Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Embarrassing Spouses

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?


Sam L. said...

What a quaint concept is privacy, these days.

Anonymous said...

It does seem Gary could lighten up on the hiking story. I'm not hearing that Michelle was providing a lot of lurid carnal details. Her story is likely innocuous, and could happen to any lovebirds who are out in the wild and think they're alone. Sure, it's embarrassing to be viewed in some vulnerable love act. But what's revealed visually is left to the couple and the person(s) who happened upon them along the trail. Gary would probably have a happier life if he found a way to laugh about it. I suppose it's different because of how the content is delivered, like if Michelle said "You know, Gary was such a horndog in those days and loved to take advantage of me on boulders until Mr. Anderson from town saw us one day and that's how that fetish ended." That is indeed embarrassing and beyond the pale. Maybe that's what happened. The article is silent on what was said.

On the other hand, Michelle showing her girlfriends love poems intended for her eyes only is ridiculous. She's almost saying that her need to "share" with her friends outweighs the value of Gary's sharing how he feels about her. It's crass. And someone who unintentionally embarrasses their spouse with the same thing "a few times" (per the WSJ article) is either blissfully ignorant or has their priorities with the wrong person(s) in their life, at least for the sake of marriage.. Perhaps this is why Gary is "too quiet"?

I think it was Dennis who said that the world would be a better place if women spent half and much effort being as understanding of men as they expect men to be of women. This "Sex and the City" cultural free-for-all is nuts. It's not about vulnerability, sharing or connection, it's about performing on stage for ego gratification at anothers' expense or, worse, emotional voyeurism. And when it's the man who is embarrassed or offended, the situation is met with the classic "Get over it!" line so commonly heard today. Doesn't sound like Michelle has quite gotten over Gary's quietness, does it? And why would Gary ever want to be quiet? One wonders.


Dennis said...

One wonders how anyone can have respect for their spouses when they can divulge the most intimate details about those spouses to people who have no real connection or need to keep secrets. Is there a male alive who has not sat near a group of women in a restaurant, et al and not heard things we thought should not be talked about, especially in a public arena? Most of the time it is about children, hobbies and the many a-sundry things that appeal to women, but at other times it is enough for most of us to get the idea that women should not be trusted with our inner most secrets.
This is not withstanding what happens when those very same spouses decides that maybe you aren't the be all to end all. It has been my experience that most women do not have very many shades of grey when dealing with life's challenges.
Here I am not absolving men because they are prone to such things, but never to the level that women are in such matters.
Along with the need to be just half as sensitive to understanding men women need to show, and I am not asking much, at the very least half as much respect as they expect themselves. Of course that could apply to a large number of areas where women expect, but do not reciprocate such as courtesy, politeness, honor, responsibility, et al. In the final analysis one gets what they give to others. There is not a male alive who has not learned from his mother, sisters and the women around him. If women want to change the world women need to start with themselves. Actually good advise for anyone to think about.

Anonymous said...

Here is my poem about the origin of my "toxic shame:"

Concealed in the shadow
Of my mother's tongue
By a swarm of killer-bees
My soul was stung.

One of the ways my soul was stung was being talked about like an object of my mother's drama, not as a subject with thoughts and feelings of my own to be heard or not according to my sense of safety in a social circumstance.

Sam L. said...

I recall a book from the '60s: "A Gentleman's Guide to Sex". The only thing I recall from it is that a gentleman does not discuss his sex life, nor does he discuss the women who may be in it.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

That's why they call the 60s the good old days.

Anonymous said...

This is a link to a 17 page paper on self perception in relationships.


Nominal page 377-8 says, "[P]eople exagerate their positive qualities when presenting themselves to a stranger but presented themselves relatively accurately to a friend."

There are two ways to interpret this, however. Is the wife who speaks of sex openly attempting to project a positive quality to strangers? Or simply sharing accurately with people she regards as actual friends? Is the man reacting to a wish to portray a positive image to strangers and cannot see the others as friends in any circumstances?

People make different evaluations of the same behavior or words based on our emotional filters. There is no getting around this. But it is helpful to consider how others filter information in long term relationships with respect for the difference between self and other.

Glengarry said...

Since there's nothing embarrassing about it, he should have guffawed and added that at the time her eyes bugged out and she barked like a dog.

Or, with the greater principle of sharing in play, at a later time take the opportunity to regale his friends with how his wife tears down her BFFs in private. Juicy details are always the best. There's nothing embarrassing about it.

And after that, await the weepy outrage in various media. How could he be so insensitive?