Recently, I was chatting with a woman who had contacted me after what she felt was a disastrous marriage counseling session with another practitioner. She described a scenario I've seen play out many times.
It all began as an occasional after-hours and work-related text from one of her husband's female co-workers. Soon, the texts began to come more frequently, often late at night. They would be sitting on the couch watching TV or lying in bed when her husband would drop out of a conversation with her to text his female co-worker back.
When his wife said this bothered her -- did she need to be texting him at 11 o'clock at night? What was so important? -- her husband became defensive. He said they were "just friends" and told his wife to relax.
But it bothered her. She told her husband that this female co-worker didn't seem to respect the boundaries of a married man's life. She texted him at all hours and confided in him about her love life. She cried on his shoulder when a boyfriend mistreated her. She called him to help her move, fix her computer and so on.
They spent every lunch hour together and then talked or texted multiple times during the evening. This wife was particularly worried because her husband would now leave the room to text this co-worker back. He had also started deleting his text messages ever since his wife had found a text from the co-worker that ended in "xoxo."
Growing evermore defensive of this friendship, the husband blamed his wife for his secrecy. He said he was sick of her suspicions, so that's why he texted in secret and deleted the text history. He accused his wife of being insecure, jealous and even called her "pathetic" during a particularly heated argument. He told her that she needed to "get out more" so she wasn't so obsessed by everything he did.
When she told him that she felt "second place" to this other friend, he said she was "crazy." He then went on to defend his female co-worker, talking about how she "needed him" because she was going through a hard time. He talked about what a good person she was.
His wife took a deep breath. She swallowed the sense of panic, betrayal and hurt rising in her throat, and asked her husband if he would at least stop communicating so much with her after work, and pull back from serving as her personal confidante.
But he said that "wouldn't be fair" to his friend, since she wasn't doing anything wrong. It was his wife who was overreacting. And moreover, he was really starting to resent how controlling she was getting.
So they took the fight to a counselor's office. When they sat down, the wife spilled it all. She cried, talked about how hurt she was, how betrayed she felt, how fearful she was for the future of her marriage and family unit (they had two small children).
This husband continued to prioritize his friendship over his wife until the wife one day gave in to her insecurities and looked at his phone while he was in the shower. There, she found several naked pictures that the female co-worker had sent to him.
Then it was the husband's turn. He said -- loudly, defiantly -- that they were "just friends" and there was no need to end the friendship. It wasn't fair. She was a co-worker and they had to stay friendly.
And so the counselor took the path of least resistance. She said the wife was allowing her insecurities to drive a wedge between her and her husband. The counselor said she needed to "respect" her husband's right to have outside friendships, and even suggested that the wife get to know this female co-worker on a social basis.
At this, the husband spoke up. "No," he said. "I need my own friendships outside of marriage."
"That's also healthy," said the counselor.
You can probably predict the rest of the story. Armed with the back-up of the counselor's advice, this husband continued to prioritize his friendship over his wife until the wife one day gave in to her insecurities and looked at his phone while he was in the shower. There, she found several naked pictures that the female co-worker had sent to him.
She confronted her husband. He said, "I can't help what she sends me."
And that's when she called me. The first question out of her mouth was, "Is it fair of me to ask my husband to totally end this friendship?"
"Let me get this straight," I replied. "Your spouse deletes his texts to and from another woman. She sends him xoxo's and naked pictures and this issue has landed you in counseling. And you're wondering whether it's reasonable to expect him to end this friendship?"
(Photo: Julie Zelinger/Getty)
"Well," she said, "when you put it like that..."
Yeah. When you put it like that.
But unfortunately, many people lose their clarity and common sense when it comes to situations like this. We live in a society where any sign of insecurity in a spouse -- even reasonable insecurity -- is seen as pathetic. Any requests made by a spouse -- even reasonable requests -- are seen as controlling.
Now, for the record, this goes both ways. I hear from just as many men who are concerned about a friendship their wife is having with a male co-worker. Wives can behave in the exact same way and husbands can be just as hurt and betrayed by it. When it comes to this issue, it really is 50/50.
While we all have opposite-sex friendships at work (and elsewhere), not all of these friendships are created equal. Not all are entirely platonic. Some are sustained by a certain erotic tension that provides both an ego-boost and a bit of excitement in an otherwise ho-hum workday.
So is it okay to ask your spouse to end a friendship with an opposite-sex co-worker? If you truly feel it's an issue that is undermining your marriage, then yes. But be prepared for resistance. A person who is having an overly intimate opposite-sex friendship - the kind that leads to infidelity -- can display a profound and often belligerent level of denial, defensiveness, deflection and divided loyalties.
If they can, they'll try to spin it so that no matter what they've done, you're the problem. That's precisely why I created my audio course Overcoming Infidelity // For Betrayed Spouses.
Married couples need to know that the vast majority of emotional and sexual affairs I see in my practice begin as opposite-sex friendships. And a majority of those involved co-workers. After all, many affairs are fueled and facilitated by sheer opportunity. It's a common, predictable path to infidelity and divorce. So if you truly prioritize your marriage and family unit, you'll do what it takes to avoid going down that path...and if you're already on it, you'll change direction.
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