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My coworker won't stop talking about her divorce

The question

Several months ago, a colleague went through a rather nasty divorce. A few of us at the office were particularly supportive – taking lots of long walks and coffee breaks to help her through a difficult period. That was fine. But now, as she deals with the post-divorce adjustments, it feels like she is crossing the boundaries of what should really be discussed at the office. (I know you are astute at reading between the lines!) I recognize that her best social supports seem to be at work. But it doesn't seem healthy. When I've suggested (twice) that she might really benefit from talking to a counsellor, she balked. And I've been honest with her that my office can't continue to be a walk-in therapy session, but that's made things awkward. Is this the best I can do?

The answer

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You know, over the years, I've received numerous questions about interoffice politics, romance and various other intrigues: cubicle mooches, over-flirtatious bosses, over-apologizing for offhand remarks and so forth.

It makes me wonder: Is anyone in these offices getting any work done at all?

Now, I understand you're a compassionate soul and want to help this poor co-worker.

And I have a lot of sympathy for her plight. Divorce can be excruciating, wrenching and drawn out.

A real knife in the heart. And if – God forbid/touch wood – it were ever to happen to me, vis-à-vis my wife of 19 years, I'd be in a fog of misery and most certainly bending the ear of just about anyone who would listen, including colleagues.

(Heck, I'd probably be buttonholing strangers in the street, giving them a face full of fiery, 80-proof breath: "Say, did you happen to see/The most beautiful girl in the world…")

If I may attempt to "read between the lines" here (thanks for the compliment, by the way), it sounds to me that when you say "her best support systems seem to be at work," it really means: "She doesn't appear to have any friends or family to talk to outside the office."

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And that's rough.

But it's also not something you have control or power over. And as a work colleague, you can't continue to substitute for those "support systems" indefinitely.

I mean, you say you've been supportive for months and told her the office is not that of a therapist and even suggested she seek counselling.

(Not that I'm unequivocally in favour of that option. "Counselling" is a catch-all notion people like to throw at problems, IMHO. Meanwhile, those degrees on the wall are no guarantee of wisdom or even sanity. If she does go the counselling route, she has to choose the right one.)

Now it's time to help her figure out how to stand on her own two feet.

As I see it, there are two ways you can go: the tough-love route or the soft-love route.

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Soft love: I think your instinct to take the discussion of her divorce offsite (e.g. going on long walks) is a good one. If you really care, and have the time and energy, you could take the discussion even further offsite (e.g. to your favourite watering hole or coffee shop or yoga studio.)

The risk there is that you will fill that friend-shaped void in her life – that she'll start to depend on you too much. And that all your out-of-office tête-à-têtes with this depressed divorcée might change and possibly even compromise your work relationship.

On the other hand, it might strengthen it, and you'd be helping a sister in need. Perhaps some day, she will return the favour.

The tough-love approach, probably more viable and realistic here, is for you and your colleagues to wean her off the support she gets at work. To plead "busy-ness" more often than not when she sidles up with that "I need to talk" look.

Might be a touch awkward at first. But it will be good for her in the long run. She needs to find her independence, refocus her chi and get her lady-mojo back.

Now, of course, a good team carries an injured or otherwise out-of-commission player – up to a point. You've hit that point, I think. Time for everyone to get back to work and concentrate on their jobs.

And she can hardly object to someone pleading "busy-ness" over personal issues – in an office. Busy-ness, a.k.a. "business," is the point of why you're there.

That's why it's called a "workplace." If the idea were to go there and get pro bono, ex post facto marriage counselling, they'd call it something like "the free theraplace."

I've made a huge mistake

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