There’s a framed photograph of my husband and me on our wedding day sitting on my mother’s mantelpiece. We’re laughing awkwardly and squished between my two sisters who are circling us with their arms, squeezing us both tight. I love this photo because it captures so well the incredibly tender, close relationship I have with my sisters. But it’s also a hilariously revealing anecdote about the relationship between my husband and me. You see, over the course of my five-year marriage, I’ve struggled with how to balance my husband’s need for privacy with my love of sharing things with my incredibly close-knit family.
I’m used to telling my sisters, my mother, and my father (before he died) pretty much everything, as well as some select friends. It’s often how I process things or make big decisions. And I’ve discovered the hard way—often around the family dinner table during the holidays—that my husband doesn’t always feel comfortable with my habit of inviting other people to comment on our relationship. What I often just see as openness and common knowledge between friends and family, he can (quite understandably) see as a betrayal of confidence.
Most of us instinctively know deep down how unhealthy it is to vent or complain about our partners in an excessive way to someone outside the marriage. But what about just plain old well-intentioned advice-seeking? Or simply opening up with a friend?
“Sharing your marital struggles isn’t always a bad idea,” Julie Baldwin writes for Verily. "Sometimes, we need perspective and better ideas about how to tackle the issues . . . but it’s important to draw the line between expressing frustration and steamrolling him to open ears.”
I asked Zach Brittle, marriage therapist and co-founder of ForBetter, to share his wisdom about where that line is and how to avoid crossing it. Here are three principles he recommends keeping in mind.
01. Remember that marriage changes things.
“There’s something important about leaving old loyalties behind as you commit to a new loyalty [when you get married],” Brittle reminds me. I find this a particularly difficult concept to get my head around. In fact, it’s a concept that I actively fought against for the first year or so of my marriage. I wanted my friends and family to know that, yes, I’m married, but look, I am the same person!
I’ve come to realize that Brittle is right; once you’re married, you’re now committed to prioritizing another person’s needs and promising to work with them to create a lifelong, healthy relationship—and yes, sometimes that involves compromises. This doesn’t mean your old ties and bonds don’t matter anymore, it just means there’s someone else in the picture now, and you need to learn to make decisions together, as a couple.
02. Discuss and set clear boundaries together.
When it comes to seeking advice from friends and family, make sure you’ve both discussed the role certain people play in advice-giving and agree on how much you’re willing to share so that no one winds up feeling betrayed. Brittle advises that because you and your partner have been shaped by different relationships and expectations, it’s best not to leave anything drifting as an unspoken assumption between you.
Dr. Shirley Glass, relationships expert and author of Not Just Friends: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Sanity After Infidelity, writes, “In a committed relationship, a couple constructs a wall that shields them from any outside forces that have the power to split them. They look at the world outside their relationship through a shared window of openness and honesty. The couple is a unit, and they have a united front to deal with children, in-laws, and friends.”
So, to extend the “walls and windows” metaphor, agree upon “walls” around the aspects of your relationship that are vulnerable or intimate; meanwhile, open up plenty of “windows” between you, to make sure you keep talking to each other, preserving the unity and trust that are the foundation stones of a happy relationship. As Brittle writes, “It may feel confining to think that there are boundaries to your freedom of expression, imagination, enjoyment, and play, but remember, it’s the boundary that actually makes the playground bigger.”
03. Be intentional about how—and whom—you ask for help.
“It is totally OK to ask for help with relationship troubles, but asking for help should not threaten the marital bond,” Brittle says. Put plainly, this means that if your spouse feels uncomfortable with you sharing intimate details of a fight you had with a particular person or in a particular context (awkward Thanksgiving dinner table chat, I’m looking at you!), you shouldn’t do it.
When talking about the way a happy, healthy couple shares their marriage to “outsiders,” Dr. Glass writes, “On those occasions when they did need to talk to someone about their marriage, they made sure that the person was a friend of the marriage. They were right in assuming that an inclination to work out problems and to see the upside can be adversely affected by someone else’s negative bias.”
“Friends of the marriage” are people who do not take sides, who are rooting for the long-lasting health of your relationship, and who will not allow any negative or preexisting bias to cloud any advice that they may offer. This doesn’t just apply to your friends and family and people you spend time with on a casual basis, but it also applies to any professional help you may seek as a couple: “As the client, you should be clear that you want a therapist who is a ‘friend of the marriage,’” Brittle advises.
If all of this feels rather overwhelming, don’t stress. Just keep this one simple principle in mind: Always talk about your spouse as if they can hear you. If you would feel uncomfortable if they overheard a conversation, it’s a signal that they might be hurt by your tone, the biased perspective you’re presenting to an outsider, or even who you’re confiding in. That quick gut check should be enough to help you figure out when you need to go back to your spouse and have an honest conversation about boundaries.