Code of Silence or Code of Sacred?
I use social media—a lot. It is a good way for me to communicate with current, past, and potential clients, their loved ones, and those seeking a little inspiration to see value in relationships—to keep trying. My posts on Facebook (www.facebook.com/RightThereAllAlong) and Twitter (www.twitter.com/underwood_lori) tend to be positive, practical, and sometimes funny.
Of all the posts I’ve shared, this one has hands-down resonated with my audience (especially the guys) the most:
“Don’t talk bad about your husband. To anyone. Ever.” (http://on.fb.me/Q9dFly)
To date this post has been “liked”, “shared”, or “commented” on nearly 900 times and has reached over 7,000 people.
Why? Here’s my take, as a therapist who sees as many husbands as wives; and who, with a history as a corporate sales professional, sees a relationship from multiple sides including that of primary bread-winner, primary care giver, from a “let’s get his done” perspective and from a “let’s connect again” perspective.
The women who respond to this post do so in solidarity with their partners and their own values surrounding how they represent their partner in social circles. However, the most interesting aspect of the post to me was to see male readers respond to it when they tend not to be as vocal with other post topics. It was as if someone were finally expressing a fundamental component of—almost a condition of–their trust and intimacy with their spouse. The public representation of a man by his partner as a husband, as a father, as a partner, as a person, is critical to a feeling of trust and safety for a man.
As a spouse, why follow this advice not to “talk bad about your husband,” especially if you’re having problems?
- Sharing vs Protecting: Women, to generalize, connect intimacy with sharing true feelings, both good and bad, sometimes hurtful, sometimes helpful. Men associate intimacy with safety, with a sense that their spouse has their back.
- The Man in the Mirror: As a spouse, the way you represent your husband or wife to others will immediately be reflected back to you. Our friends are our mirrors. If you complain about your wife or husband to your friend, watch how your friend reacts the next time you bring up your spouse. You will see a look of emotional recognition—“Oh, THAT person, THAT source of pain and frustration in your life [etc.]”. The source of your frustration (a missed date, a late night, a bad temper or lack of intimacy) may have passed, but the characterization of your spouse remains—sometimes FOREVER—in the mind of your friend, particularly if the friend does not have a relationship of his/her own with your spouse.
- Words Become Reality: The mirror effect described above can lead to words becoming reality. If your negative projections are mirrored back to you by your support group of friends, you are further encouraged to believe your spouse is fully to blame for a problem between the two of you. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Friends will support you in resolving problems, or they will support you in self-identifying as “right”, as a “victim”. How you position challenges in your relationship dictates what type of help you get from your network of friends.
You may be thinking: “We all need to vent. What am I supposed to do?” If you seek solace or help from a friend, express frustration with the problem at hand that is affecting your relationship with your husband. Hold the problem outside your sacred relationship with your partner. Keep the relationship sacred while holding THE PROBLEM up for examination. For example:
- “My husband and I are going through a rough patch. He wants to spend the holidays with his family every year and I understand that—his family is big and loving and a lot of fun. Plus they have strong relationships with our children and there are lots of cousins for our children to play with. But my family, who lives farther away and doesn’t see us as much, wants a chance to share the holidays with us and to create memories with their grandchildren and cousins. My husband won’t budge about our spending the holidays with his family. I need help in dealing with this so it doesn’t damage our relationship.”
- Your friend is now encouraged to brainstorm with you from a place of understanding and a recognition that you treasure your spouse—it is the problem that comes between you on which you are focused. Your friend might say, “Boy, that would be tough. You must feel so frustrated that your husband isn’t more flexible here. It sounds like he gets a lot from his family, or maybe is threatened by yours. Can you ask him if there might be a circumstance under which he’d feel comfortable spending the holidays with your side of the family? Could you and the kids possibly spend a portion of the holidays with your side of the family, even if your husband doesn’t come along?”
- The point here is that the focus is trained on the problem between you and your spouse, and not on the problem BEING your spouse.
John Gottman’s research into marriage and divorce prediction supports the recommendation that, with respect to a marriage, the ratio of positive comments to negative comments between a husband and wife (or any two partners) should be five positive comments for each one negative (http://bit.ly/gVIHAk). Consider this when you speak to your friends about your spouse. For example:
- Your husband is snoring a lot these days. You can’t get a good night’s sleep and it’s made worse by the fact that he snores when he drinks too much, which you don’t think is a good idea in the first place.
- You are tired and venting to your friend over a cup of coffee (actually, it is your third cup, as you are trying to stay awake after yet another sleepless night).
- You start by sharing a recap of the lovely dinner your spouse made for the family the night before; how you, your spouse and your children laughed and tickled each other after dinner while talking about when the children were babies. You mention the snoring problem. “Ugh! Should I sleep on the couch?” you ask your friend.
- You DON’T mention the drinking. Is this a true friend? Are your secrets safe? Will this exchange help you to deal lovingly with my spouse’s drinking? Or will I simply be betraying a trust, exposing a weakness in your spouse and your children’s father, simply out of anger?
- If you and your spouse need help with an underlying problem, share only with a trusted friend who supports your marriage or better yet, an objective third-party (therapist or similar) whose motivation is not blaming or one-sided support.
- Consider this quote: “Be careful who you open up to. Only a few people actually care; the rest are just curious.” (Author unknown.)
Finally, understand that YOUR HUSBAND’S refraining from dissing you in public is an important indicator of his respect for you and the value he places on your union. Don’t undervalue this version of a “love language” he is speaking. Just as Gary Chapman’s research points to five major “love languages” partners use to express love, including acts of service, physical touch, words of affirmation, etc. (see http://www.5lovelanguages.com/ ) your partner may well be expressing the sacred place he holds for you by respecting the privacy of your marriage—for better or worse, richer or poorer.
When it comes to venting about a spouse or partner, I help clients to realize a SAFE PLACE to share and to learn a CONSTRUCTIVE way to address problems. Your relationship to your partner is sacred. Hold it close.