A couple weeks ago, someone in my facebook feed posted about a facebook group they’d recently been in where women were complaining about their husbands. My facebook friend’s status scolded these women who were bashing and trash talking their spouses, adamantly stating that we should NEVER speak negative things about our spouses in public. Ever.
As to be expected, there were lots of “you go girl!” type of replies, and even more post likes and loves and general agreeance.
Instead of just agreeing with the post, it got me to thinking.
I’ve heard this marriage advice my whole life: Don’t whine and complain about your spouse to other people because it’ll just tear your spouse down and hurt your marriage and make the other person think badly about your spouse and your whole marriage will break down. Yada, yada.
Look, I get this advice. I really do. I understand the gist of this thinking and why well-meaning people keep repeating “never speak negative about your spouse to others” over and over and over again as a sort of ironclad defense against marriage troubles.
The more I think about it, the more I think this is actually really terrible advice.
Ok. I know what you’re thinking. Whaa?? Ronni, what are you talking about? This is like the best marriage advice of all time. Everyone that seems happily married says this! So it must be true and valuable advice, right?
Not the way it’s stated, no. Here’s why I think “never speak negative about your spouse in public” is an awful blanket statement piece of advice:
The saying doesn’t go “don’t needlessly demean your spouse” or “don’t belittle your spouse to make yourself feel better” or “don’t slander your spouse in order to humiliate them” – all of which I would agree with. No. The popular blanket statement piece of advice goes like this:
Don’t speak NEGATIVE about your spouse to others.
Any. Thing. Negative.
Note: We’re talking about the rather subjective English definition of the word “negative” that can include anything that anyone’s perspective may find to be unpleasant or lacking in positive qualities. For example:
- My husband’s been working a lot of late nights recently.
- My wife wants to cut gluten from our family’s diets.
- He‘s not very handy at fixing things around the house.
- She’s not a very good cook.
- My spouse snores.
- They’ve gotten 3 parking tickets this year.
These are all possibly negative statements! Facts, maybe – but still, there’s potentially a negative spin to them. So does that mean these statements are off-limits to ever utter to another person? You know, just in case they could be construed as something negative about your spouse?
Yeah, yeah. I know. Now you’re saying: Stop being so scrupulous Ronni. You know what is meant by the advice. Those little things above are obviously ok to say – but saying nasty and mean things about your spouse isn’t, ok? Never whine and complain or say things that your spouse would think is mean. That’s what’s we mean.
Let me clarify here. Constantly criticizing and belittling and putting down your spouse to other people is certainly not a good idea. See #4 in my When Marriage is Really, Really Hard post. I absolutely do think it’s important to consciously choose to focus on your spouse’s good traits and not only get lost in annoyance over their bad traits.
But “don’t speak negatively about your spouse” as a be-all end-all guideline?? With this vague guide, it’s tough to know exactly how to follow it, or what crosses the line of negativity, or what – if anything – SHOULD actually be shared if it reaches a certain point. For many couples, the advice to “never speak negatively” can even be damaging to their relationship!
Don’t believe me? Here’s an unfortunately common story:
Stage 1: Early Marriage.
Happy couple. Good communication. They never speak negatively about each other, because truthfully, there isn’t a whole lot of negative in their marriage. It’s the young, blissful, picture-perfect love people like to think is how marriage is supposedly supposed to last into perpetuity.
Stage 2: A Couple Years In.
Things feel a bit off and un-synced from the early days. Spouses are busy, or distracted, or life has happened. There’s some disconnect, but it’s assumed that things will get back on track whenever life gets easier again…someday. Marriage is still good, but the bliss is gone. Neither spouse ever talks about or acknowledges the disconnect they are beginning to feel though, because they want a successful marriage still and as long as they don’t talk negatively about their relationship to anyone, then all will eventually be well, right?
Stage 3: A Couple More Years.
Things have not gotten better with time. The disconnect is more pronounced; the spouses can barely remember when this wasn’t their normal. Their relationship’s become humdrum, lackluster. The marriage isn’t bad, per se…but it’s not good either. Arguments become common; resolutions never fully reached. The spouses wish their marriage was better than this, but they don’t know if they need to get help – or if this is normal in other marriages too. And they still don’t talk to anyone outside their marriage, because they hold on to the last-straw idea they’ve been told a million times over: that admitting the negatives about their marriage (and inevitably, about their spouse) to someone outside the marriage will only result in further tearing down their marriage.
Stage 4: Soon Thereafter.
The spouses hardly talk to each other, unless necessary. What’s the point? They’re so far disconnected from each other, they don’t even know where to begin. Any attempt to communicate leads to angry fights and name calling. Once special shared events are forgotten. Money is spent and hidden from each other. White lies are told. The spouses begin spending more time outside of the home, with other people. Mending their relationship seems insurmountable at this point. They don’t feel love for each other any more, only distance.
It is only THEN, when it already feels as there’s nothing left to lose, do the spouses vent out all the negatives about their spouse and marriage to someone else. But of course, only the negatives of the slowly built years of unhappiness spill out, because at this point, it’s hard for the spouse to even remember the positive aspects of the relationship. And now that the friend is just now hearing these horror stories (and without the context of the knowledge of the once-happier previous years), most well-meaning confidants will likely – though unfortunately – encourage their friend to get out of their bad marriage situation while they can because after all, they “deserve” to be happy, right?
- What if we as a collective community stopped this cycle of shame about marital difficulties?
- What if we stopped telling ourselves and our friends that they shouldn’t ever speak negatively about their spouses, but instead encouraged healthy ways of supporting friends’ marriages through the hard times?
- What if earlier in their marriage, the spouses in the above example had felt comfortable venting to a trusted friend about the destructive patterns they were beginning to notice in their marriage and asked for help?
- What if the trusted friend was able to tell one of the spouses “Man, that sucks that that’s happening in your marriage right now, I’m sorry. My spouse and I have had some tough issues too, and this is what I found to help us communicate better.”?
- What if, just as parents will often get together to vent and commiserate about the challenges of child-raising and support each other – people ALSO felt comfortable to say to their trusted friends, “hey, my husband/wife is really annoying me right now, have you ever dealt with this in your marriage if so, how did you handle it“?
Why is there this assumption that admitting the negative things happening in a marriage MUST end with the breakdown of the relationship? Must it? Why do we assume it’s impossible for someone to publicly say “you know, my marriage really sucks right now, BUUUT…we’re trying to find ways to make it better”?
No one scorns you when you have a moment of frustration and complain about your 2yr old or teenager. Other parents understand that you can both love your kids and be driven crazy by them at the same time.
So why do we look at admitting marriage frustrations so differently? Why do we tell people to hide their martial struggles – but encourage them to share about their parenting difficulties?
But, but, buuut…Ronni! (as you might now be saying) …I can’t go around telling just anyone about our marriage troubles or things that are driving me crazy about my spouse! Like you mentioned in the Stage 4 example above, wouldn’t well-meaning friends just encourage me to leave my marriage if they really knew what was going on in it? It’s better for me not to say anything to anyone. I don’t want anyone thinking anything bad about me or my spouse.
Probably without even realizing it, you just showed why this this mindset of “never speak negative about your spouse” needs to change. In order for marriages to survive the rough times, we must become a community that is encouraging of marriage. We must find trusted confidants (another married couple would be best) with whom we feel comfortable enough to be honest and open about our marriage troubles who will then support us in our marriage journeys. We all need to know – just as we do when we share our parenting struggles – that we’re not alone in this.
The only way this is going to happen is if we swap out the advice of “never speak negatively about your spouse” with something more accurate, such as “Don’t needlessly demean/belittle/disparage/scorn/etc your spouse“.
Want to help the culture of marriage in today’s world? Be that needed marriage encouraging friend to another person. If someone opens up about their marriage struggles to you – be a listening ear; don’t tell them they shouldn’t be speaking negatively about their spouse. You can encourage marriage commitment while still acknowledging that sometimes marriage is tough. Help your friend find help if they want help, or just let them vent to you without you judging them or their spouse. On the flip side – also be that person that reaches out to someone you trust (a friend in a committed marriage themselves is strongly preferred) when you vent about things in your marriage before it eats away at you.
Saying something negative about your spouse under the context of seeking advice or support from a trusted friend can be HEALTHY for your relationship.
Holding things in because you think you have to fake it when you’re really crumbling inside because you have no one to confide in – is NOT.