I'm a guy, and speaking for myself I can imagine heaven much more easily than hell, and that is a problem because I choose what I imagine to be the best option, but my "best" is biased by my dangerously positive brain. By that I mean that I can easily envision all the ways I might be happy, but it takes intentionality to consider those futures that could turn my life into a living dumpster fire.
I find it useful to ask "what are the ways this can turn into a dumpster fire".
These are some (non-exhaustive) examples of my consideration of "dumpster fire" outcomes:
You approach it like a (dumb) guy and she reports it as hostile work environment, so you are ejected from the program, get a reputation that is public enough to destroy your career prospects, and you have to flip burgers for the rest of your life.
It works well for a bit, you get romantic first, but then you act like a (dumb) guy and she reports it as sexual harassment, so you are ejected from the program, get a reputation that is public enough to destroy your career prospects, and you have to flip burgers for the rest of your life AND she can pursue suing both you and the university in civil court.
It works well for a bit, you get romantic, and she gets pregnant, and then you act like a (dumb) guy and she reports it as sexual harassment, so you are ejected from the program, get a reputation that is public enough to destroy your career prospects, and you have to flip burgers for the rest of your life AND she can pursue suing both you and the university in civil court AND you are paying child support for the rest of your life and bring that into any future relationship. Or she has to drop out of the program.
This is just a two-body problem analysis. You can think through more two-body dumpster fires.
Let's add a third body, which could be any one of:
- Her advisor
- Her rival
- A rival to her advisor who wants to attack the advisor using you
and/or her as a weapon
- Another student at your level who also has interest
How can they put gasoline on any of the above?
Someone could falsely report your relationship as professional conflict of interest where you get an unfair advantage. or where Where she gets an unfair advantage.
How can a lawyer turn this from a dumpster fire into a flaming sewage hell-storm?
If you have met and talked with any reasonably smart lawyer-ish people, this question itself should scare the holy carp out of you... they can destroy you forever in ways you can't possibly begin to imagine.
If, and only if, you can navigate a few of these "potential hells" then you can also insert your presumed "heaven" with the possible outcomes.
UPDATE: So how do you mitigate it?
There is plenty of advice in stuff up there that seems judgy or paranoid but actually engages some of these forms of risk.
- To make sure it is not a favoritism/pressure make sure there is no
organizational power that can be contrived in an argument (or court)
to show one is in executive authority over the other.
- To keep it from being a hostile work environment, take baby steps,
and work on being aware of both how she reacts and how other folks in
the lab react.
- To keep from being sued, be extra specially careful not to go
anywhere near anything romantic until there is some strong and
consistent-over-time trend toward acceptance and enough concrete
evidence (not hearsay) to let you defend yourself in a court of law
or even worse a brief university hearing in front of political sharks
who would gut you for an ounce of push toward their next advancement.
- If it does get intimate, make sure you have both talked about and
agreed upon the method of "protection" ahead of time, so that
pregnancy does not become a disruption.
- Show enough consistent (and possibly expensive in terms of time or
work) pursuit so that it is both widely obvious and any contenders
can elect to join battle or forfeit in order to reduce human-level
- At some point, chat with a lawyer about liability and such. There
might be free lawyers on campus that need volunteer work and could
help you make sure you are not setting yourself on fire.
“Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world.” — Miracle Max, The princess bride