Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

I Don’t Like How My Wife Acts With Other Men

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: So I been married to my wife for 20 years. Our connection was intense! But now I’m wondering: why does my wife tend to touch other men on their arms or shoulders? I have expressed to her it makes me uncomfortable, but she does it anyway!

Personally, I try to avoid conversations or being in close proximity to other women. That way, in this day and age nothing can be misconstrued! I especially don’t touch other women anywhere, whether it be a pat on the shoulder or any where! I especially don’t stand close enough to other women to allow them to touch me, friendly or otherwise!

I feel like my touch is only for my wife. I also feel like my wife shouldn’t be willingly touching other men, no matter how innocent she thinks it is! I don’t do it out of respect for my wife, and I have personal beliefs that I feel like a married couple should never touch anyone outside the marriage AT ALL! I feel all touch in a marriage should be for the couple, their children, and immediate family! I feel very disrespected every time she does this!

I need some advice on how to deal with this, because lately it just seems to anger me more than before! Please help!

Thank you

Closed Circle

DEAR CLOSED CIRCLE: My advice is therapy, my dude.

I’m not surprised that your wife has kept on touching people while talking to folks; your request is pretty much unreasonable.

It’s one thing if your partner is doing something that’s actively disrespectful or damaging to your relationship — being inappropriately intimate with other people when you’re in a monogamous relationship, say — but “have no physical contact with anyone else, ever” is the definition of asking for way the hell too much.

Let’s be real; there is a hierarchy of intimacy when it comes to touch, and arm and shoulder are towards the least intimate side of that scale. I mean, let’s take your wife out of the scenario; would you see anything unusual if a man was touching another man in the same manner during conversation? Probably not, even if you yourself aren’t a particularly touch-y person. But if clapping your bro on the shoulder isn’t sexual, then why would the exact same gesture change meaning if you do it to a woman or if a woman does it to you?

Here’s the thing: communication isn’t just verbal; it’s also frequently physical. Touch is an important and versatile way that we communicate with others. A simple handshake can be a gesture demonstrating trustworthiness and respect or an act of dominance. A punch to the shoulder can be a sign of aggression, a statement of reproach, or an indication of admiration, congratulations or affection. And a touch on the arm can be a sign of approval, a form of emphasis, an indication to stop or hold back, or a way of changing the meaning of something being said. Pretending that all forms of physical contact — particularly between men and women — is just an indicator of sexual interest or a prelude to a come-on is ignorant at best.

(And if contact between a person and another person of their desired gender is inherently sexual, then what, exactly, are bi and pansexual people supposed to do? Become hermits and anchorites?)

If you believe the only person you should be touching is your wife… well, look, I think your belief is stupid, but whatever, you do you. However, seeing as your wife is an individual with autonomy, if she doesn’t believe the same as you do, then that’s a “you” problem, not a “her” problem.

Here’s the problem you’re having: you’re acting like you own your wife and it’s pretty clear that you’re taking her making physical contact with other people as a threat to your relationship… somehow. You say that this is out of respect for your wife but frankly, it’s pretty clear this all comes from a place of deep mistrust. I mean, dude, you literally say “that way, in this day and age, nothing can be misconstrued”; that’s not exactly a sign that you think the people you’re talking to are acting in good faith.

Now I’ve seen a lot of folks who do the whole “I refuse to be alone with/ talk to/ mentor women” thing; former Vice-President Pence is a famous example. But the problem with this is that it implies that the only reason why men would talk to women would be for sex and that any contact between men and women is inherently sexual or could be seen that way. This is not only bulls--t on its face, but following this to its logical conclusion would mean that women and men can’t exist in social spaces, especially ones that would bring them within arm’s reach of one another. And if we take that logic further… what does that mean for the women you work with? Are you going to refuse to work on a project with a female co-worker? Are you going to exclude female co-workers from networking or mentoring opportunities? What if you end up with a woman as a supervisor? Are you going to refuse to take meetings with her in her office? Are you going to try to keep all conversations to a bare minimum of words, lest she “misconstrue” things?

And if so… well, congratulations on trying to exclude a full half of the population from all aspects your life, I guess.

What you need to do is take a good, long and hard look at exactly what it is that makes you uncomfortable here — both with your touching or talking to women and your wife touching other men. Like I said: it sure as hell seems like it’s coming from a place of mistrust at best. Either you expect women to misinterpret (possibly deliberately) your platonic behavior, or you expect that everyone is seeing touch as inherently sexual. In which case then the problem is that you don’t trust your wife. Because, let’s be real here, even if the guy she’s making contact with assumes sexual interest, it takes two to tango…

So like I said before: this is something to unpack with a therapist and possibly a couple’s counselor who can help you realize why this is unhelpful at best and actively damaging to your relationship at worst. And I suggest you get on this quickly, because 20 years is a hell of a lot to throw away because you couldn’t get your jealousy and mistrust issues under control.

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