I’ve been with my husband for 25 years. For the last six years we have worked for the same company, in the same division and even on the same floor. It’s actually worked out really well, except for one thing.
Five years ago, he came home with a hickey on his neck. I soon found out that he was having a yearlong affair with a woman from one of the other offices. It was a really ugly time after that. He told me he wasn’t sure he loved me and he wasn’t as attracted to me. It took him six months to say “I love you” again.
It was horrible, but we eventually worked through it. The last four years have actually been some of the best years of our marriage. We stopped taking each other for granted, etc., etc.
But I just found out that this “other woman” is moving to our office, on the same floor I work on. While we’ve never met before, she knew I was married to the man she was involved with. I’m very involved in the office community, so our paths are going to cross and we may even have to work together.
I know I’m displacing my anger, which should be directed at my husband, who treated me horribly when it came out. I know this woman didn’t have any duty to me or even know me. I know I’m being unreasonable. But I am really angry that she is invading my “home” again (albeit my work home). What do I do when our physical paths cross?
It’s not unreasonable to find this upsetting. After all the work you did to put your husband’s affair behind you, suddenly being confronted with a daily reminder of it must be terrible. No one wants to have to see the person their spouse cheated with on a regular basis (or ever, really), and the work context makes it even more complicated, because you’ll need to interact in a reasonably pleasant way, so you can’t just avoid her entirely.
As for how to handle it when your paths cross, the best thing to do — and the only real option, frankly — is to resolve to be scrupulously professional. You might be tempted to freeze her out or be pointedly chilly, but as satisfying as those responses might feel, they risk reflecting badly on you to anyone else who notices. But no one can fault you for being meticulously professional, and there can be real power in that approach. Being the one in an awkward situation to say, This is how we will handle this, signals you’re in control and not thrown off your game.
That doesn’t mean you need to make friendly overtures, just that you talk to her when your work requires it, and you interact with her in a way that wouldn’t give an observer pause. Think of a colleague whose company you wouldn’t voluntarily seek, but who you’ve been stuck working with; that’s more or less the vibe you’re going for here. You’re not freezing anyone out, just keeping things strictly business.
It might help to remember that you’re doing that for you, not for her or for your husband. You’re doing it because your professional reputation matters to you, and you’re not going to compromise it because of someone else’s actions.
But you’re also allowed to decide that this sucks and you don’t want to hang around for it. I can imagine you might not want this to be the reason you leave your job if you otherwise would have stayed, but you don’t have to tough it out if you don’t want to. If you’d rather move on to a job where you don’t have this reminder staring you in the face every day, you can. (And it sounds like you’ve been there at least six years, so who knows, there could be professional benefits to moving on anyway.)
‘I’m Allergic to My Boss’s Perfume!’
I have an extreme sensitivity to artificial scents — air fresheners, perfume, scented laundry products, candles, deodorants, some shampoos, etc. — and can get severe migraines from them. My doctor has prescribed migraine medication and told me to try to avoid the triggers.
At work I have my own office space, and although a lot of people come through my office on their way to my boss’s (adjoining) office, I can usually mitigate any strongly scented products with an air purifier I keep at my desk, or, in intense cases, open windows. I have mentioned my sensitivity to my co-workers, but my boss seems to have forgotten because lately she’s been wearing perfume more often. She clearly enjoys smelling nice and I don’t want to take that away from her, but she recently switched scents and her new perfume is strongly affecting me. When she wears it, it sort of just hangs in the air of the entire office (including mine). I can’t escape it, and I am getting severe headaches. It’s terrible to say, but when she wears this perfume, her presence is physically painful to me. While she is in the same room as me, I try to get through it without breathing through my nose, and the whole time I’m wondering when she will stop talking to me and leave. I am not able to truly listen to her because I am overwhelmed by her perfume.
I really like my boss and do not want to offend her, and it’s a really personal thing to have to ask someone. How do I politely ask her to please stop wearing perfume or using scented products?
Oh my goodness, let her know! If she’s a decent person — and I’m betting she is, since you said you really like her — she’d be horrified to know that she’s been causing you physical discomfort and you haven’t said anything.
The key to addressing it is to be direct and matter-of-fact. Emphasize that it’s about your allergies, not her scent preferences. Being matter-of-fact helps because people will take their cues from you; if your tone conveys “of course this a reasonable request,” people are more likely to respond in kind. And it is a reasonable request!
For example, you could say, “The perfume you’ve been wearing is lovely, but it seems to be triggering my allergies and giving me bad headaches. I’m so sorry to ask, but could I request that you not wear it to work since our offices are so near each other?”
Also, workplaces are increasingly aware of fragrance sensitivity, and more and more offices are banning scented products altogether, particularly when they have scent-sensitive employees. If you ever find that working it out with colleagues one-on-one isn’t cutting it, don’t be shy about approaching your HR department about more formal accommodations, like moving you to a different space or instituting a scent-free policy office-wide.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.