A friendship with a colleague has gone too far

I'd love to take it even farther, but he's married and unavailable.

Published August 5, 2008 10:51AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

All my life, I've been a giver -- I'm just naturally a listener, problem solver, confidant, empathizer, helper (read: Taurus), and for most of my life this role has made me feel fulfilled. But while I'm so agreeable to helping others "advance" in life -- encouraging them to take risks, look for great opportunities, change themselves -- I rarely point my "high-powered observations" toward myself to make myself a better person. I'm not sure if it's because of an intense fear that I'll fail, or if I feel that while I believe my family and friends are worthy of making good things happen in their lives, I myself am not.

I've always been aware of this tendency in myself, but now it's kind of gotten me into a pickle. Over the past six years I've developed a close relationship with a friend at work and even though he is older than I, more experienced, more "worldly" (I'm 37 but a late bloomer) I somehow feel stronger for being an emotional support to him. We work closely together and make a good team. We are complete opposites: He's an extrovert, I'm an introvert. He's outgoing, I'm a wallflower. He's adventurous, I'm afraid of taking risks. He starts hundreds of tasks and never completes one, I'm so reliable it's nauseating. He's the "Mary" and I'm the "Rhoda."

The job we both work at has taken a toll on both of us and we've both thought about leaving. I doubt that he will -- he has a family and the life in our little town is pretty ideal. I, on the other hand, know that it's probably time for me to move on for my own self-health. I'm too wrapped up in my friend and have few outside distractions. He is not available and yet it's probably not a big surprise when I say that I love him dearly and I realize it's the one thing that's keeping me here. Instead of working on getting me to a healthier place, all of my energy is focused on helping him become a better person. All the things I do for him to support him at work and as a friend I know I should be doing for me. He cannot give me more than friendship. I know I need more in my life.

What keeps me here is that stupid feeling of contentment I occasionally feel when working with him on a project and feeling "needed by him" from time to time. I've read plenty of letters from people like me who get caught up in this user type of relationship. He has never asked me for this kind of support, and yet he has never turned it down. I realize I'm the one who's allowed myself to be used -- I've put myself in this position.

I need some practical advice on how to break out of this. I'm reminded of Bill Murray in "What About Bob" where he works through problems by chanting "Baby steps! Baby Steps!" Is that a practical possibility or should I just jump off the cliff and make a clean break? Keep in mind I never do anything rash -- but maybe this is the fork-in-the-road moment in my life that's calling for it.

What can I do to begin the transformation?

H (needing to push the enter key already)

Dear H,

I suggest that you tell him the whole situation and work for a mutual solution. It will be very embarrassing for you, of course, perhaps almost unbearably so. But although I am sympathetic to you, and to the rare and commonly misunderstood sensitivities that have driven you into this situation, the situation is yours nonetheless; the unpleasant unraveling of it is yours; the difficult transformation that must be effected is yours. It is your responsibility. It is your thing to fix.

I know it's complicated. You have not been unkind or malicious in getting into this thing. But you have been, shall we say, indulgent; you have let yourself secretly enjoy a kind of reflected romance, a stray warmth of the kind that extroverts throw off in abundance; you have enjoyed this heat in perhaps unspoken conspiracy with him. In the safe deniability of ostensible collegiality you have warmed your hands at a secret fire, and this is where it has ended you up: knowing you can't have what you want, feeling an urge to flee yet knowing sudden flight is not your style. While not unkind you have not played fair; you have not exposed yourself to wounding as romantic reciprocity demands. You have done this because you are exquisitely sensitive, true -- to a degree others fail to comprehend. Nonetheless, it is your doing. And now it must be your undoing; or rather, to calm our feverish Latinate meanderings that verge, frankly, on something in a Harlequin romance: You must undo it or it will be your undoing.

Take heart: As difficult and embarrassing as it will be for you to speak frankly to him and admit that you have allowed yourself to get into this situation and now must get out of it, it is also liberating. There is a measure of relief to be found in it. Also it contains an element of power and revenge: He, also, will be very embarrassed to hear the truth said, and he will have to admit that he has let himself in for this, that he has allowed this to happen as much as you have, that he has enjoyed the attention. He could pretend that he had no idea, but he had idea. He had plenty of idea. Sure he had. He had to.

There is no guarantee that the deeply embarrassing conversation you are going to have will yield good and immediate results. Think of it as a starting point. Think of it as a way of breaking the spell. This is a spell you have enjoyed and so you may feel reluctant to break it. But that is what you have to do. You have to break the spell in order to move out of the realm of fantasy and into the far messier and less glowing realm of physical relationships with available people.

So: Has he got a friend? He's an extrovert. He must have a friend. Have him introduce you to a friend. That way, you don't have to break off your friendship with him or quit the job. In fact, in measured quantity, a reflected erotic energy might be just the thing to propel you into a physical romance with someone who is available and interested. There would always be a certain tension, an undercurrent, if he were to have a friend and you were to begin seeing his friend and a friendly foursome of two couples were to emerge from that. It might feel a bit sticky and contrived. But it would be manageable. It would allow you to continue your friendship. You would know that, yes, you've had a thing for him forever and you still do but it's not something you can act on. His friend might know it, too. It would not have to be a secret. It would just be one of those things.

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