A Sound Marriage Can Be Built on Sensible Reticence

Published October 6, 1983. Recently one of my students asked me in a marriage class if it was best to be totally honest in marriage. I asked him and the other class members what they thought, and they all agreed that husbands and wives should be totally open and honest in their marital communication. I told the class I agreed if “being totally open and honest” meant we should not blatantly lie, cheat, or do anything deceitful or cause mistrust.

But I suggested there is another dimension that needs consideration. Does being totally honest and open mean I should say everything and anything on my mind? Should I always express exactly how I feel?

A few years ago, many, including the experts, would have said, “Yes, let it all hang out.” Today, there is some question about their philosophies. Rather than “letting it all hang out,” many are advocating measured openness and honesty in marital communications.

I explained to my class that day what measured honesty meant. I asked each of them to think of one of their very best friends of the same sex. I suggested they recall for a moment some of the past experiences they had with that friend. Did they appreciate having such a friend? And what did they do to protect and enhance that friendship?

I asked if they expressed every little petty concern that arose between them and their friends. While not suggesting that such concerns should not be concealed, I asked when and under what circumstances should a concern or even a criticism be raised. We agreed that we usually disclosed such things only when necessary to sustain and strengthen the friendship.

We then compared the husband wife relationship to friendship. What would we say, or not say, to protect this relationship? Would we air every minor concern, or would some things best be left unsaid? Would the tone of voice and the timing be important? Would we show an increase of love after a confrontation to make sure the relationship was maintained?

Recent research has suggested that vented hostility usually generates more hostility and that repeated gripes do little to reduce the frequency or intensity of undesirable behavior. If, however, we carefully control what we communicate, the relationship will likely prosper.

The question logically arises as to when to convey a concern or when to tolerate it. I believe that if a problem continues for a long time and disrupts daily routine such as sleeping, eating, and working, it should be discussed and hopefully resolved. This is particularly true if the problem is becoming more serious.

On the other hand, many of our concerns can be dealt with by increasing our level of tolerance rather than constantly demanding or expecting your marriage partner to change to meet your expectations. Before discussing such concerns, ask yourself: Will discussing this concern improve our marital relationship? Will we become better friends by so doing? If the answer is no, the concern is better left unmentioned.

Morris L. Ernst once noted. “A sound marriage is not based on complete frankness. It is based on sensible reticence.”

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