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I certainly hope the office relationship isn’t dead, because it gave me the life I have now

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Illustration by Diane Obomsawin

Elizabeth Renzetti is a Globe and Mail columnist. Her latest book is Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls.

They fell in love in bush camps and operating rooms, while cleaning dishes in the office kitchen and spreading Cheez-Whiz on toast at the craft services table of a comedy show. They met while teaching English and selling computers, waiting tables and publishing books. These couples met in the workplace, and they may be part of a dying breed.

I’d put out a call to talk to people who’d met their romantic partners at work, and expected a few responses. Instead, dozens of people got in touch wanting to share their stories.

They’d been together for five years or 10. Some met in the era when you could still make googly eyes over a fax machine. Almost all of the replies ended the same way, which in the vernacular of the romance industry is an HEA: A happily ever after.

“I met my wife at work,” one man wrote. “Still together 42 years later, 2 children and 5 grandchildren. Ups and downs but still have fun and love each other.”

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The author, husband Doug Saunders and their two children in 2008.Courtesy of Elizabeth Renzetti

My own HEA currently stands at 23 years, eight months, and eight days. I met my husband at work, which is why I’m writing this story. Specifically, I met him at the old Globe and Mail office, a building so charmless and derelict that one colleague referred to it as “a basement in the sky.”

But it did have that power certain basements have to draw people together. The Globe and Mail, you may be surprised to learn, gave new meaning to the phrase “put the paper to bed.”

Back in the day, romantic partnerships were everywhere. And it wasn’t just us: Couples sprouted from the CBC and the Toronto Star, and at countless small newsrooms around the country.

Journalism is one of those professions that seems to draw colleagues together. Teaching and medicine are also hotbeds, if you’ll excuse the pun.

“Law firms are notorious for office romances,” said a friend who is both an ex-lawyer and the ex-wife of a lawyer.

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Workplace romance doesn't quite looks like Pam Beesly and Jim Halpert's courtship on NBC's The Office.NBC Universal

But that was back in the day fewer of us are finding our soulmates in the office. According to research from Stanford University, 19 per cent of people met their partners at work in 1995, but only 11 per cent in 2017.

And that was before COVID changed the social landscape. Fewer of us have even been at work for the past two years.

There is also the post-#MeToo reckoning over harassment in the workplace, which may have caused some workers to be more circumspect about where they look for romance, and HR departments to scrutinize relationships more closely.

The course of true love is not helped by high-profile scandals like CNN chief Jeff Zucker’s fall from his throne atop the cable news giant for failing to divulge a relationship with a fellow executive.

What do we lose when we lose the office romance, though? Without love at work there would be no Brangelina, no Barack and Michelle. Grey’s Anatomy would just be a series of boring hip replacements. The Office would be empty without Jim and Pam, Schitt’s Creek without Patrick and David, Insecure without Molly and Taurean, Kim’s Convenience without Shannon and Jung. There’d be no point in watching the movie Working Girl, since Tess’s head for business would be barely connected to her bod for sin.

Without office romances, my children wouldn’t exist. Perhaps yours wouldn’t either. It’s worth looking at what makes office romances special, and intoxicating – and in some cases discouraged by human resources.

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The author and Doug Saunders on assignment in Los Angeles during 2012's U.S. presidential election, which returned Barack Obama to office for a second term.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

But first a bit about how I met Doug Saunders, the Spencer Tracy to my Katharine Hepburn.

Today he’s a respected journalist and author, and The Globe’s foreign-affairs columnist, but in the days before Tinder we were both just lowly arts reporters. He was funny, he was cute, he was wicked smart, and he made me great mixed tapes full of James Brown and Taj Mahal.

I like to tell people that theatre producer Garth Drabinsky brought us together. Doug had written a story about the rather cold and clinical creation of Ragtime, Mr. Drabinsky’s new musical. The producer did not like it one bit (the fact that the story was illustrated with the eye-clamping photo from A Clockwork Orange didn’t help.) When tickets were sent to The Globe’s arts department for Ragtime’s opening night, Doug’s invitation was mysteriously absent. So I asked him to be my plus-one. And that was that.

This was December, 1996, and since then we’ve lived in four countries, owned three cats, and had two children. We’ve worked together on stories about terrorist bombings and presidential elections, and we once drunkenly live-tweeted a London mayoral debate. We have exchanged enough office gossip to fill several Olympic swimming pools.

And yet, even now when we meet people, they often say, “I had no idea you two were married.”

At the beginning, like many of the fellow office romantics I heard from, we tried to keep things quiet. No one in the newsroom knew, until we were rumbled early on by The Globe’s late great art critic John Bentley Mays, who spied us at the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory, and said: “My, my. What have we here?” He never told a soul. It was only after we returned from a trip to Costa Rica that our fellow journalists lived up to their reputation for nosiness and figured it out.

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The Obamas, shown at one of 2013's inauguration balls, met at a Chicago law firm in the late 1980s.The Associated Press

Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama tried to keep their relationship quiet too, at least until one of the partners at their Chicago law firm stumbled across them at a screening of Do The Right Thing. Barack was a summer associate at Sidley Austin; Michelle was his mentor. She had no time for dating, least of all her nerdy mentee. Barack had other ideas. “You’re not my boss,” he told her. “And you’re pretty cute.”

Michelle was caught in a dilemma familiar to many who’ve had an office romance. “Was there a way to do this thing seriously?” she writes in her memoir, Becoming. “How badly could it hurt my job? I had no clarity about anything – about what was proper, about who would find out and whether it mattered – but it hit me I was done waiting for clarity.”

And that’s why we turn to Michelle Obama for brilliant advice. Sometimes you have to prioritize your heart over your head. Love is not like a city bus. There might not be another in 10 minutes, so grab this one while you can. The Obamas’ early relationship showcases what is best about office romances: They had each other to rely on, and to share mockery when the firm’s partners made ridiculous remarks.

I heard this repeatedly from couples who’d worked together: You didn’t just have a ride to the office, you always had someone in your corner when the spreadsheet was late or the boss was being a nightmare. Or as Sara Ryan put it when I interviewed her alongside her husband Ant West over Zoom, “It was good to have someone who believed in me.”

Ms. Ryan was talking about the job where she met Mr. West in 1995, when they were both hydrogeologists doing environmental assessment field work on contaminated sites. Ms. Ryan was one of two women in the small office, and wayward remarks sometimes came her way. She could rely on Mr. West to understand what she was going through.

He found their relationship more confusing, at least at the very beginning. “I’m attracted,” Ms. Ryan said to him at a Canada Day party shortly after they met. “To what?” he responded, mystified.

They sorted it out. Now, 27 years later, they have three children and a house in Ottawa. They work in different offices but they still have a link when they want to laugh, for example, about the guy they met at a work site who had 18 Honda Civics in his yard. As Ms. Ryan says, “You have those experiences that you share, and it gives you memories and things to talk about.”

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Illustration by Diane Obomsawin

The other thing that office couples get is an extended support network. When Lisa Durbin married her husband Paul, the wedding photographer was a coworker from IT. When one of their children was born, they named their colleague Gary, who’d played matchmaker at work, as the child’s supporting adult (a kind of secular godparent).

In 2002 Lisa was a technical writer and Paul a software developer at a firm in England. Gary noticed that they were both single and sarcastic, and told them they should go out. A date at a pub never really ended. Ms. Durbin says in an interview from her home in the U.K., “Not only did I meet my husband, but it just sort of stretched out to this massive network of people that have become part of our lives, right up until today.”

Both Sara and Ant and Lisa and Paul tried to keep things quiet at work, at least at first. In this they’re not alone: In a 2019 survey from ADP Canada, almost half of respondents said they’d hid a workplace romance. This was partly because of “a fear of penalization or a misunderstanding of workplace policies” even though half said their workplaces didn’t have a policy on relationships.

Or maybe they just didn’t know. I can’t say I ever read the Code of Conduct to find out whether my relationship with Doug contravened some Globe edict. I just assumed someone would tell me if I was in trouble, a rule that has served me well through life.

Doug and I were colleagues, and neither reported to the other (although subsequently during Globe contract talks, when I was in management and Doug in the union, we joked that he’d have to throw himself in front of our 1996 Corolla if things got tense on the picket line).

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Women attend a #MeToo protest in Seoul on March 8, 2018, International Women's Day.Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Workplace relationships became a more sensitive topic in the wake of the #MeToo reckoning, which highlighted the extent to which sexual predators were preying on colleagues and, especially, people more junior and vulnerable. Now human resources departments have to be careful about balancing individuals’ rights to pursue relationships with the employer’s duty to provide a safe workplace.

Even though most workplaces don’t forbid relationships between consensual, non-coercive relationships between colleagues, it can still be a perilous landscape. Our tendency to want to keep these relationships quiet may be detrimental, as Mr. Zucker recently discovered when he lost his empire after failing to reveal his romantic relationship with CNN marketing executive Allison Gollust. Being open may be the best way to preserve both job and relationship.

Is the office romance doomed? Is its fate inextricably tied to the fate of the office itself? How can you possibly flirt on Zoom, and who would want to anyway? In the time after the pandemic, are we going to be so wary of proximity that all physical spaces are rendered neutered? Maybe one day we’ll be telling kids that Mommy and Daddy met in the Metaverse.

I certainly hope the office relationship isn’t dead, because it gave me the life I have now. A life I’ve been fortunate to share with someone who understands my work grievances, gets the inside jokes, and shares my love of old movies.

One of the first things Doug and I bonded over was Billy Wilder’s brilliant depiction of workplace romance, The Apartment. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a midlevel drone in an insurance company who has an apartment he lends to executives for trysts, and a serious crush on sparkly-eyed elevator operator Fran Kubelik, played by Shirley MacLaine.

The Apartment is marvellous not just for the bittersweet romance at its heart but also for the idea that, in a faceless and crushing workplace, sometimes it’s just you and your boo against the machine. C.C. Baxter speaks for all of us office romantics when he delivers one of my favourite lines ever: “I used to live like Robinson Crusoe – I mean, shipwrecked among eight million people. And then one day I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were.”

See you all back on the island.

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