I kissed my mentor

We got drunk and stayed up late and now it feels awkward

Published May 10, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I can't stop thinking about my supervisor and the night we drunkenly kissed, and I can't figure out why.

After living in the same part of the country for all of my life, I moved to the East Coast to do a master's degree. My thesis was supervised by a young professor who I now consider a mentor and a friend; we developed a good working relationship and friendship, and he's now supervising a book I'm working on. Fast forward three years; I graduated with my master's degree and moved back to my hometown to start my doctorate, and I married and then divorced the man I lived with when I was studying on the East Coast.

After my qualifying exams at the end of last summer, my new partner and I decided to take a trip back east to hang out with my old friends, including my mentor. A bunch of us piled into a friend's truck and headed out to her house in the country to hole up against an approaching hurricane. Something about that night -- the weather, the candlelit coziness, the reunion of old friends -- made us drop our guards more than we would normally have around work friends, and we got drunk pretty fast. We all spent the evening on the deck overlooking the ocean, talking and drinking, and my supervisor and I ended up in a very emotional conversation about his divorce and the loss of his baby daughter. The weather kept getting wilder and wilder -- photos from that night are speckled with raindrops across the camera lens -- and we got drunker and drunker. While everyone else headed off to bed around 2, my mentor and I continued to sit and talk and drink. If you look closely at the photos from that night, you can see us holding hands under our deck chairs. But what photos from that night don't show is him kissing me, and me not stopping him. They don't show him telling me that he loved me, or me repeating over and over that I loved my partner. They don't show me putting him to bed on the sofa, kissing him on the forehead, and telling him to go to sleep. I told my partner what had happened as soon as we woke up in the morning, and he wasn't upset. He figured that my mentor was reaching out for comfort from someone who understood what he was going through, and that there wasn't much blame in that, whatever lines had been crossed. I apologized profusely, assured him that it was nothing, and prepared for an awkward breakfast, which didn't happen. My mentor claimed to everyone that he didn't remember anything that happened much past midnight, and I wasn't about to jog his memory. We spent the day reading on the sofa and waiting for the storm to end, drove back into town, and said goodbye.

This happened almost a year ago, and yet it's still affecting my ability to keep my cool around my mentor. We're in frequent contact about academic matters, and every time we talk, my heart pounds. I obsess about the wording of emails I write him and I fantasize about the next time I'm going to see him. I can't stop wondering if he was lying about not remembering what happened, and if it really was an act of sadness, or of genuine attraction. Even if he did confess that he remembered and that he did have feelings for me, I'm not sure what I'd do about it. I'm deeply committed to my partner, and not physically attracted to my mentor, so I can't figure out why I keep thinking about it, and why I let it affect the way I think about a person who should be nothing more than a friend and colleague. My partner is going through a really rough time after the death of his mother, which includes both depression and unemployment, and my mentor is the preeminent scholar in our field. Is this an attraction to power thing? A mental escape from the real work of a real relationship? Or am I repressing genuine feelings for my mentor? Mostly I'd just like to go back to how things were before, but I'm not sure how, and I'm hoping you can help.

Can't Seem to Get Un-kissed

Dear Can't Get Un-kissed,

You're not supposed to kiss your mentor.

Sure, it made perfect sense at the time. But you were drunk. All kinds of things make sense when you're drunk. That's why they invented closing time. I used to get drunk and kiss people I wasn't supposed to kiss. It's really surprising, isn't it, how sensible it seems at the time.

Kissing your mentor was the wrong thing to do. You know that now.  You can make it complicated but that will just prolong your suffering.

The way to end your suffering, which is a function of conscience, is to frankly admit that you did something wrong and make amends.

On the business of amends: Consider who was harmed. You may disagree, but I think everyone was harmed -- your partner, your mentor and yourself. You were all harmed and you all deserve some kind of amends.

In making amends to your partner, I suggest you use the affirmative approach. That is, do not ask him if he feels bad about it. Don't put him in the position of telling you it's OK or not OK. You already know it was not OK. If you honestly want to make amends to your partner, tell him that you know what you did was wrong, and that you are sorry. And then take steps to ensure that you don't do this again. He doesn't need to know what steps you're taking. That's your business. The reason you take them isn't to reassure him. It's to actually prevent it from recurring. To do that, you have to understand, really understand, what happened.

Likewise, with your mentor, though he also bears some responsibility, your role is to take responsibility for your part. Tell him you know it was wrong and you're sorry. And, again, take steps to ensure it won't happen again.

As for yourself, you can do the same thing. Tell yourself you're sorry for putting yourself through this, and agree not to do it again.

In taking stock, it is more useful to ask what than why. What are you experiencing now as a result of what happened? I would guess you are having remorse, shame and fear, among other things: Remorse for doing something you regret. Shame because it put you in a bad light and potentially harmed others. And fear that you may do something like this again, that you may not have control over your actions or their consequences.

Do not try to figure it out. Rather, try to bear it. Think of it as an injury to be borne, rather than as a mystery to be solved.

Trying to figure things out can be a way of resisting them. Frank admission of wrongdoing is quicker.

You wonder whether the feelings you have for him are real. Of course they are real. You like him, you admire him and you depend on him. These are feelings. They are real feelings and they must be managed in the real world.

You say you are not "physically attracted" to your mentor. That doesn't mean that he doesn't exercise certain attractions below the surface. And yes, his power and position may well be part of his attraction. Yet his power and position are the very things that place him off limits. He is your admired and trusted superior.

He bears some responsibility. But his share of fault does not let you off the hook.

You're not supposed to kiss your mentor.

Creative Getaway

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By Cary Tennis

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