I am hoping you can help me to navigate a difficult situation. I have been reading your column for several years and find your advice to be heartfelt, thoughtful and insightful. I am also seeking your advice because I feel I have no one else to talk to about this.
Recently, I disclosed to a co-worker of mine that I have developed romantic feelings for him. We have an easy, playful rapport and similar senses of humor and dispositions. We speak openly about our problems and often find solace in one another, as we work in a field that can be challenging and emotionally exhausting at times. We are both emotionally intense but repressed and find it difficult to reveal ourselves to others, so have developed what I consider to be a strong bond of trust and understanding. Over the past few months, our friendship intensified in that we began exchanging frequent, borderline flirtatious texts. I felt that something had shifted in our friendship and that I had to express my feelings to him, as I was finding it difficult to conceal my true feelings and he was starting to question me about acting oddly toward him. The truth is, I had harbored romantic feelings for him for some time but, for several reasons, tried to ignore those feelings. The reasons I tried to repress these feelings are that I have been in a committed relationship for nearly five years and my co-worker, who is 20 years my senior (I am in my late 20s, he is his late 40s), is married with children. I find it difficult to describe my attraction to him. While I am certainly sexually attracted to him at times, I am most attracted to his emotional intensity, his sense of humor, and his ability to understand me when I feel no one else is able to. I also admire the many ways he has changed his life for the better; he is a wonderful father and is consistently amazing at his job. I have witnessed the ways others look up to him and respect him and believe that he has helped to change the lives of people he has worked with. For several months now, I have considered telling him how I really feel, but always stopped myself for fear that it would ultimately change our friendship in some final way.
I did choose to reveal my feelings to my co-worker, and my emotions rapidly fluctuated in the days that followed. When I told him that our friendship was starting to "mean something different" to me than it was for him, he assured me that it was not just me and that he has felt attracted to me for some time. He told me that he had also noticed the shift in our relationship and that it was "making things confusing at home" and that I was "always in the back of his mind." We talked about our compatibility and the connection we felt and how if things were different we might be together. Frankly, I was shocked that he so willingly revealed his feelings and that he made it clear that he was ready for the relationship to progress further. When he asked what I wanted to do, I replied that I wanted to do nothing considering the circumstances, but I was also flattered as I had convinced myself that his feelings were not the same as mine and to brace myself for rejection. We continued to text after work that day, and the following day, he revealed to me that he has been unhappy in his marriage because his wife cheated on him several years ago. I was surprised that he had not disclosed this to me before, as we often talk about our relationships and the topics of monogamy and fidelity. He said he was telling me this so I would "understand where he was coming from" and again made it clear that he wanted our relationship to progress. He mentioned getting together for coffee one day after work so we could talk more privately. I have difficulty pinpointing exactly when my feelings began to change, but it was after this conversation that I began to feel he was focusing more on pursuing a sexual relationship than on acknowledging the feelings we had for one another. We arranged to meet in a public place over the weekend and had a fairly lengthy conversation during which I told him that I could not progress with the relationship because of his marriage and my relationship with my boyfriend. I reaffirmed that if circumstances were different, I could envision us being together, and disclosed that I sometimes fantasized about that scenario. He expressed his disappointment about stopping the progression of the relationship, but we parted on friendly terms and even laughed a few times. He said he respected my decision and hoped that we could still be friends and go back to the way things were before. About a day after our meeting, he texted me saying that he went from being elated to sad to hurt and that he feels I was "emotionally cold" during our public meeting. He said he felt vulnerable and rejected and should just go back to being "angry and edgy"; I encouraged him to not think of this as a rejection and said that I hoped we could acknowledge how we felt and accept that we could not take things further. I have not spoken to anyone but him about this situation as I am embarrassed, ashamed, confused and also angry. I feel things very intensely and often have difficulty expressing myself, and I frequently feel awkward around others and like I don’t "connect" with people. I am still trying to pinpoint my reasoning for disclosing my feelings to my co-worker so that I can figure out how to move forward. I think I simply wanted to express that I felt an emotional connection with him that I rarely experience with others but, frankly, did not ever plan to have the relationship become sexual. In addition to feeling guilty and ashamed, I am also angry because I feel he was so focused on the possibility of the relationship becoming sexual and now feel he is being manipulative in telling me that I am essentially responsible for him turning into the "angry and edgy" person that he used to be. I question my right to feel angry about this, because when we tell someone we feel an emotional connection and would be with them in another place and time, aren’t we automatically implying that we want to sleep with them? Am I a horrible tease with no consideration for his feelings? I think I have also convinced myself that I merely represent an opportunity for him to get back at his wife for betraying him and that he would sleep with anyone who offered him the chance. Mostly, I am hurt that now that I’ve made it clear that I won’t sleep with him, he seems to no longer want anything to do with me. I do realize that I gave mixed messages and that I initiated this situation, but I also made myself emotionally vulnerable and was honest in saying that I would want to be with him if the circumstances were different. In what way is that rejecting someone? I would much appreciate a male’s perspective on this situation, as I don’t know if I am totally in the wrong or if he is, or if we are both wrong. I would also appreciate advice as to whether or not you think this friendship is reparable and if so, how I should go about trying to fix it. The thought of not having this person in my life is devastating, but I also know that I am sometimes drawn to people who are not healthy for me. I also value and love my job, and do not want the situation to become so tense and unbearable that I am tempted to quit or transfer.
Emotionally Torn Tease
Dear Emotionally Torn Tease,
What is unspoken emerges in unspoken ways. It emerges in the paradox of our choices. Your choice of a "public place" speaks of your desire to keep your secretiveness secret, even from yourselves. It also speaks of a hidden desire to expose.
You knew that in private something might happen, so you managed to meet in public, where "nothing could happen." But something did happen: His desire for you became known, and your refusal became known. So you moved another rung up the ladder and now are in torment.
No one is more blind than the person who thinks she knows herself. We cannot know ourselves by ourselves. We cannot know the labyrinthine ways we deceive ourselves. That is why we check in with others who can gently suggest what we are up to.
Those of us who believe ourselves to have superior self-knowledge can delude ourselves just as well or better than anyone else. We may be trickier and more subtle than others but we are still operating in the dark, doing the bidding of an unconscious that knows what it wants before we do.
You two have gotten yourselves into something. You may need help getting out.
I think you could benefit from some bluntness: You are having an emotional affair with this man. He thought it was going to lead to sex. He was all ready to go. You contributed to his belief that it would lead to sex. You knew this in some way but hid it from yourself. Then you pulled the rug out; you pulled the curtain down; your door was booby-trapped with a bucket of water. He got doused and naturally was angry and baffled.
You doused him but you also saved him. You were the conscience of the operation. It was a good thing you two did not just go and have sex. That would have created a new and bigger problem. So here you are, drawn to each other, craving each other, trying to behave rationally. You are the one in control yet this control does not help you get what you want.
Don't be too hard on yourself. This is a sign, and a turning point. This is a sign of how easily you can find yourself in deep water. And it is a sign (Warning: More paradox ahead!) that you must go deeper. You must accept the effect that you have on others. You must accept the fact that you are desired and you like this desire; it feels good to be desired. Yet you must accept that being desired means being on offer. You have offered yourself to him in some way; he can sense that. There is something between you. You both feel it. Yet, being the desired one, you are exercising your power of control over the situation and this is leading to frustration and confusion.
There is something deeper going on.
This power and control, this state of being desired, may be so intoxicating that you want to just continue on the edge like this.
This may be where you feel most alive, here on the edge of surrender. This may be where you want to be. If so, enjoy it. But edges are unsustainable. No one can remain on an edge. He has reverted to his angry, hurt self, a self that is apparently familiar to him, a place of refuge from genuine hurt.
So please try to sort this out by involving a third party. Doing so will help everyone -- not just you and him but also his wife and your boyfriend. It will help you all. It will take you to a deeper place, where you admit that you are driven by desires not wholly clear to you.
It will help you discover what you are seeking in each other. This will yield a better truth than what you have now. Right now, in one sense, each of you is using the other; each of you is a stand-in for someone else. He would like to hurt his wife by being with you. At the same time, he recoils from this knowledge, as he recoils from the fact that he has been injured. His task now is to face the fact that he has been injured. Having sex with you is not the way to do it.
You also have unacknowledged motives. You do not know exactly what they are. That is your task: Go deeper.
Perhaps you can do this on your own but I doubt it. Your own interiority will deceive you. It is too complex and labyrinthine in there; you need someone who can shine a light on things. Maybe you could see someone together, discreetly -- a highly intuitive couples counselor, who could see what was happening and maybe help you untangle. Or you could see someone on your own, someone to help you identify the unspoken.
The unconscious is cunning indeed. Yes, he thought it was going to become sexual. Neither one of you was aware of what you were doing. It as as though you were both in trance states.
As in a heist movie, something went wrong. Your best-laid plans went awry because you were dealing with an actual human being and thus with uncertainty, unpredictability, hiddenness.
What is unspoken here? That is the question. Something was unspoken. You got yourself into something. You got tangled up. How do you untangle?
Find an untangler.