Here are a list of topics that are nearly universally safe to ask a friend about:
“How’s the job search?”
“How are the kids?”
“Can you believe the election?”
“How’s your parents’ health?”
“How’s your dating life?”
“How is your husband/wife?”
“Are your lady parts getting weird in old age, too?”
“Do you have any new Crock-Pot recipes?”
The list goes on. But the list does not, nearly ever, include: “How is your marriage?”
Which, on one hand, is understandable. After all, the rules of marital relations in the United States presume that all things spousal are between the married parties. Sacred. Not for anyone else’s ears. Don’t air your dirty laundry. Except to the marriage therapist. And, for half of couples who divorce: the lawyers, judge, accountants, individual and family therapists, life coaches, ministers, girlfriends, sisters, brothers, bros, parents, new boyfriend/girlfriends, parents, unsuspecting fellow playground parents, and anyone within ear-shot of the separating person’s verbal transgressions against their now-ex.
Which is totally dysfunctional.
Your romantic relationship — whether spousal, dating, casual, ambiguous, whatever — is a big, big part of your life. Likely the biggest part, even if you are totally single (face it, what do you think about most during your day?).
If you are single, like I am, you know the world feels totally at ease to casually ask you about who you’re dating, how’s the sex, do you think you’ll ever get married again, what do your kids think about him and so on. Most people are single — for the first time in history there are more single women than married women, people are waiting longer than ever to wed, and fewer people than ever marry at all.
Talking about romantic relationships is very comfortable for most people — except for married people talking about their own relationship (though yours is fine).
I’m not suggesting you tirelessly air your every grievance about your husband (because you know and I know people like you. Don’t be that person). I’m saying: let’s normalize discussing marriage. Stop pretending like it is this blissful, sacred, impenetrable institution, because of course that is horseshit. Your marriage, just like parenting, career, finances, friendship, health and any other part of life has its ups and downs. Nuance and complications. Misunderstandings, heartaches, joys.
Cordoning off marriage from the mix of acceptable conversation topics only heightens the pressure for couples to hide behind a perfect facade, pretending all is always well — while affections, trust and respect crumble, privately. Meanwhile, truth and vulnerability are barricaded from friendships and other relationships outside of the marriage — relationships that are critical to supporting both the individual and the couple.
So this is what you will do. Next time you’re catching up with a friend or relative, ask, casually: “How’s your marriage?”
Not: “How’s Jack,” or “What is Jen up to?”
Marriage. Ask about the other person’s marriage.
If the other party is stunned — aghast — help them along. “Yeah,” say. “How are you guys getting along these days?”
Normalize it. Make it healthy and casual to discuss marriage. Then, of course, you have to give, too.
“We’ve been bickering nonstop and the kids notice.”
“We hadn’t had sex for five years, but now hit it at least once a week.”
“We’re in a really good spot at the moment — but last week it was a different story. You know how it is.”
Or, if you’re not married, feel free to offer up the latest in your dating life (or lack thereof). If you share: “I haven’t been on a date in six months and it’s really getting me down,” it is completely fair and acceptable to then ask: “So, how is your relationship?” See? Give and take. Normal.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.