“Man, it’s really been tough with her lately … so emotional …” said the guy in line ahead of me at Starbucks. He was with a group of buddies, all seemingly fresh from a gym workout at the 24-hour place next door.
“Join the club!” said the guy next to him. Then a bunch of stuff I couldn’t hear ignited a laughter outburst. The thing I find hardest about eavesdropping is that folks just won’t talk loudly enough for me to get the details right.
But I heard just enough for my imagination to go where it wanted to go on its own – a group of guys complaining lightheartedly about the emotional creatures they lived with. Could it be their labradoodles? Maybe, but I was leaning toward wives. I left with my coffee in hand, wondering whether the guys would go home and share whatever was bothering them with their wives … or whomever.
Just what marital snafus are OK to share with friends and which ones should be kept in the confines of the marriage? When does it enrich and enliven a marriage to have optimistic discussions about ways to make the relationship more perfect, and when should an issue just be … a joke that’s shared lightheartedly with friends?
Many people feel it’s healthy to “vent” their problems so that the pressure cooker effect doesn’t take hold and cause a blow-up at home. Some venters use other family members to rid themselves of angry or hurt feelings they don’t want to carry around, and they become venter-dumpers.
An obvious problem arises from vent-dumping, and that is that the person who receives the info dump hears only one side of the story and develops feelings – usually not warm fuzzy ones – about the spouse being talked about. The regard they have for the spouse may be colored by the negative picture they create in their minds over time. They interact differently with the spouse than they would if they only heard good things about him or her.
Some people share with others about their marriage in order to get advice. The idea of asking a third party what to do may be absolutely necessary in some cases, but for most of the discord that requires a third party, one should consult a professional. For minor upsets, the party to go to is the spouse. The words, “Honey, I just don’t know what to do about….” are often magical, indicating as they do that you don’t know all the answers, that you’re in this together, and rely on one another to solve problems jointly.
I tell the couples I counsel to set a time – once a week, or once a month – to have a “marriage meeting.” This is the time when they can examine what is working well and what needs change. The format is always positive, starting from “what can we do to make things even better” as opposed to “these are the things you do that I hate.” Having a meeting completely does away with scattershot complaints and also prevents couples from stuffing things they don’t want to deal with under the rug.
Reading a book together on the subject of marriage is helpful, especially those with exercises which create closeness. A few examples are: Harville Hendrix, “Getting the Love You Want” one of the all-time best books on marriage and how we choose to be a couple; and John Gottman’s “Seven Principles for Healthy Relationships.” John Gottman originated the idea of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” for couples. And they are:
Criticism—attacking your partner’s personality or character.
Contempt—Attacking your parnter’s sense of self (sarcasm, mockery)
Defensiveness—Seeing self as victim
Stonewalling—silent treatment to avoid conflict, changing subject, smugness
See what happens when you discuss the laundry list of fixes in your relationship with only your partner. You will find that you have fewer problems than you thought, and that the cure is only about an arm’s length away.