"I wish my husband didn't attract so much female attention," said Kim, 34, a part-time ER nurse and mother of Evan, 5, and Josh, 2, who's been married for nine years. "But I really wish I weren't so afraid he'll be unfaithful.
"Listen, I understand why women find Matt attractive: He's tall and muscular, with wavy black hair and intense green eyes. But what galls me is how indiscreet they are. They check him out as if I weren't there. Not long ago a waitress told Matt, 'You've got gorgeous bedroom eyes,' as she was taking our dinner orders. And last month, at a party, a guest whispered, 'Your husband's the hottest man I've ever seen.' Those remarks bug me, and depending on my mood, I either stare icily at the person or jokingly say, 'Enough already.' Matt's reaction is to smile, say thanks, and make small talk. He enjoys the attention, though he'd deny it.
"Matt has always been a babe magnet, though I was less bothered by it when we were first married. But he gets even more attention now — not only is he more handsome at 35 than 25, but he has more charisma, probably because he's so successful in his business.
"The unfortunate result of all this is that I'm jealous and suspicious to the point where it's ruining our marriage. He insists he'd never have an affair, but my dad left my mom for another woman when I was in junior high. The fact that my college boyfriend was a chronic cheater only reinforced my sense that men are inherently unfaithful. So when gorgeous young strangers practically throw themselves at Matt, I have a hard time believing he'd never stray.
"I was raised in an affluent suburb of New York City, not far from where we live now. My parents didn't fight, but they showed no affection to each other. My mom was warm, but Dad was rather gruff with my sister and me. When I was 14 he left a note on the kitchen table saying he was unhappy and had moved out to 'get his head together.' Stunned and suspicious, Mom hired a private investigator, who discovered that Dad was living with another woman. When Mom broke the news, I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach. Devastated by his deceit, I stopped speaking to Dad for many years; two decades later I still cannot forgive him, and our relationship remains chilly."
"At 22 I met Matt at a local bagel shop, where I worked to pay for graduate school in nursing. He was a 21-year-old construction worker who stopped there every day. When I ran into him at a local bar one night, we ended up talking for hours. Our conversation flowed easily, and we had a lot in common: We'd grown up in neighboring towns, enjoyed boating, and were die-hard Yankees fans. At the end of the night Matt asked me if I'd like to have dinner, but before I could say yes, he scribbled his phone number on a napkin and said to call if I wanted to see him again. I phoned the next day and accepted his invitation.
"After a few weeks, I knew I wanted to marry him. He was kind, hardworking, and supportive — all the qualities I sought in a husband. And indeed our newlywed years were conflict-free. I loved my job as an ER nurse and was soon promoted to supervisor. At 30 Matt grew restless in construction and began moonlighting for a landscaping company. It turned out he had a knack for horticulture and design, along with the strength and technical skills to install patios, pools, and retaining walls. With my encouragement he started a landscape-design firm specializing in projects for luxury housing developments. It has grown more successful each year.
"After I became pregnant with Evan, I noticed that Matt was attracting more than his usual share of suggestive stares. Everywhere we went women undressed him with their eyes, while I seethed in silence. It tapped into my insecurity because I was carrying around 40 pounds of pregnancy weight. Feeling unattractive and jealous, I'd lash out at Matt the minute we got home.
"Sadly, this pattern has pretty much continued ever since. We're locked in an ongoing battle about my suspicions, with screaming matches followed by days of mutual silent treatment. We haven't been out alone in ages, and our sex life is sporadic. I'm rarely in the mood because I'm either angry or wiped out from chasing after our sons, working part-time, running the house, and doing the books for Matt's company.
"At times my suspicions have driven me to outrageous actions. When I was six months pregnant with Josh I was too exhausted to attend our friends' annual Christmas party, so Matt took his sister. I knew that the hostess's gorgeous, flirtatious friend Karen would be there — she'd put the moves on Matt at previous gatherings — and when he wasn't back at midnight, I called the hostess, who said he'd left two hours earlier. In a fit of fury I jumped in the car and was headed for the neighborhood bar where I imagined he was with Karen when Matt's car pulled up next to mine at a stoplight. I leapt out, pounded on his window and accused him of cheating, humiliating myself in front of my sister-in-law, who was sitting in the front seat! They'd left the party to get a drink by themselves. Matt apologized for losing track of time but was outraged by my behavior.
"Recently I got suspicious because Matt was leaving at 5 a.m. to go to the gym, which doesn't open until 5:30. When I called his cell phone, his voice mail picked up. This went on for several weeks until I finally confronted him. He said he drinks coffee and reads the paper on the beach while waiting for the gym to open. 'I don't carry my cell phone, because nobody sane calls at that hour,' he yelled. 'If I were having an affair, it wouldn't be at 5 in the morning!'
"Since that incident Matt and I have avoided each other. The tension is unbearable, and we've started bickering about other stuff, such as his workaholism. He even takes business calls during dinner. I get stuck with cleanup and childcare at night while he works. Meanwhile, he's upset that I've taken on additional shifts at the hospital. Since we don't need the income, he thinks I shouldn't work at all. But I love my job, and the ER is understaffed. When my boss asks if I can take an extra shift, my first instinct is to say yes.
"Last week, after I got upset when a sexy saleswoman flirted with Matt, he told me he was fed up. 'This is your problem,' he said, 'and if you don't fix it, I'm leaving.'"
"I'm sorry I had to threaten my wife with divorce, but it was the only way I could get her to understand that she's ruining our marriage," said Matt, 35. "In all the years I've known Kim, I've never even considered being unfaithful. Yes, I suppose I could pursue a woman who hits on me, but why would I? Kim is the love of my life: Not only is she beautiful but she's smart, witty, a terrific mother, and my best friend. Without her support I'd be stuck in a dead-end construction job instead of running my own landscaping business and earning a six-figure income. But how many times must I endure her tirades? How many times must I reassure her that I wouldn't do anything to jeopardize our marriage?
"Of course I enjoy female attention. It makes me feel good, especially because I get so little from Kim. She rejects me in bed and no longer cares about my career. If I sign a lucrative new client, she doesn't want to hear about it. If someone congratulates me on a project, she walks away. I give her plenty of attention — I compliment her appearance and parenting skills — but she dismisses it.
"When I say 'female attention,' by the way, I mean a smile, glance or compliment — not lingering stares and overt sexual remarks. That's just embarrassing. Frankly, I'm amazed at how aggressive some women are, and I do understand why Kim gets upset. But in the past few years her jealousy has gotten out of control, to the point where I dread going out in public with her for fear that she'll make a scene or explode when we get home. Look, I know she was deeply hurt by her father's and ex-boyfriend's philandering. But their infidelity doesn't make all men unfaithful. I've never given Kim a reason to mistrust me. I'm sick of the fighting, name-calling and distancing. We still enjoy family activities with Evan and Josh, but I miss the fun we once had as a couple, including our active sex life."
"I'm from a working-class town, the youngest of six kids. My parents were loving but inattentive. Dad worked long hours at his gas station to support us; Mom ran the house. In retrospect I got lost in the crowd. Mom and Dad never praised me or encouraged me to excel in school; my eldest brother — he's 10 years my senior — gave me constant grief, ridiculing my looks and telling me I'd never amount to anything. So I grew up shy and insecure. Since I doubted my intelligence, I skipped college and settled for a job in construction.
"At 16 I went through a growth spurt and developed muscles. Girls started smiling at me, and I grew more comfortable around them. I was attracted to Kim the instant I saw her but I never dreamed that a graduate student would be interested in a construction worker. Even after we had a great time that night in the bar, I couldn't tell whether she liked me, so I gave her my number instead of getting hers. I was so grateful when she called!
"We clicked on our first date and soon were inseparable. I adored everything about Kim — except her jealous streak, which revealed itself early on. She'd make snippy comments when someone smiled too eagerly or stared too long. I tried to brush off her reactions, but that only riled her up more. So we fell into this tiresome routine where I acknowledge that someone has been flirtatious, reassure her profusely that I did nothing to invite it, and tell her that she's the only woman I want. It's a huge drag and it's been like that for our entire relationship. But since we became parents and I started my company, it's gotten worse! It's true I've received more attention in the past five years — not because my looks are dramatically different but because I feel good about myself for the first time in my life. I love being a father and I'm proud of how well my business has done. They say confidence is attractive. Unfortunately, the more women stare, the more Kim doubts my fidelity, rejects me sexually, and criticizes me for working too much. It's a vicious circle.
"Now Kim has started working extra shifts on nights and weekends — time we should spend together as a family. It irritates me because we don't need the money and Kim's boss asks at the last minute, leaving me to scramble to find a babysitter if I've scheduled a meeting. I think she's doing it to punish me.
"I love my wife but I can't live under a constant cloud of suspicion, always wondering when she'll explode in a jealous rage. Counseling is our only hope."
The Counselor's Turn
"Jealousy and possessiveness are corrosive forces in a marriage," the counselor said. "When Kim and Matt started counseling, they were furious at each other — she because she was convinced he would have an affair and end the marriage, he by his wife's lack of trust and inattention. Yet despite this standoff they acknowledged that in happier times they were best friends — always a good sign. Plus they remained attracted to each other and were well matched in appearance. Matt was every bit as handsome as Kim said, but she was beautiful, too, and I suspected she got plenty of attention from men but was too focused on her husband to notice it.
"Kim believed the worst of men because her father walked out when she was a vulnerable 14-year-old. This was a traumatic experience and, along with her college boyfriend's behavior, caused her to develop the idea that all men are cheaters. Since her husband was a man, he was automatically included in this category. Yet he didn't flirt and hadn't cheated. 'By constantly accusing him you're pushing him away,' I told her. 'He's not a cheater, but if you don't stop accusing him, you could turn him into one.' This analysis surprised Kim, who said she'd never imagined that her badgering Matt could ultimately have the opposite effect from what she intended.
"Listening to the couple describe how Kim's suspicions escalated after she became a mother and Matt started a business, I realized that something else was at play: She wasn't jealous just of flirtatious women; she also was jealous of Matt. As newlyweds Kim had been the star of the couple — the one with the graduate degree and big income — while Matt worked a blue-collar job. Unconsciously she felt her education and career were a counterbalance to his incredible good looks. But as Matt grew successful and became the main breadwinner, the scales tipped too far in his favor. 'It must be difficult to hear people praise Matt,' I said. 'You juggle multiple roles, but I bet nobody says, 'Kim, you're a sensational nurse and mother.'
"Meanwhile, Matt was susceptible to attention from women because he remained emotionally needy, the result of his parents' benign neglect and his eldest brother's harassment. Yearning for approval, he was hurt that Kim didn't give him credit for his accomplishments. Matt's tendency to act appreciative when someone called him handsome actually invited more attention. This in turn fueled Kim's jealousy and insecurity. 'When you engage in eye contact, smile, and make small talk in response to a compliment, you're sending the signal that you might be available,' I told Matt. 'Be careful how you respond. Keep your eyes in front of you, stop using your coy smile, and take Kim's hand if she's with you.'
"Matt was surprised to hear this. 'I guess I've played a role in our problems, too,' he admitted in a breakthrough session."
"By examining how their upbringings had shaped their attitudes, Kim and Matt developed empathy for their mutual insecurity and pain. Over time she came to understand that her suspicions were unfounded. Matt came to understand that he was emotionally needy and had unconsciously encouraged women to flirt with him.
"I guided the couple to take small steps. First, Kim had to go a week without commenting on any attention Matt received. He had to ignore flirting. Both admitted that it was tough to suppress their natural reactions, but by doing so, they felt less hostile toward each other. Additionally, I urged Kim to make Matt feel loved and worthwhile — not in an artificial way, but by genuinely acknowledging his accomplishments. I urged Matt to reassure Kim of his devotion, not by rote recitations of fidelity, but by extolling her ability to manage motherhood, a career, and household duties.
"As they heeded my advice, tension eased. Kim warmed to her husband's advances and even began initiating sex — a turnaround that delighted Matt. I encouraged them to hire a babysitter every Saturday to give them couple time. 'We're having fun seeing movies and going to Yankees games,' Kim reported.
"Next we focused on several side issues: Kim's extra shifts, Matt's work schedule, and Kim's belief that he didn't do his share of childcare. Kim enjoyed her job but it created hardships for Matt when she accepted extra shifts at the eleventh hour. She needed to learn how to say no to her boss. Meanwhile, Matt had to stop reminding Kim that she didn't 'need' to work. 'You diminish her achievements when you imply that her job is unnecessary,' I explained.
"Matt also had to stop doing business at the dinner table. 'The family dinner hour is sacred,' I told him, 'so turn off your cell phone and focus on your wife and children.' He also agreed to relieve Kim of some of the parenting burden. He now spends after-dinner time with Evan and Josh, waiting until they're asleep to work. 'I thought I was an attentive father, but Kim was right all along,' he admitted. 'Now I read to the boys and help with the bedtime routine, and I like it.'
"It is hard to reverse long-established behavior patterns, but during six months in treatment, this couple worked assiduously to make changes. 'Without counseling, I would not have overcome my jealousy and mistrust of Matt — and we'd be divorced today,' Kim said. 'We get along great now, and I can't imagine my life without him.'
"Matt is equally thrilled: 'I love the new and improved un-jealous Kim,' he said. 'Finally, our marriage is back on track.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2007.