By Leigh Newman
By never, we mean never, ever. Not even on days when he wears the flying-swordfish shirt.
1. "Surprise! I got us a facelift!"
This is a true story. My friend went on vacation looking 60 and came back looking 45 (once the bandages came off). Her logic was understandable: Our bodies are our bodies, and it’s we who decide how we want to look when it comes to wrinkles, highlights, breast reductions or hot pants. And yet… change is difficult for just about everyone, especially for the ones closest to us, the ones who happened to meet us with our original cheekbones. You want to feel great. Odds are, he wants you to feel great. Giving him a heads up before you change your hair -- or derriere -- is the kind of courtesy a marriage depends on.
Some words belong only on sitcoms (where flippancy is funny) or in small-stakes emails (where brevity is appreciated).
3. "You look so nice in that blue button-down."
To everybody else at the Thanksgiving table, of course, this sounds like a compliment. There you are, appreciating how the color of your husband's eyes matches the color of his shirt. Except that… he normally wears shirts with big, fat flying swordfish soaring from shoulder to shoulder. Except that… he loves these shirts (and you do not love them at all). Except that… you know and he knows that his mother made him wear blue button-downs (and that by saying this, not only are you joining his mom’s team, but you are also telling him that you don’t like his taste and that he usually looks ridiculous). This maneuver goes beyond a backhanded compliment. It’s a bomb-trigger criticism, made in public and worded in such a way that he’ll look like a meanie if he gets (justifiably) mad and you’ll look like a nice-ie, no matter what. There are other ways to talk about shirts or anything else. Including a private, pre-turkey conversation along the lines of: "I know your mom made you wear shirts like that and that they're not your first choice, but you should know… you look really good."
4. "Maybe now is the time to think about going back to marketing."
Okay, his organic dry cleaning business bombed (it was three years and one price point ahead of its time!). Suggesting he return to his former career -- where, P.S., he was a marketing Yoda -- is a stab at support. You mean well. But frosting over your partner’s defeats by suggesting things from the past that he used to be good at, or things he doesn’t want to do but might be good at, or things you want him to do that he is not just good at but great at, doesn’t really help him with his current agony and embarrassment. He failed, and a dream died. It must be grieved over, and it must be recognized -- not replaced with a warmed-over dream.
5. "Ear hair."
You can’t say, "Cut your ear hair." You can’t say, "I’ll cut your ear hair for you." You can’t even say the two words by themselves randomly as you walk into the kitchen while talking on the phone to a friend from work. To do so would imply that ear hair exists. And that he is aging. And that things are changing in those lonesome bathroom ways. He has a mirror. If he’s still struggling with denial and needs a quick nudge, bring up the guy next door with the eyebrows-gone-wild or the disconcerting hair sprouting from, oh dear, his ears.
6. "Honey, you pick the restaurant."
Or the new car. Or the new electric toothbrush. Yes, there are many, many things that it’s just simpler and easier to hand off to your partner -- either because one of you is very good at doing them (and the other isn’t) or because one of you loathes them (and the other doesn’t). But then there are all those other, more mysterious things about which both of you have an opinion, but that one of you wants to delegate because you don’t want to have a tussle about: the restaurant, the car, the electric toothbrush. In other words, you don't care enough to wrestle over the point, but you care too much not to notice every single time you pick up the new toothbrush that it came without replaceable heads (meaning someone must replace them every six months). If you have an opinion, you must discuss it with your spouse. This is what marriage is about: sharing your understanding of the world, being open to his (even when he goes on too long) and coming to a new joint conclusion.
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