My six-year-old recently got in trouble for mouthing off to her teacher. Great. The teacher's concern wasn't so much about the behavior itself (although she certainly wasn't thrilled about it), but that the conduct was so out of character for my daughter, who generally has a sweet disposition.
When I talked to my little darling about it, her response was, "I just didn't know it would sound so bad until it came out."
Most adults are still learning that difficult lesson—particularly in regard to our spouses. Many of us (who generally have sweet dispositions) often say things that are hurtful to our partners and damaging to the relationship because we let the first thing that comes into our minds exit by way of our mouths.
Though there can be no exhaustive list of what not to say, here are five statements to bite back the next time they threaten to break the boundary of your lips and breach the ears of your beloved.
What you say: "We can't afford it"
What your spouse hears: I don't care about the things that are important to you
Let's face it. Aside from a house in Barbados or our own Lear Jet, mostly we afford what we want to afford. When your spouse expresses a wish for a vacation, a different job, or even just a new something-or-other for the house, an attempt to kibosh the conversation with a "we can't afford it" can be deflating to your spouse's spirits.
Instead of being dismissive, take the time to discuss. Perhaps you think what your spouse wants to buy would be a poor investment or simply a bad idea. Explore the depth of the desire. Was the remark just idle "someday" dreaminess, as in "I'd love a bigger kitchen" or "Wouldn't it be great to sail around the world?" If so, engage together in planning your dream kitchen for whenever someday comes. Get out the globe and map your route. The sky is the limit. Go for the double oven and be sure to stop by Tahiti. A few minutes or an afternoon of dreaming together is a much better marriage builder than an off-the-cuff dismissive remark.
The wish may be about a deeper desire such as, "I've always wanted to see if I could make it in the catering business" or "I'd like to go back to school." Do you want to be a dream-crusher in this partnership with an immediate response of "We can't afford it"? Or do you want to be one who helps your partner become the person he or she feels called to be?
If the issue truly is the lack of funds, take the time to create together a savings plan to work toward the purchase. Is a European vacation worth giving up dinners out for a year? Are you willing to downsize your home for the chance at a new career? Is it feasible to drive the old car another year in order to give money to a friend's call to be a missionary in Chile?
Marlene, a Michigan mother of four, and her husband recently put all travel plans on hold to increase their savings in case something happens to his job in this uncertain economy.
"When one of us thinks, We can't afford it," says Marlene, "it moves us into plan mode. It feels good to work out something together."
What you say: "You think your day was bad …"
What your spouse hears: Enough about you, let's talk about me
We all have bad days. Even if my day (in my mind) was worse than yours, that doesn't diminish the badness of your day.
Perhaps you're in the healthcare profession, and you've lost a patient that day. That's about as bad as it gets. You go home to a spouse who's taken the day off work to stay home with a sick three-year-old who has written on the bedroom walls with permanent marker, flooded the bathroom by leaving the sink running, thrown up mashed sweet potatoes all over the kitchen table, and been screaming non-stop for the past two hours. You've both had a really bad day, and hearing that each other's day has been worse is not likely to improve your moods.
These are the days when we most need to heed the apostle Paul's charge in Ephesians 4:2: "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love."
Be careful not to interrupt. Each person should have the opportunity fully to talk, cry, or even scream.
Listening with humility and gentleness will suppress the urge to try to trump your partner. When both of you have had a bad day, it should never boil down to a competition. When it does, you both lose.
What you say: "You're overreacting"
What your spouse hears: Your feelings aren't important to me
Is there anything more upsetting than being really upset and having someone tell you you shouldn't be so upset? Remember that the next time your spouse flips a lid.
Keep in mind that when your mate has a complete meltdown or an over-the-top rant about something you deem relatively unimportant, such as, let's say, spilled milk, one of two things is probably going on:
(1) You have woefully underestimated your spouse's concern for and/or attachment to the milk. Or …
(2) It's not about the milk.
Couples are, by definition, comprised of two individuals. So while you and your spouse have common interests, experiences, and priorities, you also have different interests, experiences, and priorities. This means that things that are a big deal to one of you may seem trivial to the other. Spilled milk or the state of the environment or what your daughter wears to school may not be an issue of great concern for you. However, you are married. And while you may not share your spouse's concerns, you do need to share in them.
Often when someone has an unusually strong reaction to a situation, it's not just about the situation. What may seem to be an overreaction is likely an indicator that something else is wrong.
I'm a chronic misplacer—keys, badges, pens, gym card, glasses. On any given day, you can find me searching for something. One day, my husband found me sitting on the kitchen floor sobbing because I couldn't find the identification badge that allows me access to my daughter's school. It didn't take him long to realize that it wasn't about the badge. We had recently relocated to a foreign country, and my struggle with the language, the culture, and even the grocery store had left me without the reserves to cope with one more thing.
What you say: "Why can't you be more like so-and-so's spouse?"
What your spouse hears: My friend's spouse is better than you
Everyone has "spouse envy" from time to time. There's the husband who is the gourmet cook. The wife who loves to go fishing with her husband. The dad who coaches the Little League team every year. The mom who's also president of the local Chamber of Commerce.
We all have things we'd like to change about our mates. Though most days find our prayers filled with long lists of why we're thankful for our better-half, there are those times when every less-than-perfect characteristic of our partner seems to be magnified and multiplied. You took your partner for better or worse, but who wouldn't prefer more of the "better" and less of the "worse"?
When the "worse" seems to take center stage, it's easy to idealize someone else's spouse. After all, you don't have to live with them. Chances are if you did, you'd find out that the gourmet cook never cleans up the kitchen and the president of the Chamber hasn't made it home for dinner in more than a week. So comparing your spouse unfavorably to another is not only hurtful, it's often unfair.
At those times when your spouse isn't quite measuring up to your expectations, remember that he or she was created in God's image—not your image. The late Trappist monk Thomas Merton reminds us that "the beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them."
What you say: "I'm sorry, but …"
What your spouse hears: I'm not really sorry
If your actions merit an apology, then apologize. Period. If you're not sorry, don't say so. If you are, don't follow it with excuses or shift the blame. An unqualified apology can be a balm for a wounded relationship. A qualifying follow-up can rub salt into the wound.
"I'm sorry. Please forgive me" can open the door to reconciliation. "But" following an apology may slam that door.
My daughter lost her shot at the Friday "treasure box" because she didn't realize how her words would sound until they were already out of her mouth. For a six-year-old, losing the chance to pick out a 25-cent trinket is enough to make her think more carefully about her words in the weeks to come. I hope and pray it will be a lesson that stays with her. Fortunately, she has an understanding teacher, so her words didn't have lasting consequences.
Unfortunately, it's sometimes more difficult for spouses to forgive and forget. A few thoughtless words can leave scars that are slow to heal. Marriage is infinitely more valuable than anything that comes in a box. It's certainly worth our time to measure our words in order to protect a treasured relationship.
Anne Russ is a Presbyterian pastor in Arkansas.
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