Question #165: How do I deal with my coworker and his toxic, jealous wife?

Dear Captain,

As a single woman working in a male dominated field, I do run into some weird situations. But I’ve never been confronted by a jealous wife before.

A year ago I relocated to a city about an hour’s drive from home so that I could be closer to my new job. A few days ago I was in a bad car crash. I survived it unharmed but my car was totalled. As the wreck was being towed, I called a few people, who I knew lived in the neighborhood, asking for a ride. I was very shaken up after the accident and was too scared to take a cab.

The first person to respond was a coworker who is a good work place friend of mine. He was close by and came to give me a ride. He had his two kids with him and they all dropped me off at my place. The next morning he texted to ask me if I needed to get a ride to work. My insurance company was going to give me a rental later that day, and I did need a ride to the office till then. He picked me up from my apt and dropped me at the office and I thanked him and that was it.

The next day I got a call from his wife in the middle of the night asking me about the text messages. She accused me of having an affair with her husband and said that he’s prone to having such dalliances and that I wasn’t the only one. I tried explaining to her that it was nothing and he had only given me a ride. She kept grilling me about why I’d call him of all people if I had an accident. She just wouldn’t buy any explanation that I’d give her. She has threatened to call my boss and complain to him about me. After I begged her to calm down and promised her that nothing was going on she asked me to not say anything to her husband about this conversation and ended the call. This has freaked me out a lot and I am confused about how to handle this.

I did mention this call to my coworker and asked him to not contact me anymore because I don’t want to be in the middle of this. I guess he talked to his wife about this because I got another call from her and this time she yelled at me to stay away from her husband. I don’t want to do anything with this guy but we work together and I will have to communicate with him. How do I handle this situation? But more importantly, did I do anything inappropriate here?

Not interested in anyone’s husband

Dear Not Interested:

1. You did nothing wrong.

2. Your coworker did nothing wrong (at least in his interactions with you).

3. The wife is TOTALLY out of line. Calling in the middle of the night? Threatening to tell your boss?  JEBUS. I guarantee that any steps like that she takes will reflect more on her than on you, so if it ever comes to that tell HR exactly what happened, document her behavior, and prepare to ride it out.

4. The way you deal with your coworker is to say “Thank you for helping me. Your wife is really out of line, and I will not be taking her calls or interacting with her ever again. I am pleased to have you as a coworker and a friend and sorry you have to deal with that. Are you ok? Is there anything you need to talk about? (The wife is, after all, exhibiting many “abuser” red flags by trying to control your coworker’s relationships and making threats.) Or, shall we agree to forget this ever happened? Because you have nothing to apologize for and I’m so sorry if you feel weird and embarrassed. I know that this isn’t your fault.”

5. The way you deal with the wife is to never interact with her again. If she calls you again, you say “Look, this is completely out of line. Do not call me again.”  Then you never, ever take her call again. If she calls from his number and you find out it is her, hang up immediately, or let it go to voicemail and only call back when it is him.  Do not tell her more than once not to call or make threats (Courtesy of Gavin De Becker – obsessed people take any response as a cue to remain engaged, your only hope of getting rid of them is to disengage completely and wait for them to find someone new to fixate on). Document the calls in case things DO get out of hand, and if she makes threats about talking to your boss again give the company a heads’ up. If you see her at a company event, walk the other way when she walks toward you. Your attention: She gets zero of it.

I’m sorry you have to deal with this on top of the shock and difficulty of the car accident (glad you are ok!). Some people are just unreasonable, and there is nothing you can do to placate them or smooth it over. They violate the social contract so completely that they force you to question everything, and the only solution is to avoid them hard. Soon your coworker will say “Thank you” to the drive-thru barista a little too enthusiastically or take 5 minutes too long to come out of the drycleaner’s, and then those poor ladies will get weird calls and threats.

Here is a video that illustrates a situation of coworker/spouse jealousy in an awkward, ridiculous and funny manner. To find it I had to watch some horrible fanvids that actually tried to (gag) ‘ship Zoe/Mal as if that were ever a thing, so I hope you appreciate my sacrifice.

Take me, sir. Take me hard.”

It’s Day 4 of the Captain Awkward Dot Com pledge drive! Thanks for your contributions, your support really helps me through the lean times between semesters and freelance gigs.

19 thoughts on “Question #165: How do I deal with my coworker and his toxic, jealous wife?

    1. Right behind you on the re-rewatching. This is only contributing to the nostalgia of unpacking my Serenity comics and figurines!

    2. My brother just started watching for the first time. I am resisting rewatching because I have too many other things on the go, but I have offered to knit him a cunning hat.

      1. No kidding on not having time, especially since someone posted a link in Question #163 about someone offering the Vorkosigan books to download for free…

  1. YES to only telling her to leave you alone once. She wants to engage in a fantasy in which she is the wronged woman and you are the cause of it. It is very clear that she is not interested in reality. As a result, every time she is allowed to interact with you it gives her more fuel for her fantasy. You deny anything happened: she gets to fume about you lying to her face. You explain why you called her husband: she gets to analyze your story and use it to engage in further paranoia. You try to calm her down: she has her feelings acknowledged and validated. You ask her to stop calling you every time she does so: she gets to believe she’s making you feel guilty or that harassment is her revenge. No matter what you say, she will take it as a victory and as encouragement to keep bothering you.

    I think the Captain is spot on as far as telling her once very calmly that she is out of line and should never contact you again, and then avoiding all other contact while documenting things religiously. And depending on your relationship with your HR department, it may be smart to have a quick chat with them to let them know what’s happening. The only thing I disagree about is that rather than offering to talk to your coworker if he’s having issues, you suggest that he get in touch with the nearest counseling agency. He may need someone to talk to, but it shouldn’t be you — the last thing you need is to get sucked back into the drama by being his confidante. Continue to interact with him normally at work, but I would avoid being alone with him as much as possible: bring another person along if he wants to get coffee, don’t be the last two people at a work happy hour, etc.

    1. I love the solution of recommending that the coworker talk to someone – a counselor, EAP line, something – I wanted to make sure that the LW put it out there that “Hey, coworker, that is not normal behavior and it is not ok- are YOU ok?” but your solution is great.

      And you’re absolutely correct about continued contact – it only fuels the drama.

      LW, the book you want to read is The Gift of Fear.

      1. I meant to second your recommendation of The Gift of Fear — I love that book, and although I haven’t faced any significant harassment since I read it, I still think of it whenever I draw boundaries in smaller ways. Hello, man from the internet who I got coffee with last week and who keeps calling my cell during business hours even though I said I would be at work and couldn’t talk: you are demonstrating complete disregard for my stated boundaries, so you get one “I’m not interested in a second date” text and then silence.

    2. Seconding the idea of going to HR now if you would feel comfortable with it. Get a paper trail started early so that if the harassment continues it’s there, and also so that HR knows what’s going on and can help. What do other folks think about not necessarily indicating at first that it’s co-worker’s wife? Maybe just call HR and let them know you are being stalked/harassed by someone in your life and this person has threatened to contact your place of work? The key is to let as many people as possible know what is happening so that access to you and disruption to the workplace is minimized. Good luck, LW.

      1. I like this idea as long as the whole thing *can be kept above the level of office gossip.* That’s an added burden Coworker definitely doesn’t need.

        1. Word. The goal here is “take away the game.”

          The Wife can’t threaten “telling the boss” if the boss/company already knows that the limits of shenaniganery were carpooling. But I’m also dubious that she would actually go so far as to call the company; her husband’s job and their financial security would be at equal perceived risk. She sounds jealous-ragey, but not stupid.

          All the same, I support giving HR the heads-up that you’re being harassed, and give them as much information as you’re comfortable with sharing.

  2. Any boss who would listen to the wife of an employee is not being professional. It’s none of his or her business what anyone’s wife does or thinks, especially outside of the office. You have nothing to explain and you are guilty of nothing concerning your work. End of story. Anything that happens after that would warrant a lawsuit.

    I agree it’s crucial to limit interaction with the suspicious wife. You owe her nothing and may hang up, perhaps after saying “I am hanging up now.” You may want a record of being polite if firm, in case police are involved.

    There’s probably nothing you can do at this point to “not be in the middle” since she will probably fight with her husband over you. The only thing you can do about this is not to take responsibility for any fight that occurs, or for anyone’s reaction to your need for help and to anyone providing that help. You couldn’t have known.

    I disagree, however, with the idea of talking to the husband about his wife’s behaviour, except to say “I don’t want your wife to call me again. This is unfair to me, it’s unacceptable behaviour, and I will consider it harassment. I will not judge you according to your wife’s threats and outbursts and I don’t want this to affect our working relationship. I will do my best for that not to happen,” Or something of the kind.

    You have no obligation to be a therapist to anyone. No one could have anticipated this kind of reaction. You had no idea of the state of your colleague’s marriage and it’s something no employee or coworker could reasonably be expected to know and accommodate.

  3. They violate the social contract so completely that they force you to question everything, and the only solution is to avoid them hard.

    Very well put! And I agree with the commenters who suggest that the LW shouldn’t address this with the co-worker other than to let him know that his wife called and that no further calls from her will be answered.

    And by the way, in general in relation to telephone calls, I am a big proponent of basically never answering the phone unless the call is from a number you recognize and you want to talk to the person. All other calls can be allowed to go to voice mail.

    1. I am a big proponent of basically never answering the phone unless the call is from a number you recognize and you want to talk to the person. All other calls can be allowed to go to voice mail.

      Ayup. Personally, my tactic is to let everyone except my mum and partner go to voicemail, which explicitly tells people that in order to get in touch with me, they’ll need to text or email. I just don’t do phones.

    2. “I agree with the commenters who suggest that the LW shouldn’t address this with the co-worker other than to let him know that his wife called and that no further calls from her will be answered.”

      Second this. Jealousy is something you just don’t want to deal with. It sucks for this guy that his wife is ruining his ability to have normal friendships with women, but it’s just not your problem. Limit interactions with him to those that are absolutely necessary.

      Anybody ever see the one-act play “The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year?” This letter reminded me of it.

  4. Good advice, but I want to say that I think it’s long past time to tell H.R. It’s quite possible her obsession has already reached the point where the cutting off of contact will make her take drastic measures to get LW’s attention. The best insurance against a boss believing her wacky story is getting your story into the hopper first. You don’t know how good a liar she is, after all. I realize the concern is that the husband will be hurt by H.R., but if you go in explaining exactly what you say here: that you did nothing wrong, and you’re worried that he’s being abused, you have done your due diligence protecting not just yourself but him. After all, she may retaliate against him if her obsession isn’t fed, as well.

    1. Good call, hopefully HR at the LW’s company is rational and cool and not prone to overreacting.

      LW, read The Gift of Fear now, ok?

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