"You told Rich what!?" Leslie exclaimed.
"Oh, he doesn't care if you lost 50 dollars," I said defensively. "If you didn't want me to tell him, you should have told me it was private."
"Excuse me," Leslie retorted. "But can't you just assume I don't want everyone to know my stupid mistakes?"
Good point. All of us talk with friends about our marriages—whether we tell our best friend everything or simply throw into conversation an occasional "I know what you mean—Tim does that too." But what you don't tell your friends about your marriage is just as important as what you do tell them.
Protecting your spouse's confidence is critical to building a relationship of trust. Unfortunately, some couples become contaminated by gossip. Not shop gossip. Not party gossip. But gossip behind a partner's back about the state of your relationship.
Marital gossip has to do with talking to friends or relatives about your partner's flaws and foibles. A wife may, for example, confidentially spill the details of last night's fight to her friend who "promises" to keep it a secret. Or a husband might secretly tell his father about how his wife ran up a huge credit card bill. Although such disclosures may seem harmless at the time, they can hurt a marriage.
Why do some couples leak secrets and blab private information without a second thought?
For one, they see gossip as a means to connect with others. Being able to give someone the inside scoop can bring two people closer together. The gossipers believe the person receiving the information will feel privileged. Another reason for their blabbing is more destructive: gossip can be used to get back at a mate. For example, if a husband has confessed a struggle with pornography to his wife, and the wife feels betrayed and wounded as a result, she may tell her friends about it as a way of getting back at her husband.
Whatever the reasons, gossip is evil. The apostle Paul warns about the destructive power of gossip and the condemnation that comes to "gossips and busybodies" who say "things they ought not to" (1 Tim. 5:13). But this doesn't stop gossipers. Often, they don't even realize the damage they are doing to themselves, their mate and their marriage.
The Anatomy of a Marital Gossip
Most people have a stereotypical idea about gossip and gossipers. Many probably envision housewives gabbing over the back fence about a neighbor's drinking problem. Or you may think of teenage girls exchanging malicious remarks about a classmate over the telephone. These perceptions, however, are not only sexist, they are wrong. Woman are no more likely to gossip then men. Both husbands and wives who are prone to gossip carry some of these common gossip traits.
Some spouses talk incessantly but do little else. During their nonstop chatter, they may cover the same ground again and again.
Gossips start a lot of sentences with: "You have to promise you won't tell, but … " It sounds very confidential. But then why are they telling the secret? You see, gossips appear to be keeping a secret but aren't.
We were recently in a beautiful home that had an embroidered pillow on the sofa that read: "If you haven't got anything good to say about anyone, come and sit by me." Gossips love negative news about anyone—sometimes even their partner. They move like a magnet toward the latest personal problem and focus on that.
They say that hell for gossips is a place where people are forced to mind their own business. In an almost compulsive fashion, gossips wheedle their way into private places trying to discover the secrets that aren't ready to be told. They might push their partner to reveal fleeting feelings and then read messages into them that simply don't exist.
That tart-tongued gossips get upset at the prospect of others gossiping about them illustrates the evil nature of gossip. You may feel fine about sharing details of your husband's job worries with your friend, but heaven forbid you hear him telling his buddy that you had to buy a whole new wardrobe because you "outgrew" your old clothes.
Curbing Marriage Gossip
When you become a telltale spouse, you lose loyalty. You fracture any confidence your spouse has in you. So are we saying never talk to others about your marriage or your partner? Absolutely not. But watch what you say. For example, it can be healthy to talk with a trusted and supportive friend about marital struggles as long as you are not disclosing information that would embarrass your spouse. If he doesn't want others to know he locked himself out of the car again and that was the source of a marital blow-up, keep that information to yourself. But if you are feeling frustrated in not knowing how to respond to these kinds of situations, you might express this to a friend to gain some objectivity. In doing so, you are not unduly embarrassing your partner and you are not complaining about his behavior.
When you focus on your feelings to others, not your complaints, you are more likely to stay clear of the danger zone. "I feel so helpless when he gets upset at himself," carries a very different tone than "I can't believe how stupid he can be sometimes." It may seem like a fine line, but the messages are different. The first message conveys a desire to process your thoughts and feelings while the latter conveys a desire to gossip and whine.
It comes down to knowing the difference between seeking support and help from somebody outside the relationship and venting your feelings. Venting is almost always unhealthy for your marriage and damaging to your sense of loyalty to each other. If you find yourself wanting to vent, that's a pretty clear sign that you should only be talking to your spouse about it. If you abide by this rule, your loyalty toward one another will stay intact and even grow.
Here's another thought that may help you curb marital gossip. Think of the remarkable energy that would be restored to a marriage if a spouse "gossiped" about good things instead of bad. If, for example, a wife confided in a friend how sweet her husband was to clean up the dirty kitchen. Or if a husband told his friend how generous his wife was in giving to the needy. This is another way of saying that if you want to curb marital gossip, you can't go wrong by becoming your partner's publicist. So if you are ever snared by the grip of gossip in our own marriage, consider gabbing about the good. Leave the secrets at home.
Leslie Parrott, Ed.D., and Les Parrott, Ph.D., are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University and the authors of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, Becoming Soul Mates and Relationships. Visit Les and Leslie atwww.RealRelationships.com.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.