We Broke Up but We Still Work Together

Though many people date at work, few think about consequences of a break-up.

Posted Jan 09, 2020

It is no secret that people date their coworkers. The question is: Are you going to marry this person? If not, you’ll likely break up. As Lannutti and Cameron (2002) argued: “most romantic relationships will dissolve” (p. 153). Therefore, Renee Cowan, Emma Carberry, and I conducted a study to better understand the workplace romance dissolution process. That is, we interviewed people who had either been involved in or worked around a workplace romance. These interviews allowed us to understand the reasons couples broke up, how they communicated their break-up, and what work was like after the break-up.

We found four reasons why individuals said workplace romances failed: distance (e.g., physical or psychological), incompatibility, loss of interest, and/or partner mistake. Individuals chose to communicate break-ups through direct or indirect methods. Direct break-ups included communicating the breakup face-to-face, or explicitly through mediated channels (e.g., text, phone). Indirect break-ups included cutting off communication with the person or lowering one’s effort and investment in the relationship. 

The above findings are consistent with other studies of romantic relationship termination. What makes workplace romances unique, though, is that they exist within the context of paid employment. Though many people state they like to avoid seeing their ex-partners following a break-up, broken-up workplace romance partners face the less-than-optimal situation of facing each other at work daily. Therefore, we asked people about the nature of their workplace following relationship dissolution. Our data revealed two types of organizational outcomes.

First, participants described negative organizational outcomes. These happened, primarily, through an awkward/tense environment. As this description naturally implies, numerous participants described the workplace as awkward. At times, though, negative affect reached heightened levels, and the workplace became antagonistic. Situations like these involved yelling, coworkers taking sides, and other instances of conflict. Naturally, then, some participants reported leaving their jobs altogether. 

Second, some participants described neutral organizational outcomes. Such outcomes were primarily the result of establishing boundaries and taking steps to manage their own emotions. 

If you marry one person in your life but date many before marriage, the odds are not in favor of your workplace romance success. This is not said to discourage you from involvement in a workplace romance, but so that you can go in knowing what lies ahead and to encourage both of you to have open conversations about how to manage the relationship, any conflict, and potential dissolution. 

References

Horan, S. M., Cowan, R. L., & Carberry, E. G. (2019). Spillover effects: Communication involved with dissolved workplace romances. Communication Studies, 70, 564-581. doi:10.1080/10510974.2019.1658613