THE BLOG
12/13/2011 10:57 am ET Updated Feb 12, 2012

Office Breakup? How To Get Over It (And Stay Employed)

There are ways to minimize the fallout of a friendship breakup at work.

QUESTION

Dear Irene,

Right now, only we know about it, but it's bound to spread around the office. I am not planning to say anything, but she likely will. Regardless, it will eventually become apparent to others that my former close work friend and I are no longer friends.

In my opinion, our friendship enhanced my work situation, but I am still a great performer at work without the friendship. Unfortunately, I'm worried that our manager is likely to think that this is an epic crisis. I should add that my former friend is more outgoing than me and she's in my boss's inner circle (my manager play favorites, but that's another issue).

My impression is that people see my former friend as this nice, sweet thing who could never be selfish or self-centered or blow off a good friend. Most would agree though that she is flaky, sometimes unreliable, always late, etc., she has many, many, many acquaintance-type friendships. I have a small circle of super-close friends. (I see now in hindsight I should have kept her just as superficial friend, but I can't undo that now.)

For me, my word as a friend is super-important -- loyalty, reliability, kindness, trust, empathy, compassion etc. are paramount. But she has a different understanding of these things. I would feel terrible if I had hurt a friend, even unintentionally. I can't be friends with someone whose response is "Oh well, those are your feelings and I don't even acknowledge they had anything to do with me. Good luck. I am proceeding with my life as if this never happened." I'm guessing that point of view works for her, but it's a dealbreaker for me.

Our friendship ended when we had made a commitment to do something together and she blew it off. It bothered me because all she had to do was tell me, or since she couldn't find me, leave me a message using any one of the many electronic means of communication we all have at our disposal now. When I called her to find out where she was and tell her I was upset that she changed plans without telling me, she just blew off my feelings and wondered what the big deal was. I didn't sleep at all that night I was so upset, so I texted her the next day to tell her I was still upset. Again, she gave excuses about why she did what she did and was basically like, "What's the big deal?"

She told me she thought something else must be going on in my life to make me react with such rage (since we were communicating via text, that seemed like a leap). I know I should not have used text to communicate something so emotion-laden for me, but since she'd blown me off on the phone, I wanted to be sure I was communicating clearly. Her reply was that she wasn't going to discuss it with me any further. I have no idea what she is talking about and since she closed with the message that she wasn't going to discuss it further, I'm kind of stuck.

Here is my problem: Outside of the work world, I would have chalked this up to lesson-learned, this person has different ideas and values when it comes to friendships, and I would move on. But we work together. What am I going to do?

Also, even though his person doesn't meet my personal standards for being a friend, I'm still going through the breakup issues -- made all the worse by the fact that I can't exactly quit my job. I'm stuck seeing her. And I'm stuck in a group of people who haven't been as close a friend as I have, or they haven't been burned by her, or they just don't see or aren't bothered by what I am bothered by.

The things I most want to avoid are:

  • A fallout with our manager and her getting mad at me and blaming me entirely for the incident (very likely)
  • Tension with other co-workers who might feel caught in the middle
  • Loss of the interconnected work relationships I had due to my friendship with my former friend

I also need some strategies for handling my sadness while here at work. Crying at my desk is not an option (although I've been doing it every day. I can't help it) so I'm really desperate.

Signed,

Mia

ANSWER

Dear Mia,

It's always hard to get over being dumped by a friend. Because we invest so much of ourselves in our friendships, it's normal to feel disappointed, guilty, angry, sad, ashamed and/or embarrassed when this happens. Admittedly, having to see the person on a daily basis compounds these difficulties. While there's no quick fix, let me assure you that with tincture of time, these feelings will dissipate.

Not all friendships last forever -- so don't blame yourself for this one ending. Also, be careful about jumping to the erroneous conclusion that office friendships never work out. You ultimately recognized there were parts of this person you didn't like. Aside from the one incident that appears to have signaled the death knell for the friendship, you began to see this ex-friend as someone who was self-centered and more concerned with looking good and having superficial relationships than being a loyal friend. Also, when someone is unable or unwilling to communicate and work through problems, minor disagreements or breeches of the friendship can easily become insurmountable problems.

In terms of your immediate problems in the workplace, here's my advice:

  • This breakup shouldn't affect your work, per se, so I wouldn't worry unnecessarily about your manager having an extreme reaction or blaming you for something that doesn't affect your work. Remember, what happened was personal, not professional.
  • Act cordially to your friend in the workplace (e.g. Greet her when you pass each other in the hall and conduct business, as necessary).
  • Don't involve other co-workers or friends in any discussion of the breakup. If anyone asks, just say that you and your colleague decided that you both needed a bit of space. Be especially careful not to badmouth your friend or ask others to choose sides.

Hold your head high, stay engaged with your work and your co-workers and, for now, depend on your friends outside the office for support.

Hope this helps.

My best,

Irene

Prior posts on The Friendship Blog about workplace friendships: