my boss is having an affair with a coworker and I found out from his wife

A reader writes:

My boss is having an affair with someone in my organization, and I learned the news from his wife.

I’m a manager of a business unit of about 50 people. I have five direct reports, but I ensure that everything is running smoothly for all 50. I like my role and I’m respected here.

My organization provides a great working environment and it’s been my safe haven during the past year, as I’ve been going through a separation with my husband and have filed for divorce. My work life has been my calm, refuge, and my place of productivity and creativity during this transition. A small number of people in my office know about my divorce. The interesting thing is, as soon as you tell people you are divorcing, people feel open to confide in you about their own marriages. Three people in my office have confided in me already, and two of those are my boss and his wife. Note: his wife also works in my department, but does not report to me.

I truly respect and like these people, but I’m in a very awkward spot. My boss indicated that, like me, he is also having marital trouble. He didn’t go into detail, but he told me he’s not the same person he was when he married and he told me imagines a different future. My ex assaulted me and I think initially his wife came to me to be a friend to me. When she came to console me, she quickly began sharing with me many details about their marital shortcomings: the younger women he’s enthralled with, the stress she’s experiencing in her marriage, and the effects on their two teenage children. She tells me she thinks I’m strong and respects my decision to stand on my own.

I know she’s getting the counseling that she needs and she doesn’t stop in my office often (once every 4-6 weeks), but when she does stop to see me, I feel very uncomfortable and I worry for days after. I admire and respect both of these people. His wife is intelligent, gentle, and kind, but I can’t be her secret confidant.

Please tell me what I should say to his wife the next time she stops in my office and closes my door. I have not talked about this to anyone in my organization and I don’t plan to. I must set boundaries immediately with her, but without making an enemy. If he’s having an affair with this younger woman in my organization, you might expect the news might have an impact on his career, but given his power here, I doubt the consequences would be severe. I am, however, worried about my own job security now that the boss’s wife sees me as her confidant.

Whoa, yes, I can imagine how uncomfortable and awkward this is.

I’d say this to her: “Jane, I’ve realized that I shouldn’t keep talking with you about your marriage, because I work for Rupert. I like and respect you so much, and I want you to know that it’s not a reflection of anything other than concerns about navigating the work relationships. I want nothing but the best for you and think you’re a great person — I just realized I shouldn’t know some of this.”

If she’s as kind as you think she is, she’ll get this. She might feel a little embarrassed or awkward, but that’s sort of inherent to the situation. One thing that may help, though, is finding other reasons to talk to her (about non-marriage stuff) quickly afterwards. For example, if you talk to her about Lamar Odom later that day (please, can we all talk about Lamar?), have a normal work conversation with her the next day, etc., you’ll demonstrate that she doesn’t need to feel weird and the relationship can continue to be a pleasant one, just minus the really personal marriage confidences.

{ 74 comments… read them below }

  1. Student*

    You aren’t really obligated to do anything about it, but I’d encourage you to keep an eye out for signs that your boss is mistreating the women who report to you. When I see “boss is possibly pursuing younger women at the organization”, I see, “abuse of a power dynamic”, followed by “possible sexual harassment action,” followed by, “playing favorites and disrupting morale”, followed by “young woman may need serious mentoring and possibly help.”

    You might be in a position to intervene in a positive way with your boss if there is more to this than gossip from his wife. At the very least, it’s in everyone’s best interests if he’s encouraged to look outside the organization for companionship.

    1. Lily in NYC*

      I’ve read over the post a few times and I’m starting to think there is only 1 woman he’s having an affair with and the use of the plural for women is a grammatical error (my coworker always makes the same exact error with women/woman).

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think he is having an affair with one woman but enthralled with several others.

      I’m basing that on these lines:

      “My boss is having an affair with someone in my organization.”

      “the younger women he’s enthralled with”

      Aha, I just saw this:
      “If he’s having an affair with this younger women in my organization”

      I do think that’s a typo. I’ll correct it.

  2. OriginalYup*

    Yowza. I feel for you. That’s a lot of other people’s personal stuff all up in your work space, right when you need your job to be a place where you can get away from thinking about personal stuff.

    One phrase that’s worked well for me is a simple “It’s tough, isn’t it?” said with a sad smile, and then changing the subject. Alison is right on about how to set the boundaries, but the spouse slips from time to time and brings up her own situation to you, you can just deflect with this phrase and switch the conversation to something neutral. It’s tough to not feel like you’re kicking a puppy when trying to get space from well-meaning or empathy-needing people, so having canned responses can help.

    And FWIW, if it ever gets weird with your boss, feel free to pretend ignorance. “Did Drusilla tell you I was having an affair with Buffy?!?!?” “She mentioned that you two were having tough times, probably because she knew what I was going through personally. But no, Spike, I don’t consider your private life any of my business.”

  3. Snarkus Aurelius*

    It’s definitely not you, OP, but there IS something about negative life experiences that blur the lines of polite society and turn ordinary conversations into one-way therapy sessions.  I once worked for a woman who could only have positive relationships with female employees if we told her something personally heartbreaking: divorce, miscarriage, etc.  Some people are wired this way, but it’s definitely not okay.

    Deflecting as AAM suggested is not only good for the workplace but for every other social situation where someone decides to emotionally unload on you.  As long as you don’t give them the reaction they’re looking for, they (usually) go away.

    1. hbc*

      I’m flashing back to a high school teacher who was known for giving higher grades if you cried in class. Not “Waah, the dog ate my homework” or other excuses about poor performance, just opening up about personal tragedies. It was gross.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        I remember reading a news story about office team building horror stories.  In one instance, the consultant running the exercise insisted that everyone share something that they’ve never told anyone else ever.  One participant understandably stated his discomfort, and the consultant responded, “But how are you supposed to build up trust with your coworkers if you don’t demonstrate trust in the first place?”

        How about turning in your TPS reports on time and not calling in sick every Monday and Friday?  Doing those two things will get you further with me than telling me about the time you cheated on a test in elementary school.

        1. Blurgle*

          Not having a clue who Lamar Odom is, I just googled him and discovered that someone named Khloé has cut her hair in inspiration.

        2. SevenSixOne*

          I would push back on this too, and if the facilitator insisted, I’d probably just blatantly lie and describe an outlandish, well-known movie plot as something that actually happened to me.

          “A long long time ago, in a galaxy far away…”

          1. Stranger than fiction*

            Haha they did that on The Office. Forget which movie it was but someone caught on and it was hilarious.

          2. Snarkus Aurelius*

            I’d probably talk about how I went to a bachelorette party in Vegas with my three friends and we lost the bride the night before the wedding but we didn’t remember anything from the night before. Then I talk about how we spent all day trying to find her before the wedding that was in a few hours.

      2. AnonT*

        Ah, now I’m having flashbacks to my own high school years. There was a drama class a lot of people took (myself included), and one of the assignments was to tell a “personal story” on stage, in front of the rest of the class and the teacher. Theoretically it could be any story, but it was well known that you only passed if it was really personal, and you only got an actually good grade if you got super emotional and/or cried. I think nominally it was an exercise in projecting your voice, but no one ever got graded down for being too quiet.

        That kind of bonding always struck me as very unpleasant. I really don’t want to know everyone’s sob story, and I’m not especially keen on everyone knowing mine, either.

        1. Lily in NYC*

          We had to do the same thing in the Dale Carnegie course (my boss made us take it) and my story was complete fiction. I even forced a few fake tears.

        2. KR*

          I had to take communications in college. My teacher was like this where she wanted to know all about your life. The class wasn’t about communication, but rather introspection and sharing. One of our main assignments was an extremely personal and thorough 20+ page questionnaire about our lives from birth up until now. It was so invasive that I left half the stuff blank. Worst teacher ever.

        3. some_guy*

          Reminds me of those “dad comes home from Afghanistan and makes his kids cry by showing up in the middle of their classroom” or something videos. Really uncomfortable. Or heck, even the positive spin, “filming my wife/dad/uncle’s reaction when I bought him/her a new truck/diamond ring” videos make me uncomfortable for the victim.

          1. the gold digger*

            Oh man. Those are so invasive. I don’t have a problem with dad showing up; I have a problem with it being taped and shared. I was only six when my dad came back from Vietnam, so I was not old enough to be scared. We didn’t have a TV and I didn’t read the paper, so I didn’t know what was going on.

            But now, these kids know that that their mothers or fathers are in danger and that soldiers are being killed. They are scared every day. I find it really exploitive to film their reunions with a parent they thought they might never see again.

            1. JessaB*

              In front of a class of kids who may also have parents in harm’s way and now be more scared or wondering if their parent is going to come in next.

        4. Natalie*

          I feel like this must be common in drama classes. Community did a whole bit on it where a character makes up a story because they don’t have any childhood pain to talk about.

      3. Snazzy Hat*

        Only if this were drama class. Having attended impeccable performances of “All My Sons”, “Romeo and Juliet”, and “Pygmalion” in the past year, were I a drama teacher I would want to know which of my students can bawl convincingly at the drop of a hat.

        1. Snazzy Hat*

          On second thought, bonus points if you recite/recreate a story from a play. Don’t actually tell a personal story.

      4. Elizabeth West*

        Ugh, that reminds me of that Stephen King story “The Library Police,” where the horn-faced monster made the kids cry and lived off their tears. Yuck yuck yuck yuck.

      5. abc*

        I took a peer counseling class in high school because I assumed I would learn something about counseling one’s peers. Instead, the class ended up being about the creepy old teacher who loved to hear all the stories about teenage drinking, drugs, and sex. And the students had no problem opening up to him (and the class) about it. No actual counseling or education on counseling skills took place. I never shared anything because my high school experience as a sophomore with the above-mentioned subjects was zero, and even if I had any, I certainly wasn’t going to share them in that forum. I told the teacher at the end of the class I was disappointed in it, and he told me he was disappointed in me. For not giving him juicy teen gossip, I suppose. *Shudder*

    2. Koko*

      Yes, it’s the shared sense of adversity. It’s such a fascinating area of group psychology.

      It’s the reason why neighbors get really friendly and helpful when a blizzard hits. Everyone, no matter who they are, is equally inconvenienced by the blizzard. Someone who you would normally have nothing in common with and struggle to relate to suddenly becomes 100x more relatable because they are being screwed by the blizzard too, and you know just what that feels like.

    3. ElCee*

      This is why I don’t like the TV show Chopped. I don’t want to hear your sob story, I want to see you make a burger out of salted durian.

  4. RVA Cat*

    I’m really sorry that you’re being put in this situation, OP. I agree that you need to set boundaries with Betty and with Don, plus making sure Don isn’t creeping on your people.

    Also….it’s Wednesday!

  5. AMG*

    OP, be one with the ostrich. You know nothing. Have the conversations and push this out of your mind.

    Also, I am happy to participate in a discuss re Lamar Odom. You can come to me for all of your tabloid gossip needs. I’m here for all of you.

    1. Kelly White*

      Is something new happening with Lamar? I had hoped that he and Khloe could work things out- she seems to really love him, but I admire her for also understanding she can’t help him unless he wants to be helped.

      1. AMG*

        He and Khloe are running around together, so good for them but at the same time, I think he needs to get away from the whole Klan if he wants to stay sober. They are too toxic.

        1. LBK*

          What’s interesting is that all things considered, the women in the family seem pretty stable and responsible. I haven’t heard even rumors of any of them having drug/alcohol problems.

          1. Ann Furthermore*

            Yes, but they still have to wake up every day and be who they are. The ones I feel sorry for are the kids, especially the girls, who are being raised to believe that their looks and bodies are the only things of value that they have to offer.

            1. Kelly L.*

              Yeah–I don’t feel sorry for the adults, they are making their own choices and seem to be mostly enjoying life–but I feel like someone should have protected Kendall at some point, and told her you don’t have to date a much older man and you don’t have to have plastic surgery while you’re still a teen.

              1. h.cowl*

                Not to be pedantic but that’s Kylie. Kendall seems really grounded to me. (I know I am awful but I love their show!)

              2. LBK*

                She does have a career as a supermodel, though, so on some level I think you could justify the plastic surgery as a business decision. All things considered I think that’s the least dangerous or harmful thing the modelling industry and/or being a young celebrity can push you into – I’d be more worried to hear she’d developed an eating disorder. At least plastic surgery isn’t inherently dangerous.

                1. LBK*

                  Oops – I’m mixing up the Jenners. Kendall’s the one with the bigger career and Kylie’s the one who’s done the surgery. Either way, though, my larger point standards that many people thrust into the spotlight that young get into much worse things that plastic surgery.

            2. blackcat*

              I really would like to see laws against putting children on reality TV. They can’t meaningfully consent.

          2. h.cowl*

            Agreed! Lamar’s family of origin seems far more toxic than the Kardashians. I know they get a lot of flack but I kind of love them and their family dynamics. It’s super recognizable to anyone with a large blended family.

        2. Bowserkitty*

          I’ve seen reports (aka my hatereading for the Kardashians on ONTD) that she posted something to Instagram about how sometimes you just need to learn to give up and let go, and people are speculating it’s because he’s still going out and partying a lot. It’s a sad situation I think.

          Does not change the fact I dislike the whole Klan….ugh. How much longer until they fade to the background like Paris Hilton?

      2. Alli525*

        There was a People article a few hours ago citing “a close source” that the marriage is over, they are not getting back together, but they’re still friends and legally married. I think her actions in the wake of his overdose were very classy, but it sounds like (from the People article) his recovery is more or less coming to an end, and the reasons they split up in the first place are still there. They also mention that he’s starting to go out with friends and drink again, and she is obviously against that but can’t really stop him.

      3. Kelly O*

        I was really hoping they would make it, for reasons I cannot even fully articulate. I so want her to be the “normal” one (I mean, as normal as a Kardashian can wind up being.)

        I will totally be involved in pop culture/celebrity sidebars. Any time.

    2. Emmie*

      My heart goes out to Khloe and Kourtney. I cannot imagine dealing with a significant other’s addiction issues in such a public forum. Although I do not agree with all of their choices, they are brilliant businesswomen, marketing geniuses, and product endorsement mavens. Kim took a horrific incident – the release of an intimate tape – and monetized that for significant success. Then she ensured her family profited as well. I share some of the same concerns as all of you about the plastic surgery, the sex, and the kids.

      1. Bubble Wrapped Foot*

        Well I don’t know how horrific the release of that tape actually was. If multiple sources and news outlets over the years are to be believed, that was orchestrated and released by Kris and the public was fed the story that it was terrible that it happened, presumably to increase interest in a “forbidden” video. I get that not everyone shares the same values, but that her mother would make money off of her daughter on her back is so icky to me.

        1. Emmie*

          I haven’t focused on that b/c I have no clue what’s true. It would horrifying me if indeed she did that. The family is polarizing. I imagine that we’ll see less of them in ten years once they age, and focus more on business ventures.

    3. Jeanne*

      I can’t deal with Lamar. After all that, he was able to stop dialysis. Dialysis horrible and to only have to do it temporarily is…well I hope he appreciates it.

  6. The IT Manager*

    I will point out that all the LW knows is that the boss is likely having an emotional affair with coworker which is different than the title suggests.

    OTOH this is an icky, icky situation. The manager’s wife is either in his chain of command or is so damn close to it that his reports are in the same business unit as his wife. So very messy. This is why rules about dating and relationships at work are a good thing. They prevent at least some of this convoluted mess where someone becomes concerned that a friendly relationship with a co-worker could hurt them because the co-worker is the bosses soon-to-be ex.

    Allison’s advice is great. You office sounds relatively sane and safe and I hope it remains that way.

  7. ThursdaysGeek*

    I’m confused. Is the boss having an affair with one or more than one co-worker? LW says “younger women” and that’s plural. Or is that just a typo? More than one woman but only one that is a co-worker (if the wife mentioned names)?

    I guess the advice is still good, no matter what, but this could sure blow up badly, especially if there are multiple co-workers involved.

    1. Lily in NYC*

      I was wondering the same thing! I think it’s a typo and OP meant one specific young woman.

    2. Mallory Janis Ian*

      I took it as he is enthralled with younger women in general and is currently having an affair with one in particular.

      Regardless, it will be good for the OP not to be seen by her boss as his wife’s confidante.

    3. AnonT*

      The language the OP (or, perhaps, the boss’ wife if it’s a direct quote) used was that the boss was “enthralled” with younger women, plural. The impression I got was that he could be having an affair OR just be interested in/attracted to several women. Either would, I assume, be problematic for his marriage.

      It also sounds like the OP doesn’t know if there is a specific affair with a coworker, but worries that it might be. Their exact language is: “If he’s having an affair with this younger [woman?] in my organization…”, which leads me to believe they’re not 100% sure.

      Of course, there might be more background information than just what’s in the letter, but that’s what I got out of it.

  8. MK*

    No, it’s actually confusing. As far as I can tell, the wife talks of young women, or one in particular, her husband is enthralled; unless it has been left out of the letter, there is no indication that he is actually having an affair, or that the woman is working in the same company. Could it be that the OP is jumping to conclusions? Or even that the wife is; it’s easy to assume that a middle-aged man dissatisfied with his life is looking at a younger woman.

    1. D*

      Yeah I was confused about that too and thought I missed something. OP doesn’t say that the wife explicitly mentioned husband’s affair. So not sure…

  9. Alucius*

    Anybody else hurt their eyes from rolling them so hard at the “he’s not the same person and imagines a different future” line?

    1. Kelly L.*

      Yeah, that sounds like the boss might even be sounding out the OP for a date–his wife just doesn’t understand him, doncha know.

      1. Kyrielle*

        Yes, that was what worried me. OP can deal with that if it happens, I assume, but yikes.

      2. Alucius*

        Oh, I didn’t even think of that. I guess we don’t know the respective ages to see if she fits into his target demographic.

  10. newlyhr*

    oh, i am having a flashback too and unfortunately that boss’ wife was me at one point. I found out my (now ex) husband was having an affair and that he had been seeing this woman when he was away on business trips, many of which other people in the office also attended. I had been very close to one of these people and I asked her what she knew about it.

    All I can say is that I wish I hadn’t. My husband had put her in an awkward spot by asking her to cover for him, and I put her in one by asking her to tell on him. She was understandably upset. That was a long time ago but I feel badly about it. I wish I could apologize, but maybe the best I can do is share this experience and ask the OP to just recognize that good people can get a little crazy when their world falls apart in this way. Make the professional boundaries clear but be kind, like Alison suggested.

    1. Yikes*

      Dont feel bad, consider yourself lucky for finding out this woman isnt a true friend. Real friends tell you what’s going on, they dont cover for cheaters.

  11. Emmie*

    Perhaps OP should also consider talking to her boss as well depending on her relationship with him. If comfortable, she could tell the boss that she knows the boss respects his professionalism and reputation; that people are discussing his private relationship with the other woman; and that she wants him to know b/c she cares. I’d want to address the issues from both spouses.

  12. Elizabeth*

    If I were you I’d cut off all personal conversations at work. Not with your boss, not with your bosses’ wife, and out of principle not with any one else complaining about their marriage either. I’d say something like, “Sorry, I don’t like to get into personal situations at work, but I hope it works out,” or something like that.

    This stuff is none of your business and is probably just going to get you into trouble in the end.

  13. cleo*

    I’ve told this story at AAM before, but I’m going to tell it again because it’s about a time that I used a version of Alison’s advice in a similar but less complicated situation and it worked beautifully.

    When I worked in higher ed I worked with a lot of married couples (A LOT). One male colleague in particular liked to complain about his wife (just normal spouse stuff, not emotional affairs or anything like that) and I finally had to firmly but politely tell him that he wasn’t just complaining about his wife, he was complaining about my co-worker (and I worked more closely with her than with him) and to please stop putting me in an awkward position. And he did.

  14. stevenz*

    I’ll take a different tack on this one. When this is happening in a marriage, the two members of the couple are on completely different planets. In such situations, and with divorces as you probably found out, friends are often forced to take sides, rightly or wrongly. You seem to be in that position, especially since one side is your boss and so is an unlikely friend or confidant.

    You do what feels most comfortable to you – there’s no right or wrong position. But it’s not necessarily a problem to remain a confidant of Shirley; it seem like she values your comfort and respects you, and she needs strong friends right now. As for Fred, just treat him as a boss. Their marriage problems aren’t yours to solve so there is no reason you should change your relationship with him. What’s uncomfortable for you is that you know too much, and you may not be able to sublimate that. If Fred was not your boss, and you weren’t aware that he’s seeing a woman in the office – who you probably interact with – you might be happy to provide support to Shirley, since that’s often what happens among friends of troubled marriages.

    I wouldn’t be too quick to back away from Shirley. If you do she might back away from you completely as she is probably in a hyper-sensitive state and may react to any vibe she feels is negative. She needs you and you probably can relate to each other really well in this regard. It’s not the most comfortable climate for you to be this kind of friend, but it will pass and you and Shirley may have a permanent and mutually supportive bond. But again, their marriage problems are not yours to solve.

  15. Fiona*

    My female boss is having an affair with my union boss which has caused her to split from her husband, Both her husband and my boss have been long term friends of mine but no my boss has gossiped about me to co workers regarding her husband and I did not, I feel that I have nowhere to go as she is now bullying me and union boss won’t do anything as he is involved with her, I feel these to people are coluding about work etc. What can I do about it?

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