Group Therapy is a relationship advice column that asks readers to contribute their wisdom. Each week, we offer a problem for you to weigh in on, then publish the most lively responses, with a final word on the matter delivered by our columnist, Claudia Dey.
A reader writes: I recently discovered that my wife has received, and responded to, what I feel are inappropriate text messages from her boss. They involve suggestive topics – for example “r u alone, I need my tires pumped up big time” or other sexual innuendo. She responds in a non-committal way or with a joking response, but doesn't stop and the “conversations” go on for six or seven replies each, so it seems that she is not entirely put off. What is more, these texts were being sent while my wife and I were apart over the recent Easter break, so it's not happening just at work or during the week. I feel guilty about having looked at her phone archives (although the discovery was innocent), so I can't bring myself to broach the subject and I'm not convinced anything is actually happening so far, but it still bugs me. Suggestions?
Tell her to make him stop
Your wife is probably very uncomfortable since this is her boss, who has a say in her continued employment. First, apologize to her for prying. Then tell her that you will support her in whatever she does to stop this sexual harassment. She should document the text messages – time and content – then either tell her boss to stop, or go to human resources or someone above him. She may lose her job, or she may find that the only way to get away is to quit her job. Tell her that you will support her decision. Whatever you do, do not be accusatory. It's not her fault that her boss has a lousy view of employer-employee boundaries. – Lianne Burwell, Ottawa
Leave her to handle it
It sounds as if your wife is able to deflate her boss's tires gently without your help. If she accepted his suggestions it would be bad for your marriage. If she told him flat out to go blow his own horn it would probably be bad for her job. Since she seems to be able to strike an effective balance, and has not asked for your help, I'd say be secretly proud that she is doing such a good job and leave her to handle it. – Michael Moore, Toronto
Maybe she feels neglected
This is not only grossly inappropriate behaviour on the part of your wife's boss, it is dangerous territory for her to be in as well. Any form of secret communication involving such innuendo can only lead to trouble. Even if your wife is only replying because she feels her non-response would threaten her job, she should have confid-ed in you and then talked to a superior authority at her firm about her boss's behaviour. Now, she has compromised her position at work and her trust with you. If, as I fear, she is enjoying the attention and replying in kind, then you should talk to her about it. Perhaps she is feeling neglected and is seeking excitement. Maybe you both need to rekindle something that is lost? If this behaviour continues, it could lead to an affair and almost certainly the termination of her job and the end of your marriage. – Eleanor Hollenbeck, Calgary.
The final word
Dear Bugged, Understood. Your trespass is forgiven. You were not slinking through your wife's telephone records with a fake mustache, French accent and heavy frames. You were not prompted by suspicion: “the discovery was innocent.” And yet, for reasons far beyond this one, your findings must be acknowledged.
Truth be told, while I am concerned for you, I am more concerned for your wife. Surely she has some heft of brain and wit. Surely she knows the only response to a hulk's “pumped up big time” overture is a complete media blackout, the equivalent of disappearing from the screen, a cyberspace Houdini. Surely she knows this confused, abbreviated sexual simile offered by a confused, abbreviated sexual primate does not deserve a reply – let alone a conversation. Where, dear Bugged, is her self-respect? Does she welcome the attention she gets – however base? Or, more likely, is she afraid of losing her job?
While I disagree with Blow His Own Horn Moore's deduction that you should leave her to handle it, I appreciate his retorts and encourage you to parcel them out to your wife at an appropriate time.
Your first step is to talk to her. As Dangerous Territory Lindenberger wisely urges: Disclose and apologize for your transgression. Ask her for the truth. Why is she allowing this kind of crude dispatch from her thick-of-brow boss? Why has she not quashed it? As Lindenberger challenges: Is her boss replacing a charge that has been “lost” between you?
But far more pressing, and the source of my concern: Your wife is being harassed. Get to the bottom of her strategy. Is she “joking” and remaining neutral to protect her position? If so, she has other options. And, more disturbing, why has she not come to you to discuss them?
Support Her Burwell provides a clear course of action. Your wife must document the exchanges; order her boss to stop his pre-adolescent innuendo; and if he does not, go to HR – whatever the fallout. Harassment is a tacky and threatening snare – far more grievous than being “bugged.”
Next week's question
I survived my first year of medical school with a solid set of friends – friends whom I'd want as bridesmaids and godparents to any kids I would have one day. Then, this year rolled around and we drifted apart. Huge events took place in our lives and we went in opposite directions. I've tried to reach out but I'm met with silence. What should I do? My little sister says they're jealous of me and I should just break off these friendships.
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Claudia Dey's first novel, Stunt, was published by Coach House Books in April. Her website is ClaudiaDey.com.