I might run into the person whose life I ruined at a work event — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

Almost a decade ago, I found out my fiancé (who I had been with for many years) was still with Sarah, the woman he had been dating for years before we got together — the one he told me he had broken up with to date me. It broke my heart and horrified me — I was, in my eyes, essentially his mistress for the entirety of our relationship, and because I did not question certain things enough, I had allowed him to cheat on her with me. I decided shortly after I found out to go to Sarah’s house and tell her the truth.

It went about as well as you’d expect. After she initially opened the door, I quickly and succinctly word-vomited his betrayal, my existence, the seriousness of our relationship, and how I never knew about their continued relationship until a few days earlier. I then told her I was done with him, would have never dated him if I had known he was still with her, and thought she had the right to know what had been going on. She said nothing — seemingly stunned more than anything. After a long pause, she slowly closed the door in my face.

I did email her once more after that to give her my contact information and offered to answer any questions she might have (because I certainly had a ton of questions about how so many years of my life were a lie), but she never reached out and I didn’t want her to feel like I was harassing her, so I left it alone after that. The last I heard, she and my ex had parted ways immediately afterward and she moved to a neighboring state in a field unrelated to her previous business (let’s say that previous business was teapot design). She was a locally renowned teapot designer — which doesn’t pay great, but she had tried hard for years to make it a profitable profession. And in one fell swoop it ended because my ex had stepped out of his relationship with her for one with me.

Fast forward to the present day. I am now working a prestigious dream job at a vaguely tea-related organization in the very Mayberry-esque small town that my ex and Sarah had lived in. Their old house is a short walk away from my new workplace. I have no fears that anyone in town knows of my involvement with her ex — she was a presence in the community and he was not and they did a lot of things very independently of each other, so I actually doubt many people in town even knew my ex really existed. The sale of their house and her business happened so quickly that a lot of people locally didn’t even know she had left for months after she had gone (he moved away at the same time). However, people in the area still know Sarah and remember her skills as a teapot designer fondly.

A few weeks ago I was meeting with a board member of mine over a tea-related project complete with a gala and on-site teapot designing station. He mentioned the possibility of bringing notable teapot designers in to work during the party to add to the experience and specifically name-dropped Sarah.

I was very much caught off-guard, and tried to recover by casually asking, “Oh, I thought she had moved out of state a few years back?”

And then that’s when I got to hear my board member give me the Spark Notes version of what I already knew — “Yeah, things didn’t work out with the guy she was dating — he was cheating on her — and she left. But she still comes back from time to time. She’s giving some design classes at [local nonprofit] in a few months.”

The proposed gala may not happen (this board member tends to come up with grand ideas that don’t always pan out), or may not happen in the way my board member pictured it. However, the whole interaction has sent me spiraling and unlocked a new fear in me: meeting the person whose personal and professional life I ruined in my work setting.

If my board member’s plan does go through, and a gala is organized with Sarah in attendance … what should I do? In my role at this organization, I’m most likely going to be in some form of contact with her at such an event. My last name has changed since we met, but she will probably still recognize my face despite the fact that I’ve aged a bit since our only face-to-face interaction. I also have no idea how she feels about me after all this time. I don’t know if she blames me for what happened and harbors resentment towards me. From the little I know of her, I don’t think she would cause a scene … but I simply do not know.

Should I pretend I’m just meeting her for the first time? Do I have a responsibility to share the situation with my board member and my boss in case something happens during any interaction with her (or to get them to help me stay away from her?) Should I just try my best to just avoid her without explanation to anyone?

I never thought I’d have to deal with my ex’s ex in a workplace setting. The relationship with my ex was very traumatic, and not just because of what happened to Sarah. It took me years of therapy to deal with the fallout of that relationship. This new potential situation is giving me nightmares.

You are catastrophizing!

First, you didn’t ruin Sarah’s life. Your ex is the one responsible for the impact on Sarah, not you. You were only the messenger — and delivered a message she chose to act upon, so for all we know she might appreciate what you said that night you came to her house, regardless of how upsetting it was in the moment. And she might not consider her life ruined at all!

Second, she met you once 10 years ago for a few extremely emotionally-charged minutes. It’s very possible, even likely, that she won’t recognize you a decade later.

But if she does recognize you, the most likely scenario is that everything will be fine. You’re not showing up as Sarah’s new sister-in-law or boss; you’d be a professional contact who she won’t need to work closely with. In fact, since you’re in a small town, she’s already probably aware she could run into you at some point.

We also don’t know if Sarah even cares! It’s been a decade; it’s more likely than not that she’s moved on and your existence in the same room might be awkward but not devastating … or it could even be entirely neutral. It’s extremely unlikely that Sarah will cause a scene. (And for what it’s worth, if I were in Sarah’s shoes and heard someone was worried about me causing a scene over something they weren’t responsible for a decade ago, I’d be taken aback!)

As for what to do …. act the way you would if you were meeting for the first time. Be professional and polite. If Sarah does recognize you, she’ll likely appreciate that you’re not forcing her to engage on a more intense level when she’s in a professional mode.

I don’t think you need to share the situation with your board or the board member either, since it’s so unlikely that there will be fall-out. If this had all happened last month instead of a decade ago, I’d advise you differently (in that case I’d recommend giving them a discreet heads-up) but at this point this is all such old news that you can just treat Sarah professionally and assume she’ll do the same.

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