We’ve all heard the stories and seen the movies: A new cute coworker slowly develops a friendship with a married colleague. They trade banter over Slack. They’re touchy feely at office lunches and happy hour. The next thing you know, the two are in a full-blown affair.
But many people around the country are working from home due to COVID-19. Ongoing affairs have been complicated. And without the office and after-work happy hours, close bonds with questionable boundaries are less likely to develop into something physical, said Talal H. Alsaleem, a marriage therapist and founder of the Infidelity Counseling Center in Roseville, California.
“Physical closeness at work not only allows for more opportunities of forming inappropriate emotional attachments to colleagues, but it also allows for these attachments to flourish via physical interactions,” Alsaleem said. “There’s flirtatious comments, oversharing of personal information, going on walks or taking lunches together.”
Most importantly, he said, an in-office work environment can trick people into ignoring or minimizing any inappropriate or borderline behaviors and attachments. At home ― with your spouse possibly in the other room ― that facade doesn’t exist.
So is the office affair dead?
For the dedicated cheater, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Caroline Madden, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in infidelity recovery counseling, has seen just how tenacious the unfaithful can be, even amid a global pandemic.
People are getting caught in record numbers, according to Madden’s anecdotal evidence; she said sales of her book “Blindsided By His Betrayal” have been especially high.
“Work from home did quash emotional affairs from turning into physical ones, but people are in emotional-affair hyperdrive right now,” the Los Angeles-based therapist said.
Interestingly, Madden said clients are confiding in her that they’re surprised at how much they miss certain co-workers now that they don’t see them regularly.
“They didn’t fully appreciate that they were maybe falling in love with someone until that person wasn’t there physically anymore and there was no excuse to contact them,” she told HuffPost.
In some cases, people may have emotional affairs at work and not even realize it. “Emotional affairs are all about the secret texting and inside jokes,” she said. “One of the reasons people have affairs is to escape from the pressure of home. Lots of pressure equals lots of need to escape.”
And though the office may be closed, local hotels are open. Supermarkets and retail stores are open, too, supplying duplicitous spouses with an easy excuse for why they’re out.
“The big lie at the beginning on the pandemic ― back when we all thought it would be two weeks ― was ‘I’m going to Costco,’” she said. “They would be gone a very long time and come home with nothing to show for it. Seriously, this seems to be in the Cheater’s Guide In a Pandemic.”
Or they’ll say they have to run to work to pick something up at the office or that they want to get COVID tested, when in reality, they’re meeting up with their affair partner.
The calculating cheater now uses the workplace as the excuse.
Kris, a tax accountant in Dallas, said a married coworker who’s seeing another coworker on the side simply tells her husband that work wants her at the office on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“This allowed them both to spend nine hours together doing everything they’ve always wanted to do at the guy’s place, but couldn’t with so many coworkers around,” said Kris, who asked to use his first name only to protect his privacy.
“They began forming a bond much deeper than it had been initially, with so much time together,” he said. “It became something more than just an affair. They talked openly of moving in together after a few months.”
As of now, Kris said, their charade is still going on, unbeknownst to the woman’s husband.
But working from home means more opportunities to get caught.
Other cheaters aren’t as successful in their two-timing.
If both partners are working from home, that gives the betrayed partner a lot more opportunities to pick up on questionable behavior.
Madden said spouses are overhearing conversations or noticing that their S.O. clings tightly to their phone all day, even while stuck at home. If you’re talking to your coworker-turned-affair-partner on Slack or Gchat throughout the day, you run the risk of your actual partner seeing a message pop up.
In some instances, affair partners who are sick of being put on the back burner during the pandemic come out of the wings and divulge the affair.
“This has always been a common way a wife has found out,” Madden said. “Usually the reason is that the husband has tried to call off the affair and then the affair partner retaliates by calling the wife.”
In other cases, the cheating spouse ends things because they’re just too exhausted to live a double life during a global pandemic.
“As the quarantine turned from two weeks to two months to nine months, the lies and excuses were harder and harder to come up with,” she said. “They broke it off to not get caught.”
Of course, affairs that start outside office walls have been impacted by COVID-19, too ― or in some cases, been discovered.
Zach, a tech worker in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, had been seeing a woman for seven months prior to COVID. He discovered he was actually the other man because of lockdown.
The woman’s work hours were cut and her school program ended a quarter early, which should have increased her availability. When it didn’t, Zach got suspicious.
“Prior to COVID we talked and texted several times a day and met in person on average once a week,” he told HuffPost. “After lockdown, we spoke less and less, until our phone conversations were limited to when she was in the car.”
Come to find out, her primary partner was home all day, too. Zach and the woman ended things and he suspects her S.O. found out.
“Lockdown made it way harder for her to hide her bullshit,” he said.
Lockdown has actually encouraged some couples to focus on repairing their relationships after infidelity.
Interestingly, Alsaleem said the pandemic has caused some couples to see the value in their relationship in trying times, however flawed it may be and in spite of infidelity.
For those dreading a break-up in the midst of a pandemic ― or those who can’t afford to move because of new financial strains ― taking a step back and considering the possibility of repairing the relationship is often the more appealing option.
“One interesting trend that I have noticed is hearing many of my new clients say that if it wasn’t for COVID-19, they wouldn’t have decided to seek help after the discovery of an affair,” he said.
“Being stuck due to shelter-in-place and the difficulty of finding a place to move out to after the discovery has prevented couples from making the impulsive decision to end the relationship,” he said. “They’re working through their anger and hurt.”