When Your Ex is a Co-Worker
What Happens When You Marry — and Divorce — Someone at Work
It’s like he didn’t know there was the potential for huge problems when he asked Sara to marry him. “It wasn’t like we were blind to the fact that this could be a disaster,” said Patrick Cuneo, an editorial writer for a daily newspaper, Erie Times-News, in northwestern Pennsylvania. “We talked about it many times. But my guess is that one or both of us wasn’t ready to be married. And how do you know that until you were in the middle of it?”
Cuneo says that he and his bride-to-be were aware that getting married and working for the same company had the potential for some major league headaches if the marriage went south. Which it did. We were married for about a year when she started seeing someone who also worked at the paper,” said the 52 year old. But no matter who is at fault, whatever the circumstances surrounding the break-up, the outcome creates a bad situation for everyone, including other coworkers who also happen to be your friends.”
Divorces between employees at the same company are more common than many realized, even in light of the fact that more and more corporations are instituting rules against dating and marriage between coworkers, according to David Rasner, veteran matrimonial lawyer and co-chair of the Family Law Group of Philadelphia-based law firm Fox Rothschild. “I have had many clients in this situation,” said the 61-year old. “It gets complicated for the obvious reasons. What matters is how they relate to one another and to the rest of the work force. What is the chain of command? Do they work on the same floor? Do they see each other a lot?”
But it gets much more complicated when one of the spouses is a family member. For instance, if the wife is also the daughter of the owner and marries someone who works at the company.” Which is precisely what Cuneo did. By far it was the biggest complication. I was married to one of the daughters of one of the operators of the paper who was a board member at the time,” recalled Cuneo.
Being 30 at the time, Cuneo still remembers how difficult it was to face his father-in-law about the divorce. And he was worried about losing his job. I had to talk to her whole family. It had to be done. So I told her father, our marriage has failed and I still want to work here. This might drive a big wedge in things “ he said. But surprisingly, he was really wonderful about the whole situation. He was a very nice man, and said all I want for you is to get healthy and survive out of this. He was worried for me as an individual. It was a great support mechanism.”
Cuneo didn’t lose his job and is still working at the newspaper 20 years later. But in the interim, it wasn’t easy. It was volatile, especially when the break up was happening. I would get angry calls, outbursts from her. And I was just feeling lousy about all of it. Of course, I was angry and she was angry. There were no physical confrontations, just a lot of awkwardness and volatile telephone calls. And of course, there was the division of friendships, because you both have the same friends and most of them work there. But I learned a valuable thing. When a friend says he wants to remain neutral, he can’t. And won’t. It was so awkward. For months and years to come.”
And so it is, says Rasner, and there is no way around it but to walk through it. The tension is there in the environment and everyone feels it. It shows in how the two interact and how the employees view it. The question is how long does the animosity they have bleed over into their work relationships?”
To help hasten through the animosity stage, move the parties closer to resolution, Rasner encourages his clients to talk to each other and face the issues outside of company walls. I am the kind of lawyer who encourages his client to talk to the spouse because I can get in the way. Simply to talk to one another and bring about resolution. You don’t want a third party making a decision about your life, but the work place is not the place to have this meeting.”
Dawn Cardi, a matrimonial lawyer in private practice in Manhattan, agrees. There has to be a level of confidentiality and privacy. I advise my clients who are involved in this type of situation to immediately involve human resources about what is occurring and to limit the scuttlebutt. You don’t want to bring it to the office water cooler. Any employee who brings their personal problems into the work place will suffer some repercussions in terms of the employer.”
While Cardi stresses that office gossip should be minimized at all costs, Raskin says it’s not easy to silence the grape vine. I certainly tell them to pay no attention to what is being said, but that’s easier said than done. Words are words and words do have effects. I tell them they are just going to have to tough it out.”
That’s absolutely true. It’s about perseverance and getting through it,” said Cuneo. I was the focal point of gossip, the center of it. The 200 some employees here, they all knew about it. They all talked about it. It’s a difficult thing to get through.”
But through it you have to go. And Cuneo was one of the luckier ones. He still has his job. Some aren’t as lucky. In more than one case, someone ends up quitting, or is fired. Often that does happen. It’s usually the person who has the lesser position,” said Cardi, 56.
Yes, it has happened in my experience, but it shouldn’t happen,” added Rasner. If both parties have viable jobs there, I would hope that they would work constructively so that their bad feelings didn’t spill over into the job. They need their economic stability, especially if they have kids. It costs more to support two families than one so both of them need economic resources. Just because you’re getting a divorce doesn’t divorce mean it’s the end of your life. Or that you should change your life, either.”
Lenore Skomal is a career journalist with 25 years experience. The author of nine books and columnist of an award-winning weekly column in the Erie, Pennyslvania Times-News, she also teaches college journalism in Pennsylvania.