THE BLOG
03/22/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

From 'Just Friends' to a Workplace Nightmare: What Happened?

QUESTION

Dear Irene,

A little more than a year ago I began a friendship with a female co-worker. We are both married and it never went beyond the friendship stage nor did either or us want it to. It started off simple enough, she knew I was into photography and she suspected a problem with her camera and asked me to take it for a while and see if I could find anything wrong.

The friendship grew to the point where we were taking most of our breaks together and we spent a lot of time talking and getting to know each other. We started at the job within a few months of each other and were both the "new kids" in the group and I think we tended to bond over that. She had numerous issues with management and came to me in tears two times because she felt she was being mistreated.

We already had a friendly relationship by that time and had exchanged hugs on occasion; I held her and let her cry on my shoulder. The friendship also grew outside of work and we had several get-togethers with our significant others: day trips to Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard, hiking in some local parks, and dinners at local restaurants as well at each of our houses. We always sat together during meetings at work and I think it was obvious to the rest of the staff that we enjoyed each other's company.

I went away for a two-week vacation at the end of October and she expressed concern several times as to how she would survive while I was gone. She wished I wasn't going and that she could go with me. I know people just say those things but she seemed more concerned than normal. She gave me a big hug the day I left and an even bigger one on the day I returned saying she was glad I was back.

Around the end of November, she did a complete 180 on me. I expressed concern that our friendship was falling apart. She said that I worried too much and we would always be friends. A few days later that changed into her not liking her job, not being able to separate me from it, and that she wanted me to just leave her alone.

I knew that she was having issues with the boss and she felt like he was always watching her. A few days later, when he was out for the day, I asked if we could get together for a few minutes to talk. Her response was simply "Leave me alone."

For Christmas, I sent her a photo book that had a lot of photos of her and her husband at various places we had visited in the past year. When I got back to work the week after Christmas I got a call from HR saying that she had filed a complaint against me. The complaint was initiated in response to the photo book but she also dragged in e-mails that she felt were inappropriate and told them that she never wanted to go out on breaks with me and she felt pressured into this and felt she could not say no. I never had any indication that she was less than happy going on breaks with me and she never said anything to me about my e-mails being inappropriate. I considered us friends and the e-mails (all but one of them to non-work e-mail accounts) were friendly e-mails. She underlined things like Do you have time for a friend? Or I miss the closeness we shared, and one that I signed with a virtual hug.

I am still waiting for the final decision from HR but for the time being we have simply been told to not have any contact with each other. We are both at work and it is very difficult for me right now. I try to avoid her as much as possible and wait to be sure she is in her office before I leave mine.

I don't know how this friendship went from best friend to worst enemy on her side so quickly and I have no idea what I could have done to cause this since she won't tell me. I have had problems with depression myself in the past and this episode has me back on meds for that; it helps with the pain but not my inability to understand any of this. I don't understand how she could have been my friend, how we could have been so close and how it has ended up like this.

Signed,
Depressed in Boston

ANSWER

Dear Depressed in Boston:

Your story is sad and hard to grasp for me, too. You say that you were "just friends" with this woman--in and out of the office--for almost a year and then the relationship seemed to deteriorate for no apparent reason.

My sense is that there had to be something that was going on in her personal life that you don't know about. Perhaps, her husband began to feel threatened by her office friendship. Or perhaps, while you were away on vacation, she realized that she had become more attached to you emotionally than was comfortable for her. I don't know the answers to these questions or whether I'm even raising the right possibilities. You probably don't either. The truth may be something she is unwilling to tell you or something that she doesn't fully understand herself.

That said, she made a unilateral decision to dump you and sealed the deal with a visit to HR. Then she began to collect "evidence" to build a case that your advances were unwelcome and had crossed the boundaries of a collegial relationship.

You haven't mentioned your response to HR and what they are "deciding." If the charges are serious and/or your job is in jeopardy, it would be wise to consult with an attorney. I'm also wondering how you handled this situation with your wife. Have you been able to be candid with her so you could depend on her for support? Finally, have you been totally forthcoming and honest with yourself in terms of your expectations of this friendship?

Clearly, you have no option now but to step back from the relationship with your co-worker and to limit any contact. Do not send her any emails or text messages at the office or at home.

Focus on maintaining your performance at work and on making sure you comply with any conditions that have been set forth by your employer. It's important that you work through your feelings about this upsetting situation outside the office: either with your wife, a trusted friend, or a mental health professional. If they have worked for you in the past, an antidepressant may be of help. If you feel the need and have the opportunity, you may want to transfer to another unit of your organization or change employment.

As hard as it may be, you have to accept that you may never have a complete understanding of what happened, just your side of the equation, and that you need to pick up the pieces as best you can and move forward.

I hope that this helps a little.

Best,
Irene

Have a question about female friendships? Send it to The Friendship Doctor.

Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and her book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving A Breakup With Your Best Friend, was recently published by Overlook Press. She also co-authored Schizophrenia for Dummies (Wiley, 2008). She blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog and on PsychologyToday.com.