Let’s be clear about one thing: It’s inappropriate to talk negatively or disclose sensitive personal details about anyone behind their back. We have words for this sort of behavior: Gossip. Slander. Badmouthing. Talkin’ sh… mack. When your spouse does this to you, it feels extra hurtful and violating. 

When your spouse’s words find their way back to you, you have every right to feel hurt, angry, and betrayed. It’s completely understandable. Now, it’s time to make it relationally productive.

We expect our spouse to have our back, not talk behind it. 

Even if your spouse believes what they said to be true, or if it’s their personal opinion, this kind of behavior cannot be justified. (I will give two exceptions to the rule later, but for now, we’re still kinda stingin’ over this.) And, oh boy, if your spouse is saying things about you behind your back that are not true (exaggerations or misrepresentations), that feeling of betrayal is probably dialed to 10. Nope – 11.

If this happens on social media, it makes matters worse. Those words are out there for the whole world to see.

Now, let’s get to the nitty-gritty.

You’re sure your spouse was talking about you – and it wasn’t good. How do you talk to them about it? (Take a look at the links for Effective Communication at the bottom of this blog, too)

  1. Wait until you know you’re calm, cool, and collected. Real Talk: When we’re angry, we say and do stupid stuff. We make matters worse. We don’t solve anything. This is simple brain chemistry.1
  1. Pick a good time to talk privately. Leave enough time for a solid conversation, not a rushed one. Minimize distractions – kids, phones, televisions, etc. Don’t ambush your spouse. Tell them there is something you’d like to speak to them about, then set a time to talk.
  1. Organize what you want to say around your TED. These are your: Thoughts, Emotions, and Desires.
  1. See the conversation through to the end, but take a timeout if you sense things escalating.

How do you begin?

Clearly state what you heard they said. (If it’s a pattern, share several examples.) You can communicate without attacking. Remember that your spouse isn’t the enemy, although their behavior is out of line. Your mindset should be to fight to improve your marriage and relationship with your spouse. It’s not about fighting with your spouse. (Pro-Tip: Going in, make room in your heart and mind for the real possibility that this is a big misunderstanding. Take a look at the links at the bottom of this blog about constructive conflict for more.)

Start the conversation with, “It bothers me when I hear that you tell your friends I’m ______________.” 

Share what you think when you hear they’ve said negative things about you. For instance, “When I hear you’ve said bad things about me, it makes me think you are _____________ (unhappy, untrustworthy, two-faced).”

Share what you think they’re saying about you. “To me, it sounds like you think I’m __________?”

Share your emotions. If you felt betrayed, disrespected, or humiliated, say it. Try, “When I heard some of the things you said, I felt __________________.”

Share your desire to deal with the issues or grievances together. “I wish we could work out our issues together. How can we do that?

So, you’ve got the convo rolling in a healthy, solution-oriented way. You’ve been transparent about your thoughts, emotions, and desires. (Keep those emotions in check even if you hear excuses, rationalizations, or blame-shifting.) You’ve given your spouse a safe context to explain, inform, own, and/or apologize. 

Work toward mutual understanding. Try to get into each other’s shoes and trade perspectives with an open mind.2

If this conversation is going well, move to Phase Two:

Time to set some boundaries and reach an agreement on what’s over the line over-sharing. Be sure to include social media.

✓ Apology accepted, or misunderstanding cleared up. 

✓ Boundaries agreed upon and in place. 

✓ Time to move on with a clear understanding and a clean slate. 

This is relationship growth! It might have stung a little or a lot. It may have been a hard conversation. In fact, some challenging issues may have surfaced. If handled well… totally worth it! Maybe this is enough for one day, and you agree to tackle any bigger issues that surfaced (as a team) in the next couple of days. [If this did NOT go well, take a look at the links at the bottom of this blog for some guidance.]

You could stop here, and it would be all good – mission accomplished by incredibly mature relationship work. You could grab some snacks, curl up on the couch together and see what’s on Netflix. It might be time to enjoy the fruits of your labor, or are you interested in some more profound exploration into your marriage?

Time for the two exceptions mentioned earlier… 

Number One:

If your spouse was talking about you to their mentor, doctor, counselor, therapist, or clergy, you might need to pump those brakes. (Most of those conversations are privileged, meaning I don’t know how you heard what was said about you unless your spouse straight-up told you what they told them.) Let’s put a pin in that and come back.

Number Two:

Everybody sometimes needs a trusted friend they can vent to.3 Ideally, this friend isn’t a gossip-monger, knows there are two sides to every story, fully supports your marriage, listens, and gives wise advice. Let’s put a pin here, too.

Gut Check Time. Are you up for this?

I’ve had a couple of questions on my mind, and I wonder if they have crossed yours, too. Regardless of what your spouse said and to whom they said it, whether it was true, false, or somewhere in between, I’m wondering about some stuff, and you should be, too. Let’s go there.

  • Has your spouse tried to talk to you about this stuff before? How’d it play out?
  • How is your communication, in general, and about tough topics?
  • If what your spouse said about you behind your back is accurate, are you gonna own it even though your spouse didn’t handle it correctly?

See, now we’re going from Relationship Checkers to Relationship Chess.

Wanna go for the dub and do some significant relationship work?

Try this out on your spouse and see what happens:

Can I ask you something, and you understand that you can be completely honest with me? I’m not going to react. I’m just gonna listen.” (And you have to now, ‘cuz you just said it.) Is there a reason you feel like you can’t talk to me about this kinda stuff?” Then. Just. Listen.

Look, if your spouse talked about you behind your back, you should call your spouse on it because it is not helpful for your relationship. But. [Dramatic Pause.] But, in reality, marriage isn’t like checkers or chess. It’s not about who wins and who loses. Being wronged can position you to do something more meaningful than being right. Sometimes, there’s a deeper win for your marriage that’s waiting to happen. Just sayin’.

Resources:

Effective Communication:

4 Things Every Couple Should Know About Communication In Marriage

5 Tools for Healthy Communication in Marriage

Communication Killers 

How To Improve Bad Communication In Marriage 

What Great Listeners Actually Do

Reasons Why Your Spouse Won’t Listen To You 

Constructive Marital Conflict:

10 Rules To “Fight Nice” With Your Spouse 

How Much Should Healthy Couples Fight?

Uh-Oh! This Didn’t Go Well:

What To Do When You Feel Disrespected In Marriage 

What To Do When Your Spouse Lacks Empathy 

5 Tips For Understanding Your Strong-Willed Spouse 

Working Through Resentment With Your Spouse 

What To Do When Your Spouse Is Toxic 

SOURCES

1Gable, P.A., et al. (2015). Anger Perceptually and Conceptually Narrows Cognitive Scope. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0039226 

2McDonald, J.E., et al. (2018). Effects of Religiosity, Forgiveness, and Spousal Empathy on Marital Adjustment. https://doi.org/10.1080/01494929.2017.1403992 
3Eldemire, A. (2019, May 30). Why friendships are vital to the health of your relationship. Psychology Today. Source

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  1. bianca bessick
    bianca bessick says:

    I think a husband partner that’s speak bad about his wife or partner needs help. If you love your wife or partner how can you speak bad about them. If you can’t tell the person in your life how you feel leave them why do you hurt them in that disrespectful way.

    Reply
    • Laura Newman
      Laura Newman says:

      For years my husband badmouths me to family and friend whenever we have an argument. I thought he had changed but recently found out he did it again

      Reply
      • Stella
        Stella says:

        I recently found out my husband was sharing very intimate details about me to his guy friend. It was bad, really bad. His friend, I now realize, is a pervert and had no problem crossing the line. Mine and my husband’s intimate relations became a weekly and daily topic for his friend. Before I knew he was a disgusting pervert he made a very sickening comment to me, in front of my husband. I should have realized then something was off about that.
        I don’t think I will ever be able to trust my husband again. My heart is broken. I thought he was my best friend, my mistake.

        Reply
  2. Dee Dee LaRue
    Dee Dee LaRue says:

    This article is stupid! My husband bad-mouth’s me to his family, coworkers & friends…. Anyone who will listen. 😡 I’ve discussed this many times with him but he continues to do it. He is full of flaws but I don’t capitalize on his shortcomings bc I love him. Now I’m leaving for good!!! It’s disrespectful, demeaning, hurtful and full of continuous low-blow’s all the time. Like he’s Mr. Perfect! Who made him God??!!! 😡

    Reply
  3. Jose Gonzalez
    Jose Gonzalez says:

    Is it ok for my girlfriend to have a cell phone conversation with her therapist and talk about me while I’m in the same house? I feel so lost and hurt like isn’t therapy suppose to be private? Like why did I have to hear all of that

    Reply