I recently heard from a newlywed who was already experiencing some bumps in her marriage. Marnie and her husband Nate had gone on a ski weekend with her family that went far from smoothly. Marnie had grown up skiing, so she and her siblings couldn’t wait to get out on the advanced slopes. But Nate had never skied before. Marnie couldn’t help laughing at the sight of his unsteady legs, flailing arms and frequent wipe-outs. She told him skiing probably just wasn’t his thing and suggested that he hang out by the fire and relax with a cup of cocoa so he didn’t end up with a broken leg—or worse. At dinner that evening, she laughingly described to her family the comical sight of his bumbling efforts on the slope. Instead of laughing along, he seemed like he was really hurt.
Marnie couldn’t figure out what was wrong. When they got married they had promised to be totally honest with each other. She felt like she was just saving Nate from a lot of frustration trying to do something he clearly wasn’t gifted at. But she noticed that he was quiet and withdrawn for the rest of the weekend.
Have you ever been in a similar situation, where you teased your husband over something he tried that didn’t come easily—all in good fun, or so you thought—and it backfired, with him getting hurt or even angry?
Here’s why your husband might have gotten upset like Marnie’s did, and what you can learn from the example of highly happy couples to prevent it from happening again.
Put Yourself In Your Husband’s Shoes To Understand His Feelings
Marnie needed to put herself in her husband’s ski boots and appreciate how hard he tried, and how much he risked, to be part of her family’s skiing world. She needed to tell him how sorry she was for being so hurtful and ask his forgiveness. Maybe that’s what you need to do, too!
How would you (or Marnie) feel if you worked really hard on something emotionally difficult for you—like losing ten pounds to fit into a special dress—and when your husband saw you in the dress, he took one look, laughed uproariously, and said you really weren’t built for that style? And he did this in front of your friends at a dinner party.
It is so easy in marriage to take our spouse and intimacy for granted. We subconsciously think since we’re married we don’t have to be polite to each other. It is easy to assume that—but it’s poisonous to the relationship. In research I have done with really happy couples, I have noticed something quite different: a high degree of kindness.
Happy Couples Are Respectful Of Each Other In Public And In Private
In my research I learned that highly happy couples would certainly be transparent and share the “real deal” with each other . . . they would joke around . . . they would share things that needed to be said. But that is also when they were the most careful to not do it in a way that their mate would perceive as hurtful.
I hear the term “brutal honesty” thrown around a lot when I interview people—people say “you have to be able to be brutally honest in marriage.” But you know what? I have never heard those words from the highly happy husbands and wives. They’re respectful of each other in public and in private. They are very aware that those times when you need to be “honest” are the times you need to be most careful not to hurt the feelings of the person who means the most to you. Kindness, for them, is a way of life.
Encourage Your Man
The sad truth is, the spouses I talked to who had a “tell it like it is,” or “take it or leave it” attitude about how they come across to their spouses were those most likely to feel insecure in their marriage and emotionally “unsafe” at home. And, not surprisingly, so did their spouses.
So what should Marnie have done, and what should you do in a similar situation? Bite your tongue, pinch yourself—do whatever it takes to keep from laughing. And don’t re-enact your man’s foibles or share them as funny stories. Extend an extra measure of kindness in situations where he is vulnerable and is truly trying. Tell your husband (and yourself!) how you appreciate that he loves you so much that he’s willing to go outside his comfort zone for you.
Give Him Time To Get Over It
If you’ve really hurt your husband’s feelings, you probably have some work to do to be trustworthy with his feelings again. You will have to prove that you care about not hurting him. Don’t get impatient with him if it takes some time for him to open up to you again. And find ways to affirm him in all the things he is good at, to take away the sting of his awareness of his foibles and failures. As long as he sees that you “get” why he was hurt—and that you’re trying your best to never do it again—your marriage will be stronger for it in the end.
A few weeks after the disastrous family trip, Marnie and Nate went on their own ski weekend. Nate had accepted Marnie’s apology and was willing to give it another try. He took a few lessons, then they spent some time on the bunny slope together. Nate did a lot better on the slopes, Marnie cheered him on enthusiastically, and they both ended up having a great time.
They’re well on their way to being one of those highly happy couples. And by treating each other with unwavering respect and support, you and your spouse can be too.
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And check out her latest book (co-authored with her husband, Jeff), Thriving in Love and Money. Because you need a better relationship, not just a better budget.
This article was first published at Patheos.