In Part I of When Your Spouse Objectifies in Public, I talked about the painful experience many betrayed partners face when they are out in public with their spouse, and they have the perception that their spouse is objectifying other people. (If you haven’t read Part I, get the whole article here.)
Here in Part II, I will introduce some tools both betrayed partners and unfaithful spouses can use when objectification in public has become an issue in your relationship.
One of the most challenging parts about a betrayed partner’s experience of her spouse objectifying in public is that it starts with a perception or thought that may or may not be true.
For that reason, as you are working on this issue I urge you to avoid automatically assuming or believing that your perception is the truth with a capital “T”.
Since objectification happens in the mind, the other person is the only one who can truly verify what they are thinking about.
You may see your spouse staring into space as the two of you are sitting in the airport waiting to board a flight, or you may see him looking a bit too long in the direction of an attractive waiter or store clerk. But does that mean—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that he is objectifying? The difficult truth is that you can’t know it to be absolutely true unless it is verified by him or her.
To be fair, it is extremely common for unfaithful spouses and sex addicts to struggle with objectification. And if you strongly suspect or already know that your spouse frequently objectifies other people when the two of you are together in public, there are steps you can take to reduce the pain that goes hand-in-hand with these events.
Objectification is such a common problem for sex addicts that the 12-step community, Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), created a tool called the “Three-Second Rule” to help addicts manage the unhealthy habit of looking at and objectifying others. There are several ways to use this tool, including one version that uses the phrase “Alert, Avert, Affirm.” To read more about the Three-Second Rule, visit the SAA website here.
If objectification in public has become a problem in your relationship, here are 3 steps you can take:
Check out your perception
Although you may be 100% correct that your spouse is objectifying someone, checking out what you are perceiving or “making up” is relational, emotionally intimate, and reminds you not to believe everything you think! Proceeding full steam ahead based on assumptions is human, but often gets us into trouble.
And here is how it might sound to check out your perception:
I noticed you looking in the direction where the waitress was for what seemed like a long time to me. I made up that you were objectifying her. Were you?
I want to take a pause here to note how frightening it might feel for you to ask this question.
First, it takes a lot of courage and vulnerability. And second, what if your spouse says yes, he was objectifying? Or even worse, what if you truly believe in your heart that he has been objectifying the waitress for the entire meal and he says he wasn’t—and you don’t believe him?
Regardless of your spouse’s response to the question, it is best to start by sharing your reality and checking it out with him or her. Believing everything you make up, and proceeding as though what you made up is true, is guaranteed to cause untold pain and endless misunderstanding.
Assess your spouse’s response
There are three possibilities for how your spouse may respond to your question about whether or not he was objectifying another person:
- Yes, I was
- No, I wasn’t (and you believe your spouse)
- No, I wasn’t (and you don’t believe your spouse)
If your spouse says he was objectifying the waitress, you will probably feel hurt, angry, and maybe ashamed. Your spouse may feel shame, or even anger at himself.
If your feelings are strong, but you believe you can express them in a calm way, then do.
There are many choices you can make in this situation, including requesting that your spouse make adjustments to where he is standing, sitting, etc. so that it is more difficult to engage in objectifying behaviors.
If you’re feeling triggered, do whatever creates more safety and comfort for you. For example, if you’re at a child’s sporting event or a social gathering you could temporarily disengage with your spouse so that you can mingle and talk with other people.
If you are highly triggered or overwhelmed, you may want to leave or otherwise completely remove yourself from an uncomfortable situation, and wait until you’re feeling calmer to have a conversation, especially if there are other people present.
If your spouse says he wasn’t objectifying, check in with yourself to see if you believe him. If you do, then there may be nothing more to say or do about it. If you don’t believe him, I encourage you to honor your intuition and do what you need to do to take care of yourself. You could use some of the strategies mentioned earlier, or find another solution that helps you feel safer, calmer, and more grounded. When all else fails, excuse yourself to go to the restroom, or go to a private place and call or text a supportive friend.
Create a plan for managing future events
In the early stages of discovery and disclosure, objectification in public is a problem for most unfaithful spouses. This reality, as well as the betrayed partners raw emotions at this time, make for a difficult, yet temporary challenge for each member of the couple.
Having a plan and strategies for how you will handle certain situations in the future will help make this period of time more manageable and less painful.
Start by creating a list of what would help you feel more safe in public when you’re with your spouse.
For example, some partners say that they feel more comfortable when their spouse is engaging in conversation with them regularly or having more physical contact such as holding hands or other non-sexual touch that sends a signal to the betrayed partner that her spouse is thinking of her and reaching for connection.
Ask your spouse what he/she believes the solution to the issue is? Creative solutions that have worked for unfaithful spouses who struggle with objectifying include:
- Wearing a hat that blocks their peripheral vision.
- Sitting in a restaurant or other public place facing a wall rather than the room or an area where many people are sitting or walking by.
- Asking to trade places with the betrayed partner in a restaurant or other public place when there is someone in the unfaithful spouse’s view that he/she finds triggering.
- Turning pool or beach chairs around facing the opposite direction of the pool or the water so that they are not only facing away from temptation, but are also facing the partner for more connection.
Once you have a list of what creates safety for you and any tools or strategies your spouse is committed to using, create an agreement about how you will handle future situations, and write those down in a couples’ agreement journal.
Temporarily reduce or eliminate public outings together
Although this option may seem severe, it can work for couples when there are frequent upsets and challenges, or when the betrayed partner is feeling particularly triggered and vulnerable.
If you prefer not to completely stop attending public outings together, you could identify the types of events you are willing to go to and only attend those. For example, if your children are involved in sporting events, you may want to attend those together but not go out to a restaurant or an office holiday party. You can also choose to go in separate vehicles to all or some events so that you have the option and freedom to leave at a different time than your spouse.
If you decide to temporarily stop going to public or social events together, or to limit the types of events you attend, I recommend that you create a timeframe with check-ins. For example, if you agree that you want to eliminate public outings for 30 days, have a check-in with each other at the two week mark to review and reassess. If the betrayed partner is feeling more comfortable, she may want to experiment with going to one or two events with her spouse to see how she feels before changing the agreement. Whatever the time frame, stick to your commitment.
The bottom line is that although your spouse’s struggles with objectification impact you, they are not about you.
The good news is that over time and with solid recovery work, your spouse will spend less time lost in objectification and fantasy. And even more important, as you begin to have a greater understanding that what your spouse thinks about other women (or men) is not a reflection on your self-worth and value, your triggers will significantly decrease and may disappear altogether.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2018)