I have to say that, with little exception, husbands who came to see me as bishop were respectful of their wives. They honored them in spite of their difficulties with them, or weaknesses in their marriages. I was always very impressed by this.
Though they were respectful, one complaint emerged as the most common one offered across the bishop’s desk.
This is what it was. Sometimes wives could get almost entirely focused on the negative aspects of a situation or a person, especially those of her husband or children, and close friends or relatives. This negative focus could turn into long, painful bouts of bitter criticism and stinging complaint.
Men, to be sure, do this, too. But I have seen or heard of it coming from women more often than from men.
This is pretty discouraging to men. Little, I think, is more discouraging to them. Some men put up a wall of resistance and engage in defensive arguments with their wives. Others turn off their ear drums and drift into silence. In both situations, most men build up walls of confused resentment. I say confused because few men understand where this bitterness comes from or what to do about it. Most men just write off the behavior and say, “She’s just that way.”
The fact is that nearly all women can be “that way” at one time or another, some more than others. And it’s not just because of a monthly hormonal imbalance, either. It goes deeper than that. Much deeper.
I don’t know or understand every women’s situation—of course not—but I have seen this behavior in enough marriages that I can offer a little insight. These bouts with negativity and bitterness occur in women when their deepest needs are not being met, when they are not getting the attention or respect they deserve, or when they do not feel completely loved for who they are. Some feel judged, others ignored. Whatever the case, they are unhappy and unfulfilled.
Sometimes I think the clamor is an attempt (usually unconscious) to get attention. Observe children and you’ll know that they’ll sometimes do just about anything to get attention, be it positive or negative. If we don’t get enough positive attention in our lives, especially from spouse and family, we can wilt and shrivel. And we’ll take negative attention over no attention. I think this is what is at the core of the negativity I have seen in a lot of marriages.
Let’s start with the opposite end of the spectrum, with a wife who feels loved, honored, respected and cherished, and who, most importantly, loves herself. When this is the case, you will see little of bitterness and complaining. The poison well just dries up. A wife who has these needs fulfilled consistently is less likely to be overcome with negativity. If her spouse is showing her love and honor and respect consistently, and she is still angry and negative most of the time, well, there often is something else going on.
Although there may be a logical reason behind these negative emotions, there is a higher standard for expressing them. For example, in the epistle to the Ephesians we read:
Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.
And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.
Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice:
And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:29–32.)
I think we should all be free to express ourselves, openly and honestly, but without the adornment of anger and bitterness. If anything is coming out of your mouth that is not edifying, that is not building others up, then the devil has power in your life. If you are blaming others for your unhappiness, you are laying your power at the feet of an idol.
And that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness. (D&C 50:23)
I trust the Word of the Lord to guide me. I don’t let darkness have power in my life. (I have dark moments, but I don’t let them last long.) I can say what I need to say without holding back, but I say it with respect and kindness. If I imagine that Christ is part of every conversation I have (and He is whether I recognize it or not), I have learned that I can say anything I have to say to anyone with grace and honor.
One of the reasons we feel a need to “vent” is because we hold in our feelings so long that they start to rot and fester. If you are a stuffer, you are going to suffer. Don’t stuff your feelings. Let them out, but not on the tip of a dagger.
What about a husband who does his level best to show his wife his love, honor and respect, on a regular basis, and she is still bitter and unhappy. Often when this is the case, there is something troubling going on. Something more profound and personal that may not involve the husband that much. It might have something to do with a past relationship or experience where feelings are unresolved and the wife takes it out on her husband. Or it might be something worse, like an addiction, a serious transgression, a grave temptation, or past abuse. I have the greatest respect for those husbands who patiently endure marriages where the relationship is dominated by their wives’ negative or unresolved emotions. Happy is the man who learns how to help his wife untangle her feelings, get them out in the open, and start finding ways to communicate positively.
My wife sometimes says to me,”You can’t make me happy” meaning that she realizes that it is her choice to be happy, no matter what anyone else does or says. When she says that, I usually quip, “But I can do more for your happiness than any other person on the planet.” I think we are both right.
My advice to husbands and wives was always to keep their covenants at all cost. The covenants you make in holy places are primarily between you and God. You can keep those covenants, no matter what someone else says or does, or doesn’t say or do. But I also know that there are times when a marriage becomes unendurable if your spouse is involved in repeated infidelity, or evil, abusive, or even criminal behavior.
Whatever the case, I would err on the side of kindness and mercy and patience. I would give my spouse as many chances to get it right as I would want for myself. (But there is a limit in extreme cases.)
Finally, here is a little test for husbands. If you find that your wife is more negative than positive, ask yourself these questions and what you might do differently:
- How often do you plan and take your wife on a date?
- Do you read the scriptures together as a family or as a couple regularly?
- Can you admit that you are wrong and sincerely apologize?
- Do you pray together as a family or couple on a daily basis?
- When was the last time you went to the temple together?
- Do you ever offer to give your wife a break and send her away for an evening while you clean up after dinner and get the kids to bed?
- Do you sincerely compliment your wife or tell her honestly that you love her every day?
If you have answered no to any of these questions, you will probably have more negativity in your home than you’d like. But I promise you that, if you follow the seven items listed above, you can do more to help your wife resolve her feelings than anyone else. You may disagree with me, but I consider it my number one job, outside of my devotion to God, to love, honor, respect and cherish my wife, no matter her disposition for the moment.
I work pretty hard at this and I can tell you that I am among the happiest married men I know. I really am. Yes, we have our moments, but they pass quickly. Since I believe I am in charge of my own happiness, I throw a lot of forward passes and play very little defense. I hope your wife responds as tenderly and lovingly as my wife does to me. If she does, you will be a very happy man as well.
P.S. I know there are exceptions (read my disclaimer). If you cannot find peace and happiness in your relationship with your wife, I would seek for counseling and other help. If you are at a total impasse, and both of you are in a degree of misery, then I pray that you will find a way to break free and move forward again.
Next, Part 2.