Almost all relationships have a public face.
Married individuals are connected in the public eye. The bad behavior of one spouse diminishes the reputation of both.
Therapists and counselors who opine on such matters usually treat marriage as an interpersonal relationship, something that is personal and private and intimate. They try to facilitate more open communication and better problem-solving, as though a happy couple can resolve all of their problems in a private office or at home.
Yet, it often happens that the greatest threat to a marriage does not exist in the kitchen or the boudoir. It rears its ugly head when one spouse embarrasses the other.
There are two ways of doing this. One involves exposing intimate secrets to other people. The other occurs when one spouse misbehaves in public.
Married couples accept a high degree of vulnerability. They are obliged to share many intimate secrets with each other. These range from sexual predilections to seemingly anodyne personal secrets. What happens to a marriage when one of the spouses chooses to expose such secrets to public view?
Elizabeth Bernstein recounts one story of wife’s public indiscretion:
Michele Phillips and her husband, Gary Wadds, were hanging out on the porch with friends one evening in Piermont, N.Y., when the talk turned to hiking. One person mentioned a local trail, another raved about her new hiking boots. Then Ms. Phillips chimed in with, "Gary and I fooled around behind some rocks on a path on Bear Mountain—and another hiker saw us."
The reaction? Silence. Mr. Wadds shook his head and retreated into the house. Ms. Phillips finished her story, and the friends had a laugh.
Later that night as they were getting ready for bed, Mr. Wadds confronted his wife. "I can't believe you said that," he said. "Isn't anything sacred?" Ms. Phillips became defensive and asserted the story was benign. "I only told a few close friends," she replied. "Get over it."
Phillips betrayed a trust. She exposed her husband and herself to public embarrassment. Yet, she thinks that she has done nothing wrong.
Why should she? She belongs to a culture that has taught people not to censor their thoughts and feelings. She was just being open and honest, sharing with friends. In fact, she resents the fact that her hypersensitive husband felt diminished or demeaned by her revelation.
After all, don’t we all want to incite our friends to imagine us in our more intimate moments?
Phillips does not know it, such revelations cause one's reputation to plummet. If you don't believe me, ask any porn star. Other people will respect you less if they are privy to your privy parts or privy acts.
Phillips and Wadds have had other experiences of embarrassment:
Ms. Phillips says she has unintentionally embarrassed her husband a few times, including when she showed her friends some love poems he had written. And Mr. Wadds, a project manager for a glass and aluminum company, has been known to embarrass his wife, usually by being too quiet at her family's parties.
One appreciates the author’s effort to be even-handed, but exposing your husband’s love poems is genuinely embarrassing. There is nothing embarrassing about being overly discreet around a bunch of people who might, for all I know, be louts.
I suspect that Phillips believes that if she did not intend to embarrass her husband she is not responsible for the fact that she embarrassed him.
Apparently, Wadds and Phillips have talked it over. The result seems to be positive:
The day after she shared the story of their hiking exploits, though, Ms. Phillips vowed to think twice before revealing private details of her marriage again. "This is my second marriage, and I don't want to blow it," says the 48-year old corporate training consultant.
Apparently, sharing the story with the world through the Wall Street Journal is her version of thinking twice before betraying a confidence.
I have had occasion to point this out before, but apparently it bears repeating. Holding yourself or your spouse up to public ridicule in a newspaper story that will be read by millions of people is not the royal road to putting the discretion back into your marriage.
It is doubling down on failure.
Perhaps Phillips did not at first intend to embarrass her husband. When she allowed her story and her photo to be published in the Journal she committed an intentional act, with full knowledge.
We live in a culture where oversharing is considering desirable and where women, in particular, love to sit around a lunch table regaling their friends with stories that make their husbands look like fools. Apparently, it makes them feel empowered. Many years ago Sex and the City enshrined this bad habit in the culture.
When women complain that their husbands do not confide in them, do not tell them stories of what is going on in the office, do not express emotion freely enough, they should ask themselves whether their husbands have any expectation that what they say will not be shared over lunch with the girls.
If you want more intimacy in your marriage, learn to keep secrets. Learn that your bond with your husband or wife is sacred and that you are honor-bound not to divulge intimate or personal details of your life, however trivial they may appear, to anyone outside of the marriage.
The secret need not be especially embarrassing—he always forgets to put the toilet seat down—but a man who hears it from the husband of one of his wife’s friends because the story was so charming and endearing that she could not help but share it with her husband will think twice or three times before he ever confides in his wife.
Couples develop coping strategies to allay the pain, but once the statement has been made, the toothpaste, as they say, is out of the tube. It is extremely difficult to restore the level of respect that existed before the embarrassing statement was made.
Obviously, there are many other ways to embarrass a spouse. A man will embarrass his wife if he has a few too many drinks at a party and starts doing his Miley Cyrus imitation. But he will also embarrass her if he chews with his moutht open or wipes his mouth on his sleeve.
Bernstein offers some other examples:
I hear plenty about wives who never speak in a group, and husbands who never shut up. People have partners who misuse words, launch into political rants and are much too fond of bad puns. Some have regrettable table manners or clothing choices. Others think their jokes are hilarious.
One cannot underestimate how painful it is to be embarrassed by a spouse. Bernstein asks the right question:
Why do we often find a spouse's faux pas so much more embarrassing than our own? Spouses represent one another. Doesn't it say something about you if the person you chose to spend your life with tells insensitive jokes or dances with a lamp shade on his head? You may feel torn between your spouse and the people watching the behavior.
It is quite true that we find our spouse’s mistakes more embarrassing than our own. It’s not just that spouses represent each other, but spouses cannot control each other. If she has revealed this secret, what other secret did she reveal? How many other times did he embarrass us when I was not around?