Careless Whispers

Everyone we love will frustrate us now and again. I’m not talking dysfunctional relationships here — I’m talking the relationships in which you get along splendidly most of the time, you feel happy and secure and heard and understood most of the time. But humans make mistakes, so that “most of the time” is underscored. And it’s what we do the other times — the time an important person in our life lets us down — that can make or break that relationship going forward. Here’s something I learned the hard way: I’m now careful. I’m very careful about who I air my complaints to about my best friend, my partner, or my children. Once those thoughts of disappointment, annoyance, anger leave your mouth as words to someone else’s ears — even the ears of the well-meaning — those thoughts are no longer only yours. They now belong to the person you shared them with, and you will have no say over what they do with them. And no matter how close your relationship is with the listener, you’ll never know for sure how they view your life looking at it from the outside.

Let’s just take one example. You have an argument with your spouse and it’s a doozy. You’re so upset you share it with a friend who, unbeknownst to you, is having serious marital troubles that she hasn’t shared. (In this make-believe scenario, your friend’s mouth isn’t as big as yours is.) So, instead of her thinking what you’re expecting her to think, which is, “My poor friend is venting. She’s had a bad day in her marriage,” she’s actually thinking, “Oh. I didn’t know her marriage was in bad shape too.”

There’s no malice behind this thought, but there is a sense of relief. For a reason you might never know or understand, your friend is staying in a bad relationship, and now you’ve inadvertently given her an excuse to not feel as bad about it as she was feeling. Because now she’s not alone — to her, your marriage is in the crapper too. And misery loves company. Apart from this, if she has a particularly loose lip, your “bad marriage” will now become a topic in your circle of friends.

In my own case, once, in a moment of extreme frustration, I told the wrong person about a fight I had with my husband, and it was like dropping a stone in a lake. The next thing I knew, this person had put out an APB, and there was no one I knew — even some people I didn’t know — who, by week’s end hadn’t heard about my terrible husband. I felt like I had betrayed him, because 99% of the time, he’s a good man, and the other 1% he can be a total asshat. But now, in the eyes of the world, those percentages had reversed. This person’s perception of him that she’d shared with all and sundry was an affront to him, as well as an insult to me, because it implied that I was a fool, staying in a relationship with an unbearable human being. I wanted to cut out my tongue, but it was a damn good lesson, because I never made that mistake again.

Okay, so you don’t tell your friends. You tell your mother. Let’s say you’re one of those lucky ones who has a good relationship with your mother. So you complain to her about your spouse’s … whatever it was that he did, which was really awful. (I believe you.)

Mom gives you a sympathetic ear. You feel heard. You go home. And as soon as you leave, the next thing she does is run to tell your father. Now both your parents resent your “sh*thead” of a spouse who hurt their little girl. Except they won’t tell you that. If they’re good parents, they’ll keep that resentment to themselves and just seethe about it. Even after you have gotten past the argument — your spouse admits he was a jackass, and all is good in your lives again — your parents still have one big red X under his name in their brains, and for them, since they don’t live with you, didn’t see how cute he looked when he said he was sorry, or how much he really meant it, and how good the make-up sex was after — that X stays under his name in their minds FOREVER. Because they love you, and can’t bear to see you hurt. Remember what you are to these people. You are their child, no matter how old you grow, and if they love you, they will bleed more for you than you ever will for yourself. Your spouse is just the person you married who might assist in the making of your children, their grandchildren one day. That’s all. They will never take his side over yours, perhaps even if you’re wrong. That’s why it’s immature at best, unhealthy at worst, to draw then into minor problems you’re having with your spouse, no matter how gratifying their support might feel at the moment.

This holds true for everyone in your life. You have a grown daughter with whom your close, and you have no idea how much your best friend wishes she was as close to her own daughter as you are to yours. Again, with no malice intended, if you talk about your daughter — “I don’t like that sh*thead husband of hers. She told me what he did” — or, “I wish she knew how talented she is and would find a better job more suited to that talent,” or, “My daughter annoyed me the other day when she blah, blah,” your best friend thinks, “Hmm. I didn’t know. Okay, now I don’t feel so bad about my relationship with my daughter, and her stupid job.”

It’s just human nature. People see you, but don’t SEE you. If you’ve achieved something, they can never see the hard work you had to do to get what you got, they only see the end result. With any luck, you might be inspiring someone close to you to live better and be better simply by the way you go about your own life. But there’s always the unfortunate chance that you might be inadvertently making someone envious, even if they don’t want to be envious.

So, before you speak, remember that once you put it out there, you’re going to get a dozen opinions, comments, suggestions, and some you will not like. You might never figure out all the motivations — these comments might be uttered on purpose to make you feel even worse, or they might be genuine, yet still not helpful.

We live in an age in which whatever people think at the moment, they tweet or post — no filter, no pause before they hit that “send” button, just bam, bam, bam — every random thought is sent out to the world.

I had a wonderful, illuminating conversation recently with June Allen, a war bride. She told us that during WWII, when she still lived in England, the government had signs posted everywhere, “Be like Dad. Keep Mum.”

There is no truer maxim than “loose lips sink ships.” We’re seeing it happen right before our eyes, aren’t we? — no one thinks before they speak, not even the powerful, and those words can, without exaggeration, cause destruction and sometimes even death.

At the very least, words carelessly spoken can make us feel as though we’ve lost control of our lives. We can regain it by keeping our mouths shut.

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