsible for that decision won’t make your life easier in the short term. But I suspect it will help you move on in the long term, because — regardless of the result — you’ll know that you held him, and your office, to the same standard of honesty and integrity to which you hold yourself.
CS: It’s awful when people we cared for and thought we knew intimately reveal themselves to be someone other than who we believed them to be. It hurts. It’s bewildering. You ask how to get over your rage and sense of betrayal and my advice to you is the oldest in the book: give it time. Your feelings are a reasonable response to a breakup that turned ugly. They will decrease in intensity as you move on from this relationship. What will remain in the end is not your rage or your regret, but rather the wisdom you’ve gained from the lessons you learned in a manner one never forgets: the hard way.