How to talk to your spouse -and when not to
Experts say that most marriages stand or fall on the ability of husband and wife to talk things over sensibly. Here are the latest ideas in this tricky and often-neglected field
1. How you spend the family money?
Yes. Although everyone should be able to indulge in some small purchases that don’t have to be accounted for. big items or a steady drain on the budget are a different matter. Hiding major expenditures is a common source of serious trouble.
2. That your sexual relationship is unsatisfactory?
Yes. if you can discuss it frankly without hurting his self-respect. If not, better seek help from a doctor, minister or welfare agency. Sex problems cannot remain hidden without damaging your marriage.
3. That he's drinking too much?
No. since it's almost impossible to criticize this habit without nagging. If he is developing an addiction, you need professional help.
4. That you disagree with his opinions about religion or politics, philosophy or painting?
Yes, but don’t hurt his feelings or expect him to change his ideas.
5. That you know he has only a limited time to live?
Only you can answer this question, the most difficult of all. Your clergyman or doctor may advise you.
nee upon a time, a Ruritanian peasant displeased a tyrannical king who banished him to a faraway island inhabited only by one other person. As the poor fellow sat waiting for the ship that was to carry him into exile, his friends consoled him with cheering speculations. “Your companion may be the wisest man in the world,” said one. “Or a beautiful woman,” said another. “Man or woman, villain or saint, I don't care,” said the peasant, “just so long as he speaks Ruritanian.”
Most of us embark on a similar adventure, more intimate if less isolated, without a thought for the problem of communication. We plunge into marriage with the most enlightened notions about sex, budgets and common responsibilities, but not the vaguest idea of how to discuss these things with each other.
Communication—through our actions, our gestures, our expressions, most of all through what we say and what we don’t say—is the thing that makes or breaks our marriage. It overshadows and encompasses all our other shared activities. People we call “happily married” are welded together, not by desire or by freedom from debt or even by habit, but by a fortunate relationship between two minds and two sets of emotions. Violet Munns, director of case work at the Neighborhood Workers Association, Toronto, says, “How personalities blend is the most important factor in the success of a marriage.” Another counselor says, “When a couple come to us, our first and hardest job is to help them to talk to each other.” Many couples, entering marriage radiant with the belief that they can and should dis-
1. That you don’t like her cooking?
Yes, if you can do it tactfully. But also praise the things she does best and don’t compare them to your mother’s. It’s better to risk hurting her feelings than to go on eating burnt and soggy vegetables for the rest of your life.
2. That you have had affairs with other women before marriage?
Probably not. In novels, the revelation of a premarital affair often leads to “a deeper, closer relationship.” but in real life it’s more likely to break up your marriage.
3. About your income, investments, real-estate holdings, insurance, pensions, and other financial affairs?
Definitely yes. She, not you, will have to cope with these if you die.
4. That her mother annoys you?
No, unless your mother-in-law is interfering in some specific way with your family affairs.
5. Business and professional secrets?
No. It’s not fair to your clients and it’s equally unfair to your wife.
cuss everything with complete candor, are dismayed as they gradually encounter situations, commonplace or crucial, in which frankness is difficult. Even compatible people sometimes hesitate over such questions as, “Must I tell my wife I can't pay our bills?” “Should I hide the doctor’s warning that I haven't long to live?” “Should 1 tell my husband he’s smoking too much?” or “How can I tell him that Mother bought us tickets to the opera for the night of the hockey finals?”
Questions like these seldom have simple or conclusive answers. Each time one confronts you, you must make a fresh decision that takes into account the intricacies of your partner’s character and your own. Will talking solve anything or merely hurt your mate? Will discussion improve your relationship or cast a shadow over your life together?
Only you can estimate the degree of conversational intimacy that best suits your own marriage. Some advisors insist on uncompromising honesty. Dr. John Levy and Dr. Ruth Munroe, in a book of marital guidance called The Happy Family, say, “No one likes to be handled, no matter how skillfully. Tact is almost invariably patronizing and insincere. Its aim is to cover up uncomfortable truths, or to push a man without his knowledge in a direction he doesn’t want to go. Any dishonest attitude, however praiseworthy its intentions, is dangerous in marriage.” Others recommend diplomacy. Claiming that courtship is a kind of innocent con game in which you play up your best features and overlook the other person’s faults, they suggest that this rosy view-
point should be carried over into marriage.
In practice, marriage counselors find that the most helpful attitude lies somewhere between these extremes. “Generally it’s better to discuss problems rather than let them fester inside you,” says Isobel Klein, supervisor of the Catholic Family Services in Toronto. “The more you share, the better the chance of your marriage working. If the relationship is a good one, a lot can be said and taken well when it’s done with kindness.”
While “tact” must not be made a pretext for manipulation and concealment, the guise of honesty should not be used as excuse for harsh criticism or for analyzing a relationship to the point of extinction. The marriage bed is not a psychiatrist's couch. Although major fictions cannot be long maintained between two people who live together, everyone has a right to pursue private thoughts in peace. “Many married couples begin by talking about everything, then certain areas may be closed oil, consciously or unconsciously,” says the Rev. Dr. W. E. Mann, rector of St. John’s Garrison Church in Toronto.
“Your consideration for the other person's feelings determines what you’ll say,” comments Violet Munns. “Never say anything just to humiliate. Talk is justified if it can change things, but don’t complain for the sake of complaining."
“The way you do it and the occasion you choose are the important things,” Dr. Mann says. “The right time is when they’re feeling on top of things and have plenty of assurance, so that they can fall continued on page 32 hack on their own self-confidence to soften the blow."
"Teen-agers who gather just to listen to records or watch TV will never learn to talk easily"
Your voice and expression count too. An impatient tone or gesture may contradict the message you mean to convey. After a long interview with a wom-
an deserted by her husband, a social worker reported, “While J could see that her complaints were justified, I couldn't stop thinking how maddening it must have been for the poor man to have to listen to that whining voice every night.”
Even your words don’t always carry your true meaning, partly because you are often unaware of your strongest feelings. A buried grievance—a childless woman’s disappointment, the bitterness of a man who thinks his work unappre-
dated—may pervade a marriage even though neither partner is to blame, revealing itself in a series of trivial complaints.
Some of us are naturally less articulate than others. A man whose parents are silent folk may find it impossible to express himself fluently. A wife whose marriage is all-important to her may be afraid to strain it by mentioning a sore subject. A few people carry into marriage the childish habit of not speaking when they're angry.
Elderly couples sometimes lapse into silence because they know each other's reactions by heart and are cut off from people with fresh ideas. Mrs. Vinnie Vipond, employment secretary of the Second Mile Club of Toronto, says, “Conversation is difficult for older people who are lonely and bored, living in the past, but it comes naturally when they’re busy planning, making things or having parties. The ones I worry about are the teen-agers who gather in groups and sit listening to records and watching television. They've got so much physical energy, all the imagination of childhood, but what are they doing with it? They'll never learn to talk easily."
"Two couples in their thirties working with our agency just haven't anything to talk about." a social worker says. “They used to neck on dates instead of talking and married before they found they hadn't much in common. They’ve spent the last few years working so hard for material possessions that they've had no time for real things like personal relationships. Now that they’ve got their houses and cars and dishwashers, they're stuck.”
“It’s important to make time in the day for communication,” Dr. W. E. Mann points out. “Too often husband and wife live in separate worlds. He commutes to work, travels for his firm, gets tied up in clubs and community jobs. She’s busy with the house, the kids, women's groups. The area of common interest gets narrowed down to a few things— the children, the house and garden, perhaps the church. At meal times the phone rings and the kids interrupt. After dinner it’s easier for the couple to read or watch TV than to have a meaningful conversation. You should make a real effort to share hobbies and household tasks and take advantage of opportunities for talking together."
A husband and wife who care about each other's feelings and agree about common goals can talk or share a companionable silence. Often they develop a sort of shorthand language of halfvoiced thoughts and family jokes and private references. They build up an atmosphere of trust in which their ideas get a fair hearing and their faults are accepted. A woman told a counselor, "I know there are things I don’t like about Jack, and some things he doesn't like about me. But we have so much to give each other that it’s worth it."
The modern view of wedlock as a partnership has to some extent wiped out the borderline between the provinces of the sexes and made husband and wife jointly responsible for affairs that would once have been handled by one alone. Like an international treaty, this new co-operation forces a couple to discuss all the problems they face together.
Money is the most difficult thing to talk about. J. G. McCulloch ot the Family Court in Toronto, who conducts a course for brides and grooms at Howard Park United Church, says, "More people fight about money than about anything else.” Marriage counselors find that vague grievances about other things are often translated into specific complaints about money.
Should you tell your husband or wife how much money you make? "Definitely yes,” says the Rev. Keith Kiddell, rector of St. John's Anglican Church in Weston. Ont. "I won't marry any couple unless there’s a complete and frank discussion of finance.” Although marriage counselors agree that husbands shouldn’t hide their earnings, they find that some men still regard money as an exclusively masculine concern. John R. Seeley, R. Alexander Sim and Elizabeth W. loosley, the sociologists who investigated the prosperous Forest Hill Village section of Toronto, reported, “Frequently, interviews with families reveal, the wife does not know, even roughly, how much her husband earns. Women must, like children, be protected from financial worries, which the father accepts as his responsibility alone.”
"This old-fashioned attitude isn't as common as it used to be,” Isobel Klein of the Catholic Family Services comments. “We find that a man who conceals his income from his wife is usually retaliating against her attempt to dominate him in other ways.” Some men claim that secrecy is the only way they can curb their wives' extravagance. One told a social worker, “I’d love to tell Linda that my business is going fine, but 1 just can't trust her. She’d spend money like water and high hat all our friends.” The counselor persuaded him that his problem could better be solved by helping Linda to feel so secure that she no longer needed to buy self-confidence.
Should you have to account for the money you spend? Your family budget should provide each of you with a personal allowance for private expenses. Other purchases should be discussed. A researcher says, "Debt is the big problem in the slums. A man spends the rent money on liquor, feels guilty and tells his wife he used it to get the car fixed. Soon he’s threatened with eviction, has his wages garnisheed, loses his furniture to the finance company because the payments weren’t so easy after all.”
One couple came to the Family Court after a vigorous battle. He explained that he hit her because he'd been suddenly showered with bills for things she had secretly bought—a vacuum cleaner, cos-
moties, a set of Books of Knowledge. "Anyone who comes to the door can sell her anything,” her husband said bitterly. Asked why she didn't consult him about the things she wanted to buy, the wife answered, "Every time I ask him about money he blows his top.”
Should a man talk business to his wife? Yes, if it helps him to handle it. She should listen intelligently and perhaps ask questions that throw light on his problems. His job affects her, especially if it requires him to travel or to work long hours. If his company moves him
from city to city and expects his wife to entertain clients and executives, she should tell him whether she resents these command performances or welcomes them because they advance his career.
Should you tell other people's secrets? “Business and professional secrets must be kept,” a counselor says. Another adds, “1 don't trust my wife with any secrets. It's not fair to impose on her this way. She doesn't tell me the things her friends tell her in confidence. We both realize we have responsibilities to others as well as to one another.”
Should you talk about sex? Authorities agree that sexual problems should be discussed frankly, though they require a great deal of tact. It may be necessary to ask your doctor’s advice. "1 don't think an unsatisfying relationship can be concealed," says Mrs. A. B. Hall, a district supervisor of the Neighborhood Workers Association. Mrs. Ray W. Harris, senior counselor, Jewish Family and Child Service, Toronto, says, “Most women find it difficult to talk about sex because they’ve been conditioned for generations to believe that they aren’t supposed to have an opinion about sex, only about love. Culture and custom tell them they must be courted, chaste, desirable not desiring. And so they smother the direct complaint about sex and instead burst out, 'You don't love me,’ or 'You don’t care about how I feel.’ ”
When they talk about sex. couples sometimes find that their incompatibility has an unexpected source. A woman who had rebelled since childhood against her mother, her teachers and every other form of authority realized at last that her sexual difficulties stemmed from her resentment of her husband’s domination in this sphere. J. G. McCulloch of the Family Court comments, “Many people would say sex is the most important cause of marital trouble. I don't agree. Often problems in that area result from other problems, like drinking or slovenly habits. Once I interviewed a woman whose husband worked in a coal yard, came to meals without washing his hands and seldom took a bath. Is it any wonder their relationship was unsatisfactory?”
Should you tell your husband or wife that you’ve had a love affair with someone else? Probably not. Premarital relationships belong to the past; extramarital affairs generally leak out. Before you talk about them, you must try to assess how your revelation will damage your partner and your marriage and weigh this against your reason for discussing it. If you simply want to relieve your feeling of guilt, perhaps you should carry the burden of silence and work off your guilt some other way.
Let off steam—coolly
Should you criticize your in-laws? If you dislike them strongly, you can’t hide it from your mate, and you have a right to protest if they interfere with you or your children. But remember that people naturally feel sensitive and affectionate toward their own families, and try to understand and accept them with all their limitations.
Should you complain about small annoying habits and mannerisms? "When they’re firmly ingrained you might as well forget them, but if they can be improved it’s better to mention them than to suffer in silence,” Violet Munns says. Mrs. Hall agrees, “I don’t think it helps to control small exasperations. But you should discuss them without heat at a time when they’re not irritating you.”
Should a man criticize his wife's appearance? Yes, if he can do it without hurting her feelings. She’d rather have him take an interest in her clothes and cosmetics than ignore them. Unflattering comments should be liberally laced with praise; if he doesn’t like her new black dress, he might tell her she looks prettier in the blue one. Husbands like compliments too.
Should you tell your mate that he or she is drinking, smoking or eating too much? You can’t hide the fact that these things worry you. but don’t nag about them because nagging tends to entrench them more firmly. A woman can help her husband to lose weight without saying a word, but he may need professional help to cut down his use of liquor or tobacco. “If he’s developing an addiction, there’s a problem behind it," says Mrs. Neil Osier, executive director of the Family Service Bureau in Oakville, Ont. “A wife can do a tremendous amount to help her husband with these problems without ever letting them become issues.”
Should you criticize your mate’s taste in music, books, art or theatre? “No,
you just have to accept it," Miss Klein of the Catholic Family Services says. “Any criticism of taste tends to be a reflection on his family. If you marry someone with the idea you’re going to improve him. you’re asking for trouble." Marriages should leave room for individual preferences.
Should you point out mistakes in grammar and etiquette? Only if your purtner is looking for guidance. Like taste, these things are bound up with the question of social status, and criticism usually implies that the person who makes the slip is inferior.
Should you take issue over moral questions? Even if you share the same religion, your values may differ widely. Let your partner know your feelings, but respect his beliefs and don’t try to force him into your attitudes. Perhaps you enjoy cards and dancing while he thinks amusement's are sinful; perhaps your votes cancel each other every election day. These things don’t matter as long as you don’t use them as the focus for a fight. You may even have to learn to live with his prejudices. "Prejudices are dangerous things, infused with emotion,” a marriage counselor says. “Look for the reasons behind them. Arguing with a bigot is useless. You might try introducing him to people of the race or faith or class he’s biased against, if you can do it tactfully.”
Should you tell your mate you don’t like his or her friends? Yes, if your objections are serious. A man can’t pretend to like the gossipy neighbor who tells his wife that men arc brutes and hints that he doesn’t appreciate her. If a husband has a crony who lures him into frequent sessions of gambling and drinking, it's better for a wife to flatter her mate by telling him how much she missed him at home than to nag him.
Should a wife tell her husban I she doesn’t like the places he cares about? Even if she doesn't share his affection for Montreal or the Maritimes or a prairie wheat farm, she should make the best of his homeland once she has agreed to live there. This is especially hard for immigrants, homesick for the crowded cities of Europe, puzzled by Canadian customs and unnerved by our vast distances. Husband and wife should talk it over and make a joint effort to take part in the life of their community.
Should you tell your partner that he’s going to die—or that you are? Most authorities feel that you have a responsibility to share this terrible knowledge, but admit that it’s occasionally wiser not to tell. “It depends on the individual,” Isobel Klein says. “I often think that not knowing arouses more anxiety than knowing. If a person is close to death, maybe he has a right to know so that he can make his peace with God and settle his business affairs.” The Rev. Keith Kiddcll says, “If you don't tell, you’re living a lie.”
Last of all, don’t worry if you can’t tell each other everything. Every mind has private pockets that hold small secret fears, glorious daydreams, maps of imaginary countries cherished since childhood. Two separate people can never merge their personalities completely. The excitement of marriage lies in its inexhaustible sense of discovery as we learn more and more about the familiar stranger we married, if