Carolyn Hax: Husband chats up unknown women, upsetting wife

Carolyn Hax
Columnist April 21, 2012

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

This question concerns my husband who is either oblivious or willfully hurting/irritating me. Or, I am a controlling, overly sensitive witch, I guess.

When we are out in public, my husband will just start random conversations with strange women. I am not talking about folks at a party. I mean just standing in line and striking up a chat or sitting at a bar and leaning over to discuss the game/her bag/etc. with someone he has never met before.

When a guy does that I usually figure he’s hitting on me or trying to open the door to a larger conversation that may go that way. Certainly I don’t strike up chats with unknown, random guys in bars or other public places because I don’t want to open those doors.


In the end I’ve gently suggested that people may misunderstand his intentions and that those chats leave me feeling like I am watching my husband hit on someone. He nods and then keeps on doing it. Should I just let this go?

D.C. Flirt

Depends. Does he talk to men also? Women of all shapes, sizes, ages and points on the heat index? Are they long conversations or brief exchanges? Are you just sitting alone on what was supposed to be your evening out with him — or does he do it when you’re otherwise occupied, like menu-reading or running to the ladies’ room? Or does he (try to) include you in the banter?

Is there any other behavior that confirms your fear that he’s “hitting on [them] or trying to open the door to a larger conversation that may go that way”?

He could very easily be a friendly guy whom you’re unfairly judging on your own friendliness scale (say, judging an extrovert by introvert standards). He could also be flirting with other women as a prelude to cheating, or in open defiance of you, or doing something else at some other point along the indecency scale. I don’t think it’s fair for me to choose either side without context.

I can wonder, though, how you dealt with this before you were married. Did you just assume he’d stop because married men aren’t supposed to be chatty anymore with any women who aren’t their wives?

With your “certainly” statement — “Certainly I don’t strike up chats with unknown, random guys in bars or other public places” — you imply there’s some kind of code of behavior for paired-off people, one that all right-thinking people observe. If that’s the case, then you’re under the influence of a strong, unchallenged bias.

Please ask yourself: Is there room for reasonable disagreement with this code, by people who aren’t “oblivious,” “willfully” hurtful or “controlling”? Is everyone who likes to “strike up chats with unknown, random people in bars or other public places” automatically suspect?

A husband who nods and ignores you is saying that, on this issue, you’ve said your truth but he’s swallowing his. Instead of “gently” scolding or judging him, invite him to share who he is. And make it clear you’ll stay cool if you don’t like the truth. Otherwise? Another empty “Yes, dear” response.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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