We all have intimate relationships with assorted professionals. We may work closely with an assistant at the office or have a beloved baby sitter who takes care of our kids when we’re away.
The vast majority of these relationships are appropriately professional. Sure, we’re fond of a client, co-worker or boss, and it’s fine to give gifts and cards on their birthdays or go out to a restaurant for lunch. But emotional boundaries are not transgressed.
Sometimes, however, those boundaries get cloudy. We become overly involved with a person who works with us or for us. Perhaps a teacher becomes overly flirtatious with her principal. Or a track coach makes inappropriate innuendos toward his female runners.
Such gestures can have far-reaching consequences. At the least, they confuse the relationship. What was once presumed to be business-only quickly takes on a complicated where-is-this-going demeanor.
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Long-standing relationships are threatened. Should one partner become disgruntled by the new behavior, he or she may threaten to quit, become difficult to work around or even seek legal action.
Our personal lives are also jeopardized. If a personal trainer develops strong feelings for one of his clients, he might decide to leave his marriage.
Professional boundaries can become breached at any time.
But they are particularly vulnerable when one or both of the parties are emotionally needy. For instance, a boss who is going through a contentious divorce may begin sharing intimate details with one of her sales reps — and if he’s in a shaky relationship with his girlfriend, he may be more than willing to respond to her advances.
Professional boundaries are also fragile when there is a power imbalance. When one member of the relationship is significantly older or is in a position of authority over the other, the smallest impropriety can be magnified and misunderstood.
The key to avoiding crossing the line is to keep those in our professional relationships on the straight and narrow so they don’t run the risk of causing a psychological train wreck.
Has your relationship crossed the line?
Ask yourself the following questions:
Do I dress in a way that I hope will be appealing to the other person?
Do I look forward to seeing him or her?
Am I concerned about where this relationship is going?
Am I worried someone will discover how we feel about each other?
Do I think about this person when we are apart?
Am I hoping our professional status will change to an amorous one?
Will I be disappointed if the person is no longer in my life?
Does the relationship threaten my joy or personal life?
Do I hope the other person feels the same way about me?
Are we exchanging inappropriate or expensive gifts?
If you answered yes to four or more of these questions, your relationship has already crossed into dangerous territory. Drastic steps are needed ASAP to get things back on track.
How to fix an inappropriate relationship
Identify your primary relationship with the person. Is this your teacher? Tennis student? Nanny? Physician? Assigning a specific title also proscribes a set of behaviors.
Assess the desired goal of the relationship. If you’re hoping this relationship will last for a long time, it’s imperative that you don’t do anything that undermines it.
Be honest. It’s easy to kid yourself about what’s happening. You may rationalize that you’re just friends or that you deserve the happiness you’ve found. But those thoughts muddy your judgment and increase the likelihood things will go horribly awry. Get your head out of the sand.
Decide which behaviors have crossed over acceptable standards. Anything out of the job description is suspect, as is anything you feel sneaky doing. Be specific in your evaluation. That’s the only way you’re going to get the situation under control.
Make necessary lifestyle changes. Cease any inappropriate touching. Quit texting and calling after work. Take different flights when you travel for business and book rooms in separate hotels. Change offices so you’re not working on the same floor. You may be reluctant to do what’s needed. But you don’t really have a choice.
Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit lindalewisgriffith.com.