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Heavy Meddle: My Husband Is Making Inappropriate Comments About Our Son's Girlfriend

Maybe I'm too conservative, but I'm very uncomfortable with him making comments about her physical appearance. (flickr)
Maybe I'm too conservative, but I'm very uncomfortable with him making comments about her physical appearance. (flickr)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to advice@wbur.org. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

My husband of 30 years and I get along really well, are still in love, and he is devoted husband and father to our grown sons. The reason I am writing is that my older son, who is in his mid-20s, has been dating someone quite seriously for about a year. His girlfriend is a smart, interesting and beautiful young woman who lives in another state and plans to move to Boston in the fall. Meanwhile, they visit as often as they can. She was here a couple of weeks ago and we were all at a family dinner. My husband was chatting with his brother on FaceTime and when my son and his girlfriend came in he turned the iPhone towards the couple and said to his brother, "Doesn't my son have good taste in women?"

PHOTO

I didn't say anything at the time, but the comment bothered me because I thought it reduced her to "object" status. Then, a few days later we were all sharing a meal together and the topic turned to her rather exotic looks and my husband referred to her as a "Persian Empress." Again I found myself cringing, even though he said it in a good-natured, humorous way and no one except me seemed to mind.

I might be too conservative, but it doesn't feel appropriate to me for him to be commenting on his son's girlfriend's beauty in this way. When I mentioned it to him he became very upset and said there was nothing wrong with it and my suggesting that there was made him feel extremely hurt. I know he would never do anything to hurt his sons or me, and I feel really bad that I upset him. On the other hand, his comments didn't sit right with me and still don't and I can't get rid of that feeling. So, I'm hoping you can offer some perspective on the situation. Thank you!

Sincerely,
Rattled

Dear Rattled,

Before anything else let me just say — as someone who has been happily married a mere eight years as of today — congratulations! Even a happy marriage is hard work, and you and your guy have been doing that hard work for 30 years and raised two sons together, and at least one of them has found a happy relationship. So you guys are doing a lot of things right. Please take a moment to dwell in that awesomeness.

(Also, just one a personal note: Happy anniversary sweetie! I love you very much and will work on picking up my socks more consistently.)

Okay, on to the serious business of this answer. It is a real and complicated conflict. You love your husband and he’s a good guy and all the rest of it. But you don’t like way that he has, twice now, put the spotlight on your son’s girlfriend’s beauty and exoticism. He says he means no harm. But he has done harm.

I think it’s a good thing that you expressed your feelings on the matter, though I realize that it rocked the boat. In my limited experience, it’s better to rock the boat than to allow an aggrieved silence to steer you guys off course.

But it’s still worth asking a basic question: why are his comments sticking in your craw? Do you feel jealous and hurt that he’s saying these things about another woman — your son’s beloved, no less — and not you? To what extent is narcissistic injury a part of this? Do you have the sense that your husband still finds you desirable? Or do you have doubts about this? How much does he express his desire for you and/or his appreciation of your desirability? These might be painful questions to ask, but it may well be that some of your resentment arises from feelings of neglect.

it’s better to rock the boat than to allow an aggrieved silence to steer you guys off course.

You certainly wouldn’t be the first man or woman to feel this. Not only is it hard to get along and raise children and manage a home together for three decades. It’s hard to feel the same spark of desire. When you’ve been married that long, the last thing you feel to one another is exotic.

It seems quite natural that your husband would feel a lot of different emotions in having this young woman under his roof. Gratitude, of course, for your son’s happiness. A sort of vicarious pride that your son has found a beautiful woman (which, admittedly, comes off as sexist in the context of modern American culture, but isn’t so unprecedented in the longer history of humankind). And, yes, it’s also true that his excitement may contain elements of envy and even an erotic charge.

In my own view, those last two feelings are perfectly natural. And, at the same time, they are incredibly transgressive. So I’m not at all surprised that he got defensive when you brought this up. On the surface, you were accusing him of inappropriate behavior. On a deeper (and scarier) level, you were accusing him of forbidden thoughts.

You know your marriage better than I do, Rattled. But I will say that you’re unlikely to get your husband to admit that he was doing anything inappropriate. That’s not even the end I would pursue. Nor do you owe him an apology for making your feelings known. This is not a simple case of someone’s right and someone’s wrong.

I suspect your husband won’t be making any more hubba-hubba type public statements about his potential daughter-in-law, and that’s a good thing. But the best thing you can do, in my view, is to use this as an occasion for some self-examination. And then find a positive way to share the results with your husband. By which I mean: to re-affirm the feelings of love and desire between the two of you.

We all want to feel desired. We all want to feel that our beloved finds us beautiful above all others. Those feelings don’t go away. And they shouldn’t. Part of the true labor of a long, loving relationship resides in keeping that flame of passion lit. It all starts with communication.

You’ve remained happy for 30 years! That didn’t happen by accident, Rattled. It was the daily work of you and your hubby’s will and heart and forgiveness. I hope this response brings you a greater measure of peace. If it doesn’t, the fault is mine. I’m a relative newbie when it comes to the marriage game. But I hope someday to have done as well as you.

Hugs,
Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

UPDATE, March 25, 2014Steve Apologizes For Getting It Wrong

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