Advice: Unconventional Wisdom

Questions and answers on romantic affairs with co-workers and how accessing online pornography can both harm-and help-a relationship.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on December 10, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Stop Obsessing about his Co-Worker

In a recent letter to "Unconventional Wisdom," a woman sought advice about her husband, as he had grown close to and enjoyed the attention of an attractive co-worker, even in the presence of his wife. The wife's worry ratcheted up a notch when her husband stopped talking about his colleague at home. I suggested that she might indeed have something to worry about. What I didn't say is that a very close friend of mine had just come through a divorce kicked off by infidelity marked by that exact pattern of behavior. In retrospect, my friend recognized that deception began when her husband stopped talking about his co-worker; she realized that's when they began having something to hide. I did explain in this column that the best deterrent to an actual affair is to create an open flow of emotional intimacy with her husband. A reader had some additional thoughts worth sharing.

I think the woman who is worried about her husband and his attractive co-worker may be just obsessing, and that is why her husband doesn't want to talk about it anymore. I sure wouldn't. If I was loving and affectionate at home, and had reassured my spouse numerous times that there was nothing going on and he kept worrying about it, I would just end up saying "OK! I've told you everything I can tell you because that's all there is. I'm not talking about it anymore." Some people just can't quit. A jealous and insecure spouse would be a quick way to drive me up the wall and clam up. Maybe instead of worrying that he's a cheater maybe she should worry that he's kind of a jerk when he's out with her in public. Maybe she needs to work on her self-esteem so she doesn't feel so easily replaced.-R.G.

My Boyfriend Likes Porn

I'm having difficulty with my boyfriend of eight months. He seems to have a fascination with pornography. I have caught him accessing it on my computer and have asked him to stop. After catching him again, he finally did-on my computer anyway. Now he disconnects my computer and hooks his up to my internet connection to access porn. He has no idea that I know of his sneakiness, and I'm not real sure how to bring it up without making him feel trapped. We already have problems of trust as I recently found out that he was unfaithful to me in the beginning of the relationship. I'm afraid of it happening again and think that his fascination with pornography could lead him to unfaithfulness again. Should I be concerned about this? Or am I just being insecure?

Yes, and yes. I'm glad you asked, because you could be Exhibit A in Not Handling the Matter Wisely. Do you really think that interests or needs disappear by being banned?

I don't know where you got the idea that viewing porn will lead to infidelity. Some people think just the opposite, that it fosters fidelity. I don't suppose I need to draw pictures for you, but most men have some kind of interest in porn. It is a fact that the male brain is particularly responsive to and stimulated by visual imagery. Males frequently use visual images as an aid to masturbation.

Some people think that any form of viewing porn is cheating or a sign of moral weakness. Many women dislike porn because it objectifies women, but your objections do not seem to arise from such classic feminist concerns.

Frankly, it doesn't sound as if porn is the real problem, but rather, your fear that that your boyfriend will be unfaithful. That, apparently, is not an unreasonable fear, given his history. Pornography, however, doesn't make men unfaithful; it's most often an aid to solo sex. Are you afraid your boyfriend will find some other woman more attractive than you? Perhaps you unreasonably see every act of which you are not a part as an act of infidelity.

Why don't you address directly your concern that he might be unfaithful? That is the way good relationships are built-by addressing concerns, not displacing them onto peripheral matters. What you really need is some sense of his actual commitment to you. For that, you need to open your eyes and observe his behavior-how kind and considerate he is to you, how much of an investment of time he is making in the relationship, indications that he factors the relationship into future plans.

But you could also create a conversation. You would, of course, need to begin any such conversation not with a complaint about viewing pornography but with a statement of how much you are growing to like him and tell him that you hope he likes you too.

As for the porn, here's one constructive way to think about it, or any other element in your life: Does his interest in porn ever take precedence over his interest in you or in any way come at the expense of the relationship? When it begins to substitute for a human relationship, that's when it's time to worry. But until then, forbidding anything only makes it more desirable. Yes, it does reflect insecurity to see his interest in porn as a sign of your lack of desirability.

If you really want to have a good, real relationship with your boyfriend, you could use his interest in pornographic images as a starting point for a conversation about his sexual fantasies. When two people can conduct that kind of conversation, they have a real intimacy. You might want to know what kinds of things he likes to look at and why-because he might have sexual interests that could be satisfied in the relationship that are not now being met. That's a very different kind of conversation than one condemning him as sneaky, one that builds trust between two people.

It may be that your friend has interests that he feels he can't share openly with you, a curiosity about what might be labeled "alternative" or "kinky" sex. Don't you want to know? Don't you want an emotionally close relationship where you feel you can confide your thoughts and interests to each other without fear of censure? No one is saying you have to perform any acts that are distasteful to you. But human sexual interest is extraordinarily diverse, and it's healthiest when it's openly discussed between two people.