I told a friend about my husband’s poor finances and now he secretly mocks him. What should I do? | Leading questions

I confided in a friend that my husband doesn’t contribute much financially – barely at all given mental health issues. Now I think the friend disrespects my husband. He and my husband have had their own direct friendship for some time now, which is especially important for my husband as he moved to a new city and appreciates this friendship.

The financial imbalance between my husband and I has definitely been a sore point and cause of stress for us. We are working through it and we are hopeful to get things moving in a better direction.

I regret sharing such personal information with my friend, but I felt I could trust him because we are close. But now when he talks to me in private he says things, on the face of it “jokingly”, asking if my husband has “grown the F up” yet. I feel terrible for my husband, and this also makes me question my marriage, which for every other reason I firmly stand by. I’ve considered trying to speak with him again to clarify, but this would then seem like I’m playing it down. How should I handle this?

Eleanor says: I once heard a relationship counsellor remark that some kinds of trouble start with the first time you tell one of your spouse’s secrets to someone who isn’t your spouse. Obviously the rule can’t be that we’re never allowed to tell private things about our spouse to others. But it does risk making a strange kind of relationship with the confidante. It can end up feeling like that’s your close relationship, the place where you tell the unvarnished truth, and the marriage is just the place you go home to. As I think you might be feeling a miniature version of right now, it can lead the confidante to feel you have a kind of alliance together, in part defined by the fact you say things there that your spouse might not expect.

This is a real shame, because being able to confide in your friends about things that tax you in your relationship is really important. The trick is balancing the risk of betraying the person we love by telling things they wouldn’t want us to against the risk of betraying ourselves by suffering indefinitely in loyal silence.

So it’s a shame that your friend has started making jokes like this. Whether a given disclosure feels helpful or like betrayal depends a lot on how the other person responds. Their responses can help you process what you’re feeling. Or they can make it feel as if you’re in a secret making-fun-of-spouse club. Even if they come from a place of good humour or “lightening the mood”, it sounds as though these jokes are making it feel more like the latter.

Happily, dynamics like that are often as easy to block as they are to create. You can stop this kind of mockery from being part of the common ground that this friendship permits. Performed bafflement can be great for this. People only make a mocking joke if they’re prepared to gamble they’ll get the laugh. If you make that gamble go badly – if you frown, seem surprised and block the supposition that this is the kind of thing we say around here – that can be a surprisingly effective social sanction. (It’s often a lot more effective than a half-laughed “don’t say that!” which risks feeling like lip service.)

Remember, too, that these kinds of jokes can be ultimately counterproductive for sorting through the relationship issue. You say you stand by your marriage, but that this has been a hard sticking point. To process that, you’ll need to allow that there are more than just the two options of “love husband, no criticisms” on the one hand and “make fun of husband” on the other. You’ll need to find the third space where love and respect are compatible with criticism. By pairing honest criticism with unkind jokes, your friend is ultimately depriving you of that space, reinforcing the idea that criticism necessarily means disloyalty.

One question here is how to handle the problem in the friendship. The other is how to handle the problem in the marriage. Try to be careful that each doesn’t wind up amplifying the other.

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