Sexual Harassment at Work

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Reader’s Question

I worked with my boss for four years. He had a very caring attitude towards me. I always had respect for him, and felt obliged towards him. We spent almost 10 hours a day with each other, which naturally led to a lot of affection for each other. But I never thought of getting involved with him, as he is married, 20 years older, and has a family that he apparently loves. Also, I was engaged to someone at that time.

However, I had a break up, and soon after that my boss started showing me extra care and love. He said that he was in love with me. At first I was confused, and thought that this may just be infatuation, but then I developed feelings for him too. I asked him to stop, as this relationship could not have a future. He admired me for that, but didn’t stop, which forced our relationship into secrecy. First via email, and later via text messages and phone calls at night, he started seducing me and we became involved, but never physically (once he just held my hand). There were some other issues at our work, and within a month we lost our jobs.

All this partying made us both emotionally weak, and I fell into deep depression. I felt that I wouldn’t be able to live without him. But I also felt very guilty, as I was betraying both his and my family. I started losing weight, and became weaker and weaker. I stopped eating and had insomnia. We would talk by phone, and we were mentally and emotionally committed to each other, although we knew that things were going nowhere.

Then one day, his wife and my parents got to know about this affair and everything changed. My life became hell. In front of his wife he blamed me for everything. Now that he is gone from my life. I realize that he was just playing with my emotions, and that he wanted to get physical with me. But God saved me. It’s been over for one month, but I feel so helpless. Every night I cry after reading his emails. Why did he do this to me?

What did he get out of this? I just wanted to work with him, that’s it. And he took advantage of this. He played with my emotions until I became fully involved. I am very depressed. 24/7 I have only one thing in mind and that’s him. I pray to God. I have sleepless nights and I have no idea how much more time it will take to forget him and overcome this situation. I have lost interest in nearly everything.

Psychologist’s Reply

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Your boss abused you. He took advantage of your feelings at a time when you were vulnerable, and he probably also used his power as your boss to make you feel like you needed to be close to him or risk losing your position at work. Among other things, the fact that you asked him to stop and he didn’t sounds like sexual harassment, a behavior that is illegal in many countries.

Sexual harassment is defined as bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors. It can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Your boss should never have told you he was in love with you, or communicated with you secretly about his feelings — especially after you told him to stop. That continuous barrage can be considered coercion, and it was highly inappropriate, unethical and just plain wrong. And while you may also have engaged in some behaviors that were not wise, you are not at fault. He was your boss, so it was his responsibility to not act that way himself or, should you have expressed feelings towards him, put a stop to that.

The reasons why people sexually harass others (and it’s usually men sexually harassing women) are varied and complex but the overarching purpose for it is power. In your situation, your former boss wanted a sexual interaction and you were not in a good position to refuse him. Thus, if I had to guess what he got out of it, I would hypothesize he got excitement, a sense of power, and feeling good about himself. However, his reasons are not what’s important right now. Getting you back to full health is where you should be concentrating your energy.

Many of the symptoms you reported are similar to what others who have experienced sexual harassment describe. Thus, it may be helpful to you to seek out support groups for people who have been sexually harassed, or find a psychologist who has experience in this area. A good counselor or group can help you work through your depression, regain a sense of self-worth and competency, and be able to move toward having a healthy and loving relationship. I really hope you do seek help and get better. Your boss already took a lot from you; don’t let him take more.

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