Sign up for Meridian’s Free Newsletter, please CLICK HERE

The words that come out of your mouth when you speak about your spouse to others can have a powerful effect on your marriage. Nothing hurts worse than finding out that your mate has been broadcasting your flaws behind your back. On the other hand when you speak positively about your mate, loving feelings flow into your marriage.

When you are a true friend to someone, you don’t say bad things about them to others. Your mate is your best friend and is the last person you would talk about negatively. When you say negative things about your mate, you stop focusing on his or her good qualities. Everyone has a few less-than-desirable traits, and everyone also has positive traits. Obviously your spouse has many admirable qualities or you never would have made it to the altar.

President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “May your marriage be blessed with an uncompromising loyalty one to another” (General Conference, April 2003). That loyalty includes speaking positively about the one you’ve chosen to be your eternal companion. Your words will be believed by others because you two live together—nobody knows your spouse better than you. You need to make sure the word pictures you paint of your spouse are what you want others to see.

Your words last long and carry consequences that may not be intended. It has been wisely said that you can choose your actions, but you cannot choose the consequences of those actions. Serious and heartbreaking consequences can come from talking negatively about your mate. Here are two:

Consequence #1: Love will diminish.

Whichever trait you focus on grows. If you see your mate in a negative light, you will notice more and more of his/her less-than-desirable traits. If you concentrate on his/her positive qualities, you will notice more and more of those.

Personal focus has to do with what you normally look for in others and in life. Most people generally look for the good. However, the challenges we experience can change our focus a little bit at a time. When we first get married, our expectations of each other are high. Our love is fresh. Then life happens—children arrive, school is hard, jobs may require long hours with low pay, finances are tight, our bodies are tired as sleep becomes limited—and the annoying traits of each spouse start to become obvious. That’s when criticizing each other can so easily become the norm.

Shelly’s case points this out. She was good at telling her husband’s faults to her parents. They began to think the worst of him, and eventually they encouraged her to leave him. Shelly was surprised because there were many things about her husband that she loved. She just failed to tell that part to her parents. That’s when she made the change, stopped reporting the negatives, and focused on his positive traits. Her parents were then able to see their son-in-law in a new light.

Love cannot grow in an environment of criticism and pointing out faults, whether to others or directly to your mate. Unless corrected, the consequence will always result in diminished love for each other.

Consequence #2: Leads to divorce.

Sometimes a husband or wife may make fun of a spouse by belittling them in front of friends. At times, normal care and respect get set aside in the name of having a good time. When the joking mate is confronted by the mate who feels hurt, the retort is often, “You know I don’t meant anything by it; I was just having fun.” To which the other mate says, “At my expense.” and the comeback is often, “Ah, loosen up, it’s just fun.”

There is a limit. Years ago we lived in a small town in the Midwest. One morning as we were driving, we recognized a car coming the other direction packed tight with a mother, kids, and belongings, pulling a U-Haul trailer—with no father along. We recognized the mother. We did a quick U-turn and flagged down our friend to see where she was going. She told us she was leaving town for good and would not be back. She said she would no longer take being the brunt of her husband’s jokes.

As we talked, we learned that her husband made fun of her cooking and housekeeping in front of friends, neighbors, and even strangers. For years she had asked him to stop. He didn’t stop; in fact, he didn’t take her hurt feelings seriously. She had reached her limit, and she would no longer take his mocking and disloyalty to her. Their marriage ended in divorce.

A spouse can take being made fun of just so long. If your spouse is joking about your faults to his friends in your presence, it can only make you wonder what he or she is saying about you when you are not there. The trust has been violated. This behavior is far from being loyal and faithful to your spouse. Continue doing it and you may be chasing the taillights of a U-Haul yourself someday.

Four Things you can do to turn negative talk into positive talk.

1. Listen to yourself and what you are saying. Many people don’t seem to listen to what they are saying. Often, in therapy, a client is asked, “Did you hear what you just said?” To which the client says, “What did I say?” And then they sometimes admit, “I don’t pay too much attention to myself.”

Before you say anything, ask yourself, “Would I want my spouse to say that about me?” This sheds a new light on conversations. For instance, Phil said to Pat how deeply hurt he was at overhearing what she shared with her brother concerning him. She defensively said she was blowing off steam and didn’t mean any harm. Phil very pointedly asked her, “Would you want me to talk about you like that to anyone else?” She sheepishly said, “Well, uh, no.” His comeback was, “Then why would you say that about me?”

Is there a need to be able to talk some things out with a friend? Of course there is, and this leads to the next point.

2. Choose carefully with whom you share your problems, remembering the need to keep marital confidences private. First thing you need to figure out is what you want to accomplish by sharing. Do you just want to vent your frustrations? Are you trying to make sense of a happening? Do you want to figure out different options? What is going on with you? This is the time you need to bite your tongue and take a few mental minutes to evaluate what you are about to say. Resist the temptation to say something you may regret.

Parents are usually the first ones a troubled married person turns to. A child (of any age) knows they are loved and cared about by their parents. They believe that most parents want to protect their child and their marriage. With this comes the caution, know what happens in your family when you share. This warning comes from what two people shared with us. One stated if she shared any negative thing or problem in her marriage with her mother, her mother would almost immediately call her daughter’s husband and tell him what he needed to do differently, which only made the matter worse. The other said any sharing with her mother went immediately to the whole family. Let your parents know that you expect them to keep confidential matters private, shared with no one else in the family.

Here’s a note to parents: you don’t have to make everything all better. Learn how to listen well, validate, and leave the responsibility where it belongs. If you’re tempted to share your wisdom, hold your tongue. If you have some helpful ideas make sure they understand that these are only suggestions, and that you trust them to know what to do.

Therapist Mary Jo Rapini, in her article “Marriage is Not a License to Talk Badly About Your Partner” said her mother was the greatest support for her and her siblings’ marriages. She said her mother had a rule when they got married. She told us, “You love them, you married them, and now they are family, so if you don’t like something they do — tell them, not me.” That is pretty good advice for parents. We want to again emphasize the point that if you do share your problems with your parents, make sure you share the good things, too.

3. Don’t join in spouse bashing with friends. When you are with friends and they are talking negatively about their mates, don’t jump in with your two bits worth. It is easy to get pulled into a complaining session. Often, these sessions start by laughing at the stupidity of  spouses. This type of conversation becomes contagious. It almost becomes a contest of who can tell the dumbest thing or quirk about their mate. One might start by saying something like, “My husband’s such a jerk,” and the conversation turns into a contest of who can complain the loudest about the jerk they married. It goes downhill from there.

Peer pressure to join in such conversations seems to reign. If you don’t join in, someone will ask you to “share” with your friends. Surely you know that whatever is said has a way of being repeated outside of that circle.

If someone urges you to join in this kind of disrespectful talk about your mate, take a stand. Have the courage to say something like, “James isn’t perfect, but there’s so much about him I love I wouldn’t think of saying something bad about him. I certainly wouldn’t want him to say bad things about me.” If they make fun of you for taking a stand for your spouse, so what. This is about being a loyal wife or husband. Not about trying to fit in with a bunch of so-called friends who obviously talk poorly about the people who care about them. This is about doing all you can to help strengthen your marriage, not weaken it.

It all boils down to the question, “What would I want said about me?” A young man taught us a great universal truth that applies to the solution of this issue and many others. He said, “I can expect nothing more from someone else than I am willing to give.”

4. Focus on your mate’s good qualities. When you fill your mind with the flaws your mate may have you crowd out the positive attributes. What is in the forefront of your mind is what will most likely pop out of your mouth first. To counteract this, marriage counselor Terry Baker said, “When you find yourself thinking negatively about your spouse, discipline yourself to remember the good times and the many wonderful traits that attracted you to him or her in the first place. Verbalize these compliments to your spouse often to keep the constructive communication ratio high.”

A Miracle can Happen

The following experience shows what can happen when negative comments are replaced with positive affirmations. A first-time client, Susan, called into our office to cancel the appointment she and her husband had for marriage counseling. Joy happened to be there and took the call. The appointment was in two weeks. Susan said, “We won’t be coming. We’re getting divorced and there’s no way to save this marriage. Just cancel the appointment.”

Joy said she would cancel it, then asked, “Do you have children?” Susan replied they had two.  Joy said, “Divorce would be a tragedy for your children. For their sakes will you do an experiment for the next two weeks, then if you still want to cancel your appointment we’ll do it.”  

The client reluctantly said, “What’s the experiment?”

She explained, “For the next two weeks say nothing but positive things about and to your husband. Nothing negative. Nothing. Pay attention to every good thing he does and compliment him on it.”

Susan said, “I can’t think of even one good thing.”

“Does he love your kids?”

“Yes. He’s a good father.”

“That’s a big positive. Tell him he’s a good daddy. Does he work to provide for your family?”

“Yes, he does.”

“That’s another big positive. Notice every good thing you can about him. And tell him. Say nothing bad about your husband to him or anyone for two weeks.”

“It won’t make any difference,” she said.

“Will you do it? Will you do it for your children?”

“OK, I will, but it won’t change anything. I can’t stand him any longer.”

Joy said, “If you still want to cancel the appointment in two weeks, just call. Otherwise, we’ll see you then.”

Again she said, “It won’t work, but I’ll try it.”

Two weeks later the couple showed up for their appointment. They went into the office and the husband started to cry. Through his tears he said, “This has been the happiest two weeks of my life.”  And the wife said, “And of mine, too. We love each other. We don’t want a divorce. Please help us know how to have a happy marriage. That’s what we want.”

Talking positively about and to your husband or wife can work magic in a marriage, as it did in this one. Everything changed once this happened.

Let your conversations with your spouse and others focus on the good things about the one you vowed to love and honor. That’s being faithful. The exception to this rule is abuse. If spousal abuse is happening to you, it needs to be reported to a trusted friend, counselor, and (if serious enough to put you in danger) the police. You must keep yourself safe.

The Promise of a Prophet

To keep their marriage strong couples need to start paying attention to the good qualities in their spouse. President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “If husbands and wives would only give greater emphasis to the virtues that are to be found in one another and less to the faults, there would be fewer broken hearts, fewer tears, fewer divorces, and much more happiness in the homes of our people.”

This article is taken from the Lundbergs’ book Because We Love Our Marriage, available at LDS bookstores or amazon.com. For more information about Gary and Joy Lundberg and their books visit their website at https://www.garyjoylundberg.com/