You’ve heard the age-old advice: don’t get romantically involved with your coworkers, for a plethora of different reasons. While this is a sound bit of wisdom, some of us listen and some of us don’t. I fall into the latter category, along with many others, and I’m here to tell you (and I’m sure everyone else would agree) that maybe the biggest reason getting involved with a coworker is a no-no is that if or when the breakup comes, that breakup is going to be rougher than most.
After a breakup, normally all we want to do is cry, eat ice cream, and avoid our exes like the plague while we try to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try to rebuild our lives without the other person in them. Don’t get me wrong –– breakups are never easy. But being able to create space from your ex makes them much easier so you can actually sort out your thoughts and feelings on your own, regardless of what your ex might be doing.
When you work with your ex, though, it’s really hard to create that space. So how do you deal with a breakup when your ex is part of your professional life?
There are a few do’s and don’ts but when you’re in the middle of the drama, it can be difficult to differentiate them. Here’s what I’ve been doing so far, and it seems to be working:
Don’t speak to your ex outside of work (at least at the beginning of the breakup)
If you’ve ever searched online about what to do after a breakup (guilty), you’ve probably come across the “no-contact rule.” The basic concept is that you give radio silence to your ex for about a month: no phone calls, no text messages, no tagging them in memes online, and certainly no hanging out. This is so that both you and your ex can create some space and start to think rationally about the circumstances that ended your relationship and you can each decide independently how you want to move forward.
If you’re seeing each other at work every day, though, and worse, if you’re forced to communicate in person each day, radio silence can be difficult. You don’t want to make things awkward for each other or for any of your colleagues, so you can’t just straight up ignore each other. But, what you can do is refuse to speak to your ex about anything other than work. Communicate only about what you need to, when you need to, and communicate strictly during office hours. This way, you are setting your boundaries, retraining your mind, and forcing your ex to be just your coworker and nothing more.
Be polite, friendly, and professional at work, but try to avoid bumping into them during the day
As I mentioned before, you can’t just pretend that your ex doesn’t exist if you work in the same office. People are going to notice and people are probably going to talk. Save yourself and your ex the drama and treat them like you would any other coworker.
If they say hello to you, say hello back. Say goodbye at the end of the day. If they ask you a question about work, answer it politely. In short, don’t be rude and don’t make any hard feelings obvious.
With that being said, there are still ways that you can avoid interacting with your ex. For example, my ex and I sit in the same room with four other people for eight hours each day. Painful, I know. But this also means that I can see when he gets up to go to the kitchen or use the bathroom. Using this information, I can wait until he gets back to his desk to go get a glass of water or heat up my food to ensure that there are no surprises and we don’t bump into each other awkwardly in the kitchen.
If you don’t sit in the same room as your ex, first of all, lucky you, second, try to avoid their favorite office “hangout” spots. It could be the lounge, it could be the cafe downstairs, or the shop around the corner. Don’t go there if you’re looking to avoid any surprise run-ins. If you do end up running into your ex, make eye contact, smile politely, and keep walking.
Don’t speak to other coworkers about the details of your breakup – and don’t feel like you need to announce your breakup to the entire office either
This might be difficult, especially if you are close friends with your other coworkers, but try to keep your mouth shut. Spreading the details of your breakup or even telling people “just so you know not to make things awkward, we broke up” is going to cause gossip around the office. Just don’t do it.
If someone asks, tell them you’d rather not bring the details into the workplace and you’d like to keep things professional. At least then if rumors do spread, your conscience is clean, you don’t have to explain anything to your ex, and you’ll be able to do damage control more easily.
Retrain your brain to think “coworker” instead of “ex” by trying to build normal habits
I don’t know what kind of workplace etiquette you may have had before your breakup, but whatever it was, forget it now. Don’t perpetuate behaviors that will remind you of your relationship in the workplace. Treat your ex like you would treat a normal coworker.
Do you say good morning to everyone when you arrive at the office? If yes, say it to your ex, too. Leaving at the end of the day? Do the same. Offering to go on a coffee run? Make sure you ask your ex if he wants something, too. Don’t deliberately leave him out of anything. Try to build a sense of normalcy to make this breakup go a little more smoothly.
This might be a little more extreme, but for me it was necessary. When your ex arrives in the morning, say in your head “that’s my coworker Steve” or whatever his name is, to try to beat it into your head. Try to keep the word “ex” out of your brain as much as possible in order to make the transition easier. I know it’s easier said than done, but if you can make it a habit, you’ll be grateful that you put in the work.
If you are uncomfortable with working directly with your ex or sitting near them, talk to a trusted superior
I’m sure you’re already doing your best not to let your ex affect your job. After all, that would be pretty unprofessional and you don’t want a relationship gone wrong standing in the way of your future career. But, if your breakup was really messy or you’re having a hard time focusing on your work because your ex is constantly sitting right next to you laughing at something on his computer screen, you may need to do something about it.
If this is the case with you, ask for a personal meeting, preferably a casual one outside the office, with a superior that you trust. Let them know that you and your ex have ended your relationship and you’d rather not go into the details, but that you’d like to create some space between the two of you in the office for the time being if possible. If it’s not possible, then you’ll have to power through but at least you tried. If it is possible, then you’re in luck and you’ve just done a good thing for your professional life and your mental health, and your superior will be impressed with your maturity and how you’ve handled the situation.
Try not to analyze their every move in the workplace
This is going to be a hard one, especially if you’re not able to create some space as mentioned in the tip above. I’m still struggling with this one: analyzing how he says hello and goodbye to me, what happens when we pass each other in the hall, how he positions himself when he’s speaking with other people near my desk, whether or not he decides to go outside with another female coworker for a cigarette. I hate to admit it, but all of these things have been on my mind and it has been so hard to break the habit of overthinking everything.
Yes, it’s true that both you and your ex are going through a tough time right now and adjusting to the new workplace dynamic makes it even more difficult. That said, it’s also true that you are probably wondering if the things they do in front of you at work are deliberately meant to get a reaction out of you. And some of it probably is designed to catch your attention, especially if you were the one who initiated the breakup. But guess what: they are probably thinking the same thing about you and whatever you’re doing in the office. And how much of what you’re doing is consciously designed to get your ex’s attention? Only you know the answer to that.
The point is that while it’s going to be tempting, you can’t sit there and watch your ex all day and relate every little action back to you and your previous relationship. When I saw my ex smoke a cigarette on the balcony the day after we broke up, I immediately jumped to a million different conclusions: “He never cared about me. He knows how I feel about smoking. I hope he’s okay. He must be really stressed.” It really freaked me out.
Then I had to talk myself down and tell myself: It was just one cigarette, calm down. I then had to remind myself that it doesn’t matter what he does now anyway, because we are broken up. He no longer has a reason to consider my feelings the way he did before, and I no longer have a reason to relate his actions back to me. And this all goes the same way for you and your relationship with your ex.
Focus on yourself just like you would after any other breakup
This is advice that’s commonly given after any breakup scenario and I’m going to stress it even more for this one. It goes hand in hand with the one above. While you’re trying not to analyze their every move, you have to pull that attention off of them and focus it back on yourself. You can’t keep living your life for your ex and trying to work out their reactions and thoughts about everything you’re doing.
Try not to look at their social media (take a break on Facebook and the mute feature on Instagram are lifesavers), create however much space you need from them in the office, and try not to arrive early or stay late at work if possible. Minimize your contact time as much as you can and focus on your own life. This is your time to really improve yourself and make whatever changes you couldn’t make while you were in a relationship.
If you focus on yourself and not on your ex, you will notice a huge change and other people will notice it, too.
If your ex is starting drama in the workplace, confront them
Now that you have all these tips and tricks about how to be mature and professional about this entire breakup in the office, keep in mind that your ex should be doing the same thing. He should be trying just as hard as you are to maintain a respectful and safe office environment for both of you, and if he’s not, that’s a problem.
If he is spreading rumors, telling people the details of the breakup, or being outright rude, you’re going to need to confront him. Let him know that you care about him and that you understand this is a difficult time for both of you, but that you would like it if you could keep your personal relationship and your professional life as separate as possible and to please stop whatever behavior is making you uncomfortable.
After all, you dated him so hopefully he is a decent human being and he should understand and oblige you. If not, you may have to take it a step further and talk to a trusted superior about the issue.
No matter what, you and your ex should be respecting each other’s professional lives, and if any boundaries are crossed, they need to be addressed immediately so you can maintain a healthy work environment.
And as the opportunity has arisen: just a friendly reminder that abuse or threats of any kind should not be tolerated and you can always seek help or report inappropriate behavior to authorities.
Breakups are never easy, and clearly working with your ex is a whole new ballgame to figure out. I’ve been doing it for almost a month now and while it hasn’t gotten any easier, it has at least become a strangely comfortable routine.
Yes, it’s difficult, but it can be done if you’re mature, professional, and careful in your approach to the whole scenario.
If you’ve got any other tips for working with your ex, feel free to share!