I Had A Relationship With A Younger Man At Work & It Went Really Wrong

Photographed by Refinery29.
When Hannah* was 31 she met Andy at the engineering firm where she worked. Instantly she knew it could lead to trouble. "I had recently joined as a manager in communications and he was a graduate trainee," she says. "I fancied him as soon as I saw him, which I thought was a bit dangerous. I knew he was young but I didn’t know his age until I started getting to know him." 
Hannah soon discovered that Andy was 23, eight years her junior.
Although she wasn’t his direct line manager, Hannah was responsible for some of the output from Andy's team. "There were no specific rules at the company about dating colleagues but it was definitely frowned upon," she says. Nevertheless the pair became friendly and it wasn’t long before the flirting escalated, during the office Christmas party
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"We ended up kissing. I found him really fun and very good-looking. We’d been having great conversations and he challenged me. I was incredibly flattered to discover that such an attractive younger guy liked me," Hannah recalls. 
After that night the pair began to date in secret, anxious that it could impact their careers if anyone found out.
"Even though some colleagues had met their partners at our workplace, it was always an older man with a younger woman and that was almost celebrated," says Hannah. "Andy wanted to make a good impression as a graduate and I was worried about being judged more harshly as a woman."
"I thought people would think I was taking advantage of him or that I wasn't being grown-up or professional enough. That constant worry of being found out put a lot of pressure on our relationship," she adds. 
Hannah's fears were not unfounded. Fifty-three percent of female respondents to a survey conducted by Cambridge University on gender bias in the workplace reported seeing women being judged more negatively than their male colleagues for the same behaviours. When it comes to dating, the impacts can be even greater.
We hear often about older men dating their younger women colleagues and direct reports in the workplace. We know that serious abuses of power can occur in this space (see: Harvey Weinstein) when things go wrong. But we hear a lot less about how the dynamics of age and power play out between older, more senior women and younger, more junior men.
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Sex and relationships therapist Rhian Kivits, who trained with the relationship support charity Relate, says that blame is often more likely to be placed on women after a breakup or during a complex situation. "Women tend to experience more sexual and relationship shame than men and are more likely to be vilified for their relationships. It’s no surprise that many women feel the need to protect their position if they get into a workplace romance, especially if the man is less senior."
While women are doing their best to achieve equality in the workplace, Kivits says we have a way to go. "There’s still an expectation for men to earn more, so that power gap in a relationship might not feel as strange if the situation was reversed. It also might not be as challenging or awkward in the aftermath of the breakup, if the relationship doesn’t work out."
Deeba Syed, an employment solicitor for Rights of Women, which supports women in navigating the law and champions their rights, says there is no formal law in place in the UK around office relationships.
"Some organisations ban relationships at work, though that’s quite rare and even when it happens the rules are not strictly enforced. Some HR departments will require couples to disclose their relationship but again, this isn’t common in the UK," Syed explains. 

In some cases, issues like abuse and coercive control can become a problem at work, for example in the case of false grievances for revenge purposes. As it stands, employment law isn't necessarily equipped to handle these challenges.

Deeba Syed, EMPLOYMENT SOLICITOR
Few employment contracts stipulate a no-dating policy but old-fashioned gender and sex discrimination still exists in UK workplaces and this can impact the relationships that women have with colleagues.
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"If, for example, people in your office are targeting you or making jokes or derogatory comments about your age or the fact that you’re in a relationship with a younger colleague, this could be a discrimination case," says Syed.
In Hannah’s case, only a handful of people ever discovered her relationship but the pressure of keeping the secret took its toll.
"We got into this toxic pattern of on again, off again," she explains. "He would pull away from me and I felt like I couldn’t be honest and open about my needs because of the awkward position we were in. I didn’t want to be thought of as a pushy cougar so the ball was always in his court. We tried dating other people but we always wound up back together again." There wasn't an option for either of them to change jobs and they never discussed the idea of moving to different firms. 
Hannah admits it was painful when Andy dated other people, which he did while they worked together during the off periods.
"There was also this constant stress of what to wear because I felt I needed to look good all the time and be mindful of how I behaved around Andy so as not to raise suspicions. Every decision felt difficult and I ended up becoming this tightly wound coil of anxiety," she continues.
As well as the challenges of work, Hannah and Andy were also at different stages of their lives, which she suspects contributed to his unwillingness to commit to their relationship.
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Eventually, after three years of push-pull, Hannah reached breaking point.
"I was really upset one day and confessed what was going on to our office mental health first aider," she says. "I remember her telling me he was 'basically a child' and that whatever I did, 'nobody could find out about our relationship'. She meant well but I guess it was a bit judgmental too."
It wasn’t until Andy was transferred to a different city that Hannah finally felt able to untangle herself from their difficult relationship. "My best friend outside of work was concerned because she could see how upset it was making me and my mental health had plummeted. One person in work knew too and advised me not to go to his leaving party. Although it was hard not to go, it was definitely the right decision." 
When the pandemic hit, the pause it created gave Hannah the final push she needed to truly move on. "I decided to leave the company and go down a completely new path," she says. "It was only then that I was able to put the relationship behind me. It had been so exciting being in a secret relationship at first but it just became a mess."
Kivits says this is a common way for relationships to end. "What first attracts us is often what becomes difficult later on," she says. "For example, a lot of older women might be attracted to younger men because they’re fun and carefree, while younger men might be attracted to an older woman’s power and confidence. But over time this might breed resentment on both sides. He might resent her earnings and success, while she might worry about being undermined, or feel as though her job could come under threat."
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Kivits also points out that men often mature later than women, which can make an age difference more pronounced. "Of course that’s a generalisation and doesn’t apply to everyone but it is a trend we tend to see."
Jane*, who is now in her mid 40s, understands what it’s like to be trapped in a relationship with a younger colleague. She met her ex-partner, Darren, several years ago when they were both working for a government office in London. She was in her early 40s at the time and he was 10 years younger, in his early 30s.
"We got to know each other through work events and he was lovely and great fun," Jane says. "We were friends for a few months before it gradually turned into us seeing each other one on one."
Their relationship progressed quickly and Darren moved in with her after three months of dating. Despite their budding romance, Jane never let it interfere with their office dynamic, keeping work and their relationship completely separate. But once Darren moved in, their income discrepancy became glaringly apparent.
"He never had any money and I noticed I was paying for a lot of dinners, as well as covering his rent and bills. At first I didn't have a problem with bailing him out as I knew I earned more, but then I noticed he never helped around the house at all and still expected his mum to do his washing."
Most of Jane's colleagues were aware of the relationship. Although they didn’t judge her for the age difference, they were concerned that he was taking advantage of her good nature.
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"At first I didn’t want to believe he was 'using' me but after a year of dating I couldn’t ignore the reality any longer," she says. "He was spending all his money on going out and expected me to shell out for everything else. In the end I told him we couldn’t carry on like that and ended the relationship."
To avoid the awkward aftermath, Jane was able to arrange a transfer for Darren to another city, which he was happy to accept. They’ve not had any contact since. 

Even though I was technically in a position of power I actually felt I had less of a voice in my relationship as a result.

Hannah*
While Hannah and Jane were able to end their relationships and keep their careers intact, office breakups can turn sour. In extreme cases, spurned lovers can lodge bogus grievances or formal complaints. ​​
According to Syed, men may be more likely than women to seek revenge after a failed relationship.
"This can be a way of exerting power or dominance, or as a means of retaliation or abuse. It’s rare that a contract will prevent someone from having a relationship with a colleague so for that reason most grievances are based on work-related issues, for example poor performance or lateness," she explains. "Sometimes to defend herself a woman may need to disclose a relationship, which can subject her to further discriminatory behaviour depending on the employer’s reaction."
Although employment law is helping us to deal with issues like workplace harassment, Syed believes more could be done to recognise other, more nuanced issues like relationship dynamics and their impact. "Many people meet at work yet we tend to treat relationships as entirely private affairs," she adds. "In some cases, issues like abuse and coercive control can become a problem at work, for example in the case of false grievances for revenge purposes. As it stands, employment law isn’t necessarily equipped to handle these challenges."
Hannah was never abused by her ex-partner but it’s not a situation she wants to find herself in again. "Because our lives were so entwined, it’s taken time for me to gain perspective on the situation," she concludes. "Even though I was technically in a position of power I actually felt I had less of a voice in my relationship as a result. It didn’t impact my career directly but it had a huge impact on my mental health and I felt like I was living in constant fear of being found out. It’s not something I’ll repeat in future."
*Name has been changed to protect identity

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