San Francisco Chronicle - December 17, 2006

Innuendo over the punch bowl, under the tree
Attend your spouse's company shindig;
infidelity experts warn of 'workplace affair on steroids'

by C. W. Nevius

You know the drill for your spouse's holiday office party. There will be stale snacks, tipsy co-workers and that guy with the dumb jokes who always corners you. Wouldn't it be better for everyone if you just stayed home and let your partner have some fun?

In a word -- no. That's the advice of relationship counselors.

"Tell all the spouses! Go to the party!'' says Diane Sollee, a marriage therapist who founded

"The Christmas party is the workplace affair on steroids,'' warns Peggy Vaughan, author of "The Monogamy Myth'' and a former corporate consultant who founded "It is playing with dynamite is what it is.''

Really? Just the old office gang, getting together for a few adult beverages and a laugh? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, there's the obvious stuff. A Canon Copiers survey last year of its technicians in the United Kingdom found that 32 percent of service calls over the holidays were "to repair copier glass that had been sat on'' or "to fix paper jams that revealed evidence of embarrassing images.''

Ah yes, copier high jinks, a staple of holiday parties. But that's not where the unfortunate behavior ends. An independent survey of 1,000 office workers in the United Kingdom last year, cited by Canon, found that one-third of respondents have "kissed or gone home with a colleague.'' Now we're getting into problems that could last long after the holiday festivities are over.

University of California psychology Professor Dacher Keltner suggests you take a look at the numbers. His best estimate from the research he's seen indicates that "35 to 60 percent of couples will experience infidelity.'' A conservative estimate would be the University of Chicago's "American Sexual Behavior'' survey of married men and women, which found that 36 percent (22 percent of them men and 14 percent women) would have extramarital affairs.

And like everyone else who studies relationships, Keltner says the Christmas party is a setup for problems.

"You've got a collective gathering,'' he says, "there's the eggnog, you're wearing a Santa hat ...''

OK, but aren't we getting a little paranoid here? After all, it is just a once-a-year party? Not really, says Sollee. She likes to cite the late Shirley Glass, a Baltimore psychologist who was one of the nation's foremost experts on infidelity. Glass noted the rise in the number of women in the workplace and the opportunity for interaction. She jokingly suggested that office buildings post a sign out front reading: "Danger, men and women working together here.''

That's why Sollee suggests that spouses show up at the office regularly, from the holiday party to the company picnic.

"It's just like war,'' she says. "It is harder to shoot people you know. It is like going in and marking your territory.''

And if you suspect your spouse is having an affair, you should definitely go to the Christmas party, says author Ruth Houston. She wrote "Is He Cheating on You? 829 Telltale Signs.''

Seriously? 829 signs?

"Well, they are divided into 21 categories,'' Houston says.

Oh, good. Because otherwise it was starting to sound a little obsessive.

Houston is a holiday party militant. If you suspect your spouse, she says, you can't afford not to attend.

"If anything is going on, it will be evident,'' says Houston. "Someone may be overly friendly, excessively curious, or even hostile.''

Houston also shared her special office party "hot tip'' -- go to the restroom as often as possible.

"Make a couple of trips,'' Houston says. "You never know what you might hear. Go into a stall and hang out. Somebody might say something they aren't supposed to say, like, 'Did you see her face when his wife walked in?' ''

So, have we completely taken the fun out of the holiday party? With 829 telltale signs to worry about, some spouses may be afraid to reach for a chicken wing for fear of setting off an alarm.

With that in mind, Cal's Keltner offers a contrarian view by referencing the work of psychologist Adam Phillips, who wrote "On Flirtation,'' a series of essays on why happily married people flirt.

Keltner says Phillips' premise is that, "Romantic bonds are just fundamentally ambiguous, so we are constantly flirting. The idea is that we are playfully, rather than seriously, doing something that is universal and that by acknowledging that, it may in fact be beneficial to flirt.''

So how would that apply to the holiday office bash?

"By that theory,'' he says, "the Christmas party is actually the glue that holds marriages together.''

So there's your talking point. All you have to do is convince your spouse. And I'd like to wish you the best of luck.

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