Accidental Intimacy; How and why those who work in very, very close proximity form a bond

It’s no secret that people who work daily in close proximity can and sometimes do become accidentally compatible—even intimate. Many professionals hear of or have been involved in office relationships. Outsiders may wonder why this happens and what cause and effect these relationships have on the office staff and, of greater concern, the marital impact for those married who engage in such romances.

When delivering practice management seminars, I invariably offer this mantra: Live modestly and stay married.

Why? Because it works! The live modestly part is easy for most to understand andmost do try to follow it. The second half of the mantra—NOT SO EASY!

I have sold countless practices (often at a rushed pace and an undervalued price) as a result of marital breakdown because of an office affair. It can be ruinous to a practice’s business value and the involved professionals’ reputation.

To be fair, sometimes these office romanced end up as a happily ever after union and partnership, but sadly, this is not the case for most I have witnessed or heard of.

I’ve watched the dental office environment featured in the 1950s and ’60s Time in Motion films used by my father to design dental equipment delivery systems and cabinetry. A photo (above), from a legitimate and reputable Instructions Manual illustrates suggested body positions for better delivery to the patient in a fourhanded operatory set-up. Imagine if this photo were used in today’s dental schools!

Using today’s ergonomics the dentist and assistant are not much further apart; they’re still put into close physical proximity while working. Intimacy is often a result of such proximity, and a dental professional and assistant working in close quarters for hours on a daily basis may form a bond. That bond may simply be professional competency leading to a successful patient treatment delivery system. The nature and substance of the bonding varies greatly.

It is easy to understand how people who work together have knowledge of each other’s personal lives. Additionally, many dentists and assistants in a two-handed operatory chitchat about life’s daily events (movies, restaurants, the kids, etc.) as a form of bonding and even as a way to keep the patient pre-occupied while dental treatment is performed. This banter becomes part of the treatment process to alleviate patients’ fears. In a four-handed operatory, a partnership evolves using similar stories and strategies that have worked effectively in the past to ensure patient care and comfort. This process leads to professional and personal familiarity amongst the individuals involved.

There may simply be a physical attraction between any two individuals within the dental office. Often young, attractive and energetic personnel are hired and something magical and enticing is the result. Does anyone knowingly seek to end a marriage or cause workplace tension as a result of an office romance? I think not! And yet this happens with some regularity. Once this accidental intimacy crosses the physical barrier, the rest of the office staff will know—one way or another it’s picked up on! A practice management expert told me that when she’s called into an office to improve its overall workings, it doesn’t take her long to figure out the office dynamics.

Some would argue that accidental intimacy is a result of some middle-aged male “itch” that has to be scratched and results in a new hobby or Harley or something more personal. This is a too simplistic explanation of a very complex issue.

This is one relationship that typifies some of the stories I hear: Two professionals working together for over 20 years develop a very co-ordinated professional approach to deliver quality dental care. A professional, not personal, bond has been created. For unrelated reasons both become divorced from their respective spouses. The end result is a happy, compatible union of two dental professionals based on their longstanding friendship, familiarity and respect for one another. A happy ending.

The preceding article is a very informal, undocumented account of the realities of the dental office environment based on numerous private conversations and cases over my 35 years as a broker.