I’m starting a new job in a month … at the same advertising agency where my boyfriend works. Everyone in my new office (including our bosses) is aware of our relationship status, so there’s nothing to hide. But I feel like mixing my personal and professional life is not an ideal situation and may potentially cause problems in the future.
I took the job because it’s a great opportunity that outweighs whatever concerns I have about working together with a romantic partner. We won’t be handling the same accounts, so 90 percent of the time we won’t be working on the same projects. But I’m still concerned about navigating it.
Do you have any advice on how to manage this situation so that we both have smooth personal and professional relationships? Or am I overthinking things?
You’re not overthinking things — it can be legitimately tricky to work in the same office as your significant other. But there are things you can both do that will maximize your chances that it will go reasonably smoothly.
First and foremost, keep your relationship out of the office. You don’t need to hide the fact that you’re dating, but while you’re at work you should act like co-workers, not romantic partners. That means no pet names and no physical displays of affection like kissing or even hand-holding, since they’re likely to make colleagues uncomfortable (if not downright queasy). Really, you should avoid any kind of couple behavior, like always sitting together at meetings or circulating as a unit at office social events. That stuff might seem like it’s not a big deal, but making a point of having professional boundaries at work will help assuage people’s fears that things might get weird at some point.
And people will have those fears! When they learn you’re dating, some of your co-workers will probably wonder if it will affect things at work: Will you be able to work on projects together professionally? Will you favor each other in work decisions, especially if one of you has influence over areas like project assignments or expense approval? Will there be drama or tension at work if you have a fight or, worse, break up? Those are all legitimate concerns, and the more you’re scrupulously professional with each other at work, the more you’ll put those worries to rest.
That’s especially true if there’s ever a period where the two of you aren’t getting along. Part of the deal with working with a significant other is that you have to commit to keeping any issues in the relationship out of the office. If you have a fight the night before, you still need to be professional with each other at work — even if you’re seething mad. And it’s not enough to be icily professional, where anyone watching can tell something is up; you have to be pleasant enough that you’re not making things awkward or uncomfortable for bystanders. (And hopefully there’s no breakup in your future, but in the event that that happens, you’ll still have to continue being pleasant and professional with each other, even though seeing each other every day might not be ideal at that point.)
Leaving aside your co-workers, working together can also affect your relationship, sometimes in weird ways. When you both inhabit the same work world all day, it can be harder to disconnect from your job after you leave the office. You might be done thinking about work for the day while your boyfriend wants to unpack the aggravating conversation he had with a client or strategize about how to pitch a project to your manager. And even when you both want to leave work behind, you’ll probably still sometimes find yourselves talking about work and co-workers, just because you’re both spending a huge chunk of your day in the same place and around the same cast of characters.
There are also more complicated ways that things going on at work for one of you can end up affecting the other. For example, if your boyfriend doesn’t get along with his boss and complains to you regularly about the ways he feels wronged by her, you might not be able to prevent that from affecting the way you see and interact with her, even if you otherwise would have gotten along. Loyalty to each other can mean you end up taking on each other’s work beefs or grievances as your own, which can complicate your relationships with colleagues and even lead you to make professional decisions that aren’t necessarily in your own interests. Or, sometimes not doing that can be a problem too: If you feel you’ve been treated unfairly by a co-worker, will it bother you to see your boyfriend cracking jokes with her at a staff meeting or supporting her for a promotion? There are a bunch of potential land mines here, so it could be helpful to talk about how you’ll handle personal and professional boundaries at the outset of working together.
There’s also the possibility that your relationship could limit your advancement. You can’t manage someone you’re involved with, which means neither of you can be promoted into the other’s chain of command. That might not be relevant now, but it could become an issue as one or both of you think about moving up. (You can solve that by one of you going elsewhere, of course — but it’s good to have on your radar as something you might run into.)
All this said, many, many people work with significant others and it goes just fine. And of course, there can be upsides — like having a partner who gets your work world in a way that someone not employed there never could, and who doesn’t need a ton of backstory every time you want to tell a funny work problem or vent about a co-worker. Yes, there are pitfalls, but as long as you’re both reasonably mature, communicate well, and don’t gross out your colleagues with PDA, you’ll probably be fine.
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.