The political world would not be happy if it were not having regular freak-outs that allow its members to think ill of their ideological opponents, so it is perhaps no surprise that commentators have managed to put themselves into a paroxysm over Vice President Pence's dining habits. Apparently Pence (happily married to his wife for over thirty years) has a personal rule that he will not dine alone with women other than his wife and does not attend social functions where alcohol is served unless his wife is with him. This has drawn all sorts of hysteria from the left, with a Washington Post opinion writer concluding, "He obviously thinks that every interaction he has with a woman is so sexually charged that it’s safe to be around them only if there are other people there, too." And Vox putting up a lengthy piece arguing that this personal rule may in fact be an illegal form of gender discrimination.
I suspect that in my younger days, I would have been more inclined to say that this kind of policy suggests a basic insecurity about one's marriage and a shying away from fruitful friendships with the opposite sex. From a more middle-aged vantage point, although I do not follow Pence's policy myself it certainly doesn't strike me as crazy. Indeed, I can see how it could be quite wise. That's not because women are dangerous temptresses or because men can't control themselves. It's because sometimes a good way to avoid temptation is avoid the path which might, some way down the line, lead there.
If you won't want to become dissatisfied with your marriage, it's a good idea to avoid behaviors which might lead you to become dissatisfied with it. One piece of advice that I was given early on was never let yourself get into the habit of recreational spouse bashing. Surely you've heard this kind of talk. Women joke about how their husbands are lazy or can't manage the kids or can't cook or are interested in dumb movies and sports. Men joke about how their wives are always nagging them to do things or take forever to get ready or ask impossible questions like, "Does this dress make me look fat?" It's mildly funny in a sitcom sort of way and at first pass harmless, but when you let yourself make a practice of joking about your spouse's flaws you make yourself notice them more. Now you have friends who see the same flaws in your spouse that you do. You have backup in your gripes. Next thing you know, those flaws start to bother you more and more. After all, everyone else sees them. Why can't your spouse see them and fix them?
While few people seem to follow the "never criticize your spouse to others, even as a joke" rule, I doubt it would come in for the incredulity that Pence's has received. So why would I see the "no dining alone" rule as somehow similar?
To me, the risk would seem to be comparison more than active romance. Work is an inherently artificial environment. We get dressed up to go to the office. Someone else does all the cleaning and cooking and other unpleasant work for us. We're assigned tasks that, while they may be difficult, can be accomplished in some reasonable period of time. Sometimes we're even praised, given awards, or paid extra money for these accomplishments. Compare that to life at home: Many tasks (laundry, cleaning, cooking, home repairs, yard work) are never definitively done. We accomplish them one day, and they're right back the next day looking undone and messy. We don't look our best while doing them. If we have young children, we work for people who actively cause chaos and disrupt attempts to have quiet adult conversation. On some days, it can seem more satisfying at a surface level to be at the office.
I don't know if there could be a similar dynamic for women, but as a man I can see how the selective vision of the work environment could set up an unrealistic comparison to your wife. If you only see your female co-worker wearing nice clothes and full make up, if you go have fun lunches together every few weeks and talk about the things that interest you, even if there were never the flicker of a romance between you that might after a while start to seem like a pretty rosy contrast to the spouse that you see early in the morning, late at night, dealing with household catastrophes, and constantly having your time together be interrupted by the kids. Of course, you might know intellectually that your woman-friend-at-work has the same frazzled and messy moments as your wife. But you would never see those, and so the "why can't my wife be orderly and put-together like her?" comparison could take root, followed perhaps eventually by "I enjoy being with her more than my wife." That would be a bad day. It would be bad for your marriage, and it wouldn't even be based on an accurate knowledge of your co-worker. Moreover, I can picture many of these risks being multiplied in the kind of long hours and often-away-from-home work that elected officials do.
Does this mean you shouldn't work with people of the opposite sex at all? Of course not. But at least in my world, one-on-one work meals where you head out to a restaurant or a bar to talk outside the office are less than half about business. The other half is about building a friendly relationship of the sort that it's useful to have with various people at your workplace and others. If it was all business, you wouldn't need the waiter and the table cloth, much less the bottle of wine. Business 1x1s are held at one of our desks, in a conference room, or in one of the common areas (which includes the cafeteria) and have a totally different feel from the "let's go out to a restaurant and relax or celebrate" kind of business meal.
Again, I don't have this rule. A month or two ago I took a female co-worker who'd just given her notice in order to take a better job at another company out for a congratulatory lunch and beer. Another time recently I went out to lunch with one of the women who works for me just to talk and relax after she'd finished a big project. However, while I can see the set of risks that I've described, I have my own sort of distance in that I have a habit of not discussing the things which are most important to me at work. Even if I have things in common with my coworkers in terms of religion, philosophy, literature, etc., I would never know it because I leave those topics alone with work acquaintances. And after knowing her for twenty years, I'm pretty confident that I'd never find myself preferring to talk to any other woman than MrsDarwin. Indeed, one of the frustrations of our married life is that between household tasks and kids we don't get to spend as much time just hanging out and talking as we'd like.
Still, I can definitely see how Pence's rule might be a prudent one in many marriages. Nor do I see that it would necessarily be a career block to women that he worked with. People can work together very well and very productively without developing the kind of "let's go grab a nice lunch, just the two of us" relationship which he's put off limits.
Learning Notes Week of April 24
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