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Stop Complaining About Your Spouse

It opens up a host of huge problems for marriage—the individual marriage, and marriage in general

In a classic Bob Newhart skit, a therapist sits down with his new client, promising he can cure her compulsion for five dollars in five minutes. It’s a bargain, and he does it with just two words: stop it!

However well (or hilariously) this advice may or may not work to cure compulsions, it’s the gold standard to combat a deeply rooted and destructive phenomenon in the Church and the world: people complaining about their spouses.

I’m not talking about what goes down in counseling with a spiritual director or about what spouses say to each other when working through their flaws together. These are both good-faith efforts to solve a problem. No, the subject here is the sort of thing everyone has a personal example of.

Sorry we’re late; Jane couldn’t be bothered to be ready on time.

I’d have it so much easier with the kids if John didn’t interfere.

The sighs, the grimaces, the rolling eyes.

Aren’t these just idle comments? you might think. Just venting? Everyone knows I love my spouse, so what’s the big deal if I let off some steam?

Here’s the big deal. It has a micro aspect and a macro aspect—what it does to your marriage, and what it does to marriage in general.

The micro involves realities about sin that can be easy to forget in an age of jealously guarded free speech. Yes, we have the right to say whatever we want . . . sort of. But if I complain about my spouse, it’s highly likely I’m committing one of two sins: detraction if what I’m revealing is true, calumny if it’s false. Both of these are mortal sins, categorized in the same class as murder because they do violence to someone’s good name.

Here are the relevant passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:

– of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;

– of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.

Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one’s neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity (2247, 2279).

These are universal rules that apply to how we treat any old Joe we pass on the street. Imagine how much more gravely they apply to the one to whom God joined me under solemn vows!

Sure, there’s that phrase “objectively valid reason.” A lot can hinge on that. Maybe there really are—no, really—objective reasons to cavil about the spouse between rounds of poker or during girl’s night. But the bar should be pretty high—considering the gravity of the sins we’re talking about, probably as high as the bar to kill someone without it being murder.

Even if I can clear that hurdle, think about what happens next. I’ve established a connection, exclusive of my spouse, with people less important in my life than my spouse is meant to be. When these people see us together, they’ll remember that flaw I revealed, and I’ll know they know, but my spouse won’t. That’s conspiring against my spouse, and no matter how much I might desire to vent, it’s not going to do my marriage any good.

Then there are the macro problems. In the fight to preserve and protect marriage, there’s not much leeway to mess up. The modern world, from pop culture to politics to academia, is strongly biased against the institution of marriage as God intended it. We can’t help bathing in this cultural bias from an early age, and witnessing a friend belittling her husband, or a boss grousing about his wife, only reinforces it—personally, by direct experience. Each of those darts sticks deeply in our perception of the sacrament, increasing the risk of poisoning all marriages, including our own. Gripes beget more gripes, and it’s not a stretch to imagine a plague of complaining metastasizing into a plague of divorces (CCC 2385).

As one of the feminist bogeywomen of yore put it, “The personal is political.” Every individual marriage, with all its glories and pitfalls, is a representative of, an ambassador for, the sacrament of matrimony—a living testament to what this magnificent God-given sign is supposed to work within us.

Bob Newhart’s advice ended at “Stop it,” and that was enough for him, because he promised five minutes. But marriage lasts a lifetime, which means a lot of opportunities for Satan to use even our peccadilloes to drag us to hell. So what should we start doing to keep his claws off our marriages and our souls?

St. Peter and St. Paul have some excellent, albeit countercultural, advice. Here’s the short version:

  • The man’s wife is a part of him, like his own body, so he should love, care for, and cherish her as his own body. When he builds up his wife, he makes her all the more beautiful, and that beauty rebounds on his family and himself. He shows that he takes seriously his headship over his household: if he has problems (and what gossip-craving ear would even know it if he does?), he manfully deals with them instead of whining about them.
  • When a woman speaks reverently and respectfully of her husband, two things happen. One: She hardcore repudiates the worst of Eve, whom God cursed to grasp at her husband’s headship. Two: She establishes herself as the kind of woman who reveres and respects her husband. Her girlfriends will notice that and ponder it—a nudge for them, too, to be more like the new Eve than the old one.

What it comes down to is that spouses are two parts of one whole. Once bride and groom say the vows, they are meant for each other, the two strongest human allies on earth—indeed, more than allies, fused together against a swelling tide of diabolical attacks. We should never forget that. Even those in truly bad marriages, to truly bad people, must strive to love their spouses as spouses even if they struggle to care for, cherish, respect, and revere them in the here and now. Many bad spouses have been converted, and good spouses sanctified, this way.

This is the ideal for marriage, the star on which to fix our gaze. Reaching that heavenly place is a life’s work, and it starts with how we talk . . . or don’t.

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