I’m not what you would call a romantic traditionalist. I don’t think women should wait to be hit on. I don’t think you should have to wait three days to call someone or three hours to text back or three dates before you sleep with them. I don’t care who pays for drinks.
I do, however, refuse to date a co-worker.
And I admit it: This rule is now downright old-fashioned. Almost seven years ago, when Helaine Olen and Stephanie Losee wrote Office Mate: A Guide to Finding — and Managing — Romance on the Job, Barnes & Noble was so offended that someone would actively encourage co-worker hookups that it initially refused to stock the book. (It later reversed the decision.) Even then, though, surveys showed half of us have had an office fling; and today, a whopping 84 percent of millennials say they’re totally fine with the idea of dating a co-worker. The shameful holiday-party hookup is no longer the primary association with intra-office romance. These days, it’s simply accepted. In some industries, the open business and romantic partnership is even de rigueur — though not without its own pitfalls. And the potential problems associated with intertwining your professional ambition and your romantic relationships go much deeper than a walk of shame through the office.
I concede that meeting someone at work makes logical sense. Lines between professional and personal lives are blurrier than ever, partly for practical reasons — even post-recession, most of us are still working longer hours — and partly for cultural ones. At thriving creative and tech companies, where employees are given dormlike amenities like yoga classes and cocktail hours, it seems almost silly to draw the line at dating. Crispin Porter & Bogusky, a global ad agency with offices in five cities, even offers to pay for the wedding if two employees meet and fall in love at work and agree to get married in one of the offices. CP+B’s website says, “Work is a bad word to explain what we do. If what you are doing seems like work, you’re either in the wrong industry or you’re not doing it right.” This is a pretty good distillation of how a lot of college-educated, passionate twentysomethings prefer to see their work lives — no matter how grueling the hours are. If work isn’t work anymore, why would a workplace romance be off-limits? And what better place to find people who share your passions?
“My options sometimes feel like it’s either work or Tinder,” one friend recently said to me, only half joking. She, like a lot of professional women in their twenties, is focused on making serious strides in her career before she has to make tough decisions about marriage and kids. (Yeah, I wish this were equally true of young men, too. It just isn’t.) “This generation is totally determined to have kids by the time they’re in their thirties because of fertility issues,” says career coach Penelope Trunk. How, exactly, are millennial women supposed to devote themselves fully to both their job and their relationship(s)? “You date people in your office,” Trunk says bluntly. “If you’re 25 and you have a mid-level job, you’re working ten hours a day. So you have to date someone at your office. You wouldn’t meet someone at another place.”
I confess that at this point in our phone conversation, my mouth was hanging open in shock. In many workplaces, young women still have to work hard to prove they’re professionals and not coffee-fetching interns or office eye candy, and it seems like office romance would undercut their efforts to be taken seriously. Despite the increasing general acceptance of intra-office romance, research shows women who date a co-worker are more likely than men to be seen as using the relationship to get ahead at work. Then there are classic concerns about weathering a breakup with someone in the next cubicle over. “Every time I’ve been heartbroken, I would not have been able to deal with that at work,” says a friend of mine who shares my no-co-workers rule.
For some people, though, close quarters are part of the appeal. The workplace limits our choices — in a good way, Trunk writes. Rather than the endless buffet of potential mates on OkCupid or at the bar on Saturday night, the workplace offers a limited menu of people who are likely to have similar educational backgrounds and sensibilities. And when it works, it really works. A woman who’s a software developer told me that she hesitated in dating someone else in the startup world — after all, they shared so many contacts and professional opportunities. “But once I decided it would be okay, she said, “the date turned out to be the guy I married.” As another woman who works in politics explained it, “You build these incredibly strong relationships under stressful circumstances and it’s natural that the people whom you feel you can rely on professionally (and the people you get belligerently drunk with after work) end up being good partners outside of those circumstances.”
Especially for women, though, there’s such a thing as having your ambitions too in sync with those of your partner. As someone who spent all of her early twenties dating fellow journalists, I would never advise a young woman to follow my example. I didn’t suffer any professional disasters, but I did have to deal with a lot of personal anxieties I might not have experienced otherwise. Even when we weren’t competing directly for jobs or assignments, having a boyfriend in my field had the curious effect of making me less secure in almost every situation. If he said something positive about my work, I figured it was just because he was dating me. (“You just like this piece because you’re my boyfriend.”) If he said something negative, I assumed he spoke for all of our colleagues. (“If even you don’t like this idea, it must really be terrible.”) I was constantly contrasting my career progress with that of my partners’, and always feeling like I wasn’t moving fast enough or working hard enough. Instead of serving as a counterbalance to work, the relationships made career stress feel inescapable.
Granted, this is my personal baggage. And it’s not an exact parallel: Most of my problems arose because I shared ambitions, not necessarily workplaces, with my exes. But given the considerable confidence gap between many men and women who are just starting their professional careers, I can’t be the only woman for whom a co-worker-boyfriend hybrid was a bad idea. To a certain extent, dating someone in your field is tethering your professional reputation to theirs, with results that aren’t always positive — a sentiment I’m sure Huma and Hillary can relate to.
I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that I’ve been most professionally successful in the years since I instituted my “no journo” dating rule. Once I disentangled my feelings about my relationships from my feelings about my own work and career, I was more confident and could make clearer choices in both areas of my life. The whole Didion-Dunne thing may work for some couples, but it’s really tough when you’re both still trying to make a name for yourself.