Carolyn Hax is away. The following originally appeared on Feb. 11, 2007.
Dear Carolyn: I told my live-in girlfriend yesterday evening that earlier in the day I had noticed this pretty young lady walking by, whom I described in a favorable but not lewd light.
But, I said, even as I enjoyed the way she looked, I thought to myself how fortunate I am to have my girlfriend to be with and come home to, someone who I think is beautiful and virtually all I could ask for.
My girlfriend reacted coldly. We then proceeded not to speak much for the remainder of the evening.
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Finally, I brought up the subject, and she said I should be more sensitive to her and her past experiences and basically that I should refrain from evincing any physical attraction for another woman. I said this reflected her own insecurities, a point she refused to concede. What’s your view?
My view is that I can’t win.
Let’s say I agree with you. Which I do, to an extent; I think we all know we notice attractive people, whether we’re committed to someone or not. That means, obviously, that the people to whom we’re committed also notice attractive people. In professional advice circles, we know this as “duh.”
You would think, therefore, that secure people would be fine when someone admits this out loud. Duh by extension.
Except that, for one thing, very little separates out loud and out lewd. It can hinge on the look in your eye.
And even the most tasteful acknowledgments of others’ attractiveness have turned up in larger efforts to demean, isolate, control. In which case “Carolyn Hax says you’re being childish and insecure” becomes a weapon for the wrong side.
Do I think your reference was lewd or demeaning? If you promise to keep it between us: No, I don’t. But the possibility is always there when I’m getting one side of the story.
So here’s my answer.
You are within decency bounds if you defend yourself: “I meant it as a compliment, that I don’t need blinders on to feel lucky”; it’s OK not to back down if you believe your motives were pure and your delivery sensitive.
It’s also fine to address her behavior: “When you have a problem with what I say, I’d rather you just say it than stop speaking to me.”
Blaming – “I did nothing wrong; you’re just insecure” – is not OK.
Nor is presuming to know what she thinks, how she feels, or why she thinks what she thinks or feels what she feels. Nor is her expecting you to tiptoe around all her baggage.
See, nothing to it.
But it’s worth trying to get it right. People in healthy relationships feel safe expressing their feelings. You’re right to want that with her; you’re right that her cold response got in the way. But so did your accusation. That feeling of safety only works if it’s going both ways.
Dear Carolyn: What do you think is the single most important quality to look for in a lifelong partner?
A pulse. Beyond that, you want what’s right for you when you’re not telling yourself any significant lies. At least, none that can’t be sustained.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.