By Amy Alkon
Q: I’m a happily married 30-year-old woman. A co-worker pointed out a senior trainer at work constantly sneaking lustful glances at me. I was later assigned to his section. We quickly became close friends, and he began mentoring me. He’s married, too, with two children, so though we were extremely flirtatious, nothing inappropriate ever happened, and I told my husband about him. Recently, there were rumors that this man and I were hooking up. He freaked, saying he could lose everything, and cut off our mentorship and our friendship. This was a real slap in the face, as was learning that he’d never told his wife about me. Should I confront him about how bad it feels to be cut off by him?—Betrayed
A: Workers’ comp covers many on-the-job accidents—but unfortunately not the kind where a married man slips and falls into his co-worker’s vagina.
Granted, that isn’t what happened here. But you don’t have to have the fun to have the fallout, which is why some execs now avoid having closed-door meetings with opposite-sex co-workers. Also consider that when somebody has a lot to lose, they have a lot to fear. We all hope for life-changing experiences, but it’s best if they aren’t getting fired, going through a bitter divorce and having the ex-wife drop off the kids on alternating weekends: “OK, boys, time to put down the Xbox and go visit your dad at the homeless shelter!”
And no, he never announced to his wife, “Hey, honey, I’m mentoring this total hotbody. There’s a rumor that we’re hooking up. Believe me, I wish we were … .” Of course, he wouldn’t say that, but he probably senses what psychologist Paul Ekman has found—that we tend to “leak” what we’re really feeling through facial expressions and body language (especially if these include Gollum-like panting and slobbering: “Must. Have. The. Precious”).
You probably understand this intellectually. But the sting from being socially amputated comes out of what psychologist Donna Hicks, an international conflict resolution specialist, deems a “dignity violation.” Hicks describes dignity as “an internal state of peace” we feel from being treated as if we have value and our feelings matter. Because we evolved as a cooperative species and reputation was essential to our remaining in our ancestral band, we react to threats to our dignity as we would threats to our survival.
You patch up your dignity not by marching around all butthurt while waiting for him to repair it, but by calmly taking the initiative. Tell him that you miss having him as a friend and mentor—but that you understand. Counterintuitively, you should find that being the bigger one makes you feel better. Acting like the antithesis of the scorned work wife should help him ease up, too. Though it’s unlikely that things will go back to how they were, he should at least stop treating you like poison ivy in career separates.
Q: I’m a 34-year-old woman who’s been in a yearlong relationship with a wonderful man. I’ve caught myself several times almost calling him by my ex’s name. Surely, this means something, but what? I loathe my ex and regret spending seven long years with him. Still, could I have unresolved feelings for him?—Disturbed
A: It’s like when you pour orange juice on your cereal instead of milk, which surely only happens because you’ve been having sex dreams about fruit salad.
If your near name slips are a sign of anything, it’s probably that you need a snack and a nap. Your brain is an energy hog, so it likes to cut corners where it can, especially when you’re tired. Basically, like your web browser, it’s big on autofill. In researcher-speak, this means it makes “retrieval errors”—reaching into the right file drawer but just grabbing any old name and then going, “Yeah, whatever … good enough.”
Research by psychological anthropologist Alan Page Fiske finds that the biggest predictors for name swapping are the same “mode of relationship”—like here, where both names are from the boyfriend zone—and being “of the same gender.” Boringly reassuring, I hope. There’s also a boringly simple fix—from memory researcher David Balota: Asking and answering the question, “What is my current boyfriend’s name?” using “spaced retrieval.” This means setting a timer for, say, 15 seconds and then 45 seconds and then two minutes so you’re recalling the name on demand (as opposed to just reciting it over and over again).
You might also try to see these near errors as a sign of the rich tapestry of our bustling modern lives, or some bullshit like that. At least that’s what I tried to tell myself last week when I got off the phone with, “Love you!” and heard back, “Um, yes, ma’am. Thank you for choosing AT&T.”