Secret life of the office affair

Even without the media watching, workplace romances are tricky; impossible to keep going in secret, impossible to end in privacy. By Glenda Cooper
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The Independent Online
Anyone who has conducted an office romance must have shuddered at the tale of Robin Cook. Not the idea of indulging in the sort of illicit affair the Foreign Secretary has been engaged in, but rather the tortuous manoeuvres that many go through to avoid getting caught out even in quite legitimate relationships.

In Mr Cook's case circumstances meant he had to get up every morning and pretend to put the rubbish out so that he could feed the parking meter by his lover's Renault Clio. For her part, Gaynor Regan had to stay in a darkened flat for hours every night until Mr Cook came home so that no one would suspect she was in there.

Even for those who do not have to endure the attentions of the press and plain-clothes police while trying to conduct a relationship, the office romance is fraught with difficulty - and yet the allure remains: the recruitment consultancy Office Angels estimates that 50 per cent of people meet their future partners at or through work.

Paul Jacobs, Office Angels' director of customer services, says the people most likely to end up meeting their partners through work are those in sales organisations, the media and the law, "organisations where there are often deadlines, very pressurised work, late hours and where you have to work very closely with other people".

Most places have eased up on banning relationships between colleagues now, although Angela Baron of the Institute of Personnel Development notes that some still discourage it. "But it's more for security reasons. Banks still dislike having two colleagues in the same branch going out but that's because they don't like two keyholders living in the same place."

It's a far cry from Jean and Sydney Preston's experience. As young news reporters on the London Evening Standard in the late Fifties the then proprietor Lord Beaverbrook banned any of his staff marrying. As a result they had to resort to all sorts of subterfuge.

"We thought it was the only decent thing to do and went and told the news editor we were getting married. He said, `I didn't hear you say that'," says Jean. "I didn't change my name, I remained Jean Bartlett, and we tended to work different shifts so we didn't spend that much time together. And we got pay packets in those days so there were no bank accounts to give the thing away.

"It was frustrating - say when I was sent to Gibraltar and I couldn't ring into the office and say `How are you?' "

The only way they could speak to each other was with the switchboard operator's help - by telephoning each other. "That was the way that Sydney first asked me out," says Jean. "I had had my first byline and he rang me up and said let's go out and celebrate."

Psychologists put the enduring appeal of the office relationship down to proximity. The British have the longest working hours in Europe and so the opportunity for eyes to meet across the crowded computer screen are manifold. "If you work with someone you have the opportunity to get to know them, much better than if you meet someone in a pub or a club," says Ms Baron. "You know more about them, you see them every day so it's not as if the one and only moment's lost."

Certainly this has seemed true of the political world, where many partners have met through work. And it is not just a case of secretaries becoming political wives.

Pauline Prescott was working as a hairdresser in a local department store when John Prescott - temporarily laid off from his shipping company - took a job as a chef in the same department store. Cherie Booth met Tony Blair when they were both aspiring young lawyers.

However, the office romance, even when completely legitimate, is still fraught with problems. Stolen kisses behind the filing cabinet may sound attractive, but a few rules have to be adhered to if the relationship is not to end with both people looking stupid or forced to leave their jobs.

Journalist and agony aunt Anna Raeburn shudders with horror at the "dreadful memory" of working in the office of a radio station of around 15 people, eight of whom were conducting affairs. "It was terrible. The atmosphere was like being at the bottom of a treacle well. I wish people would learn to leave their relationships at home."

"Don't do it," advises fellow agony aunt Clare Rayner. "Or if you must, for goodness sake don't try to keep it secret. To be honest you'll save yourself an awful lot of trouble if you just say Joe is going out with Mary."

"People realise if you're always going for lunch breaks together or you synchronise your coffee breaks," agrees Ms Raeburn. "Other people pick up very quickly - there's a very efficient bush telegraph in all offices."

Christopher Bellamy, The Independent's defence correspondent, met his wife through work and at the beginning attempted to keep the relationship discreet. "We used to have a code and communicate through the office message system - for instance Highgate [in north London] was `high places'.

"One time I was round at Heather's when I got a message to be at RAF Lyneham for 5am. I'd had far too much to drink but it was a great story and the foreign editor suggested I get a taxi. Heather, who was responsible for the budget, didn't think this was a good idea and she drove me there instead, although we had to set off at 2am.

"Heather went into work bleary-eyed the next day and told the foreign editor my sister had driven me there. He immediately said `Oh what a nice sister Chris has got. We must send her a card to say thank you'."

For those who cannot resist the lure of the co-worker, there are several rules that should be followed. "I know it sounds like an obvious thing but there has to be some line of division between how you relate in the privacy of your own home and how you relate to one another at work," says Julia Coles of Relate.

And the one problem most dread is the split. "I know people who have said they couldn't bear it and have left and become unemployed," says Ms Coles. "In these circumstances you must talk to the person and say `Well it didn't work out for us but there's no reason it should interfere with our working lives'."

"Oh, these people who say they can't break up because of their work - tough," says Ms Raeburn. "It's dreadfully old fashioned I know but if you're going to play grown-up games you have to play by grown-up rules"n

Further reading from Virgin Net

How to have an affair and not get caught

http://www.nwis.bc. ca/pages/bedwell/

Sound and not-so-sound advice from the pages of an (apparently) best- selling book, which you can order online.

What to do with an unfaithful husband

http://www.marriage builders.com/graphic/mbi5032a_qa.html

Cut his favorite suits to ribbons? No - this site offers more constructive suggestions on marriage repair and maintenance

The Monogamy Myth http://www.vaughan-vaughan.com/

Why "until death us do part" doesn't make sense, and a lot of other opinionated stuff, all in that inimitable American self-help style

Cosmopolitan's Agony Advice On-Line

http://www.cosmomag.com/agony/index.html

Sadly, no one seems to have asked Irma Kurtz about falling in love with their married boss - yet. It can only be a matter of time.

The Independent Online

http://www.virgin.net/bv/havana/news/ independent/index.html

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