Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR CAROLYN: My husband eats lunch with his co-workers every day. I joined them out recently and one of his single, female co-workers began eating off his plate. When I noticed it, she snatched back her hand.
My husband is pretty familiar with his co-workers, but I’m pretty sure he would be livid that a single, male co-worker was eating off my plate, especially if it appeared to be a habit.
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I’m not worried even remotely that he’s cheating on me (and wouldn’t read this as evidence he was), but I am jealous. I am also worried that his boundaries at work should be better and maybe I should say something? Am I reacting over nothing or is this a trespass?
— Too Territorial?
DEAR TOO TERRITORIAL?: Normally I suggest getting to know your own mind before raising a difficult topic like this, but here I suggest the reverse — talking about it with your husband to help you get to know your own mind. And his.
The important thing is to present it not as an accusation disguised as a hypothetical, but instead as genuinely trying to understand something that struck you as odd. You want to know why it’s bugging you, and how he sees it — including how he’d see it if a male colleague ate off your plate, etc.
Spell out, even, that you’re not accusing anyone of anything, you’re just chewing (sorry) on this and so it makes sense to go to the source. That leaves him ample room to say, “Huh, I never thought about it that way, I guess I am sending a bad message here,” or to make an argument that it’s nothing — which in turn will give you ample room to learn something from his response.
RE: LUNCH: Is eating off someone’s plate really a sexual thing? I’m not a fan of the behavior in general, but often have noticed groups of women pick off each other’s plates. If the situation is hetero (or if those women are lesbians) does this become more intimate? Maybe this woman is just a picker and has been eating lunch with the husband often enough that she doesn’t ask and he’s used to it.
Exactly. I see it not as a sexual thing so much as an intimate thing — which can be anything from harmless to marriage-threatening, depending on how he responds to his wife’s honest expression of discomfort.
CAROLYN: For what it’s worth, during this same meal, my husband asked another (single) co-worker for some of her food and she responded by holding out the plate. It’s good that it’s not an intimate behavior with one person, but he seems to generally have boundary issues with everyone in his office. Except the guys.
We’ve been through a lot recently due to some medical issues, and while we’ve become stronger than ever, he’s also had to deal with me being emotional and short-tempered. I’ve been trying to show how much I appreciate him, so bringing this up would be a bad move. Would you be willing to reassure me that it’s OK to blow this off?
— Territorial again
DEAR TERRITORIAL AGAIN: Sure. You can decide his lunch boundaries are outside the bounds of your business — unless and until something else says otherwise.