Dear Dr. Chani,
My wife and I have an excellent relationship filled with love, admiration, and mutual respect. We have been married for over five years and are blessed with two amazing children. Generally, we are very good communicators and do not shy away from things that are bothering us. The issue I present to you in our marriage is an extrinsic one that we both disagree on how best to handle.
We live in an apartment complex with lots of young couples. There is a joint area where children play while the parents supervise. I have noticed that one of the husbands acts in a way that makes it obvious to me that he has a “crush” on my wife. Although I have tried not to let it bother me and even to become friends with him, his behavior constantly renews feelings of discomfort inside me to the point that it is difficult to ignore him.
My wife is an objectively extremely attractive woman combined with a magnetic, lively and charming personality. Whenever my neighbor is watching his children outside, he engages my wife in conversation. To be clear, he makes no attempts at overt romantic flirtation per se, but he is always looking for an excuse to interact with her. Interestingly, his social engagement with my wife is dramatically absent in the presence of his own wife or when I am around.
Surprisingly, when he and I are one on one, in contrast to his typical chattiness with my wife, his demeanor is remarkably introverted and aloof. He displays complete disinterest when we cross paths and I try to wish him a good day. Yet, there is no reason for me to believe that I have done anything to warrant animosity from him. I am a very easy-going, non-intimidating person, and I am particularly non-confrontational. Frankly, I find his contrasting demeanors to be shockingly transparent.
While I find his overtures anything but subtle, my wife has been very naive both to the idea that he could possibly be harboring feelings towards her and that he is acting on them. She initially claimed I was overthinking it, but with repeat evidence being pointed out to her regarding his insidious conduct, my wife has finally admitted that it is at least possible, yet she is still far from convinced. She prefers to give him the benefit of the doubt, believing that he just has different standards for engagement with the opposite gender than I do. If this were true, it does not explain his inconsistent behavior towards me. Furthermore, I do not see why his standard must be given greater indulgence than her spouse’s. I hate to feel perpetually uncomfortable in the environs of my home.
To be clear, I have full trust and faith in my wife’s loyalty and do not suspect her of harboring any mutual feelings. What I have told her however is that I believe that her bubbly, engaging personality makes it too easy for such a person to comfortably chat with her at will, and that it makes me very uncomfortable. Her response is that she is nice to everyone (which is true) and she will not change her kind behavior just because someone else is doing the wrong thing. Instead, she encourages me to recognize that she would never cross any lines with him. I respond that the line has already been crossed and my anger fomented at his constant efforts at engagement. The fact that my wife only views his behavior as potentially problematic were they to escalate rather than intrinsically problematic, bothers me. Her response suggests she does not fully appreciate my feelings.
I have tried to highlight the difference to her between being civil towards him vs. encouraging his behavior. She has a hard time wrapping her head around how to execute this. She is a kind, friendly person and she does not want to come off as being curt or rude, especially to a neighbor who is in some sense a fact of our lives at least for the next year or two. My perspective is that if she gradually makes it more difficult for conversations to flow then he will naturally get the hint and stop pursuing her. To me, it seems easy enough to avoid talking to him but no doubt we are all wired differently.
I am naturally a happy, friendly person. To harbor anger, hatred, or disgust in my heart for another person, especially a fellow Jew, brings me down as a human being. While I may have been more tolerant and less vocal about my feelings initially, I now take every opportunity to highlight his behavior to my wife. While this potentially helps me vent and keeps our relationship honest, my wife has gently told me that having me go on about his behavior frequently becomes too much for her, making her daily interactions with him uncomfortable. I see her as enabling his behavior and do not feel I should have to feel uncomfortable either. It seems we are stuck in a disagreement on how to proceed. My wife and I would be extremely grateful for any words of guidance you can provide us with!
Thank you so much for your time!
The triangle between you, your wife, and your neighbor has the potential to cause a significant strain on you and your marriage. As you point out, you frequently feel anger and frustration about your neighbor’s conduct, your wife’s interaction with him, and her response to your reaction. This can directly affect your feelings of closeness and intimacy with your wife.
From your description, it sounds like you and your wife have a difference of opinion on your neighbor’s behavior. This is a delicate situation where you have the right to have your feelings, without the need to prove them or rationalize them. You are allowed to feel uncomfortable with the way another man interacts with your wife.
Once you allow yourself your feelings, you can then convey to your wife that even if she does not feel that the neighbor’s behavior is inappropriate, it is important for her to accept that you do. Spouses should aim to cater to each other’s needs and preferences as an essential expression of love and respect. To use a mundane example, your wife would probably go out of her way to wear an outfit that she knew you liked or to return an outfit you disliked. More importantly, it is reasonable to request that she go out of her way to modify her behavior to distance herself from a man that makes you uncomfortable. Your feelings matter, almost regardless of what the reality is regarding her relationship with your neighbor. (The exception to this would be if your wife felt you frequently tried to control her interactions with other people. In this case, I would recommend a couple’s therapist to help you both determine what is healthy and what might be controlling.)
Your wife has mentioned that she does not want to act rude to your neighbor. In some ways, you can see this as a contest between your feelings and your neighbor’s. In your relationship, your feelings should hold more weight than his. Even if your wife might see your feelings as stemming from your own biases, they remain your feelings. By distancing herself from the neighbor your wife reaffirms her love and connection to you, even if it means giving your neighbor more of a cold shoulder.
At this point, even though you have conveyed your discomfort to your wife, you have noticed that she finds it hard to gracefully extract herself when the neighbor is focused on her. It can be important to understand why it may be difficult for her to create the necessary distance. Firstly, your wife may have trouble understanding the dynamic from your perspective since she is in the situation. Just like an actor does not see the show from the perspective of the audience, your wife may not realize how it looks to you when she interacts with the neighbor. In addition, it is possible that deep down she does not want to turn him away because your neighbor makes her feel special. She may tell herself that their behavior is within the realm of normalcy and harmless, so why not allow the neighbor to give her attention? It makes her feel good.
You may help your wife to consider the situation from your point of view by asking her to self-reflect. Consider asking your wife to imagine what she would feel like if the situation were reversed. How would she feel if a female neighbor acted this way towards you? How would she hope that you would respond? This might help your wife put herself into your shoes. Remember that even if she tells you that she would not mind, you are still allowed to have your own reactions and feelings.
Your situation underscores the importance of setting up proper boundaries in a relationship. Even when a couple has a great marriage, both the husband and wife need to create, monitor, and maintain boundaries with other people. This includes people of the opposite gender, friends of the same gender, and extended family members. There are times when others outside of the marriage demand your attention and resources, or act in ways that make your spouse uncomfortable. It is crucial that each spouse be sensitive to the effects that people have on the other and develop boundaries together. This demonstrates love and respect for one’s spouse and protects their relationship.
I hope these messages help you convey your feelings to your wife successfully so that she is receptive and restores the harmony in your home.
Wishing you much success,