What Couples Don’t Talk About in Their Marriage

Every marriage has a "third rail" issue — a topic both partners agree not to discuss because it causes too many issues. But not discussing the small things can have big picture problems.

by Nicholas Kavalier

Marriages thrive on open communication. This is true. But, sometimes silence wins out. In many long-term partnerships, there are one or two topics that both partners have decided, overtly or not, not to discuss anymore. Call them “third-rail” issues: topics that when touched cause disagreements and disarray. A husband’s long-simmering feud with a family member, for instance, that a wife has said her peace about. A mother-in-law’s obvious treatment of a partner that will never change. These are topics that were once addressed regularly and at length but, as time has gone by, have been deemed too touchy to discuss. These issues don’t affect the day-to-day. They could, however, affect the future.

“The number one thing is that people want to be understood and they want to feel like their emotions are being valued,” Jonathan Robinson, a couple’s therapist and author of the book More Love, Less Conflict: A Communication Playbook for Couples told us. “And when that doesn’t happen, marriages start to have problems. I never have couples come into my office saying, ‘We really understand each other, that’s why we want a divorce.’ But of course the opposite happens all the time.”

Still, in marriages, concessions have to be made. Solutions aren’t always easy and deciding not to discuss points of contention can certainly save a lot of grief in the now. To make peace with outside forces that can’t be changed is also a mature decision that helps with longevity. However, in not talking about them valuable planning time will be lost if they are ignored. If a mother-in-law’s treatment of a son-in-law is something that is not discussed because it brings too much stress, is a couple not thinking of long term care for her when she is older? If one partner doesn’t want to discuss a personal debt they are paying down because it’s a source of embarrassment, how can a couple work ahead for shared goals?

These are all questions raised by husbands and wives who shared their “third rail” issues. While all parties expressed happiness with letting very specific issues remain unspoken in the present, they all expressed reservations about how the issues will impact their lives in the future. Long term planning is essential to relationships.

My Brother-in-Law’s Feelings Towards Me

My brother-in-law is a very, very religious person: Church every day, an hour of daily devotions, and so on. My wife and I were both raised catholic but, for various reasons, aren’t practicing anymore. He was very upset when we didn’t get married in a traditional church wedding and when we chose not to baptize our children. There are a lot of things I like about him — he’s very kind and funny and, by all appearances, a good father. But because of our religious beliefs, he definitely keeps us at arm’s length, as though we’re at odds with everything he stands for. He specifically has a problem with me, as he thinks that I took his sister away from the church. He’s told me this.

For the first few years of our marriage, I tried — and failed — to be more available to him and to make him a much larger part of our lives. After trying many times, I simply called him up to talk about our relationship and where I wish it — specifically for my wife — could be. But he said that because of our beliefs he just couldn’t see our relationship improving. That was really disappointing. No matter what, whenever my wife and I discuss their relationship, the conversation always ends in not a fight but her getting very upset about it. So I’ve had to learn not to bring it up. I don’t always succeed but, right now, it’s not a situation that seems to be improving so we just don’t talk about it much. It hovers but we don’t mention it. I do foresee a lot of future family discussions taking place that I am certainly not looking forward to that I know will put he and my wife, and therefore me, at odds. The death of my father in-law, is one example, as he’s already made plans for where and how he’d like his ashes spread and it conflicts with his beliefs. But, I guess, we’ll deal with those when they arise. — Chase, Silver Springs, MD

My Wife’s Student Loan Debt

My wife has a lot of student loan debt. Like years’ and years’ worth. It’s something we should confront on a regular basis because it relates to every thing we can and cannot do as a family. It’s our debt. But it’s a really sore subject. She went to law school but doesn’t use that degree anymore and that really weighs on her. Any time I would bring it up, she would just lash out and conversations — Can we pay more this month? What can we do to subsidize? — wouldn’t go anywhere. So, finally, I told her she’d be in charge of our finances so she can look at our budgets and put more or less towards the loans when we can and it would prevent us arguing about it. As it turns out, she’s great at it. In fact, it’s a load off me for not looking at those bills every month. I think she just saw it as her personal mountain to climb and now, with control over it, can tackle it without me bringing it up. That’s fine by me because we have enough stress as it is. But I’d rather us be a team through and through, you know? Like we are doing this together and I’d like, as cheesy as it sounds, to celebrate on the day those bills are finally square. — James, New York City

How My Husband and My Brother Interact

My husband is a very boisterous, outgoing guy. He tells a lot of jokes and stories and wrangles the kids for games and is more of the “fun” kind of dad. My brother is not. He’s far more reserved and socially awkward. We’re lucky enough that our families are close together and so on weekends we always see them. Whenever that happens, my brother takes command of the situation even if it’s something my husband planned. He’ll lead the walks in the woods or man the grill at a family picnic. My husband, I know, gets annoyed by this because he wants to feel like he’s in control. Now, he’s not the best at vocalizing his emotions and so he lets a lot of things sit and linger until he snaps at my brother. When that happens, my brother continues to antagonize because that’s what he’s always done with his friends. They just don’t get a long.

They used to try to co-exist. Both of them tried. But it was so many years of the same that they’ve stopped and continue to butt heads. No one is innocent in this situation but my husband and I have simply decided to not talk about the relationship. We’ll talk about his frustrations at times, and I’ll talk to my brother about toning it down sometimes and my husband about his passivity. But we don’t touch the subject outright when we’re alone anymore because it goes nowhere. They’ve recently reached a place where my husband has started to back out of situations where my brother will be. And if that’s what he needs to do, that’s what he needs to do. There are too many issues to deal with. I’ve said my peace. — Cynthia, Miami

How My Mother-in-Law Feels About Me

My mother-in-law does not like me. She’s made this clear from day one. She’d rather my wife had married a doctor or a lawyer or someone of status. I’m in landscaping. My wife chose me, though, and I work hard to provide us a good life. For a long time, I spent a lot of energy trying to prove to my mother-in-law that I am worthy of my wife. But I realized that, no matter what I do, she treats me like I’m an outsider. She’s cold at best and mean and vindictive at worst. I’ve had open talks with her. My wife has had open talks with her. And while she promised she’d change, she never did. She sees me as a mistake my wife will regret.

My wife and I used to talk about it from time-to-time because I was really broken up about it. She was, too. But there was one night a few years ago, when I brought it again. We’d spent some time with my mother-in-law that day and I was bringing up her treatment again. My wife looked at me and said: “I love you, that’s all the matters. Please stop.” And then she cried. I realized that talking about it just made her too upset, that internally she was tired of repeating the same talk over and over again. So I just sort of put the situation out of my mind and deal with it. That’s been the best for my marriage.

My mother-in-law, however, is getting older and she’s starting to move a bit slower. In the next few years, I know, we’ll be her caretakers. She’ll be such a large factor in our lives — she might have to move in with us. I’m worried about the ramifications of that. But I know it’s something we won’t discuss until we have to discuss it. — Jake, Tulsa, OK

My Ex

I was previously married for four years to a woman I dated for another three. It was seven years of going full steam ahead into life and crafting a plan for the both of us. I don’t want to go into it, but it fell apart. As anyone can tell you, that comes with a good deal of baggage. You constructed a life with someone else in mind and when you are able to do the same with someone else, that can make the new person feel like a replacement instead of a choice. My wife is very understanding of my past and, when we were dating, I was very honest with her about my mistakes and my ex’s. But when we were married, my wife wanted the slate wiped clean. In so many ways, she wanted to be my wife and not think about a person before her. Any time I recollect about things I previously did — great trips I took, great meals I ate, great friends I had — that were a part of my life it would make her very hurt. So I do my best to not bring them up again. It’s very hard to erase someone fully. But I understand her side of not wanting to hear about it and I want to respect that. But it’s hard to do. — Zack, Santa Fe