By Amy Alkon
Q: I’m in love with my married female co-worker. I’m married and have no intention of leaving my wife, and I doubt she’d leave her husband, even if she shared my feelings. I love how caring and kind my co-worker is—how she understands that you show love through action. I do this by often giving my wife romantic cards and by cleaning the house and doing the dishes every night after I get home from work and school. Feeling my wife wasn’t reciprocating, I started fantasizing about being in a relationship with my co-worker, who also feels unappreciated by her spouse. My feelings for her have become overwhelming, and I feel a pressing need to tell her. I understand that this could make work very awkward. Best-case scenario, she’s flattered. Is it selfish to want to unburden myself?—Boiling Point
A: Confessing your crush to your married co-worker is like arranging a transfer to her—of your 26-pound tumor: “His name is Fred. He enjoys fine wine, banned preservatives and cigarette smoke. I hope you’re very happy together!”
Your desire to tell isn’t noble or wonderful. In fact, it’s pretty much the psychological cousin of an intense need to pee. To get why that is, it helps to understand, as evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides explain, that the emotions driving our behavior today motivate us to behave in ways that would have given our ancestors the best shot at surviving, mating and passing on their genes. Unfortunately, solutions for recurring challenges in the ancestral environment aren’t always a perfect fit for the modern office environment.
Consider our basic biological needs—like for food, water and sex. When we feel the urge to satisfy these—like when we’re hungry or hungry for a co-worker—our emotions kick into gear, pushing us into a motivated state, a state of tension. That’s an uncomfortable state to be in, so we look for the quickest, easiest way out—like, “To hell with my job and my marriage!”—which conflates a powerful evolved urge with a wise modern course of action.
Understanding this need to reduce emotional tension should help you realize that what’s driving your obsession is more mechanical than magical. But there’s another problem. Our motivational system comes up a little short in the brakes department.
This makes inhibiting a feeling (and whatever course of action it’s pushing you toward) terribly hard and uncomfortable work. And as social psychologists Daniel Wegner and James J. Gross have independently pointed out, doing this on a continuing basis can have damaging effects on your physical health. Trying to quash some recurring thought also tends to backfire, making you think the unwanted thought more than if you hadn’t tried to stop.
Considering all of this, when you’re looking to keep yourself from doing something, it helps to take the approach aikido practitioners use. When a powerful blow is coming at them, instead of meeting it head-on and taking the full force of it, they divert it—push it off in another direction. Following this principle, your goal shouldn’t be stopping yourself from telling your co-worker, but redirecting the energy you’ve been putting into your crush into your marriage.
Tell your wife that you love her and discuss what might be missing in your marriage—for each of you. However, don’t do this by accusing her of failing to appreciate you. Instead, lead by example: Explain the ways that you show your love for her, and then tell her what would make you feel loved.
In case loving feelings have given way to hard feelings, there’s good news from a relatively new area of psychology called “embodied cognition”—the finding that taking action leads to corresponding feelings. So, it’s possible that acting loving can resuscitate the love you once felt.
Getting back to your co-worker, it doesn’t take much to lose yourself in fantasies about how great it would be with somebody new. However, marriage—to any person—is hard. Still, it has its perks, such as that wonderful ease that comes out of being with your spouse for a while—allowing you to finally feel comfortable talking about what you really need in bed: “Are you there yet? Hurry! I gotta wake up early!”