Dear Harry and Louise,
My wife works with this guy on weekends—let’s call him Dan. He recently picked up a girlfriend, but that doesn’t mean anything, really; there’s a certain kind of ease they have together, Dan and my wife. They’re both into political activism on the local scene and can talk about this subject for hours, unlike me. This is how they met. Dan physically resembles past boyfriends she’s had—in other words, he fits her type (bearded, bespectacled, serious-minded; I’m actually the aberration).
At least half a dozen times this past year, she has told me a story that contained the line “when Dan and I were at lunch together” or “when Dan and I were having a drink after work.” The information is always handled as if it were completely nonessential when to me it is conversation-stopping. Whenever I attempt to explore this point more fully, she becomes disbelieving or dismayed or even hurt. It’s as if jealousy is not a normal human emotion but somehow evidence of a moral failing or something.
Do I believe she is sleeping with him? I don’t. But does it matter? She is clearly communing with him. Women often say they can live with a man who cheats on them once, so long as the other woman means nothing to the man, the idea being that an emotional connection is the greater offense, infinitely more devastating than the merely, purely physical.
One more point to contemplate: She recently said that Dan could use my help for a pet project campaign he’s begun working on (I’m a speechwriter), and she’s asked me to find a night for the three of us to go to dinner and talk. To me, this feels like a clumsy attempt to show me that we can all get along while at the same time casting Dan as the dynamic figure who magnanimously brings me into his fold. I have to say, and with a feeling of anxiety, that it also smacks of the kind of move a spouse contemplating an affair pulls off: normalizing the outsider so he doesn’t seem as alien and threatening.
Anyway, what should I do? What can I do?
• • •
HARRY SAYS: Jealousy is a painful, real emotion. I remember back in the hippie days, when we were supposed to “love the one we were with” and be okay about it, I suspected my girlfriend of sleeping with the neighborhood guitar player. I was jealous but felt guilty just having the feeling. Then I embraced the jealousy, punched him out, and felt better. (And kept the girl.)
I am not suggesting you pummel Dan, but jealousy can be corrosive. I used to get jealous when my main squeeze would have what Louise calls “brain sex” with another man. I’ve talked this over—and over—with many female friends, and with Louise. They convinced me that they thrive in that back-and-forth with men with whom they can connect. And I am good with it—if I trust them.
So it comes down to trust. I would own up to your jealousy and talk it over with your wife. Try not to make her feel lousy, but admit your pain and fear. Listen. Talk more.
Dinner with Dan? A tough one. It would require you to be big—huge, even. But if you can cement your trust, be big, and break bread, you can better assess the chemistry between him and your wife.
Then you can punch him out, if necessary.
• • •
LOUISE SAYS: Let’s create two columns. The first is the “your wife is scum” column:
1. She has conversational ease with Dan.
2. Other women say it is worse to share an emotional connection with someone of the opposite sex. (And who are these broads with whom you share such conversational ease?)
3. She dares to normalize the situation by including her male friend in your life.
The second is the “give your wife a break” column:
1. Her instinct is to talk to you, and you are the conversation stopper.
2. She works with him on the weekends, while the weekend evenings and the rest of the week are all yours.
3. She married you—the other, who represented not a type but instead a man she wanted to share her life with.
A woman wants to spend time with folks who listen to her, hear her, and respond to her. So stop being her conversation stopper. That may create more distance between you and your wife than a dozen Dans.
And yes, I think jealousy is a normal emotion. Just don’t stop talking.
HARRY SAYS: Easy for Louise to toss this off as an interruption of conversation. Jealousy is a stab wound that needs tending and healing.
LOUISE SAYS: Easy for Harry to toss this off as a jealousy issue and not a conversational issue. The man who hears the woman’s voice wins.