Remember when you were young and in love and your loved one could do no wrong? Remember how glowingly you spoke about him or her to other people? How does a couple "grow" from that idealistic young love to a bickering old married couple that makes everyone in the room uncomfortable and embarrasses themselves? Think about the way you have sometimes talked about your former spouse and you may have your answer.
People are together for awhile and they start to notice little things about each other that annoy them. These aren't matters of any real consequence. They are matters of personal preference. Cathy can't stand the voice on my GPS app. I think it's funny. Who is right? We both are. The truth about the character and quality of the voice is completely in the eye of the beholder.
Of course, you have never heard about my minor disagreement with Cathy about my GPS voice because we don't typically air such things in public. I am only doing so now to illustrate that the things we feel very sure about are often just matters of opinion and no one needs to be wrong about them. And even when they aren't just matters of opinion (like the factual details of a story one of them is telling), does it really matter that much? Does it matter to your listeners that it was Phil and not Robert that came by your home that one Saturday and said that funny thing? Do you really think your partner needs to be corrected about it?
My advice is not to become your partner's censor and editor. The old "you are a reflection on me" excuse to become controlling doesn't really work. Let your partner speak for himself or herself. In fact, defend him or her if others say critical things about him or her in your presence.
Letting your partner speak for himself or herself isn't just about other people and their comfort. While the comfort of others does matter, and many people are blind to it as they are fighting out the meaningless battles of their relationship, there is a much deeper principle involved. Whose approval do you want the most? Who is your number one audience? Does it bother you to send the message to your partner that he or she is embarrassing to you? If your number one audience isn't your partner, your priorities are out of place. Some people are, perhaps, so secure in their partners' approval that they feel free to neglect their partners' feelings to please other people that ought to be lower on your totem pole.
Am I saying you should bite your tongue? That's exactly what I'm saying. Don't say or do things that convey disapproval of your partner in public. Period. 99.9% of the time, if it actually matters, it can wait until later to be discussed in private. There is almost never a reason to correct or criticize your partner in public. You know what I suggest instead? Build him or her up. Tell other people how great he or she is and how lucky you are. It will help you to convince yourself as well as build loving thoughts inside your partner.
I am not directing this message only to married couples. But it's trickier applying it to couples who are dating because: (1) their love is new and they still think everything the other person does is art; and (2) they are unsure enough of the other's approval that they don't take it for granted and feel comfortable running their partner down. But think about that for a minute. Your partner has done such a good job helping you feel safe with him or her, that you know you can get away with derogatory comments or criticism that you would never dare say to a new dating partner that you had interest in. In our common English, this is called taking your partner for granted. "Wherefore, let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall." (1 Corinthians 10:12.)
When we are trying to impress a new love interest, it is pretty easy to see him or her in a positive light. But somehow, a lot of people who once saw each other as perfect come to a place where those feelings become ugly and contorted. So, how can you tell in the beginning, whether it's going to grow into that ugliness or remain beautiful?
Even more important, you need to have conversations and set intentions. Chances are, if you go about your relationship haphazardly, you are eventually going to fall into those patterns of mistreating your partner in public. It's natural. Remember also that, "the natural man is an enemy to God" (Mosiah 3:19). Without setting intentions about how you will act, you are bound to be acted upon by your lesser feelings" (2 Nephi 2:14, 16, 26). So talk about this and set intentions when you are dating. Don't simply deal with it as it comes up in marriage. That is not being intentional. And we all know that dealing with issues in the heat of the moment is not the most effective way to go about life. We titled our book "Intentional Courtship" because we want to encourage mid-singles to go about their relationships with intention. Most of you have already experienced how it goes when you govern a relationship with emotion instead of intention.
So, part of the solution is making intentional decisions about how you will act. It is biting your tongue when you are tempted to cut your partner down in public (or in private for that matter). It is letting him or her tell the story the way he or she wants, have his or her own political opinions or other opinions, and refraining from expressing your frustrations with your partner in front of other people. Part of it is simply exercising the discipline to refrain from speaking when you are tempted to say something derogatory to or about your partner.
Even more important is to exercise intention in the way you think about your partner. It is not simply a matter of shoving down how you feel and watching it come out sideways. It is even more about changing the way you think and feel about your partner so you are no longer disposed to have unkind thoughts toward him or her. That has little to do with his or her speech or behavior. It has everything to do with your thinking. We call this a mighty change of heart (Alma 5:12-13, 49). The deepest principles of the Gospel are involved. Become the person that not only doesn't say unkind things about his or her partner, but rarely even thinks such unkind thoughts.
Your relationship with your partner will not only shape who you are, it will reveal who you are. So, while you are uncoupled, work at becoming genuinely tolerant and avoid small-minded criticism of the people closest to you--including your former spouse. Practice seeing the goodness in your dating partners rather than gazing about for red flags. The best way to set yourself up for a good marriage is to become the kind of person who has a good marriage, rather than emphasizing every weakness of your partner and protecting yourself. We attract what we are. So be the kind of person you want to attract.
I want Cathy and I to be the kind of couple others look at in our old age and think we are naive. I want the cynical people to think they've "grown up" from adoring their partners, while we have never gotten over how lucky we are. That kind of positivity only endures in a marriage with intention.