Far more than friendship – sexual attraction in the workplace

Far more than friendship – sexual attraction in the workplace – includes related article on myths

David R. Eyler

Our ways of living and loving have changed radically in the last decade. Today men and women are thrust together on the job, sharing the workplace in equal numbers and, increasingly often, as professional peers. Work is becoming a major source of intimate interaction between them as they daily share the physical proximity of working side by side, the stimulation of professional challenge, and the powerful passions of accomplishment and failure.

Like every other kind of intimacy, the workplace variety brings with it the likelihood of sexual attraction. It is natural. It is inevitable, hard-wired as we are to respond to certain kinds of stimuli, although it sometimes comes as a surprise to those it strikes. But sexual attraction in the office is virtually inevitable for other reasons as well: The workplace is an ideal pre-screener, likely to throw us together with others our own age having similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, similar sets of values, and similar aspirations.

It also offers countless opportunities for working friendships to develop. As teams come to dominate the structure of the business world, the other half of a business team is increasingly likely to be not only a colleague with complementary skills and interests, but an attractive member of the opposite sex. As close as the collaboration between men and women workers can get at the office, it may be even more so outside it, as workers today function in an extended workplace of irregular hours and non-office settings. We are now more likely than ever, for example, to share the intimate isolation of business travel.

Such opportunity for interaction between the sexes is, in the grand scheme of things, really rather new. Only in the last 20 years, particularly the last 10, have women worked in equal numbers with men, and as equals rather than subordinates. Traditionally, society limits the opportunities for relationships between the sexes–how it does so is typically one of the distinguishing features of a culture. Until recently, unmarried men and women who were attracted to each other could date, court, or marry without raising eyebrows. For attracted couples who were already committed to others, the only option was to avoid each other or give in to an affair that consumed great energy just to be kept secret. So new is our sharing of the workplace that we have not yet created rules or social structures for dealing with today’s unfamiliar intermixture of men and women working together.

The problem is not that sexual attraction inhabits the workplace, but that the options we traditionally give ourselves for recognizing that passion are far too limited. Conventional thinking tells us there is only one place to take our sexual feelings–to bed together. The modern American mind equates sexual attraction with sexual intercourse–the word “sex” serves as a synonym for physical contact. But intercourse is only one possible outcome among many.

Sexual attraction can be managed. It is not only possible to acknowledge sexual attraction, but also to enjoy the energy generated by it–and without acting on it sexually. The positive energy of sexual attraction is instead focused on work as it pulls men and women into a process of discovery, creativity and productivity. This thinking is part of a broader ethic emerging in this country: It’s possible to have a lot without having it all.

We propose a new, psychologically unique relationship for which no models currently exist in American culture. It is a positive way for men and women to share intimate feelings outside of marriage or an illicit affair. It rejects altogether the saint-or-sinner model of colleague relations as too simplistic for modern life. In our own work as management consultants, we see the new relationship slowly unfolding in the American workplace. Confused coworkers, lacking guidance of any kind but responding to today’s workplace realities, are stumbling toward new ways of relating to each other as they find the old alternatives too confining or otherwise unacceptable. The relationship they are inventing is not quite romantic–but it’s not Platonic, either. It adds a dimension of increased intimacy to friendship and removes the sexual aspect from love. We call this relationship More than Friends, Less than Lovers.

The new sexually energized but strictly working relationship has already been officially documented. In a study conducted recently by researchers at the University of Michigan, 22 percent of managers reported involvement in such a relationship. Moreover, the relationship, unleashing as it does a great deal of creative energy, was shown to benefit both “couple” and company. and a study at the University of North Dakota found that work teams composed of men and women were more productive than those of samesex colleagues.

Whatever else, of this we are sure: The new nonsexual love lacks a place among people’s traditional expectations. We find that women seem to untuitively understand this new relationship when they learn of it. They are often the ones who move to forge it, often out of the wreckage of a colleague’s awkward attempts at something sexual. But men often have a hard time with the idea…at first. The conventional models for sexual behavior prescribe a course of sexual conquest for men (seduction for women) and, moreover, they have a large ego-investment in it. Men find it harder to give up the deeply ingrained macho model. They deny that they can be anything other than a successful lover. Nevertheless, we have often observed two people approach this new relationship with unmatched expectations and move to mutually acceptable middle ground–and both benefit. To men we say: Count to 10 and hear us through.

We believe that sexual attraction among certain coworkers is inevitable. The laws of probability alone guarantee that the new gender parity will create a lot of sexual attraction at work that will need an outlet. The new commonplace of shared assignments provides natural opportunities for intimate communication between men and women and nurtures attractions that might have languished for lack of proximity or initiative. As always, some people will pursue sexual attraction to love and/or marriage. Others will become involved in affairs that have potential costs to careers and to other, established relationships outside. But the vast majority will not want or need a romantic relationship at work. We think it is time to bring sexual attraction out of the office closet and let it find its motivational and creative application in people’s professional lives.

Left with the old thinking alone, however, in which the only outlet for sexual attraction is physical sex, frustrated attraction has an unwelcome way of turning up as sexual harassment. We all need a way of thinking about sexual attraction that offers us more of a choice than consummation or harassment.

There is another incentive for welcoming this new, intimate relationship. Traditional thinking assumes there is only one appropriate place for sexual attraction–between lovers or spouses. But that leads to an untenable burden on our primary relationships–the spouses or lovers with whom we share it all romantically and sexually. As seasoned observers, we believe that it is naive to assume that a single intimate relationship will fulfill us in every way. As busy people leading complex lives outside the home, we cannot expect our primary relationships to also bear the burden of providing total personal and professional satisfaction. We need to grow comfortable loving one person romantically and deeply valuing another intellectually, artistically, or in any of a variety of ways that do not diminish our commitment to a primary partner.

The term “consenting adults” needs broadening to include not just those who willingly share physical sex, but those who are open to the possibility of acknowledging their sexual attraction, communicating openly about their feelings, and enjoying their sexuality within mutually agreed-upon boundaries. Above all, the new relationship is a limited relationship. You may share moments of great personal revelation and intimacy, but you do not expect to share your bodies and souls. That leaves only one question: How do you get there?

Don and Alicia are attorneys with complementary specialties who work for the same firm and have for years criss-crossed the country taking depositions and building cases together. They share grueling work schedules, meals, hours of strapped-in airliner conversation, and even exercise regimens that overlap away from home. When they put away the briefcases, they look like a couple, and at times they act like one.

As is commonly the case, neither can cite any lightning bolts that signalled the beginning of an irresistible attraction between them. Because events dictated their time together, the attraction developed slowly and naturally; they didn’t deliberately cultivate it. The fact that they found each other interesting was almost incidental–at the beginning. Now, either will admit the other is good company, attractive, and worthy of a fantasy from time to time. An affair is the last thing they need as partnership looms for each, Don awaits the birth of a child in a happy marriage, and Alicia knows in her heart that he isn’t the right guy for her.

In the course of their relationship they talked about affairs, but consciously decided not to have one. At the same time, neither of them wanted a relationship that had been neutered, and both acknowledged a desire to enjoy the sexual spark between them, keep it within their chosen boundaries, and continue working together without falling in love or having sex. Instead, they deliberately cultivated an intimacy that everyone came to recognize as special but not romantic.

Neither partner has to overcome the clumsy advances of the other, yet this successful resolution of a modern-workplace attraction came about as the result of an emerging sexual etiquette. It says we can talk about sex without inviting advances or harassing one another. It offers mutual respect and open communication as alternatives to playing out the old stereotypes of seduction and conquest. It offers the interpersonal sophistication to deal with sexual feelings in other than a romance-novel mode.

Since 1983, we have been working together as management trainers. As we traveled around the country, gathering experience with the problems people were having, meeting workers of all kinds, we learned some things about the new gender-mixed work force. Alicia and Don’s experience is becoming increasingly common. Women like Alicia tell us, “With Don, it didn’t happen overnight. We’ve spent enough time together to develop the kind of trust and mutual respect that will let us talk about it. I know how to say no, and he would never force himself on me. I trust him completely, and there’s no reason we can’t enjoy an attraction that’s fund and energizing without ending up in bed.”

And men like Don acknowledge that “part of me says it’s all or nothing when I have sexual feelings about a woman. But another part of me says it’s more complicated that that with someone like Alicia. Somehow it has to be possible to play safely with sexy feelings, enjoy them, and still not have to sleep together.

A New Sexual Etiquette

On the basis of our experience, we have developed a practical, two-person model of sexual etiquette for those who wish to exploit the energy of workplace attraction without physical sex or falling in love, or avoiding each other altogether and pretending that the workplace is genderless. At its heart is a consciously managed relationship founded on mutual trust, respect, and acceptable bondaries that are openly agreed on, communicated, and monitored by both parties. Unlike friends, these partners share moments of great personal revelation. But unlike lovers, they do not expect to share bodies and souls. They divulge only what they choose to.

Natural human desire is something any two people should be able to feel without guilt or awkwardness. Where we set our boundaries is what distinguishes committed, romantic relationships from the near-loving feeling of those who come to know each other intimately through work. These are the five keys to pulling off the new relationship:

* Setting boundaries. Our personal boundaries are the psychological barriers that define us as individuals. You need a strong sense of your own values and purpose to risk sharing theim intimately with someone else–even more so when you rely on your boundaries to permit tremendous personal intimacy yet prevent its becoming physical. You and your partner openly discuss and decide what is and is not off-limits.

You establish boundaries and expectations for the relationship right at the outset, as a means of defining and consciously managing it. You agree that you will not develop a personal life together and that your relationship will not be allowed to become a love affair. Some boundaries, notably the sexual one, are lines you agree never to cross; they remain forever out of bounds. Similarly, neither physical contact nor the language of lovers has a place in the relationship–they will only send misunderstood signals.

Other boundaries may be set and changed as you grow safe and comfortable in this new, unfamiliar relationship: defining the kinds of situations in which you allow yourselves to be alone, discussing certain facets of your personal lives, the giving and accepting of compliments, allowing your partner to see you when you are not at your best, and admitting the high value you place on the relationship without fear of being misunderstood.

You will also have internal boundaries to contend with–very personal ones you set and maintain without the knowledge of your partner. These are the lines you draw for monitoring your own thoughts and behavior; coping with near-love feelings is a personal matter each partner handles in his/her own way.

Part of the contract between you is an agreement to respect each other’s privacy and individual identities. Situations may arise when you feel you must reinforce a boundary; you can do it indirectly, by altering the direction of a conversation, or directly, by discussing the unwelcome inquiry openly, as part of the process of consciously managing your relationship.

* Conscious management. There are no sure paths to ideal relationships between mutually attracted men and women under any circumstances. But without conscious management of this relationship, personal attraction can lead to destructive consequences–from ruined marriages to tainted professional reputations. Consciously managed, the relationship becomes a series of purposeful, directed events, rather than random ones that could drift into unplanned physical intimacy. You expect to have differences that you will resolve openly, instead of dancing around issues and leaving them open to ambiguity.

Through discussion, you create a voluntary contract in which you both agree that you will divert your sexual energy from personal attraction between you to the working relationship supporting it. You agree that your attraction is a positive thing that makes your working relationship exciting. You define ways to behave that will help you maintain your mutual boundaries. You communicate honestly with each other about your feelings and expectation. You make no attempt to hide the relationship from your spouse or lover on the one hand, or your company managers on the other, although you maintain discretion.

At first, you will probably find it difficult and awkward to discuss the emotional issues involved in creating and managing this relationship. It’s new and unfamiliar turf and you’re not sure what constitutes the right measure of trust. Your best guide is to sense when tension builds–that’s when something needs to be brought into the open for honest discussion.

* Monitoring each other. Two people seldom approach a relationship–any relationship–with perfectly matched expectations. You and your partner both know that adjustments in your behavior will sometimes be necessary to keep things on an even keel. You share the responsibility for keeping your own behavior, feelings and expectations in line with the boundaries you establish. Monitoring each other ensures that open communication takes place when you sense your partner mayinfringe on a boundary or yield to temptation.

Monitoring each other also sets the expectation of open communication. You come to your relationship with respect for each other’s intellect, tastes, and competencies. You look to each other to supplement what you individually bring to your work–to stimulate your thinking and enhance your creativity.

* Open discussion. You are making deliberate use of sexual chemistry to become both more personally satisfied and more successful and productive. The overarching technique you use to keep behavior within the boundaries you set is open discussion. It short-circuits problems that tend to build with time. Instead of maintaining the relationship by one-sided internal coping, you raise concerns to the level of two-person reasoning.

You clarify areas of misunderstanding where individual interpretations of events or intentions may be wrong. In time, you’ll probably be laughing at simple misunderstandings. You vent frustrations to each other as well as understanding and being understood–eliminating the need to reject and the pain of rejection. The secret is not some perfect progression through an ideal set of relationship-building steps, but rather in the openness that says, “Ask me. Let’s talk about it. We can work this out.”

* Cooling-off periods. Unlike husbands and wives, you have the advantage or regular time-outs from each other, away from a nonphysical but demanding association. In permanent relationships, a large tolerance quotient is both desirable and required. In this relationship, by contrast, you are not obligated to keep each other happy or to take care of each other or to tolerate differences in food or music or television preferences on a daily and nightly basis. You deny yourselves some of the privileges of a fully committed couple while you avoid some of their frictions.

On the rare occasions when work isn’t going well, or your conscious management techniques are flagging, you can acknowledge this is not going to be the right day to caccomplish much together and step back to a comfortable distance.

On the good days, this relationship fosters inspired work that is intense, demanding and fulfilling. When it ends, parting involves ambivalence. You enjoy what you do so you are reluctant to stop, but you feel a sense of relief in getting away for a time to relax and be nourished in different ways with your family and friends. Down time spent apart allows you to keep a view of your work partner as someone special.

The “Business Couple”

Nothing promises to replace the committed love of a primary relationship. But the bottom line is that men and women working closely together find themselves in relationships that in many ways mimic courtship and marriage. They ride the emotional roller coaster of success and failure side by side. They become interdependent. They think alike and share values. Common goals emerge and are met through mutual effort. They have a de facto marriage minus the morning breath, the kids’ problems and the mortgage payments. Fresh tailored clothes, a perpetually clean-shaven face, and a crisp clean shirt spare coworkers the gritty reality that personal appearances take on at home.

As pretty as this picture looks, however, a review of life’s priorities quickly suggests to participants what it lacks. Coworkers who are more than friends come to realize tha their work partner is not the one who takes care of them when they are sick, who shares the joys of the children, who wakes them up on Christmas morning. They take part in none of the life activities that make their at-home romantic relationships primary and their work relationships secondary. Above all, the privilege of discarding boundaries that separate individuals, the free merging of two people, is exclusive to the primary relationship.

Loving center-of-our-lives arrangements remain the source of our deepest satisfactions sexually and otherwise, but secondary relationships provide treasured qualities of narrow depth and exclusive experience not found elsewhere, especially since professional interests are dominant factors in our identities. They allow discovery and elaboration of parts of ourselves that remain unexplored in other relationships–passions for art or music of sports, say. One very sober “business couple” we know discovered to their vast amusement that they are both avid Elvis fans. On a business trip to Memphis they decided to use their free time to visit Graceland, simply because it’s there–something their mates wouldn’t do for money.

Good Work Is Sexy

“Business couples” breathe life into their projects together. They find themselves struggling to make them survive. They grieve when they fail. And they revel in the joy of what they’ve created in their intense interaction. They may travel together closing deals, winning accolades, recounting victorious days together. Good work is sexy!

Michelle and Kevin are intimates but not lovers. They are experimental chemists in the new-products division of a pharmaceutical company. They think and plan and dispute ideas together, then defend their ideas in the corporate world with an intensity known only to people who have shared insight. There is a magic between them that transcends chemical formulas and careers, and each of them knows it.

Sometimes they look at each other after completing an important thought in unison and, without words, communicate an appreciation for one another that unknowing observers might misconstrue as love. Their lab technique is a symphony of moves developed through countless hours of teamwork–they know each other’s professional souls, anticipate their every move, and sometimes it looks and feels very personal. But it isn’t, and they know it. When work ends, Michelle is totally absorbed in a life all her own with seldom a thought of her lab partner. In it she shares loving intimacy with another partner who doesn’t know a beaker from a Petri dish, but knows her like no one else does, not even Kevin, who has a fulfilling personal life of his own.


We recently talked with Judy and Mark, two industrial trainers who were among the earliest subjects in our investigation of non-loving intimates. We asked them how their arrangement could be so special and sustained and still not have eclipsed their romantic relationships–as many who react to our model suggest it must.

“It’s terribly unscientific,” Mark began, “but anyone who has ever been in love knows what it feels like–and the two of us have just never felt that way about each other. Fascination, respect, some lust from time to time, but never love.”

“We care a lot for each other, and we appreciate each other as colleagues, even find each other sexy,” Judy added.

“Sexual chemistry was there at the beginning and still is, after a fashion” explains Mark. “It made us special, and it still does. Things can get complicated when animal attraction occasionally gets mixed in with real caring, but it all amounts to something less than an irresistible force for us.

“The thoughts of fulfilling an already satisfying relationship come and go, but there’s been no real pain in not acting on them. There has been honest frustration sometimes, but when work ends and we part company, neither longs for the other or gets jealous of the people we each go home to.”

“The special times have always come when we’re putting everything we’ve got into a project,” notes Judy. Over time, the power of sexual attraction is not diminished, but they gain more experience and skill in handling it.

Company Benefits

What partners get out of non-loving intimacy is clear. Their relationship is amazingly satisfying psychologically, and very workable. They pursue their work with an abandon they never could afford if they were lovers who had to get along both at work and at home. They do genuinely inspired work together and honestly love it, their creative energy flowing from a sexual attraction they’ve chosen not to indulge physically or force into love. They have friends and family at home, where they recharge themselves.

Companies also benefit. They get highly motivated workers who are enthusiastic and happy. The relationship enhances creativity. And partners are not deceiving anyone or stealing work time. They waste no energy on feeling guilty.

Men and women bring differing and complementary orientations to shared work. A tremendous amount of energy can flow from their sex-based differences when they are allowed to keep their sexual identities, rather than suppress them in conformance with the corporate ideal of a safe, genderless workplace. Non-sexual intimates willingly spend time together to achieve great results–and avoid behavior that would threaten the relationship.

And so love is much as it’s always been. Sexual, romantic love has been and will be the many splendored thing, driven by a desire for fusion and physical intimacy and achieving that blurring of boundaries that takes place only in sex. But our model promises legitimacy for what many men and women have felt but dared not admit or act on–the reality that sexual chemistry can be safely shared with an associate and play a constructive role in their lives.

It works because what has changed the workplace has crept onto the domestic scene as well. The days of insecure spouses who waited at home has passed, part of the revolution that has swept women into jobs in large numbers. Simply put, peers understand peers. Newly equal husbands, wives and lovers accept what they know from common experience–colleagues may be sorely tempted to become lovers, but they will settle for being more than friends. The trust that makes it all possible is, after all, the only valid measure of romantic fidelity.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group