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The Golden Rules of Dealing With Working Together When You're NC

Breaking up and cutting contact with someone that you work with is hard - I should know as my ex sat opposite me for some of our breakup, then across the room, and then eventually moved to a different department...down the hall. We were also in the same social circle for nights out, his close friend was my friend's boyfriend, and sometimes we had client meetings. It was trickier to break up and distance myself but it was far from being impossible.

What you must recognise is that being professional at work takes precedence, but being 'friends' or even continuing to be together / sleep together is not the same thing.

It's too late to concern yourself about the fact that you're working together and be all, "Oh my God we work together!" That ship has sailed. It's the same for if it's client. You have always been working with this person, it's just that you thought you could handle it or that what you had together was so great that it would transcend it. It may even be that you both have too much to lose by being unprofessional but that doesn't mean that at least one of you won't forget yourselves and push the boundaries.

Is cutting contact with your boss, colleague or client tricky? Yes but don't let that stop you though. Think of it more like distancing yourself by limiting access. It's time to get back and stay on a professional footing.

You may be scared of being a 'hard ass' - I wouldn't worry about that and focus on doing the right thing by you. Trust me, you'll thank me for it because if you don't, they will pull the switcheroo on you and you'll be blindsided by their antics. If you shut this down now and show that you mean business, it doesn't have to get to the point of it being so treacherous that you think that you need to leave.

It is difficult and the whole thing is frustrating and hurtful, but it's needed. You cannot try to out-nice them in an attempt to avoid conflict and discomfort. What are you going to do? Keep replying to their emails or even sleeping with them because you don't want to deal with a breakup at work? Guess what? You're only delaying the inevitable, making more pain for yourself and you are not the first person and you won't be the last to be involved with someone at work - it happens a lot more than you think.

Once I made my decision to cut contact, I dug my heels in, gritted my teeth and got on with it. At first it took a lot of effort but after a while, it became second nature. You will find that the toughest days are when:

  • You let hope creep in and have another try at explaining your position or ranting at them.
  • You make the mistake of thinking that it's safe to be friends when it's too soon and then having to fend them off.
  • You get drunk and get into a massive argument, feel horny, or feel nostalgic or all three.
  • They get drunk and pick an argument with you, try it on, or get nostalgic, or all three.
  • You read their inappropriate emails.
  • Client meetings, calls, and emails.
  • Having to remind them that you want space and not to push their luck.

However all of these become a lot easier and the general working together thing becomes manageable when you remember some golden rules.

1. Do NC, not as a power play, but to reset the boundaries with you both.
If you do this, it pushes hope out of the picture, especially if you value your career or this particular job.

2. Do not use the work environment, whether it's the physical space, email, phone or whatever to interact with your ex on anything other than a professional level.
Keep everything strictly above board and about work. Remember, if for some reason this all goes into dicey territory and other parties at work get involved, at least you don't have the added headache of being considered unprofessional by the likes of HR.

3. I'm going to assume you're not working at a Mickey Mouse operation and that you're both intelligent grownups that are likely respected by your peers, can problem solve, pitch, explain, sell, or whatever - if and when you choose to tell them verbally or via email that they're not to liase with you unless it's about work, make your point, be polite, firm, and then leave it be.
You don't need to be mean about it - just tell them that you need space and really need to get back to normal and move on. Don't explain beyond that and tell them that while you're not up for being bosom buddies, you're not looking to declare war - you just need them to respect your need for space. If you have to explain something several times to someone at work, you'd wondered if they were a numpty. Say your piece and then act. If they try to overstep the mark, they'll be met with silence with the lack of response or cool politeness.

4. Accept that it will be hard.
Expecting it to be easy or easier is fooling yourself. It wasn't that easy to be involved with a coworker/client - it sure as hell isn't going to be easy to break up with them. Remember, normally when we break up with people, we don't have to face them at work each day. Be patient with you and accept that it will be hard before it gets better.

5. Keep conversations strictly professional and cut it off as soon as they overstep the mark.
The message becomes very clear: If you cross the line, I will shut down and we'll have nothing to do with one another at all. Likewise, make sure that you are totally professional because if you are not, you may inadvertently give them reason to feel their own behaviour is legitimate. I literally used to say "Well...that's my cue to leave then!" On emails that were part professional, part personal, I responded to the professional bit and ignored the inappropriate bit. If it was all inappropriate I just hit delete. If you're working on clients, read those emails. Everything else, delete as soon as it becomes apparent that it's personal.

6. You can be courteous and polite - it's called being professional. Anything else is overkill.
It's very easy to get things twisted and think that you have to bend over backwards - you don't. Stop trying to be friends. You've just broken up AND you've had to do NC to put boundaries there - stop undoing the work you've already done by trying to be The Good Girl / The Good Guy. You can be polite and professional - it's called doing your j.o.b.

7. Try to avoid being alone with them.
There's a few side streets, cafes, and bars around Oxford Circus in London where I've been 'caught alone'. If you have to work on a project together, suck it up and try to avoid working late. If there are other people there it's easier. Don't hang around being social afterwards if you can avoid it, or certainly don't do this if you're alone. Do change your routine. My ex used to 'pop up' when I was out and about because he knew where I'd be or would follow me out after leaving a social function, harangue me and then we'd end up having a row in the street. Once you have cut contact and you may even have said back off and leave me alone, that means that especially because you're at work, they have to do as you request. If they persist, remind them that everything must be strictly professional.

8. If you've been involved with your boss and you're finding it difficult to keep your distance and respect your own boundaries, it's time to get a new job.
Tough to hear but if you can't keep it professional or your boss is threatening your future now that you won't sleep with them, you're kinda caught between a rock and a hard place. Yes it may take a little while and yes it involves swallowing your pride, but if you guys can't get out of this amicably and respectfully, your job is doomed. Don't cling to it out of pride and stubbornness.

9. If you need them for a reference, I'd do it now.
If you're on OK terms, get the recommendation but whatever you do, do not appear desperate for it and be prepared for the possibility of it not coming through. If they sense that you need it, they may withhold it so that they have a reason for contacting you.

10. Steer clear of listening to or joining in on gossip.
The upside of any info that you do catch is that it may cement your reason for doing NC. The downside of any information that you do catch is that you may over blow the meaning of it, internalise it, give yourself a hard time, lose perspective, and react to it.

11. Accept that you cannot control what everyone thinks of you.
People might talk but it does pass, especially if you're not providing any fodder. You will play a fools game if you base your actions on trying to prove to co-workers that you're a wonderful person - you're trying to prove who you are in a romantic context. It's a place of work and the only thing you need to demonstrate is your professionalism. People will make up their own mind but often, they care a lot less than you think.

12. Be polite in social situations but keep a very clear distance, especially around alcohol.
They can have a rant at you but you don't have to listen and so take it from someone who knows, don't let your guard down at social events and if you know they have a tendency to get drunk and mouthy when out, keep your distance, try not to get caught out alone, or leave early. You'll only need to do this the first few times and then they'll get the message.

13. Feel no guilt; feel professional

14. Don't invest too much energy into trying to rationalise their behaviour or understand their rationale
You're not the same people, you do things for different reasons, and you'd be surprised how people can surprise you with their immaturity when you will no longer do as they say. When someone boasts about their latest conquests, tries to antagonise you at work, flirts with people in front of you, sends pleading emails only for you to discover that they're with someone else, or whatever, it just goes to show that you're well shot of them. You cannot get inside their head and the truth is, if someone is behaving in such ways that you practically need a hacker to work out what the frick is going on, they're not worthy of your time. Healthy people are just not that complex.