When opportunity knocks…in her nightie

On Wednesday, both Carolyn Hax and Amy Alkon featured letters from spouses deeply and, it seems, irrationally concerned about their partners’ ability to keep their pants on at home and at work:

Dear Carolyn:

My husband of 10 years, who is retired, calls me at work one morning and tells me he had just gotten out of the shower when our female next-door neighbor rang the doorbell in her nightclothes, stating that she got locked out when she took out the trash. My husband then says he invited her in to use the phone and stay until someone came to let her in (about 30-45 minutes).

I ask him, “Why would you invite a half-dressed woman into our home when I am not present?” He could have helped her by offering his cellphone and a robe while she sat on her porch.

I ask him to present this situation to his male friends. He responds, “Yeah, they will say, ‘You are stupid for even sharing that with your wife.’ ” I was very disappointed with how he handled this situation. He says he would do it again exactly the same way, even if it upsets me, and says I am insecure. Any suggestions?

E.

Your husband is retired and home. You are employed and at work. If your husband wanted to cheat on you, he wouldn’t need to wait for opportunity to come knocking in her nightie.

There are a lot of people out there — okay, me, but I can’t be alone in this — who would be horrified if spouse’s response to a nightied neighbor in need were to strand said neighbor on the front porch. Have you ever been caught in public in your skivvies? Offering shelter is the compassionate thing to do.

And her 45 minutes of shelter didn’t cost you anything — not unless it led to a tryst. And if it led to a tryst, then that says your distress over this incident is misplaced: It’s your marriage that needs your full and sustained attention.

In other words, if you trust your husband not to boink the neighbor only if she doesn’t ask to use your phone, then you can’t call that trust. Believing your husband is just one robe away from cheating is, yes, insecurity.

And as with any serious problem, it’s essential to trace insecurity’s source and root it out. Is your marriage shaky/husband out prowling? Then don’t nibble at the edges of the problem by fussing over neighbors. Admit you don’t trust him, lay out the evidence supporting your skepticism, then see where that conversation takes you.

I suspect instead that your husband hasn’t done anything sketchy, and you merely regard infidelity as a real and constant threat. (Yes, that’s the get-counseling light flashing.) If so, you owe it to both of you to admit how corrosive this outlook can be. It motivates you to doubt him no matter how faithful or devoted — or transparent — he is.

Often, too, such fear acts as a negative filter through which you view everything. Your husband helped someone! Told you about it! And you punished him for it! How many times, in how many ways, has that defensive pessimism played out? How many bad things have you exaggerated, how many good things have you questioned?

Unfounded suspicion is about you, founded suspicion is about him, but the approach is the same with both: Lay out the facts for your husband, and see where the discussion goes.

My reading was slightly different than Carolyn’s–I didn’t get the impression that this woman was necessarily worried that her husband actually would cheat on her.  Instead, it seemed she was fretting about something even less important: how the situation looked.  My guess is that there are certain arbitrary principles of marriage that she feels should not be violated–such as being alone in your home with a semi-dressed woman when your spouse isn’t present.  But I couldn’t guess whether she’s worried about how this reflects on her husband, or on her (and to whom?  the neighbor in distress?  Or yet another neighber, peeping through the curtain?).  Or perhaps she just feels there’s a rule that’s been broken–some things should not be done, and he did one of them.

I get the sense it has to do with respect–that is, if her husband respected her and honored their marriage as his most sacred commitment, he wouldn’t have invited an undressed woman into the house.  She could even have extended it to, if her neighbor respected their marriage, she wouldn’t have come knocking in such a state.  That is, instead of thinking “What should Joe have done this  morning when Sarah was locked out?” I suspect she’s thinking, totally abstractly, “Should a married man home alone invite a scantily clad neighbor into the living room?”  She makes her answer (“No!”)  the obvious right one by ignoring the details of reality.

And speaking of the details of reality, Amy Alkon printed this:

My wife’s a hairstylist, and I recently learned that she continues to cut the hair of a guy she had a fling with seven years ago. We’re newlyweds but dated for three years. She’s always been truthful and forthright, so I was dumbfounded that she kept this from me. She claims they’re “just friends,” insists the past is the past, and won’t discuss anything. I had trust issues with my ex-wife and have abandonment issues (thanks, Mom), but had ZERO insecurities about my wife until this. She honored my request and told the guy he needs to get haircuts elsewhere, but I know her other male clients occasionally discuss their sexual escapades. Inappropriate! I think marriage comes with boundaries. I’ve been working hard to rid my mind of visions of her with others before me, but find myself prying into her past for details, which only increases my anxiety. — Love Stinks

Yes, your wife had sex with other men before you — because she was probably raised in some suburb in America, not locked away by her sultan father until you could buy her from him for a Lamborghini and a really nice herd of goats.

Instead of spending your evenings giving your wife something to smile about the next morning at work, you’re giving this seven-year-old fling of hers more late-night reruns than “Godfather II.” Sure, she still sees the guy, but consider the environment. Yes, it’s what I always advise a man who wants to stage a seduction: Put on a big pastel smock, sit between two little old ladies getting smelly perms, and give the woman a bird’s eye view of his bald spot. Before you know it, he’ll be telling her how he likes it, and she’ll be begging, “Lemme take off my top!” — in that secret language all the hussy hairdressers use: “Want me to take a little more off the top?”

You’re right that marriage comes with boundaries — and it’s time you started respecting your wife’s. You’re her husband, not her owner, so you don’t get to give her a list of acceptable topics of conversation: 1. “Nice weather we’re having.” 2. “Still nice weather we’re having.” Since you’re also not her boss, she doesn’t have to ask you if she’s allowed to do her job: “My 2:30 appointment fooled around with me once seven years ago, but he really needs a trim.”

What stinks isn’t love, but being a guy who’s never bothered to put his mommy issues and ex-wife trust issues on a leash and walk them to a therapist’s office.

More arbitrary rules!  More declared boundaries!  More therapy needed!

Carolyn Hax and Amy Alkon are different in all kinds of important ways–perhaps the most relevant example here being that Carolyn bristles at the assumption of any male/female stereotypes (“it’s not guys who do that, it’s people who do that!”), while Amy thrives on them: an inclination toward evolutionary psychology (man must hunt!) is the underpinning of most of her relationship advice.

But interestingly, I think they’d agree that marriage is not a box set of rules, regulations and guaranteed-to-apply statutes.  Instead, each one is a different relationship between different people, rolling along in different circumstances–and random pronouncements like “no pajama’d ladies within 3 yards unless I am present!” and “no exes possibly oversharing like some of your other male clients do!” are more likely to destroy them than prove their strength.

See more like this: One Singular Temptation

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