My wife and I both work for the same television station in a medium-sized Midwestern city. But we are in different departments. She has been getting promoted fairly steadily while I am stalled in the same position. Now she is making quite a bit more money than I do. This bothers me more than it should. We have two sons, and I want to be a good role model for them.
I recently overheard some extremely malicious gossip about my wife, stating that she is having an affair with a very highly-placed executive in our company. I know she has been working late and taking phone calls at home that she goes into another room to finish so she won’t “bother me.” I confronted my assistant and was told that just about everybody in the company knows about this affair and wonders why I put up with it. In other words, I am benefitting so much from my wife’s high salary that I smile and ignore the fact that the boss is screwing her. I’ve been bought off. I’m just not much of a man.
Ever since I heard these ugly rumors, I have been a wreck. I can’t concentrate. I hate going in to work. But I have finally decided that I want my wife to take a lie detector test to prove that she is not having an affair. If she refuses, I want a divorce. I can’t stand for this. I won’t. Please don’t talk to me about open relationships, they are not for me. We promised to be faithful to one another when we married. I have been faithful to her, and I believed she was also devoted to me. Our marriage has been through some rocky situations. But I reassured myself that we would always work out any problems we had—together. I never thought our children would be raised by parents who were separated or divorced. This is a nightmare.
I have gotten a lot of letters about lie detectors lately, maybe because their use has been popularized by television shows about cheating spouses, the parentage of children, whether children have been mistreated, or other divisive and painful issues. People agree to take lie detector tests as part of the show, and the results are presented to entertain the audience. These results are also supposed to help people make important decisions about their marriage, parenting style, getting counseling, etc., but I wonder if anybody changes their life because they were on television. Because of the volume of letters similar to yours, I hope you will be patient if I spend a little time discussing the lie detector itself before I get more specific about your question. I promise that the technology and ethics surrounding the use of this device are very important and relevant to your situation.
Lie detectors have been around for a very long time. The first attempt to create one is credited to James Mackenzie in 1902. But it was a primitive device that only measured one involuntary physiological reaction. A polygraph that actually resembles the one used today was invented by John Larson, a medical student, in 1921. Today’s machines are called polygraphs because they measure several different physical responses such as breathing rate, perspiration, pulse, and blood pressure that are supposedly not under conscious control. Pens record these data on graph paper. An operator asks a series of questions and then interprets the results. The subject of the test is asked questions to give a baseline (what a true and false response from this particular subject looks like on a physiological level) as well as the questions the investigators are interested in.
Law enforcement personnel have always wanted a shortcut around the time-consuming process of gathering forensic evidence, interviewing witnesses, and waiting for autopsy results. This was a Holy Grail for cops before DNA testing was possible. Eye witnesses are notoriously unreliable, for example. It is demoralizing to see cold cases pile up while the public clamors for results. Simply administering a test that would determine a suspect’s guilt or innocence would seem to be an easier way to investigate a crime and get ironclad results.
But the unwelcome truth is, these tests are suspect for several reasons. The advocates of lie detectors will tell you that, with an experienced and properly trained operator, they are 90% accurate. But their critics say the correct figure is closer to only 70%. Not only does the polygraph often allow a guilty person to lie without being detected, it often falsely identifies an innocent person as a perpetrator of wrong-doing. So its results should always be independently corroborated with factual, objective evidence. . Does this test really save investigators any time (or money) if its results still have to be corroborated by forensic evidence, witness testimony, and other factual findings? Probably not.
As an August 5, 2004 paper on the American Psychological Association website points out, we don’t even know if the basic premise behind the polygraph is true, or not. Research has never been conducted to prove that human beings have certain physiological reactions when they lie. It may be true for some people and not for others. There are serious ethical problems with conducting research on this problem. How would you justify asking someone, for example, to lie on an FBI lie detector test that would determine whether they got a job they really wanted or not? And you would need a great deal of data to compare liars and truth-tellers to find out whether there are differences in heart rate, pulse, and other reactions the test measures
I also wonder if so-called “involuntary” responses are really beyond the individual’s control. They can certainly be altered if the person takes sedatives, inflicts physical pain upon themselves, learns yoga or takes classes on self-hypnosis, or simply hyperventilates. If the individual is very nervous, they may look like a liar on the test when their problem is really anxiety. An operator with a bias against the test subject has a lot of power to subjectively skew his or her interpretation of the results.
The Supreme Court of the United States took a look at this whole argument and decided that lie detector tests can only be used in court if the individual judge agrees to admit the results. They further said that a district attorney or defense lawyer who wanted to use such evidence would have to prove that it was backed up by peer-reviewed research and general acceptance in its scientific field. This has meant that American courts will rarely use lie detector results for fear of the verdict being thrown out on appeal.
Unfortunately, this has not kept federal agencies from using the polygraph on their own employees. The FBI and National Security Agency (NSA) are notorious for using the test to screen applicants—and to pry personal information out of people who are already employed. You would think that once you had your security clearance and went to work, you could prove your loyalty or worth to the agency by the quality of the work you turned in. Not so. And if you flunk your lie detector test, there is no appeal process. This has lead to the creation of a market for coaches in how to cope with the stress of taking the test. But our government does not approve of people who criticize their ham-handed tactics. Right now, in fact, the United States is prosecuting one George Maschke for running a business that helped federal employees to pass their polygraph tests.
Maschke says he was accepted to begin working as an FBI agent until a biased operator insisted he was lying on his polygraph exam. This operator claimed that Maschke had accepted money from foreign powers to operate as a spy for them. That’s a pretty outlandish claim, but no objective evidence was ever presented. Maschke simply lost his job. Because of this negative mark on his record, he couldn’t work for any other federal agency, either. After doing some research on the test, the would-be G-man was appalled to learn just how faulty it was. He began educating the public and advocating to eliminate the use of the examination. He isn’t the only polygraph coach being prosecuted by the federal government. Why doesn’t the First Amendment protect them? I have no idea.
What, if anything, does this mean to you and your wife?
Well, first of all, let’s recap where you are at right now. You have heard some vicious gossip. It was malicious, and it cut you deeply. One of the most hurtful aspects of the gossip was that you felt like a fool because it was implied that everybody else knew something you didn’t know. Furthermore, you were already sensitive about the fact that your wife has a higher position in the company and is making more money than you are. This hurts your pride, and makes you wonder if your sons will look up to you. A lot of men would feel the same way even if it is a little old-fashioned. There isn’t much support or information out there on how to cope with having a liberated wife who is succeeding in a corporate environment, while you are seemingly stuck in the same position.
It isn’t common, yet, for men to simply view their spouse’s income as a contribution to joint funds. If she makes more money, it actually benefits both of you. There are still too many people delighted to point fingers and make judgments that are none of their damn business. If a man and woman are happy together, it seems to me, there are even more of these nasty types trying to insert a wedge between them. And one way to do that is to appeal to gender stereotypes from the 1950s to make them feel out of step with each other. Given how bad the economy is, I would hazard a guess that you and your wife are lucky to both have jobs at all, and even luckier to have good jobs! Even if there are no critical relatives or friends making inappropriate remarks, there is always that internal critic harping that you are not doing good enough, judging you by standards that are unfair and drawn from a different time. That inner critic doesn’t care about making you happy or saving your marriage, by the way; it only cares about making you miserable.
But let’s get back to your harsh situation. The last straw, if I hear you correctly, is that monogamy is very important to you. It is the one core value that distinguishes marriage from more casual relationships. It spells commitment, reassuring you that if there are troubled waters, the two of you will build a raft and survive together, working as a team. If she is having an affair with someone else, that team is shattered. You no longer have an ally you can count on to help you.
The problem with gossip is that it is often not true. Many offices have a negative or unkind atmosphere. The competitive nature of corporate work breeds a “me first, fuck you” mentality. One of the best ways to mess with people is to circulate rumors about them. Anybody who is jealous of your wife’s success (or your relatively happy marriage) could have started that rumor to undermine her. Women whose promotions are based on their own hard work and good ideas are often undercut by snickering colleagues who imply that it’s really all about their “work” on top of a boss’s desk. This disgusting behavior is a smear tactic, and the only defense is to join forces with your wife and shut it down together.
Take a deep breath and see if you can calm down. Think this through. Is your wife really the type of person who would have an affair? Do you have any reason to think that she would sleep with her boss? What do you know about her values and her own attitude toward monogamy? How important is the marriage to her? How much does she care about being a team or about being faithful? What has she conveyed to you about raising your children together? Does she think of divorce in a flippant manner?
Maybe your wife doesn’t have the kind of values that would reassure you. But if she does, then I think you should give her a break. You don’t have any proof that she has cheated on you. All you have is a rumor, the kind of rumor that you can hear in any office about any woman who has gotten a promotion or a raise or simply shown up for work in a cute outfit. Believe me, it’s that easy for a woman to be made the target of sexually demeaning, even pornographic, remarks. There may be nothing behind it except a few bored people who enjoy passing on sensational remarks, people who don’t care if they hurt others or not.
Rather than attacking her by demanding a lie detector test, why not approach her as an ally? You are more likely to get the truth if you are calm and reasonable. Tell her, “I think there are some people in the company who are not as friendly toward you as they may seem. I heard some ugly rumors the other day. I don’t like talking about this, but I think you should know about it. Apparently a lot of people are implying that your success is due to sleeping with Mr. X.” Then pause and see how she reacts.
If you don’t get a reaction that reassures you that the rumor is false, you can go on and say something like, “I didn’t believe it, of course, because I know that fidelity is the bedrock of our marriage. It’s the most important value that we share, it’s how we let each other know we are allies and partners through thick and thin. But if you no longer feel that way about me, I want you to know you can tell me. I would rather hear it from you than an office shrew. I think after ____ years of marriage, I deserve that much consideration.”
The conversation that follows this opener will tell you more about what is going on with your wife than any lie detector test. You would never fully trust such a thing anyway. A third party who looks at pens scrawling lines on a graph doesn’t know the look in your wife’s eyes or the shape of her mouth as well as you do. You know her shoulders, her facial expressions, all of her body language when she is being candid or when she is trying to hide something from you to protect your feelings.
You also know why she might be that unhappy. She may not think any less of you for your position in the company. She may just want your support and admiration. Has she gotten that from you, or has she gotten resentment and competition? If she is avoiding you, it may be out of fear that you will criticize her or find fault when she just wants to create better resources for the whole family—including you. Have you deprived her of your affection or sexual attention because you have been worried about your own self-worth? Is it easier to fantasize that she is having an affair with another man than it is to take responsibility for not fulfilling your own role as her husband, and thus her lover?
As far as your sons go, a boy will look up to a father who has confidence and is loving toward his spouse and children. If you are happy with your life and proud of the work you do, your kids won’t criticize you. If you feel that you want to move up in the world and do something different, the fact that your wife has a certain job does not mean you can’t put your resume out there and see if you can find a better gig. You are holding yourself back and blaming her, but I don’t think she is the real obstacle.
Even if she has had an affair, your marriage doesn’t have to be over. That depends on what the two of you want, and whether you are able to figure out what went wrong, forgive and forget, and fix it. That may be the most difficult task two allies can choose to take on. Whether you choose to believe me or not, I promise you that any time there is an affair, more than one person is to blame. It’s not a simple matter of your wife being an awful person who sullied your marriage vows. She probably did not even intend to hurt you.
I hope you can figure out what is going on, repair the pain within your heart, and be happy in your marriage once more. Because if you can believe that your wife had an affair, and blow up to this extent, there is something wrong. But it may be something wrong inside of you, not with your wife’s fidelity. Talking it over with a trusted male friend (not a sympathetic and pretty female co-worker), a pastor, or a counselor might help. You’ve hit a wall about something, so don’t let this opportunity to figure out what is really going on go to waste. Life doesn’t have to be this bad. You really can fix what’s going on, end the suffering, and be a happier man .