We've all been there. You're talking to a married couple—we'll call ours Mary and George—and George is telling a story. Or at least he's trying to, but he can't get through a sentence without Mary interrupting to correct every tiny detail. Sometimes she does it gently, with a touch on George's arm and a demurely tilted head: "Sweetie, we were at Target, not Wal-Mart." Other times she's a bit more invasive, busting right in with an exaggerated eyeroll: "Honestly, you never get things straight. It was nine o'clock, not nine-thirty. You might as well just let me tell it."
Of course, they go through a similar routine when Mary tries to tell a story and George interrupts: "You know that Mother didn't mean it that way. Why can't you cut her a little slack?"
I'm never sure how to react in these situations. Usually I default to nervous laughter. I have an urge to throw a sympathetic glance at the stymied spouse, but then I run the risk of stepping into the middle of the fray and making things worse.
As uncomfortable as these situations can be, there's something far worse. It's when I realize, mid-eyeroll, that I've done it myself and my husband was the victim.
The worst incident I can recall was when I did it in front of our entire church. Into a microphone.
My husband and I lead Bible studies for married couples at our church. Every now and then, we're asked to make an announcement during the service about what we'll be studying next. It was on one such Sunday that Pete gave what I believed was the wrong start date for our next study. Desperate to correct the error, I smiled, leaned in close to the microphone, and corrected him. He smiled and repeated the date he'd already said. At that precise moment, with a horrible, squirmy feeling in my stomach, I realized that he was correct and I was not.
And so, with all the grace and dignity I could muster, I took hold of the microphone and pulled it toward my mouth. Because my voice wasn't amplified enough the first time. I said, "Well, our last study was 'communication.' Maybe we should do that one again!"
In my defense, I actually intended that last dig for myself: I had not listened to Pete, so I didn't know the date of our new study. But when church was over, it became apparent that everyone thought I was criticizing Pete's speaking skills rather than my listening skills. Men jokingly comforted Pete. Women grinned and winked at me. I attempted to explain, but I was working against thousands of years of civilization. Everyone knows that spouses dig at each other, not at themselves.
From ridiculous to dangerous
At first I was irritated—indignant, really—that people would so easily assume that I meant to insult my husband in front of hundreds of people, in God's house, no less. I snatched at Pete's sleeve and whispered, "I didn't mean it the way they think! You know that, don't you?"
I was sure he'd agree. After all, I'm not "that kind" of wife. But then I remembered how the incident had started. I'd made a point of correcting the date, when, even if Pete had been incorrect, it would not have been a fatal error because the information was printed in the bulletin insert. Perhaps I am "that kind" of wife after all—the one from Proverbs. And I don't mean chapter 31. I mean 27:15: "A quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping."
So with that same squirmy feeling in my stomach, I snatched at Pete's sleeve again and waited for him to look at me. And in his eyes I saw fresh, real pain and knew that I was the cause. Normally I'm a big talker, but in that moment, all I could think to say was, "I am so sorry."
Fortunately, I have an incredibly generous husband. The pain in his eyes softened to forgiveness as he smiled and squeezed my hand. I breathed a sigh of relief and bit the tip of my ridiculous, untamed tongue.
When I correct or criticize Pete, whether it's in front of 3 people or 300, my tongue has gone from untamed and ridiculous to dangerous. I've let it become like a shiny garden spade, digging a hole under Pete's feet to make him lower so I can be higher. Maybe it's not my conscious intent, but my intent doesn't matter if that's what happens in Pete's heart. Each incident on its own seems like a tiny little dig, but each dig leaves a very big hole.
It's easy to minimize these incidents. To laugh them off as brief, passing things that don't leave real damage.
But the Bible is clear: "Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matthew 12:34). If we think little of our spouse, or care little for his feelings, you can be sure it's going to come out in our speech. That's why words shaped like spades leave such gaping holes.
Rather than treating the symptom, we have to get to the root of the matter. If we're intentional and deliberate in filling our hearts with gratitude, love, and respect for our spouses, that will overflow into our speech. Now, instead of digging, we're ready to plant.
Ever since the microphone incident, I've been holding my tongue. At times, I feel as if I might have to literally hold my tongue with my fingers or my teeth, as Pete says a name or date incorrectly to people who have no idea of his error. Instead, I go to my heart and check my priorities: making sure people know the date of the next lunar eclipse (or whatever), or making sure my husband knows that I respect and honor him.
And as the moment passes and the incorrect name or date goes out there into the ether uncontested, an alarming thing happens.
Nothing. Nothing happens. The world doesn't spin off its axis, lightning doesn't strike out of a clear blue sky, and usually, nobody even blinks. More importantly, nothing happens to wound my husband or damage my marriage.
I can dig that.
Mandy Houk, a freelance author, has been married 15 years.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.