I confessed to my work crush…

… and now she’s distancing herself from me. How can I get our friendship back?

She’ll need time and space, says our elder — but don’t expect things to be the way they were before.

Dear EWC

I’m a 38-year-old guy, happily married to my high school sweetheart, and I have a friend at work, a woman who’s about 10 years younger and married as well. She’s been at my work almost two years, (I’ve been there 10) and over that time we’d gotten to be pretty close. We’d do little favors for each other and go out to lunch together a couple of times a week to talk about everything (mostly griping about work, but some very personal stuff too). At lunch, we’re very casual and familiar with each other, but at work, we keep things professional. Even though we’re in the same department, we have different roles, so I’m not over her or vice versa, and we report to the same manager. Over the past year or so I noticed that I was developing some feelings for her that went beyond friendship. Just being around her made me feel young again and I was happier at work. I also began noticing that there were signs that she was feeling the same. She’d go out of her way and rearrange her schedule so we could have lunch together. When we went out she made a lot of eye contact and we’re very open and honest with each other. At work, she always seemed to run into me and if she needed help I was her first call. I’d even made her blush without saying anything and caught her watching me at work and then quickly look away when I noticed. After about a year of this tension building, I decided to say something about it to clear the air. Mostly I wanted to just get it off my chest so I could stop thinking about her so much. When I told her how I felt she got very nervous and acted like she was trying to talk me out of having these feelings.

That was about a month ago and since then she’s been very distant. We still rely on and do favors for each other at work, keeping things pleasant and professional, but that’s it. She’s always too busy to go to lunch now, even though our workload hasn’t changed. I even went out and bought her lunch as a surprise peace offering to try and smooth things over. I found her in the break room having lunch by herself on the same lunch hour as me. I didn’t get upset with her, and she accepted the food, but she still won’t really talk to me. I still catch her watching me, but she avoids making eye contact and doesn’t come around as often as she used to. I want to make this next part very clear. I don’t expect anything from her other than to be my friend. I understand we’re both married and nothing should ever happen between us, and I’m fine with that. If I misread her signals and she doesn’t feel the same way, I’m fine with that too. That would probably be better because we both want to keep our jobs and marriages intact. I thought we were close and honest enough that I could tell her anything, but obviously, I was wrong. My wife and I both have parents who are having health problems and I just wish I could talk to my friend again. I know I can talk to my wife, but she’s dealing with a lot of the same problems and I’m trying to be strong and not add to it. Can someone please explain to me why she’s acting this way and is there anything I can do to get my friend back?

Mr. Bill replies

Thanks for your letter, and sharing this very personal story. Isn’t it interesting how sometimes things can get so complicated and take directions that are unexpected and disappointing? I’m sorry you aren’t as close to your friend and work partner as you once were, but that’s one of those unexpected, disappointing turns.

It is not unusual to be friendly and attracted to another person at work. The work continues, the relationship grows. Talking, sharing, trusting . . . all of these and more contribute to making a person feel pretty good, accepted, and important. No, that is not unusual. Sometimes that relationship starts to go beyond the friendship. Flirting and thinking that maybe there is more to the relationship than just being friends is the next stage. From your letter, it sounds like you, and she, let the relationship go to that next stage. On the job friendships, ones that become flirtatious, are not uncommon, and can be fun, satisfying, and even provide a little sense of excitement; a memory of being young and the way we once were.

I read in your letter that though you have feelings for her beyond friendship, you didn’t and don’t expect anything more from her than to be your friend. I also read that you, and she, are happily married. That is an interesting conflict, one you tried to resolve by telling her how you feel. The friendship and relationship were important to you both and you both enjoyed having that friendship as well as being happily married and not wanting or expecting anything romantic to happen — or to take the relationship to the next stage, the one following flirtation.
I can’t say for sure, but I can predict what would have happened had you not tried to resolve the conflicting feelings by telling her how you feel about her. This internal conflict may have resolved itself naturally had you simply kept it to yourself. You two would have continued on being friends; the flirting would have continued. However, at some point, one of you would have tired of or become concerned about the intimate conversations and the flirting. That would have happened naturally. Or one of you would begin to feel bad about the relationship given your happily married situation. Or, one of you may have had cause to move to another city or get another job. With any of those, the relationship would naturally and inevitably have begun to change, to run its course, and be less intense and less charged.

The reason I included this in my response is to point out that no matter what you did or didn’t do, the relationship that you described probably would not have lasted over the long term. That is unless you both had strong feelings for each other and they were strong enough to want to be together in more than an at-work friendship — which you wrote that you did not want nor did she. It would have eventually become different and not as intense or strongly, mutually attractive.

None of those things happened, though. You wanted to get your feelings out and you told her you were attracted to her. At that point, the relationship certainly changed.

Even though she may have been attracted to you, too, and enjoyed whatever was going on, by telling her how you felt you moved the workplace flirting into another category, one stage farther on. In an attempt to resolve your feelings for her with your happy marriage, you took a risk. And that risk was not received well and did not bring about any desirable outcomes. It either frightened her or caused her to see that what was happening was a threat and not healthy for her and/or her marriage. She didn’t want to share or exchange or bring to the surface any feelings you two may have had for each other. She didn’t want to risk going there.
You asked why she is acting this way. I suspect it is a reaction to your expressions of feelings and a conscious withdrawal from you and the relationship that was developing. She is separating herself from that relationship and the risk that it may present by becoming something else. The way she is doing that is by separating, or personally distancing herself, from you. Not as workmates. That will continue on a professional and objective basis. But as anything more than workmates.

You also ask if there is anything you can do to get my friend back. The quick answer is — Give her time and space. I think you have to respect her decision and the way she is implementing it. Don’t hover or bring any more peace offerings. Let it be. In time, and with you respecting her and giving her time and space, and as long as you two continue to work together amicably and professionally, the relationship may begin to reconstruct. After all, you do have a history and at one time were close friends. Maybe that will happen again. However, the more you push it, the less likely I see it doing so.

Though it may reconstruct itself, I seriously doubt that it will be what it once was, and what you are hoping it will be again. She may be friendly, she may be more receptive to being your friend, but your sincere and well-intentioned expressions of how you feel about her moved the relationship to a place she didn’t want to go. So she withdrew and took herself out of a situation that may be threatening her personal lifestyle and marriage.

Those are my thoughts after reading your letter. I doubt it makes you feel any better but perhaps it helps you understand what happened. I’m sorry to hear about the health issues your parents are experiencing. Do talk with your wife and share this time and these challenges in life together. Good luck.

Letter #: 425099
Category: Friendship

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