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Opinionated and Happy: Why You’ll Never Hear Me Say “We Never Argue” with Pride.  

By E.J. Smith | Help

ID-10090765I thought after last month’s admittedly “heavy” topic, I’d change things up a little bit. This month, I’d like to take the ‘counselor’ hat off, and speak with you simply as “EJ—a 30-something modern woman navigating life, career and a marriage.”

So here’s something I’ve heard used as a measuring stick for healthy relationships on several occasions that I absolutely cannot stand:

“I know I have a good marriage—we’ve been married ‘x’ years and have never once argued.”

In my own experience, I’ve never seen a marriage where this measuring stick was actually a true indicator of health. And for what its worth, Dr. Sarkis at Psychology Today hasn’t either.

Sidenote from Dustin: My good friend Fawn from The Happy Wives Club recently wrote this very popular post sharing this very thing – how she and her husband have never argued.  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

In My House, We Debate. And Occasionally We Argue.

Anyone who knows my husband and I can tell you that each one of us came into this relationship with a lot of our own thoughts, beliefs, and feelings on a wide variety of topics. And we do not agree on everything. And some times that disagreement is passionate.


Of course I am taking a little license with the definition.  As a passionate conversationalist and self-proclaimed opinionated person, I should probably clarify that when I say “argument” I’m referring more to the philosophical definition of stating one’s opinions and laying out  plausible conditions to substantiate one’s claims in an effort to persuade — not verbally taking shots at the other person.  Dr. Sarkis and Fawn from The Happy Wives Club seem to be talking about ‘arguing’ in the sense of a quarrel or what I typically refer as a “fight”.

That being said, every now and then we hit a hot button issue for the other. Sometimes that occurs on a day where everything has gone wrong, nerves are raw and tempers are short. Oops!

Regardless, it makes for some really interesting conversation about just about anything—and believe me—nothing is off the table. We talk about taboo topics—often those things that surface in the news, or even things that we hear about at our respective jobs.

The Benefit

The really useful part about this ritual is that we both get to explore our own beliefs about things with a depth that I really just haven’t been able to find since leaving my beloved Philosophy department in undergrad. Sometimes I find myself surprised, even shocked about where I truly stand on a given topic when it’s given the time and space it needs to be fully flushed out.

The Cost

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that something else that’s also true—sometimes I’ve been shocked, and even disappointed at some of the opinions my husband has shared. On the flip side, my husband has learned some things about me he’s not completely thrilled about too.

It’s not a common occurrence, but there are some issues where we just fundamentally disagree. And yes, I suppose there is an element of risk— “What if I say something and s/he’s just so completely horrified that our relationship is damaged?” (But no more risky than blending your life with another person, and people do that all the time!)

Why We’ll Never Stop:

Well, first off—we held debates with one another from the minute (literally, the minute) we started dating so a lot of BIG topics were covered long before we said “I do.” (Our first debate was over whether or not medication was an appropriate treatment for PTSD.)

Second, if Greg and I aspire to one rule and one rule only—it’s that as long as we’re dealing with the truth, we can handle anything life throws at us. Opinions are neither good nor bad—it’s the actions that flow from those opinions that matter. Oh, and some times that truth includes, “I really don’t feel like doing this [debating] right now.”

Side note: An unwritten rule of our volleys is that we keep the argument focused on the topic, not on each other. The second you make a personal attack on the other person, you’re not arguing any more—you’re fighting. The difference being that in arguments the goal is to effectively present your side, and in fighting the goal is to tear down your opponent. If you’re trying to tear down your spouse—there’s a larger problem at hand.

Third, even though there have been times when debates turned into arguments, the benefits far outweigh the costs.


 We’ve become so good at 1) communicating our thoughts, 2) exploring the “why” behind the way we think/feel that fighting rarely happens anymore.

By choosing to “step into the ring” over and over again, we practice healthy discussion with opposing views.   We don’t have to downshift into throwing barbs because our thoughts and feelings aren’t completely dissociated from each other. Just like exercising, thinking and communicating get easier the more you do them.

Fourth, we love each other—and that love includes those very VERY strong opinions!!!

A Word of Caution

Now let me offer you a word of caution: Every relationship is different, and you really need to know who your partner is before you decide to intellectually “throw down” with them. If it hasn’t been made abundantly clear, Greg and I are both hard-hitting, competitive, straight-off-the-shoulder people.

If your spouse isn’t someone who is comfortable with friction—even the healthy debating kind—please understand that an ‘enthusiastic volley’ can feel overly aggressive and hurtful. Accept and respect that it might be very difficult for your spouse to share or put words to a belief about a given topic. Allow them the safety to be who they are. Allow them time to gather their thoughts too.

So tell me…

Do you and your spouse debate? Or does debating almost always lead to unhealthy arguments or fighting?


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Hanging on by a Thread: Sexual Trauma and Marriages

By E.J. Smith | Help , Sex & Family Planning

9fce6acf-af11-47dc-85c4-2e3769731b14Trigger Warning: If the topic of sexual assault or sexualized violence is one that is deeply troubling to you, please do what you need to take care of yourself in this moment. Some of the material in this article could be triggering to you.


April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Sexual violence and the trauma it creates isn’t something we talk about a lot in the context of marriages, and yet these experiences can have a devastating impact on the health of our closest relationships.

It’s not something that is openly discussed.  What I’ve learned over the course of my time as an Advocate for survivors, and as a therapist, is that the aftermath of sexual assault — be it that of a spouse or even of another family member can have a devastating impact on the family as a whole.

There are many resources available to survivors (I’ve listed several here), however, I wanted to take a special opportunity to dispel some myths and also offer several simple considerations that readers can do to help their families and loved ones get through these extremely challenging times.

By the Numbers

First and foremost, we need to lay out some facts regarding the prevalence of sexual assault in the US.

Currently,  1 in 6 women, 1 in 10 men, and 1 in 4 college-age women will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes. Of these survivors, approximately 15% were under age 12 at the time of their assault.

Statistically speaking, most of us know a survivor. And assuming for the moment this rate is accurate, that means of the 2,118,000 marriages reported by the CDC (2013), over 350,000 marriages involve a female partner who has experienced sexualized violence.

However, that number is not accurate due to the fact that nearly 60% of sexual assault goes unreported each year (RAINN, 2013). Suffice it to say the numbers alone make it worth discussing.

So How Can You Help?

This topic is admittedly broad.

Factors like how recent the assault was, age at time of assault, if the person was married, whether or not the perpetrator was known to the survivor or not (roughly 85% are, by the way) will largely determine the way your loved one (the survivor) responds.

Every situation is unique. That being said, my intention here is simply to give you some basic tools to support your spouse as you go through this challenging time.

And please let me reiterate that while I’m writing this with the example of the spouse being the survivor, these are generally good guidelines to apply for whenever someone (a friend, colleague, child, or any one else) discloses this to you.

1. Believe Them.

Yes, it really is that simple.

Evidence suggests that if a person is willing to disclose a sexual assault, the odds are (roughly 92-96%) that it was real. Hopefully believing your spouse isn’t a challenge to begin with, but even it is—I would strongly recommend erring on this side of caution.

The #1 fear that keeps survivors silent is not being believed.

2. Accept that there are no easy solutions.

This just isn’t one of those issues where someone can simply identify, address and clean up the problem in 1-2-3.

There are no easy solutions. And while therapy is often a fantastic avenue for healing from trauma, everyone involved needs to understand that sometimes the work that we do makes things seem worse before they get better.

I find this is especially true with people who have kept their stories hidden from their families. Old coping strategies that kept the “secret” contained crumble.

Ultimately, this is a good thing. In the mean time, it’s often quite painful and can really shake things up in the relationship and at home.

3. Get “Ok” with not knowing the full story.

One of the first things I try to do when working with survivors is to aid them in restoring their dignity and autonomy through healthy boundary setting.

This always includes an open invitation to share their story, if they feel comfortable, but not pressing the matter.

There are plenty of people out there whose job it is to ask the really uncomfortable and invasive questions, like the Police for example, or a nurse getting the medical history before a forensic exam.  Leave the “investigating” up to them.  You knowing every gritty detail won’t make the story any better– believe me.

Allowing a survivor to tell his or her story on their own time, and respecting those boundaries is much more important in your loved one’s healing journey than any Q&A.

4. Recognize that Trauma may result in a temporary loss of intimacy.

I’ll never forget the woman who came in devastated that she had “ruined her relationship” because every time she tried to be intimate with her spouse, she would have a flashback to her assault.

The lack of sexual intimacy was taking a toll on their relationship. When her husband asked what had changed and she explained the flashbacks, he (understandably) became hurt over the idea that he would be in any way, shape or form connected to that horrible event in her mind. Of course it wasn’t him. She knew that.

The body and the mind needed time to heal, however.  Healing from this kind of trauma–like any trauma– cannot be forced.

If you can, commit to being a patient, supportive and understanding partner.  Illustrate this commitment by allowing your spouse to set the boundaries, and try to keep an open flow of communication. (Yes, I know– again with the boundaries).

Think of it this way, sexual assualt is (for many) the ultimate violation of one’s personal space and autonomy.  Restoration of that autonomy is of critical importance.

As frustrating, hurtful, and even as lonely as the interim might feel, in the long run, these messages of acceptance and patience will help intimacy to return.

4. Re-educate Yourself and Others

This one is, in my opinion, by far the most important piece.

Something I always include in my presentations is a segment on myths and facts surrounding sexual violence. There is a ton of misinformation out there.

To separate fact from fiction, seek out reliable sources of information, like RAINN. Many, if not all, States have their own organizations as well. TAASA is the State organization for Texas.

You can also look up your local rape crisis center, and ask to speak with a staff person or advocate who can speak with you regarding your particular situation and give you the warmth and support you need to not only survive this nightmare yourself, but also to help you support your loved one—wherever they are in their healing journey.

Please be forewarned: We can read a pamphlets and flyers all day long about how its not what the person was wearing that made them more of a target, but it takes on a whole new context when your loved one is hurting.

These high stress situations expose our personal biases, and deep-seated beliefs. If you learn nothing else, please remember that the only person who is capable to stopping a sexual assault from occurring is the perpetrator.

To help keep the blame game in check, ask yourself: “If the perpetrator hadn’t been there, would this have happened?”

Why is it Relevant?

Let’s say that you are reading this article and thinking, “Yes, I (or my spouse) has experienced sexual violence… but that has nothing to do with what’s wrong in our marriage.”

What can I say? Maybe that’s true. You and your spouse are the experts on your relationship. Nevertheless, I would invite you to consider the fact that as people, we are constantly living, learning and (hopefully) growing by way of our experiences.

If someone you or someone you love has endured the living nightmare that is sexual assault— I’m willing to believe it had an impact. Every survivor story is different, so there isn’t a one-sized conclusion to be found. Many times, however, I do find that we carry our pain forward with us (consciously or otherwise). Either way, I think it’s worth examining.

Who knows, it could save your marriage.


Note: If you need assistance locating your nearest rape crisis center or have questions about sexual assault, please do not hesitate to connect with me via email or in the comments. You can also try looking up your area on the Sexual Assault Legal Services & Assistance (SALSA) website.

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6 Tips to Boost Your Relationship’s Immune System NOW!

By E.J. Smith | Help

In case you missed the memo, it’s flu season. 90d008a8-409c-46ef-bc53-5dc34b29f06c

I’m not sure what it’s like in your little corner of the internet, but I cannot seem to step out of my house without running into a handful of people who are getting sick, currently sick, have a family member who’s sick, or just go over being sick. While I try to live a healthy lifestyle year round, it’s around this time of year that I really focus on basic preventative measures to keep illness at bay.  I do not have time to be sick.  I’m sure you can commiserate.

Everyone seems to have their favorite prevention methods such as:  getting a flu shot, paying extra attention to hand washing, eating tons of fruits and veggies, and drinking warm teas and soups.

I find the same is true for relationships.  Everyone has their special tips and tricks for keeping their relationships healthy.  So when I started preparing to write for this month’s article, I asked my social media networks to share their best marriage/relationship advice.  I am blessed in the fact that it didn’t take long for the comments and emails to start flowing in.

After reading through every single response, and doing some reflection of my own, I am happy to share with you:

EJ’s Top 6 Tips to Boost Your Relationship’s Immune System NOW. 


6. Get rid of the “dog house” mindset.  How many of us have heard the phrase, “He’s in the dog house,” or  “You’re sleeping on the couch tonight!” in pop culture, media, or even from the mouths of friends and family? I’m sure you have.

So here’s the deal… as angry as you might be at your spouse, punishing them is always going to be at odds with cultivating a healthy marriage.  Why, you ask?  Because the ability to inflict punishment, implies the relationship is hierarchical.  Superiors can punish their subordinates.  True equals can’t punish each other.

I can almost hear the person reading this and thinking, “Yeah well what they did to me wasn’t exactly in alignment with a healthy relationship either!” Maybe that’s true.  But the only person you can control right now is you.

And an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.  Are you in this for revenge or are you in this because your relationship is worth saving?  (Keep reading… the offending spouse has one directed at them next).


5. Stop acting like your spouse has no other choice but to stay with you.  I’m sure we’ve all heard that marriage is supposed to be for life.  And despite the staggering divorce rates, I still believe that a majority of folks enter into the sacrament of marriage with that lifelong intention in their hearts.  In fact, just from reading the comments on and other faith-based/marriage websites, I know that there are still a decent amount of folks who don’t even believe in divorce.

Nevertheless, your spouse did not cash out his/her free-will when s/he said, “I do.”  So it would be really nice if we could cherish and appreciate them for holding on to such beliefs and commitment, rather than seeing it as an invitation to do whatever we like with no fear of the consequences.  Your spouse has a choice.  It would be nice if they didn’t have to feel like an idiot for holding true to their values.


4. Stop listening so much to how other people say things should be in your marriage.  Listen more to each other.  Guess which two people know your marriage best?  Not your mother, not your priest/pastor, and definitely not your best friend, and not even your therapist (we only know what you tell us anyway)!  You and your spouse know your relationship better than anyone else.  Moreover, you know your needs and your spouse knows theirs.

As my friend and fellow therapist, Deanna put it, “Listen to your relationship. If something feels out of whack—speak up!”  Not sure how to speak your truth? has tons of articles to help you find your voice in their Communication section.


3. Family is family.  And your spouse is your family.

No one has to tell me twice that family is important.  I get it.  The piece that I’m also so surprised that people miss is that when you marry someone, they become your family.

I frequently hear “horror stories” from clients about “monster-in-laws” and the tension such toxic relationships create.  I hear stories of spouses standing silently by while their husband or wife endures verbal and emotional abuse at the hand of in-laws or other family members.

I understand respecting one’s elders, and the importance of extended family.  But to whom did you promise your love, your fidelity, and your devotion?  I would not accept abuse from my husband’s family, and I certainly would never expect him to endure it from mine.  FYI:  This also includes not allowing family to bad-mouth your spouse to you.


2. Vacuum Naked.  Well that certainly got your attention, didn’t it?  I cannot even begin to take credit for this one.  I got this fantastic and “original” piece of marriage advice from a Chaplain’s wife, who’s been happily married to her husband for 20+ years.

Essentially, don’t forget to be husband and wife for each other just because you are “Mom” and “Dad” to your kids, “Coach” to the local soccer team, and “CEO” to your company.   More importantly, have fun with your relationship! Marriage can be fun, remember?!  Recapture those newlywed days!


1. Watch how you speak to and about your spouse: An anecdote.

Once upon a time, I worked as an administrative assistant.  In addition to filing paperwork and typing memos, I could also rattle off a long laundry list of grievances and missteps my boss’ husband had made in the course of their marriage.  I’m pretty sure everyone in our office had their own tally sheet. Looking back, none of the “sins” were overt deal breakers (i.e. physical abuse, infidelity, etc…), but taken together, very few of us could see her staying.  When she would talk about leaving, I easily recall actively supporting her choice.  It sounded miserable.  (They’re still married).

Everyone needs to vent.  And from time to time everyone is going to be frustrated with his/her spouse.  However, if you want to boost your marriage immunity – blasting your spouses grievances to every 3rd person you meet—especially those who have no reason or context to see the situation in an unbiased light—is the equivalent of letting someone sneeze in your face and then wondering how in the world you got sick!  Vent prudently.  Also recognize that choosing to focus on your spouses’ negative attributes or characteristics more frequently will lead you into a spiral of negativity very quickly.  The more you look for the flaws, and mistakes, the more you will see them.

So there are my 6 Tips for boosting your relationship’s immune system now.  What are some of your own tips?

Share them with me and the EngagedMarriage community by leaving a comment!

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Grammar for Marriages: Why ‘Husband’ and ‘Wife’ Should Really be Verbs

By E.J. Smith | Help

FreeDigitalPhotos10097580editMy husband and I were driving down the road  on a particularly gorgeous Texas winter evening.  I guess I’d gone quiet—I didn’t notice—so my husband gently queried, “Whatcha’ thinking?”

I didn’t waste any time with context… I dove right in:  “You know what I think frustrates me more than anything about people trying to fix their marriages,” I asked rhetorically, “Half the folks I talk to are trying to restore something that was never there to begin with!  You can’t fix a broken vase if what you had to begin with wasn’t a vase…

You can’t really be a better husband, if you were never really a husband to begin with.  You can’t really be a better wife, if you were never really a wife to begin with.   That’s like looking at the remains of a house that’s been burnt down and saying to the contractor, “I think we’ll start by putting on a better roof.”

Nouns State the Obvious.  Verbs Take Action.

The terms husband, wife, spouse, and partner are not just terms used for social status and updating your “life events” on social media or filing your tax returns.   These terms connote a certain set of actions.  Simply stated, the words husband and wife in healthy relationships are verbs rather than nouns.

With this in mind, I want you to think about your marriage and ask yourself: 

Do you husband?  Do you wife? Do you partner?

It even extends into other family roles as well—

Do you mother?  Do you father?  Do you parent?

Recently, a dear friend of mine flew from Florida to our home State of New Jersey just in time for the Polar Vortex and some serious snowfall.   His children joyfully requested that he make a snowman.

Now as my Northern  friends will clearly agree—there are different types of snow—for simplicity sake I will divide them into 2 categories:

1) Those that are great for building snowmen

2) Those that are not.

The snow there was of the “not” variety.  And yet, several hours later, this was on facebook with the caption:


You try telling a 3-year-old Florida girl who’s never seen snow in her life that it’s too light and powdery to build a snowman. Daddy can — and does — do anything. 

The whole thing is just too flippin’ precious isn’t it?  However the warm fuzzies alone are not the reason his statement stuck out to me.  It stuck out to me because of the last line… “Daddy can—and does—do anything.”  Daddy can.  Daddy does.

For my friend… “Daddy” is an active word.

And from what I can see from him and his wife, so are the words “husband” and “partner”.

Defining Your Verbs

Perhaps one could argue – and rightly so—that the definition of “husband”, “wife”, “partner” is going to change depending on the person.

And to that I say, “Absolutely! It should.”

It needs to be different because every relationship and personality in that relationship is unique. Create your own definition of what that verb means to you.   And while you’re at it, ask you spouse what “your verb” means to them.  It’s a very simple way of learning what your spouse values in a partner, and it’s also a lot healthier to answer than the poisonous, “What the [censored] do you want from me?!”

Doing Makes a Healthy Marriage… er… Doable.

So where and when to start?

Honestly, start now.    Start today—this minute even!

Often, I think we (and believe me, therapists are guilty of this too sometimes!) think the ‘end goal’ of our efforts is a distant point further down the line in our marriage. Tell me, have you ever thought or heard someone else speak this way:

“Our marriage is in an awful spot right now, but if I/we do all this work—at some point—maybe two, three, six months down the road we’ll be better. “

Instead of thinking about it that way, I’ll invite you to consider this:  What if the process a couple goes through of co-creating a healthy marriage IS the result.  What if the creative process IS the goal?

I think its important to view healthy marriage in this manner, rather than as a fixed point, because the alternative has you chasing a moving target.  A healthy, happy marriage is not something a couple arrives at—it’s a constant process.

 Decoding the Process:  Questions 

I think by now we all know that I’m not going to close an article with out leaving you to ponder some difficult questions.  And from the comments I get every month, I know you’re doing the work.   So here it goes:

1)  Ask yourself this question:  “If I were married to me, would I be happy?”

Be honest.  This isn’t time to be narcissist, or a martyr.  Just answer the question.  What do you think you would appreciate? What would you have a problem with?

2) Only you know your true potential as a mate.  Are you really giving your role in your marriage 100% or are you doing enough to get by?  The idea that marriage is 50/50 is a lie.  Marriage is 100/100.  Each person needs to give it his/her best shot.  This is supposed to be for life.

If you’re not entirely sure about your percentage, look at other areas of your life—your spiritual life, your work life, your fitness routine.  Are you dedicated to the fullest extent or do you do just enough to stay out of trouble?  Do you value comfort over success?

3)  Do your actions add value to your relationship, or do they simply perpetuate the status quo?

Because let me tell you, friends, “neutral” is a death sentence for relationships.  In fact, according to some research by the Gottman Institute, those marriages that had more active arguing actually lasted longer than those who had silent, disengaged partners.  To get angry with someone means, on some level, you’re still plugged in.  (Unless of course the only time you get angry with someone is when they’re not leaving you alone).

So I’ll leave it there for now.  I look forward, as always to hearing your thoughts and listening to your feedback.


A quick note on comments: A lot of the comments I’ve gotten recently focus on a person who is actively trying to save the marriage while their spouse is otherwise disengaged.  I hate to be the bearer of bad (albeit obvious) news, but your marriage is a covenant between TWO people.  Two.  You didn’t get into this marriage by yourself, and you’re not going to save it by yourself either.

Now before you reach for your favorite copy of the Love Dare to tell me I’m wrong, please realize that the “happy ending” of that movie was contingent on the Mike Seaver’s Kirk Cameron’s character’s wife getting on board.

All you can do is give it your best shot, right?  Actually no.  You could choose to not give it your best shot.  You have choices and power over what you ultimately do or do not do for the sake or your marriage.  And the truth is, so does your spouse.

While I will NEVER dissuade someone from taking ownership for their part of the pie, I have to caution you from trying to own more than your part.  As a dear mentor used to say, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.”  Own your part, and give your partner the respect of owning theirs– good, bad or indifferent.


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Tis the Season… For Blindsiding Your Spouse?

By E.J. Smith | Communication , Help

Wait, what? I thought this was going to be a holiday post?!  It is a holiday post, friends.  Just not the holiday post you were expecting.ID-10045265

If you’ve been watching the news at all lately, you may’ve heard of this “game” some kids thugs are “playing” in which they run up to an innocent stranger on the street and throw a punch with the goal of knocking the person out cold.  It’s termed, “The Knockout Game”.  Lovely.

If you’re like some of my friends, fans and readers of late, you may be able to empathize with these innocent victims on a much more personal and profound level.  See, the truth is that although we typically look towards the holiday season (Thanksgiving through New Year’s) as a time of great joy, love and warmth, there is a darker side to the season.   It’s the time of year when a lot of people decide to clean out their closets—namely of the secrets they’ve been stuffing in there.  Turns out, not all the skeletons are for Halloween.

Take my friend (we’ll call her “Kate”) who recently had her husband of less than a year reveal that when they were dating, he had a one night stand with a woman from “back home” while he was visiting family.  It wasn’t the fact that he’d “cheated” per se, since they were admittedly in that kinda-sorta-not-sure-if-we’re-exclusive phase when the event happened.  It was the idea that she now had to deal with the mess of this new information, and consider how its absence had influenced subsequent decisions—like, umm… getting married.

And of course there were questions.  Questions like:

Why did you do that?

Why didn’t you tell me?

Why on earth are you telling me NOW?!

And perhaps most importantly:

How do we fix this?

I can’t quite tell if the timing is a conscious one or not, but ask almost anyone in the mental health community and they’ll tell you the holidays are notorious for “stirring the pot”.  And just in case that wasn’t enough to run a chill through your hot cocoa, consider the fact that more divorces are filed in January than any other month!  If you’re a therapist, lawyer or crisis hotline worker, you probably know the holidays by another name: “busy season”.

Of course, not all instances of bad news are marriage-endingly horrific, or worthy of “bomb” status.  In fact, there are times your spouse might drop a piece of bad news on of you that’s not even their fault!  For the sake of thematic consistency, I’ll call these smaller events “grenades”.  They’re not on the same level of devastation like an affair, but they catch you off guard, and frankly—it sucks.


Recently, my husband took our dog to the vet for his “Senior Checkup”. As you can tell from the picture—he’s still pretty spry for an old guy!  Anyway, when I got home from work, I asked about how everything went.  Our little wonder-mutt was in perfect health, however the vet bill was not.  It was $750.  Yes. You read that right… $750 to learn that our pooch was COMPLETELY FINE.

The next words out of my mouth were: “Why didn’t you call me?!”

My husband looked at me and calmly replied, “Because he’s fine and I took care of the bill right then.”

“Yes, but you didn’t call me.  It was over $300.  We have an agreement.”

Side note: We have an agreement that we always  usually discuss major purchases over a certain amount.

“Because you would’ve told me to pay it,” he replied sounding equally confused and slightly perturbed.

And really, he was right. I would’ve told him to pay it.  Of course I would’ve told him to pay it.  We had the money.  That wasn’t the issue.  He was right. I knew this.

But why could I not shake the feeling that someone had socked me in the gut?

After some careful thought, I realized it was because I would’ve called him.  To me, our agreement was sacrosanct.  Black and white.  Non-negotiable. And perhaps most importantly, it was an expression of equality.  I also realized it had stirred up some old hurts– not even remotely related to him—but rather in connection to the way I related to money.

In this case, he had dropped the “bomb,” but the mess was all mine.

So how do you survive a “bomb dropping” or even a “grenade”?

Here are a few things to consider—

1)   Give yourself time to react.

As I’m sure you know, when it comes to good communication—even in the face of some seriously disturbing, earth-shattering news, it’s good to curb your immediate response and take a few seconds to breathe.  This isn’t just some fluffy therapist-speak either.

Without getting too technical, when the brain processes an event that elicits a strong stress response, the limbic system (aka the “emotional brain”) takes over –overriding the logical part of the brain (aka the prefrontal cortex).  Giving yourself some time to process the news allows your brain to rebalance itself, and will hopefully prevent you from saying or doing anything you’ll likely regret later.

2)   Give yourself MORE time…

It seems to me that when things like this happen, the person who detonated the bad news often seems to want an immediate response and then later on, a clear-cut pathway to resolution one way or another.  Here’s why this makes sense:  Depending on the secret, your spouse may have been carrying it around for hours, days or even years! S/He has had plenty of time to mull it around, evaluate it from several– if not all– sides, and then drop it on you at his/her convenience.  Simply said, they want a resolution now, but they’ve also had a head start.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to point this out to your spouse. I once listened to a professor relate an experience of working with a patient who had terminal cancer.  This patient had already come to terms with her death, and was having angry response to her family’s reaction to the news. My professor said that he had to point out to her that while it was “old news” for her, it was “new news” for them.

In my situation, my husband had already had time to process the sticker shock, make logical steps towards resolving the issue, and research pet insurance to avoid the situation in the future, well before I ever knew anything about the original bill! Of course I wasn’t going to be on the same page! He was on a different chapter!

3)   Consider the Power Differential

—it may actually be in your favor.  Yes, I just said that.

Assuming your spouse just dropped a bomb on you, like the one Kate experienced—after following the advice given in Steps 1 & 2, you’ll want to follow up with an evaluation of who’s who and what’s what.

Yes, s/he just dropped the bomb—but, if your spouse isn’t already halfway out the door towards divorce, and is interested in fixing the issue, then in many cases this puts you at an advantage for setting the terms of how, when and where the relationship will be remedied.  This is the exact advice I gave my friend Kate.

A week or so after the news, Kate’s husband thought she’d be over it.  Kate was far from feeling over it, and was struggling to appease his timeline.  In no uncertain terms, I validated her struggle.  He got to choose when to “start” the issue, and she most certainly had the right to work through it to a reasonable end.

Notice the word “reasonable”.  A reasonable end is not one where you stew and simmer for some undetermined length of time with absolutely no productivity whatsoever.  Holding grudges does not a happy marriage make.  However, processing and actively grieving the news so you can figure out where to go or what to do next is a very different story.

4)    Create a Proposal.

If you want to fix your marriage after an injury, you’ll eventually need a plan of action.  Now that the logical part of your brain is back up and running, and you’ve figured out how you fit into the equation moving forward, it’s time to make a plan.  To illustrate, let’s go back to my friend Kate:

For Kate, a day or two of feeling heard and validated by friends was enough to help her confront her husband with the painful truth that she wasn’t feeling “over it”. She calmly presented her terms:  marriage counseling, and co-reading a book I’d recommended (The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work*), along with more quality time (one of her predominate love languages*) reconnecting and rekindling the trusting bond she’d come to adore and rely on as a wife and as a woman.  Her husband, being the wise man that he is, decided to accept Kate’s terms.

Have you suffered an emotional “knockout” or “bomb-dropping” by your spouse?  If so, I want to hear how you dealt with it!

Digital Image Source: Artist: digitalart

*links to affiliate source