If communication is one of the keys to a healthy marriage, then keeping secrets is one of the keys to destroying your marriage. I shared earlier about the dangers of keeping secrets and the power of regular confession with your spouse. Today I’d like to touch on the other side of the issue: receiving a confession.
When your spouse makes a mistake or offends you, you have the opportunity either to be self-righteous or to be a safety net. The question is not whether you will hurt each other during your marriage – it is bound to happen. We are frail and faulty humans. We will be selfish. We will cause each other pain. When you are on the receiving end of your spouse’s blunder, it’s natural to become indignant. It is the most classic position of “I’m right. You’re wrong. You owe me.” But that stance, however natural, puts you at odds with your spouse instead of on the same team looking in the same direction. So, what can you do?
First of all, if your spouse is willing to confess their error to you, it signifies their desire to be closer, to own up to their mistakes, and to make a repair. As hard as it will be to hear that your wife spent the Christmas budget on just one pair of shoes for herself, or your husband lost his job a week ago and didn’t tell you, it is much more divisive to be in the dark and have secrets between the two of you. If your spouse starts a conversation with, “Honey, I have a confession to make,” let your first reaction be to take a deep breath. Remember that a confession is a good thing.
Then, listen. Listen to your loved one, think about what they are saying. Try not to jump to conclusions or add words to their confession that they haven’t said. Take another deep breath. Receiving a confession can be painful, don’t discount that; however, if your goal is to stay married, it’s not likely to help for you to begin by flying off the handle. Ask yourself, “Do I want to be a safety net?” I hope you do.
What does it mean to be a safety net?
First, repeat after me: “My spouse is a human being.” Now, believe it. We need to stop holding our spouses to unrealistic standards. Do you expect yourself to be perfect all the time? Are you as hard on yourself when you make a mistake as you are when your spouse does? We are all only human– prone to wander, prone to make mistakes.
My friend, Katie, recently talked with her husband, Jonah, about this topic. Katie wants to be a safety net for Jonah but was lost on how to practically do this. So, smart woman that she is, she asked him directly for some suggestions. Specifically, she wanted to know how she might create a safe atmosphere in their marriage where he would feel like it was possible for him to come to her with any confessions. Jonah thought about it for a while – a long while. He came back to her with something that is changing the way they interact. Jonah said that, for him, complete forgiveness of the little things is key.
Jonah, also pretty smart, noticed that among his friends it seems like women have a harder time with this idea than men. He said it seems like women have a tendency to hang onto grudges, pile grievances up even after “forgiving” those grievances, and then overreact to the small things. If this is your tendency, whether you are the husband or the wife, you might be feeling a little defensive right now. Keep reading.
In your marriage, how often do you recall past grievances in a new argument? How likely are you to use phrases like, “I knew you’d do that!” or “Of course you forgot, you always forget!” or something more condescending under your breath like, “It shouldn’t surprise me that you forgot the milk, you forgot our anniversary two years ago, too!!” What Jonah is noticing is that these kinds of reactions do not make for an atmosphere of safety in your marriage. He thinks, “If she’s going to respond like that about me forgetting the milk, could you imagine how she’d react if I tell her I lost $500 at the casino?”
To be a safety net for our spouses, the best thing to do is to forgive the little things quickly, completely, and forget them. Don’t bring them up over and over again. Don’t hold your spouse to a higher standard than you hold yourself. We set ourselves and our spouses up for failure if we expect that they are never going to make mistakes or never going to struggle and fall short of even their own standards. If we give them a hard time over every little thing, or bring up every past grievance every time something new comes up, there is an atmosphere of expected perfection in the marriage that no one is going to live up to. This makes it difficult for your spouse to do something that is already difficult: confess. We have to love our spouses through every stage: before, during, and especially after the little confessions, so that when the big confessions come, we are in a better place to receive them.
Here are a few suggestions for receiving a confession:
1. Listen with love.
When Tony has made a confession to me, I try to put myself first in the position of his protector and guardian before I allow myself to take his offense personally. When I decide I have the opportunity to show him love, especially when he is embarrassed, it opens the door for more communication instead of cutting each other off.
2. Give the benefit of the doubt.
As you listen, think about whether your spouse intended to hurt you or not. Most of the time, you can give them the benefit of the doubt. Your spouse is more than the mistake they made, this instance should not define them.
3. Get clarity.
This one is hard to do, so give yourself some time. If you need space away from your spouse after hearing their confession, ask for it. If you have a lot of questions, ask them. Get clarity on whatever is going on in your mind. The stories we make up on our own can often be much worse than whatever the reality is.
4. Get healing.
If you are Holly, and your husband confessed about his “under the table/out of the trunk” steak purchase, it’s most likely you stopped at step number two and moved on. Like I said earlier, this is important. Forgiving the little things fully makes room in your marriage for your spouse to be able to bring the big things to you. However, if the confession is more of a betrayal, you may have a little bit of work to do. Talk with your spouse about it. Consider counseling if that’s appropriate for you. The benefit of a counselor is that they listen so well. They can help you see each other from a third perspective and offer practical steps toward healing after a betrayal.
Marriage is not for the faint of heart. My hope and prayer for you is that you would never have something severe to confess and that you would never be on the receiving end of a hurtful secret; however, the reality is that it is much more important for us to figure out how to navigate secrets and confessions than to spend our energy avoiding the idea of them altogether. Avoiding confession builds walls in your marriage that prevent you from being truly close to your spouse and cut you off from deep trust and healing. I hope you make confession a regular part of your communication with one another. I hope you choose to create an environment of grace in your marriage. I hope, as you forgive one another, you will see longevity in your relationship and #staymarried.
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