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The biggest secret at work: your office crush

Alexandra Molotkow   

The biggest secret at work: your office crush

In 2018, Derek was working 80 hours a week as a paralegal for a major law firm in New York City, his first job out of school. He had a boyfriend, but they weren't seeing much of each other: "He was just this boy I would climb into bed with at 3 a.m., and then he would wake up and go to work while I was still asleep."

Four months into his job, Derek was sent on a two-month work trip to Singapore, along with a team of lawyers he barely knew. He was nervous and isolated at first, working 14-hour days in a tiny hotel room. But before long he hit it off with Brendan, a lawyer who shared his sense of humor. Soon they were spending their free time exploring the city together and hanging out in each other's rooms.

"I just woke up excited to see him," Derek recalls. "We would laugh a ton, kind of make fun of the other associates. Lots of messages sent to each other clandestinely while other people were in the room." (Derek, like others who discussed their work crushes with me, spoke on the condition of anonymity.)

On the final night of the trip, they ended up back in Brendan's hotel bed, watching TV. When Derek got up to leave, they gave each other a hug. It lasted a full minute.

"It was very strange," Derek says. "My heart was pounding — it was like, should I make a move? But we're both in relationships, and I don't want to be that person." Nothing happened. Derek went to bed.

The next morning was tough. "I remember waking up so sad and getting on the plane feeling so sad. I didn't know what our friendship would be like back in New York." But when the long flight landed, he turned on his phone to find that Brendan had already texted.

"I just remember this feeling of elation," Derek says. "OK – we're still going to be friends."

Chances are strong that, regardless of whether you're single or partnered, you have a crush on a coworker, or a coworker has a crush on you. Year after year, in annual surveys from the Society for Human Resource Management, about half of respondents consistently report having a crush on a colleague. All around the office, your managers, direct reports, and peers are spending some untold portion of company time daydreaming about or flirting with each other.

Crushes are an enduring workplace tradition, despite roiling changes in the worlds of work and dating. Research led by Michael Rosenfeld of Stanford suggests that through much of the 1980s and '90s, work was the second most common way heterosexual couples met (after mutual friends), and the third, after bars and restaurants, for same-sex couples. Dating apps changed that, while reshaping romantic etiquette. "The apps sort of set this standard where there's my romantic life and then there's everything else," says Manny, a 28-year-old market researcher I spoke with. "And to intermingle the two would be sort of a transgression. I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable."

Office crushes, in all their mercurial glory and pain, continue to shape our working lives in deeply meaningful ways.

Despite some reactionary hand-wringing to the contrary, the #MeToo movement never set out to put the kibosh on consensual romance at work. It was very explicitly about nonconsensual behavior and abuse of power. But it did foster a greater awareness of what consent looks like, and what it means to respect your colleagues. Reconsiderations of workplace conduct, romantic or otherwise, were only exacerbated by the pandemic-fueled rise of remote work. Seldom have "work" and "life" been so entangled, warping workplace sociality in ways researchers are still trying to understand.

But through all these changing norms, workplace crushes remain remarkably common. How could they not? After all, we spend half of our waking lives at work. "When you spend enough time with someone and you're working together, it's only natural that feelings of fondness are going to develop," says Sean Horan, who chairs the department of communication at Fairfield University and who studies workplace relationships. "If we're constantly working, at the expense of leisure, then how do we meet people if not at work?"

Office crushes, in all their mercurial glory and pain, continue to shape our working lives in deeply meaningful ways. They have the power to bring out our best work, and to transform a soul-crushing office into an experience we actually look forward to and enjoy. They also have the power to transform an enjoyable office experience into a soul-crushing one.

In 2013, Karis, an architect then in her late 20s, started a role at a high-end firm in Chicago. It was a job she'd dreamed of, but she felt like an impostor. Unlike many of her colleagues, she hadn't grown up with money, and the office's casual opulence brought up a lot of "class anxiety, about what I wore, how I looked, how I was coming across," she says.

Karis' boss, Stefan, took a special interest in her. He was a rock star in their field — youngish and highly respected, the subject of magazine profiles and industry accolades. He praised her constantly and assigned her to projects she felt she "had no business being on," she says. He looked out for her, too: When a senior male colleague started making aggressive advances, Stefan helped her report it to HR. "It was always this focused attention," she says of him, "and direct eye contact, and sort of Mr. Darcy-style, longing stares across the room." They bonded over long walks and "long, rambling conversations."

Though Karis was happily married, her affection for Stefan blossomed — and so did her work. Having a crush stoked her creativity and sweetened her incentives: She wanted to do good work, and she wanted Stefan to notice.

"The workplace is a very special place for attachment," says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist who serves as the chief science advisor for "Because you spend the day with somebody, you're under the same pressures. You have the same understanding of all these people around you. I can't talk to my husband about people in my workplace — he doesn't know them." Humans are, as she puts it, "a pair-bonding animal" — wherever we find ourselves, we tend to home in on our person.

The thing is, there are few venues in modern life that allow us to get to know people slowly, over time. "If you meet someone on a dating app, you're supposed to know how you feel between salad and dessert," says Lakshmi Rengarajan, a researcher on dating culture and workplace relationships. "And that's just not realistic all the time."

Rengarajan, who has served as's director of event design and as WeWork's first director of workplace connection, has found that workplace attractions often accumulate through incidental contact. When she asks people how their feelings coalesced, their answers are often mundane and "kind of hilarious — like, Oh my god, I saw them refill the paper in the copy machine, or they cleaned my coffee mug, or they asked if they could grab a sandwich for me when they went out." People fall for their coworkers in surprising ways, and not necessarily for things one would advertise on a dating profile. What's more, the fact that dating a colleague is risky can impose a distance that allows feelings to smolder. Jim, after all, doesn't even ask Pam on a date until the season-three finale of "The Office."

"It was why I got up and went to work in the morning," Karis says of her crush. "Because I'd want to dissect every interaction we had, to look for clues that he was madly in love with me." She adds: "I'd be sad on days when he wasn't in the office. What am I even doing here? I've spent so much on clothing."

Three years into working with Karis, Stefan resigned from their firm. In his farewell speech, he praised her lavishly, which only made her more smitten. A year later, he offered her a position at another company. Though Karis adored her job, "I followed him, under the guise of whatever place he chose would be good."

When a job is going well, a crush can feel like the primary reason it's so exciting. But when a job is kicking your ass, a crush can be an escape — into your own head, or the private world that exists between the two of you. A former bartender from Toronto told me about a crush he had that played out entirely over smoke breaks. Indulging in a crush is a small act of will in a space where your will is restricted. It's slightly illicit — there's a thrill in finding intimacy where it's not meant to be — and it's something you can do alone or together.

That's what Derek found when he returned from his overseas work trip. Back at his law office, his days were intense and often punishing. "Some of those lawyers were absolutely terrible, just the meanest people I'd ever met," he says. "I had things thrown at me. I was yelled at." His friendship with Brendan, meanwhile, was thriving, but covert. When they passed each other in the hallway, they would barely acknowledge each other. But back at their desks, they would text each other constantly.

Indulging in a crush is a small act of will in a space where your will is restricted.

"It almost felt like I had an online friend that wouldn't talk to me in real life," Derek says. It was even more exciting on the occasions when the crush extended beyond the office. When Brendan would text him an inside joke on a Friday night, Derek says, "it would just make my heart flutter."

For those who came of age online, casual intimacy can develop just as easily over Slack as at the water cooler. Manny, the market researcher, says that texting feels like a natural way to bond with someone over time. "It's a personality crush, versus an infatuation on sight," he says.

Chatting is also more discreet; at the water cooler, everyone can see you flirting. Though Derek and Brendan worked in the same office, their affections unfolded remotely. "The only time I feel like we could go back to our normal, in-person selves is if I was in his office and the door was closed," Derek says. "Which sounds sus, now that I say it out loud."

When Karis told colleagues which firm she was headed to, they asked her what the hell she was thinking. It was a major step down — everyone but her saw that. Until her first day.

Her old office had creamy leather couches, vaulted ceilings, and a kitchen catered by world-class chefs. Her new office had dirty orange carpets, fluorescent lighting, and an "ever present, industrial-size tub of mayonnaise in the fridge." The work was mind-numbingly dull, so her connection to Stefan became even more consuming. Before, she says, she had "a role and an identity, and work I could be proud of." Now she was in "this nothing place, and he's the only thing that feels exciting."

Karis was still in love with her husband, but he was a touring musician, and they rarely saw each other. Stefan was also married, and he complained about his wife a lot to Karis. It made her deeply uncomfortable, she says, even while it enticed her. At work, he sat in her peripheral vision. "I never looked over at him," she says, "but I was very good at clocking if his body was angled towards me in any way." He would invite her over for dinners and encourage her to bring her friends, mostly women around her age, who didn't get him at all. They couldn't put their finger on it, but they didn't like the way he talked to her.

Looking back, Karis can see more clearly what they saw. Stefan's flattery now seems excessive — he'd talk at length about what a genius she was — and his mood seemed to sour when she excelled at work he wasn't involved with, which made her feel "kept." And the way he parroted her interests felt weirdly rapacious, like "he was consuming qualities of mine." Once, after she invited him for dinner, she caught him staring at her bookshelf; for months afterward, she noticed, he would name-drop the titles in casual conversation. He'd say something random that echoed her thoughts exactly, and she'd realize she had tweeted it months earlier. "I felt sort of low-level stalked, but also flattered," she says. "It was a really gross, confusing feeling."

The obsession seeped into every part of her life and racked her with guilt. She felt like her mind wasn't her own anymore, and she didn't know why. The aimlessness of it all — she had no intention of leaving her husband, or even having an affair — made it that much more disorienting. "I would wake up in the middle of the night and go cry on the sofa," she says. "I was imploding from the inside. I was suicidal."

This was all happening at the height of the #MeToo movement. When allegations emerged that another senior staffer was touching women inappropriately, Stefan once again pushed for an investigation. Karis appreciated the move, but she wonders if being the "good guy" in overt cases of harassment enabled Stefan "to not have to examine his own behavior."

At the onset of MeToo, conservatives warned about witch hunts and draconian HR measures bearing down on innocent flirtations. Some workers, likely more of them men, wondered if the office romance was dead. "The #MeToo movement just 'concreted' the glass ceiling," a respondent wrote in 2018, in a survey about office romance. "Don't even want to be in same room alone with opposite sex." But according to the Society for Human Resource Management's workplace-romance survey in 2019, only 17% of those who said they'd refrained from dating at work did so because of concerns about harassment. "I don't think any of the fundamental tenets of MeToo were about: Should I be able to date someone at work," says Johnny C. Taylor Jr., the organization's CEO.

MeToo prompted some much-needed structural changes with the stated aim of protecting workers. But human relationships are murky, and violation is not always as obvious as an unwanted touch.

"I've relitigated it in my head so many times," Karis says. "I could never make a complaint about him, even if I feel he crossed a line many times. What could I say? 'He gazes at me.' 'He creates emotional intimacy.' Am I doing it too? I must be."

Ayear after his work trip to Singapore, Derek left his paralegal job. By then he had broken up with his boyfriend, and his crush on Brendan was "kind of" the reason. "I realized what a relationship could be and the type of relationship I wanted with my partner," he says. Like most of his friends, he met his current partner on a dating app. But he feels like the office is sometimes a more intimate way to meet someone than, say, at a bar — despite (or because of) the fact that it's not meant to be intimate at all.

"I think, weirdly enough, work would almost be the easiest way for that to develop most naturally, compared to other social environments you're in," he says. "There's fun in this unrequited love, or knowing that it can't happen — it makes you both more comfortable to lean into certain emotions that I think normally I would have felt more guarded against."

Slowly, Karis built back her career and devoted more time to her marriage. She still gets work crushes — last year she counted "a solid eight."

That most workplace crushes never lead to consummated relationships doesn't make them any less powerful. "I call crushes the shaping of your heart," Rengarajan says. "It's not about finding a relationship at work. It's that sometimes being in the workplace can model for you or expose you to the attributes and characteristics that you would want in a relationship." When she asks people what shaped their attractions, she finds it's not only former romantic partners but people they just liked. "They'll talk about the kid that bagged groceries at their local market," she says. "Never dated the guy. But something about that left an imprint on them."

Crushing is often treated as a juvenile pursuit, a way of imagining relationships before we know how to build them. But we're always learning how to build relationships. We cycle through jobs, move to new cities, break up with partners, and make new friends. "Crushes offer a singular power to make concessions to the scary idea that things change, and that's what makes the unrequitedness worth the rush," writes Tiana Reid, an assistant professor of English at York University. "In the end, all I want is the practice of crushing itself."

For Karis, her crush on her boss lasted five years. At first it made work exhilarating, then it made work bearable, and life unbearable. It ended abruptly when Stefan quit to go to another firm. In his absence, "the stains on the carpet became very apparent," she says. Within a couple of months, she had left, too. Outside the suspended world of the office, she began to see him in a new light, and found that he looked much different than the figure in her periphery.

Slowly, she built back her career and devoted more time to her marriage, which she says is stronger than ever. An admitted serial crusher, she still gets work crushes — last year she counted "a solid eight." Work is just more stressful, less exciting, and less human without one. "Most of the time it's a pleasant distraction that doesn't actually encroach on my romantic life, like a hobby or something," she says. "I play a lot of imagination games."

In my profession, I work with a lot of people I've never met in person, or even talked to in real time. And yet my working relationships can be strangely intimate. As an editor, you're trying to catch the shape of someone's thoughts; as a writer, you're often exposing your thoughts to your editor in ways even your friends will never see. When work is going well, your attention to one another is heightened, and you can feel a fervency, a sense of potential and a sense of trust, that exceeds your actual relationship, which mainly consists of exchanging emails. You can call that excess a "crush." It never completely fades. It's the part of work that makes me feel most human.

Crushes are often more memorable for all that they aren't. Derek admits that, in his "deepest heart of hearts," he had hoped something physical might develop between him and Brendan. But he's glad it didn't happen. His bond with Brendan was one of a kind, the product of conditions that will never — "cross my fingers, knock on wood" — be reproduced: He hopes to never again have to work a 100-hour week.

When Brendan got engaged, friends texted Derek their condolences. He thanked them but assured them he wasn't sad. "But I think about that last hug in Singapore all the time," Derek tells me. "And just, nobody hugs for a minute. I'm sorry, that doesn't happen."

Alexandra Molotkow is a writer and former editor of Real Life. She publishes a newsletter and is writing a book about crushes.

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