What boundaries should I put in place with my married co-worker?
My co-teacher and I are both fully committed to these relationships, and we have talked about this with one another and with our significant others. I am certain that he and I will be able to maintain a respectful working relationship, but I am worried that spending three to four hours a day with him (both in a teaching situation and one-on-one for planning purposes) could naturally lead to an emotional closeness that is either inappropriate or that appears inappropriate to our coworkers.
What kind of boundaries — both physical and emotional — do we need to put in place from the beginning? I’m deeply in love with God and deeply in love with my boyfriend, and I don’t want to do anything that might mess that up.
You’re wise to consider the implications of such a working environment, and I’m impressed. You’ve already shown the kind of thinking required to help protect your relationships and honor God with your decisions. Now let’s look at where we go from here.
As married (or likely-to-be-married-soon, as in your case) individuals, we can’t avoid — nor should we necessarily avoid — some amount of time around members of the opposite sex besides our spouse, whether at work or church or any number of life’s activities. But affairs that are stirred in those environments can only partially be attributed to the environment.
Yes, proximity matters (which is why I have no problem at all with boys-only and girls-only schools) and matters a good deal, but proximity alone can’t cause the attachment. Merely putting two people of the opposite sex in a room together is not enough to create an emotional bond or sexual attraction.
But you’re right, the more time spent together, especially in partnered projects, the more careful one needs to be. But affairs are conceived at the heart-level, and that’s where we need to give most of our attention.
It’s not a perfect metaphor, but look at it this way: Most damage from house fires could be prevented or kept to a minimum with proper attention to potential problems (a dirty chimney or shorted wire on Christmas lights or an old heat furnace) and with a good alarm system. Simply because homes catch fire and people are injured and killed does not mean we should avoid living in them; it means we need to be aware of the potential hazards and be diligent in keeping it safe so that it is a benefit and blessing.
The same is true of opposite-sex relationships (where one or both are committed to another). There is always potential for damage, but the existence of the relationship itself is not the cause.
Affairs begin when any number of things are going on in a person’s heart: Her current relationship is not being fed and nurtured; she is seeking that somewhere else; she is disappointed; she discovers someone who she thinks will solve those heart issues; and where the other person is in a relationship, all of those same things must be going on in his heart as well.
My point is that the soil for an affair is prepared in the heart. The physical environment is mostly just the context in which it takes place.
So how do we protect ourselves in those times when we know we’ll spend time in that “house” or context of an opposite-sex working environment?
First, and most importantly, we keep our finger on our own heart’s pulse and relationship. The best prevention is to be in a place that is fulfilled — fulfilled first in Christ’s love and second in the relationship with our spouse. When that soil is constantly nurtured, fed, watered and tended, there is no desire or need to look elsewhere.
Second, we keep our work relationships about work. We limit what of our emotions we share, especially those things reserved for our close same-sex friends and our spouse. We obviously can’t turn off all emotions, nor should we, but we keep a careful watch over what things of the heart we share.
Third, we keep doors (literal and metaphorical) open and accountability high. We make sure that others know they are encouraged to be in our midst, and we make every effort to be in public view when possible. Planning, it would seem, could take place in the presence of others, and teaching obviously does. Keep the relationship as much in front of others as is possible. Spouses know they too can “drop in” whenever practical. (This will also help with your concern about appearances.)
Fourth, listen to your spouse. If he or she is getting a bad vibe about the other person, pay attention. Often a spouse can see these things before we can.
If in spite of these things you sense over time that the working partnership is fostering an unhealthy bond, don’t be foolish. Although it might come at a high price, you need to change the work environment if it threatens a marriage. Sometimes no matter what you do, a house is still unsafe to live in. That’s when you move out.
I’ve worked in many co-ed environments since I’ve been married and can tell you that these few but important principles will help keep both your marriage and work relationships in a healthy, thriving place.
Copyright 2011 John Thomas. All rights reserved.