Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court decided that a dentist, Dr. James Knight, did not violate employment discrimination law when he fired his assistant, Melissa Nelson, for being “irresistibly attractive” and posing a threat to his marriage to his wife, Jeanne. (Read the court's opinion here.) As I discussed at the Good Men Project, while Dr. Knight’s actions are questionable from an ethical point of view—and there is clear evidence of sexual harassment, although Ms. Nelson did not allege this—it is difficult to prove gender-based discrimination when all of his other assistants are women and Ms. Nelson was replaced by a woman.
It was, rather, his particular relationship with Ms. Nelson that became a problem—not to Nelson, but to Dr. Knight’s wife, Jeanne:
Jeanne Knight insisted that her husband terminate Nelson because “she was a big threat to our marriage.” According to her affidavit and her deposition testimony, she had several complaints about Nelson. These included Nelson’s texting with Dr. Knight, Nelson’s clothing, Nelson’s alleged flirting with Dr. Knight, Nelson’s alleged coldness at work toward her (Ms. Knight), and Nelson’s ongoing criticism of another dental assistant. She added that “[Nelson] liked to hang around after work when it would be just her and [Dr. Knight] there. I thought it was strange that after being at work all day and away from her kids and husband that she would not be anxious to get home like the other [women] in the office.” (opinion, p. 4)
This is the aspect of the case I want to discuss here: marital jealousy and how (not) to deal with it.
Of course, it’s natural to be jealous of your partner’s coworker, especially if she (or he) is attractive and your spouse is clearly drawn to her (or him). (Frequent texts and late nights together don’t help either.) This is further complicated, in the Iowa case, by the fact that the wife also worked in her husband’s office and was witness to the interactions between him and his assistant.
It would be easier to be sympathetic to Mrs. Knight if not for how she dealt with this perceived threat to her marriage. Rather than discuss her jealousy with her husband, she—with the help of the senior pastor at the couple’s church—demanded that he fire his assistant. Rather than confronting her husband’s possible infidelity head-on, she simply removed the temptation. Not only is this short-sighted—what happens when someday he finds another assistant “irresistibly attractive”—but places the burden of keeping their marriage together on an innocent third party.
If she was that concerned that her husband would cross a line with his assistant—or that he already had, according to however they defined infidelity in their marriage—it strongly suggests a deeper problem in the relationship. If Mrs. Knight was concerned that her husband would carry on an adulterous relationship with a woman they both worked with—or actually leave his wife for the assistant—then the marriage clearly has some cracks. Even Dr. Knight admitted, when talking with Nelson’s husband after the dismissal, that “he feared he would try to have an affair with her down the road if he did not fire her” (opinion, p. 6). It would be surprising if both partners in a relationship anticipated adultery with no underlying problem in the relationship to begin with.
It might have been better if the couple had regarded this situation as a test for both of them. As Immanuel Kant wrote, strength of will and character “can be recognized only by the obstacles it can overcome” (Metaphysics of Morals, p. 394); in other words, we never know how strong-willed we are until our resolve is tested. Ms. Nelson, as it were, represented an “obstacle” to be overcome for both the dentist and his wife: he needed to resist his temptation to cross the line with her, and she needed to trust in her husband and their marriage. A confident and solid couple would have faced this temptation together and avoided it. But when faced with this test, the Knights cheated, and simply had the obstacle removed rather than facing it and testing their strength as individuals and as a couple—and Ms. Nelson was the one who paid the price.
If you feel that another person is a threat to your relationship, don’t take it out on that person—she or he is not the problem. The fact that you have concerns, however, suggests that there may be a problem with your relationship that you and your partner need to discuss. Just don't make the other person bear the burden of your relationship problems—not only is this unfair to the other person, but it ignores and perpetuates the problems between you and your partner.
(You know what else is all too often ignored? Your gums. Don't forget to floss!)
Thanks to my friend Lauren Hale (My Postpartum Voice) for the suggestion to look at the case from this angle. (She is not responsible for the lame dentist joke at the end.)
For more on Kant's views on strength of will, see my book Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character (especially chapter 2).
A categorized list of some of my other PT posts can be found at my personal website here.
You can follow me on Twitter and my homepage/blog, as well as the blogs Economics and Ethics and The Comics Professor.