In elementary school, you would say ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.’
It felt good to say that, but was it true? No! The words did hurt you.
The truth is, words do MORE than break your bones. They break your heart.
During a recent phone session, a husband said to me, ‘Mort, after she said…bleep, bleep, bleep…I looked at her and for the first time in our marriage I HATED her.’
Hate? Wow, that’s a strong feeling.
Isn’t it amazing how a few words can change everything?
‘I want a divorce.’
‘You’re just like my first wife.’
‘You’re just like your mother.’
‘I hate you.’
‘You’re a loser.’
‘You can’t do anything right.’
‘You repulse me.’
‘I’m not attracted to you anymore.’
What have you said that’s been hurtful? What has your spouse said to you that broke your heart or poisoned your relationship?
In frustration or rage, people say the dumbest things and use the most obscene language. Even if you or your spouse didn’t mean to say it, once it’s said, the damage is done.
And it’s just as bad when you say it to someone else. Maybe it’s worse.
And yet who doesn’t talk about their spouse to others? For many people, it’s part of their daily routine. Whether it’s a friend, a sister, or their children, too many people find some way to justify speaking negatively about their spouse. But unless you’re speaking to a professional (or if someone’s life is in danger), there is no justification for it. It’s wrong no matter why you do it.
There’s an ancient teaching which compares slander to MURDER! Wow! Murder? How can you compare speaking badly about someone to killing them? BECAUSE BOTH DO IRREVOCABLE DAMAGE.
Just as you can’t take it back once you kill someone; you can’t take it back once the words come out of your mouth. The damage is done.
If you’re a person of faith, it’s worth noting that in Leviticus 19:16 the Bible says, ‘Do not go about as a talebearer among your people.’ And the sages explain based on this verse that you should not say anything negative about another person EVEN IF IT’S TRUE. (An exception, by the way, is if the person you’re telling has a legitimate need for the information. For example, if you’re submitting a reference for a job application or if someone’s life is in danger.)
The following story is a powerful illustration of the problem with slander.
One day a man went through town gossiping about the Mayor. The next day he felt bad about all that he said so he went to the Mayor and asked for forgiveness. He told the Mayor he would do anything to make things right between them.
The Mayor told him to take several feather pillows, cut them open, and scatter the feathers into the winds. The man did so and returned to tell the Mayor that he fulfilled his request. The Mayor responded, ‘Now go gather all the feathers.’
The man protested, ‘But that’s impossible. They’re all over the place.’
Likewise, it’s practically impossible to repair the damage done by ill words.
You see, there’s actually a MARITAL reason you have two ears and only one mouth…it’s because you’re supposed to LISTEN twice as much as you talk. Imagine how different your marriage would be if you and your spouse did that.
‘But Mort, I was just being HONEST.’
People think they can say anything in the name of honesty. But when you hurt someone with your words, it’s not honest; it’s stupid. And it’s insensitive.
Truth (in relationships) is not just a statement that’s factually accurate. It’s a statement expressed with the utmost concern for another person’s feelings. That’s more than honest; it’s Truth with a capital ‘T.’
At this point, you’re probably wondering if I can answer Judie’s question. After all, so far all I’ve done is highlight what a serious mistake she made and how difficult it is to fix.
Isn’t there anything Judie can do? Is there anything you can do to fix the damage from speaking negatively about your spouse?
I think there is.
What I’m about to share with you I learned from Sara, a friend.
One time Sara lost her temper with her oldest son and said some hurtful things to him that she deeply regretted.
If the roles had been reversed, and Sara’s son spoke inappropriately to her, he would have lost a privilege. She would have prohibited him from eating dessert with dinner, playing with his baseball cards, or going outside for the afternoon. In other words, she would have taken something away from him.
So after Sara spoke inappropriately to her son, she said to him, ‘Mommy made a mistake and should be punished. Would you like to pick my punishment?’
Can you imagine the look on her son’s face? He must have thought it was so funny. He was going to get to punish Mommy!
Sara’s son decided that Mommy would not be allowed to drink her favorite diet soda for the rest of the day. But SARA decided that she would not be able to drink her favorite diet soda for the rest of HER LIFE. And she hasn’t taken a sip since.
So what does this have to do with Judie’s situation?
Judie’s ill words for her husband are lingering between them and just may do so for quite some time.
I suggest that Judie make a corresponding commitment. In other words, a commitment to a POSITIVE act that will forever correspond to the negative energy caused by her ill words.
For example, Judie might decide to brew her husband a fresh pot of coffee every morning, or warm up his car each day of the winter, or rub his shoulders for five minutes each evening, or send him fresh flowers at work every Monday.
And Brad should know that Judie’s commitment to this positive act was motivated by her remorse.
No positive act can heal the hurt from the words that mistakenly escaped Judie’s mouth; however, it can serve as a steady reminder to John that Judie is remorseful. Furthermore, John can begin to associate Judie’s mistake not only with his pain, but with something positive in their marriage too.
I encourage you to try this. Think about what mistake you’ve made that’s caused an enduring pain for your spouse. Then commit to an offsetting POSITIVE act. Let your spouse know what you’re doing and let your commitment serve as a constant reminder to your spouse that you’re remorseful and that for as long as they hurt you will do this act to help them heal.
Mort Fertel is a world authority on the psychology of relationships and has an international reputation for saving marriages.