Recently, I have noticed what appears to be a cultural phenomenon — wives talking badly about their husbands behind their backs.
I guess women feel a sense of camaraderie when they discover other women have the same complaints. Moreover, if they feel there is consensus among them about their complaints, it leads to one and only one conclusion — men must be the problem.
Therapist and author Michele Weiner-Davis recently told me about a session she was facilitating with a group of women who wanted to improve their marriages.
As the evening progressed, she realized it was starting to turn into a male-bashing session. Wives were saying things like, “I feel like I have another child” or “My husband never does anything to help.”
After listening for a few minutes, she asked the ladies this question: “If your husband were here and you weren’t, would he say you were more complimentary or critical of him?”
Mrs. Weiner-Davis said it was as if a light bulb went on for many of the wives. One woman in the group admitted she recently had returned home to see that her husband had mowed their 3-acre spread - and her only comment was, “You missed a spot under the tree.”
“I think women are likely to notice so much more easily the things that aren’t getting done,” Mrs. Weiner-Davis said. “If they happen to notice what does get done, since women are often perfectionists, the only thing husbands hear is what they aren’t doing right. Who wants that?”
Quite frankly, I am not surprised. I honestly don’t think women spend much time thinking about how they treat their husbands.
Women don’t seem to realize that the more you complain about your husband, the more fuel it adds to the fire. In other words, it doesn’t make you want to go home and be more loving toward your husband.
According to Mrs. Weiner-Davis, complaining reinforces the idea that you are stuck and you don’t know what to do, which leads to a sense of helplessness. It might feel good at the moment to complain to a friend, but it is disrespectful to the husband who isn’t there to tell his side of the story. Bottom line, it isn’t productive to the relationship.
Mrs. Weiner-Davis believes women should be more conscientious about the energy we are generating, the kind of stories we are telling about our relationships and the way these stories make us feel. Although it might help to know you’re not the only woman in the world experiencing a certain emotion, you only have to talk to your girlfriend once to make that determination. After that, you’re just wallowing in your helplessness.
If you are going to open up and talk about your most intimate relationship, Mrs. Weiner-Davis contends you better make sure you are talking to marriage-friendly people and that they have weathered many marital storms and have come out on the other side.
If you have been talking badly about your husband, Mrs. Weiner-Davis would encourage you to do the following.
• Don’t look at exiting your marriage as the solution to the problem.
• Notice the positive in your relationship and verbalize it to your spouse.
• Talk productively with your husband about your feelings and what you would like to do differently rather than what you are unhappy about.
• Don’t expect your husband to be a mind reader. If you need something done, ask.
• When you go to sleep at night, think about those things for which you can be grateful.
• Acknowledge that sometimes your expectations of your husband are unrealistic.
• Don’t participate in negative conversations.
• Be a positive influence with your girlfriends. Help your friends do all of the above.
As the saying goes, it takes two people to tango, but it only takes one person to change how you dance. The next time you find yourself in the midst of a husband-trashing session, resist the urge to participate. Who knows, you might find that others will follow your lead and the conversation can move from tearing down marriage to a constructive conversation about what you can do differently to move your marriage from good to great.
• Julie Baumgardner is the executive director of First Things First, an organization dedicated to strengthening marriages and families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at julieb@ firstthings.org.