Today's workplace has become the No. 1 spot for married individuals to meet affair partners. More men and women are breaking their marriage vows by engaging in office friendships that slowly become romantic relationships — relationships that would have been socially impossible just 20 years ago. As the boundaries that once separated the sexes crumble, so do the boundaries that protect marriage.
In her book Not 'Just Friends', Dr. Shirley Glass says, "The new infidelity is between people who unwittingly form deep, passionate connections before realizing that they've crossed the line from platonic friendship into romantic love. Eighty-two percent of the 210 unfaithful partners I've treated have had an affair with someone who was, at first, ‘just a friend.'" From 1991 to 2000, Glass discovered in her practice that 50 percent of the unfaithful women and about 62 percent of unfaithful men she treated were involved with someone from work. "Today's workplace has become the new danger zone of romantic attraction and opportunity," Glass writes.
Today's careers offer more opportunity for extramarital affairs. Group interaction in coed workplaces, frequent travel and long hours create more opportunity and temptation than ever. Glass writes, "all of these changes and others allow individuals to mix freely where once they were segregated and restricted." Studies published in the American Sociological Review and the Journal of Marriage and Family show that before 1985, divorce rates were about equal among working and homemaking women; however, "between 1985 and 1992, the annual probability of divorce among employed wives exceeded that for nonemployed wives by 40 percent."
A different work environment has spawned a different kind of affair. Glass says the old idea of workplace romance between a powerful company executive and his single young secretary no longer reflects today's office relationship. The new infidelity occurs between peers who first become emotionally attached, having no thought of physical involvement. Men and women who work closely together under stressful conditions can quickly become attracted to each other. They often share interests and think nothing of spending time over coffee or lunch getting to know one another. Nevertheless, lunch between married friends, no matter what their intentions, can have unanticipated and dangerous consequences.
One researcher calls this new kind of affair the "cup of coffee" syndrome. Men and women begin with safe marriages at home and friendships at work. As they regularly meet for coffee breaks and lunch, these relationships develop into deep friendships. Coworkers come to depend on these coffee rendezvous, and soon they have emotional work friendships and crumbling marriages.
Oddly, men and women in these workplace romances believe it is wrong to have an affair. According to Glass, affair partners are usually happy in their marriages and have no plans to leave their spouses. Because of the gradual slide toward infidelity, partners do not pay attention to their behavior until they have already damaged their marriages, and sex is often the last sign that the marriage partner has been betrayed.
Though today's workplace offers more opportunity for extramarital relationships, it is not opportunity that is causing the workplace to become such a hotspot of infidelity. Healthy marriages must have proper boundaries. "In a committed relationship, a couple constructs a wall that shields them from any outside forces that have the power to split them," Glass writes. Referring to a particular couple, she adds, "The problem wasn't that they were attracted, but that they began to act on their feelings as if they had no other primary commitments."
Good intentions are not enough to protect a marriage from the temptations in today's workplace, to which both men and women fall prey. It is natural to feel an attraction toward someone of the opposite sex, even in happy marriages. But when a man neglects his primary responsibility and allows himself to act on an instinctive attraction — even in his thoughts — he has already violated his marriage vows.
Though many factors can play a role in causing infidelity, it always requires attraction, opportunity, and failure to follow precautions. Glass provides some basic rules to help avoid the new infidelity:
Boundaries should always exist outside the marriage relationship and never inside. One way to make sure that your boundaries are in the right place is to always be accountable to your partner. Use a shared e-mail address and contact each other throughout the day. Be open with your spouse about work friendships, and even invite work friends to your home for dinner. By maintaining openness inside the marriage and boundaries outside, you will help keep your marriage happy and healthy.
Friends can provide great encouragement and accountability in your marriage. All of your friends should be friends of your marriage, too. In an interview, Mary White, wife of The Navigators president, Jerry White, said, "We shouldn't be exclusive in our friendships with our partners. A marriage is strengthened when you have other strong, supportive friendships in your lives." White says she is concerned that too many Christian couples turn exclusively to their marriage for friendship.
No matter what kind of friendships you have, they should always help strengthen your marriage. When couples observe proper boundaries, their marriages are secure, open and comforting. Then, friendships pose no danger. Marriage, like a relationship with God, works best when it enters every corner of life. Secrecy and infidelity are impossible when we are completely transparent within our marriage. This transparency not only protects our marriage from harm on the outside, it keeps our marriage happiest on the inside.