My friend Marty was steamed at her husband. She had worried all day about the results of a test to rule out breast cancer and was extremely irritated when her husband forgot to ask about the outcome.
Marty waited a few days to see if he would remember. When he didn't, she called her mother and spouted off: "What kind of insensitive oaf did I marry? Doesn't he care about me at all?"
Was it a good idea for Marty to unload a personal marriage issue on her mother or, for that matter, anybody else outside a professional counselor's office? She thinks so.
"When I'm upset with my husband, I usually need to vent," she explains. "I don't want anybody to take my side against his. I just want someone to listen to me and empathize with the fact that I'm feeling lousy."
Weighing the Costs
Like Marty, people sometimes feel the need to blow off steam or seek advice about their marriage. On the plus side, it can defuse an issue enough to prevent an unnecessary confrontation with a spouse. It can yield new perspectives or practical strategies for solving a problem. At times, unloading on a friend or relative can prevent a problem from escalating.
As one husband said, "I get all worked up about something my wife does and then I talk to a few other guys and find out their wives do the same thing. Then I realize, 'This isn't a personal attack. It's just the way women are.'"
But venting also has a down side. It can diminish your motivation to actually solve the problem. What's more, it can be difficult to discern that fine line between "sharing" and being disloyal to your mate. One woman told me, "If my husband and I have a problem, I generally don't take it outside the marriage. We talk and pray about it, and if the problem doesn't get resolved, at least I haven't made the situation worse by blabbing about it."
Unloading personal problems also can put an undue burden on a friend or relative. Carla Schemper, a clinical social worker in Hinsdale, Illinois, warns that multiple relationships are affected when you confide in a friend or relative.
"When you share confidences about your marriage with your mother, her own history and relationship with your spouse is going to affect how she views the situation," says Schemper. "You need to realize you're not getting a totally objective hearing."
Schemper also questions the ethics of sharing information that could harm the relationship between your spouse and others. If your brother-in-law is also your best friend, you may want to resist the impulse to tell him that your wife (his sister) is acting like a brat. So before you open your mouth, here are a few questions to consider.
Is it premature to talk to someone else? Sometimes it's tempting to tell others about an incident before you've had a chance to cool off, pray about the problem and work through it with your spouse.
"I encourage people not to act on impulse," says Schemper. "If you're struggling, it's easy to think, 'I have to talk to someone!' and then blurt out your whole story without thinking through the implications. A lot of people tell me with great regret about times they chose to talk about a certain crisis and then down the road wished they hadn't."
Schemper recommends that you ask yourself, "Will there be damaging consequences I can never undo if I share this information?"
What is my goal? Before you air negative feelings and information about your spouse, be sure you understand what you're trying to accomplish. If you're trying to get advice to solve a problem, make sure the problem really needs to be solved. As one husband puts it, "Marriages partly last because you don't choose to confront your spouse about every little thing. Maybe my wife doesn't do such and such, but I'm willing to put up with it because she does do all these other things."
There's nothing inherently wrong with seeking relief from negative emotions, as long as you don't make the problem worse in the process. But if, after challenging your own motivations, you realize that you're trying to get back at your spouse-or you're unloading on a friend as a substitute for tackling an issue directly with your partner-put a lid on that steam.
What are appropriate boundaries? The first rule is "do no harm." This principle may mean different things in different situations. One woman going through a serious crisis in her marriage chose not to share her painful struggle with her parents and siblings. Her reasoning was simple: "If my marriage survives, I would have given my family information about my husband that would affect how they see him for the rest of their lives. I don't want our marriage to have that kind of burden."
If you need to unburden yourself, but are concerned about the potential fallout, determine in advance how much detail you will share. Carla Schemper observes, "When you choose someone to confide in, say, 'I need to talk to someone and I trust you to keep my confidences, but I think it's in my best interest not to share all the specifics. Some things have happened between my spouse and me that have put a strain on our relationship and I'm having trouble handling my anger. Since you know me, maybe you can help me find a way to handle my resentment.'"
A good guideline to use is that the depth of revelation should be appropriate to the depth of the friendship. A friend of mine says that, with most people, she would never go beyond venting "little bursts of steam" about minor irritations in her marriage. "I might tell a friend how it bugs me that Todd collects so much junk," she says, "but I'd never share any painful problems unless it was with someone I trusted very deeply."
Another rule of thumb: Try to talk about the problem instead of the person. There's no harm in occasional griping about irritations in your marriage as long as you're not labeling and judging your spouse in the process.
Depending on the setting, you may want to get your spouse's permission before talking to a friend about your marriage. Kara and Mark are part of a young couples group at their church, and marriage is a frequent topic of conversation. "We discuss the topic for the evening before we leave home and preapprove what we're willing to talk about," explains Kara. "Usually we share a couple of highlights and a couple of struggles."
Keep in mind that your marriage is your priority relationship. "Putting the marriage first has to be a conscious choice," says Maureen. She and her husband, Tom, have a ground rule: They never portray each other in a negative way. Maureen adds, "There are too many couples who make disparaging, pseudo-funny remarks that actually eat away at the foundation of marriage."
To whom should I talk? My informal survey came up with mixed results. One point of disagreement centered on whether you should talk to someone who knows your spouse well. The obvious down side is that your venting could permanently alter the opinion your friend or relative has about your spouse. On the other hand, close friends and relatives are usually the people who have earned our deepest trust, have our good in mind and, knowing our weaknesses, have some perspective on how we might be contributing to any marriage conflicts.
Another point in debate is whether it's better to spout off to someone who says, "You poor thing" or someone who will hold your feet to the fire. "When I've got a major head of steam going, the last thing I need is someone helping me build up more steam," says one husband. "So I try to seek out friends who will let me vent, but who will also hold me accountable and call me to prayer."
To Talk or Not to Talk
Is it a good idea to unload your marriage issues on someone else? It depends. If you just need to blow off some steam and you have a confidant who won't think any less of your spouse as a result, go for it. If you genuinely want help to solve a problem and have a wise marriage mentor, don't hesitate to seek advice. If you need a little perspective and have a trusted friend who will provide it, and will gently prod you to examine your own thoughts, go ahead and unburden yourself.
But if you are developing a habit of ritual lament as a way to get even with your mate, or as a substitute for working on your marriage problems, then consider a better alternative. Prayer, talking to your spouse directly and examining your own role in the problem will do much more to solve your dilemma.
Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.