There are laws against military officers engaging in personal relationships with soldiers under their command, corporate regulations that forbid supervisors to have romantic involvement with employees, and prohibitions at universities that ban teachers from dating students in their classes. Power issues aside, people clearly feel that there is danger in, as a rather coarse but concise colloquialism puts it, “getting your meat where you get your bread.” Yet it happens all the time. Why do people insist on doing something they know they shouldn't? (Insert uproarious laughter here.)
The obvious answer is that people become involved with workmates because those are the people with whom they spend much of their time and whom they get to know well. The military, corporate, and university worlds often have the advantage of being communities with at least a little room for separation if something goes wrong. When the environment is much smaller, as in a performing group, production studio, or small company, another level of intensity comes into play. With only a few people around, a couple is in a fishbowl, with every disagreement clearly visible to all. That creates tension and polarization that infects the entire group. If you've ever been in a band with a couple, you've probably experienced the Silence That Crowds Everyone or the misery of the couple exploding, taking the whole effort down with it.
Performing groups in particular carry the most loaded element of all: emotional involvement. Performers try to express themselves, and artistic expression without emotional involvement is pointless. With emotional involvement — and the natural disagreements that come with it — a given, the additional energy of a personal relationship with a problem is like adding dynamite to the fire. Ker-blam!
If you don't have the idea by now, dating someone in your band, at your studio, in your dance troupe, or even in your office is a really bad idea. Don't do it. Do as I say, not as I do.
Did I say that in my “outside voice”? (Heh-heh.) Okay, I admit I was involved with a singer in one of my bands. Well, okay, and with a violinist in another band. Jeez, if you're going to push me, yes, most women I've been involved with have been band- or workmates. There: it's said. Are you happy? Well, I have been.
Even though I'm not still dating those women (wonderful as they are), we were fortunate enough — and, I think, professional enough — to get away with doing it without creating major trauma in the work environment. I'm not trying to brag; I'm just saying that the situation is risky but not impossible.
We employed several techniques, mostly consciously, to minimize the impact when we had problems. First, we tried to simply leave personal problems at the door. That's much more easily said than done, but if the work is absorbing, it draws your attention, and you can go a long way by letting it do so.
Failing that, the next tactic is just to keep your mouth shut. That doesn't mean maintaining an uncomfortable silence, but rather letting something your partner (or ex) says or does go by without comment. The work issue at hand often can be revisited later when tensions aren't so high. If the rest of the group is absorbed in what it's doing, the whole thing might blow past unnoticed. Do the work now; discuss it with your partner later.
The last and frequently most constructive tack is to direct your emotional energies into the work. Kept within acceptable bounds of performance, that sometimes produces incredible results.
Make no mistake: I am not suggesting everyone pursue relationships in work situations. It takes maturity, effort, and discipline. But sharing the joys and hardships of work can add richness and depth to a relationship when it works right. If it doesn't, though, be prepared to deal with the consequences.