It's a situation straight out of an '80s revenge thriller. One day, a young woman is lunching with her coworkers when she spies a familiar face. It's her boyfriend's former lover, approaching to announce that she was just hired at the same company. Our hero will now be working with her boyfriend's "crazy" ex-girlfriend five days a week. At best, things will be awkward; at worst, events will play out like they were written by the screenwriters of Fatal Attraction. Right?
Not so fast. On Monday, a woman wrote to the popular workplace advice blog Ask a Manager describing that exact situation, but the response from Alison Green, the manager who runs the website, is a much-needed reminder to pump the brakes before assuming your boyfriend's ex is out to get you — especially in a professional setting.
"It definitely can be awkward to have to work with someone who you have history with," Green tells Bustle over email. "But a lot of the time, it feels the worst at the outset — when you’re imagining how unpleasant it could be."
So what kind of history do the letter writer and the ex-girlfriend have? In her letter to Ask a Manager, the woman explained that she and her current boyfriend met through work. When they first got to know each other, he was in an unhappy relationship, and although he was interested in her, it was quite a while before he ended things with his girlfriend at the time. Finally, though, he dumped the ex-girlfriend, and he and the woman have been happily dating for two years.
As it turns out, that breakup was just the beginning of the story. The woman claimed her boyfriend's "crazy" ex tried to keep in contact with "a pretty frequent stream of calls and texts, even showing up outside his apartment to get some reaction out of him." Eventually, he blocked his ex, and things simmered down for a while.
Then, three weeks ago, the letter writer spotted the ex-girlfriend at her place of work. The ex then approached to introduce herself and warn her that she had been hired by the same company.
"She said she was working there now, in another department, but wanted me know she would be around, so it wasn’t 'weird,'" the woman wrote.
Unfortunately, what was meant to be a mature, professional gesture may have backfired. The woman felt like her space had been invaded, and she wanted to retaliate.
"I want her to feel as uncomfortable as she has made me, and I hate that I care," the woman wrote.
If you've been reading this and noting all the "crazy ex-girlfriend" tropes peppered throughout, you're not alone. In her response to the letter, Green pointed out that there isn't actually much concrete evidence that the ex-girlfriend wants to sabotage the woman's relationship, and unless things take an unexpected turn for the dramatic, the woman should proceed as normal. Even if the ex-girlfriend really did apply to the company as an elaborate revenge scheme, Green advised the woman to take the high road and stay professional.
"But until and unless that happens, this is just a new coworker who happens to have a history with your boyfriend," she wrote.
As for the so-called "crazy" behavior? Green had thoughts on that subject, too. She told the woman to take a close look at her boyfriend's actions and remember that he could be at fault, too. For one thing, he chose to date the ex-girlfriend in the first place; for another, he stayed in that relationship long after he had mentally checked out and shown interest in another person.
While romantic relationships may not be the normal purview of a workplace blog, Green acknowledges that the "crazy ex-girlfriend" trope, in which men dismiss their exes as insane (thereby absolving themselves of any blame for the breakup), is all too common. Unfortunately, she tells Bustle, "it seems like women too often buy into it, without considering that their partner chose this person to be intimately involved with and stayed with the person past the point that any so-called 'craziness' would have been noticed."
She notes that people aren't always at fault for staying in an unhappy relationship, but this particular letter seemed to fall into the trap described above. "While it’s entirely possible that the ex in the letter really did behave horribly, a lot of what was described seemed to me like the awkward things people often do when a relationship is ending," she writes.
This isn't the first time Green has been asked to give advice on working with an ex. In September, for example, a man wrote to her about working under the girlfriend he had ghosted years before. Working with someone with whom you have personal history may come up in your own life at some point, especially if you work in a niche field. Fortunately, Green has some advice for if that happens:
It’s always useful to keep in mind that if you’ve only heard about someone secondhand, they might not be quite what they’ve been painted to be, and it makes sense to reserve judgment until you have some firsthand experience with them. ... You’ve got to be able to separate your personal feelings about someone from your obligation to work with them professionally. If you find you can’t do that, you’re better off leaving before it harms your reputation.
The good news is that while it may feel strange at first, it usually works out in the end. Green writes, "Most of the time, there will be some initial awkwardness and then everyone will figure out how to make it work."