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Stand by Me

Being married should mean having someone who's always on your side, not on your case

Have you ever been at a party and heard people belittle their spouses? "You know how Howard is. He's so absent-minded, sometimes I think I should sew his key chain to his shirt." Or "Did Jenny tell you she's applying for that job as project manager? Like she has a chance!"

Often we rationalize such cutting remarks by saying, "I was only joking." But I don't buy that. An unkind remark always hurts; it always discourages—the opposite of what our mates need. Discouragement diminishes their sense of worth, defeats their hopes, and erodes their courage.

That's the word at the heart of encouragement—"courage." When we encourage our spouses, we stoke up their spirits and build their confidence, giving them courage to face difficult challenges. We're all confronted by negativism, evil influences, shrinking paychecks and growing bills, more work to get done in less time, and pressures that seem never to let up. As spouses, it's up to us to make sure the supply of encouragement meets the demand. But it seems that husbands and wives often do just the opposite.

Choosing Sides

When I hear someone make barbed remarks about his or her mate, it makes me think of a Learning Experience (otherwise known as a Major Argument) my husband, Dan, and I had many years ago. At work that afternoon, I had become embroiled in a heated difference of opinion with Ron, a co-worker, about how a project should be done. Without my knowledge, he had gone ahead and started the project. I felt that Ron had not only overstepped his role but plunged into my professional turf.

That evening I was still fuming when Dan walked in the door. He hadn't even taken off his coat before I launched into a long, outraged narration of the day's events. In his thoughtful, analytical way, my husband took in my heated tale, reflected on it for a minute, and then said, "I'm not so sure Ron was out of line. It sounds like what he did was pretty logical, and I don't think he meant to cut you out. It seems like you're overreacting."

I stared at him for a nanosecond, and then I lost it completely. I burst into tears and ran out of the room. Dan was still trying to figure out what had happened when I came back.

"Don't you understand that I need you to be on my side?" I asked him. "Don't you think there are enough people out there to tell me I'm wrong, or criticize me or make negative remarks? I have to be able to count on one person in this world to always be on my side. Is it so much to expect my husband to be that person?"

Again, he pondered and reflected.

"You're right," he said. "And I'll be that person from now on."

That was more than 15 years ago, and Dan has kept his promise. When one of us is involved in a conflict with another person—not that it happens a lot—we can count on each other not to take the other person's side when the sorry tale is told. Inwardly, we may feel our spouse is being petty or intractable or just plain wrong. But that moment, in the aftermath of conflict when our spouse is feeling raw and bruised, is not the time to say so.

In fact, Dan and I have always presented such a united front that our 10-year-old son, after an unsuccessful attempt to play his parents against each other, complained, "You and Dad are always on the same side."

Yes, we are. We may argue tooth and nail when there's a dispute between the two of us, but we can count on each other when it's us against the world. We will always encourage, never discourage.

As for my run-in with my co-worker, a few days later I could reflect on the situation objectively, realizing there were two sides to the problem and that I had contributed my share. Even if I hadn't reached that conclusion myself, there would have come a time when Dan could have gently pointed out that sometimes I am overly sensitive or too ready to misinterpret someone else's actions.

It isn't a spouse's job to routinely point out every minute error, every personality flaw, every tidbit of less-than-satisfactory behavior. We need to communicate freely, and we need to adjust those annoying habits that drive our spouses wacko. We must constantly be willing to learn and change and grow into better human beings. But all this is accomplished best through constructive discussions, through heartfelt praise and supportive suggestions—not through a spousal litany of our shortcomings.

Timely Support

During the first few years of our marriage, my husband was a high school teacher and coach. Eventually, though, he felt burned out and began looking at his options. One night he said, "What would you think about me going to graduate school? It would mean you would have to support us for three years." I still remember his apprehension as he waited for my answer. Until his last two years of college, he hadn't been much of a student, and we both knew it.

"I think it would be great," I said.

"My only fear is that I can't cut it," he admitted.

"You can," I told him.

Believe me, the next three years were hard. We relocated to a new city, I started a new job, and Dan attended class and studied almost around the clock, leaving me to care for our small son. My husband's anxiety over failing was so intense that more than once he became physically ill when a big project was due. But no matter how exhausted I felt, I knew one thing: Dan did not need to hear any misgivings about his ability to complete what he had begun; his own insecurities were burden enough. He needed constant reassurance that I believed in him absolutely.

Dan graduated in the top ten percent of his class. And every time someone congratulated him, he made sure to give me credit for my role.

In 24 years of marriage, we have found that an encouraging word can help us rise above disappointments and setbacks, maintain optimism in the face of tragedies, and keep from giving up when circumstances seem overwhelming. It's amazing that such priceless benefits can result from such a small thing as saying, "You are handling this so well" or "Your perseverance has been a real inspiration to me."

So it may be true that Howard can't remember where he left the car keys. But is it necessary for his wife to tell the world? If Jenny's dream is to get that new job, her husband's disparaging remarks are not only unkind, they are counterproductive.

To keep myself from falling into that trap, I judge any potential "joking remark" by a few criteria:

  • Would I make this remark about someone who wasn't my spouse? Amazingly, most of us treat others—even total strangers—with more respect, courtesy and sensitivity than we accord our life partners.
  • Regardless of my intention, could this remark hurt or embarrass my husband? One person's harmless joke can come across as a cruel put-down to another.
  • Will this remark diminish others' opinion of my mate or make him look silly? We owe it to our spouses to help others see their good points.

And whether you're alone with your mate or in the company of others, here's the final step toward mastering the art of encouragement: Look for opportunities. Keep asking yourself, "Is there a supportive or encouraging remark I can make about my spouse right now?" It doesn't need to be anything fancy, just simple, honest affirmation: "Jan just redecorated the baby's room, and it looks really professional." Or "I was so tired after work the other night; when Tom volunteered to do the laundry I felt like I'd won the lottery!"

In marriage, there's no such thing as too much encouragement.

Alicia Howe is the penname of a writer who lives in Florida.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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