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Want to Publicly Compliment Your Significant Other? Don't [Af]F[leck] It Up!

In a public shout out, it's okay to acknowledge that you've been through a lot together--provided that it's done with the right tone. The key is to convey that in the battle of life, the two of you are on the same side.
09/16/2015 01:21pm ET | Updated September 13, 2016
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Want to give a shout out to your significant other? That's a lovely idea, but be careful not to botch the job. If you don't think through what you're going to say (think Ben Affleck circa 2013 in his Argo Oscar acceptance speech), you can easily end up offending your significant other. Then, adding insult to that injury, your speech will serve as chum in the water for the paparazzi, and before you wake up the next morning, speculation about the real state of your relationship will be all over the internet. And you thought you had problems before....

In case you're not wired to pick up on subtleties, let me be perfectly clear: Never take the microphone and describe your marriage as being "work." I promise you, it won't go over well, no matter how earnest you look when you say it. When you talk about your marriage in those terms, it sounds like you think of your relationship as something you can't get out of rather than something you can't live without. Those concepts might sound similar, but they are very, very different. If you say the latter your spouse will feel great. But if you say the former...well, you can ask newly single Jennifer Garner about how hearing that feels.

Celebrities! They're just like us! This isn't a problem exclusive to the rich and famous. Thanks to social media, every day Joes and Janes can also easily offend their significant others and cause all of their "friends" to wonder about the stability of their relationship. Facebook anniversary and birthday posts that say things like, "We've had our ups and downs," followed by a heartfelt "Love ya!" are as commonplace as douchebags on Ashley Madison. Nothing says, "I love you" like publicly declaring that your long-term relationship has been a long and bumpy ride.

I'm not quibbling about the veracity of these sorts of statements. The issue I have is with audience and timing. When you pop into the dry cleaners to pick up your clothes, and the clerk asks you how you're doing, you're supposed to say something like, "Good, thanks," or "Can't complain," even if the answer is really, "Ugh! I'm horribly constipated," or "I can't keep my mind off the super hot nanny we just hired to watch our kids." It's not that you can't ever answer those questions honestly, it's just that there's a time and place for that sort of honesty--and that's when your doctor or therapist is asking the question.

Truth is not a defense for publicly humiliating your spouse. Anyone who has been in a relationship that has lasted longer than three months knows that some days (or months or years) are better and/or easier than others. That year your dad was dying of cancer? That was grueling. The tour of duty when your spouse was stationed overseas? Not a high point of your time together. Any of the years when your daughter is between the ages of 13 and [can someone please fill in this blank for me]? You and your significant other deserve hazardous duty pay for each and every one of those.

But if you take the mic at an award ceremony, or reach for the keyboard on your anniversary, and proceed to broadcast how your relationship sometimes kicks your ass, it won't come across as a public declaration of your love--even if you immediately follow it with a public declaration of your love. It simply doesn't sound complimentary--not to readers or listeners, and (much more importantly) not to your spouse.

Stick to the script. In a public shout out, it's okay to acknowledge that you've been through a lot together--provided that it's done with the right tone. The key is to convey that in the battle of life, the two of you are on the same side. Never, ever should it sound like the relationship is the battle, and the two of you are on opposite sides.

The safest way to nail a shout out is to keep this in mind: Any long term relationship has components of want, need, and commitment. The "want" part is the most complimentary of the three. If you keep the focus on this aspect, you'll have the least chance of going astray.

You can't go wrong with, "Life has thrown a lot of stuff our way. But there's no one else I'd rather have on my team. The two of us together can tackle anything!" Unless, of course, you'd really rather be tackling the new nanny like Ben Affleck. But if that's the case, you've got way bigger problems that how to construct a shout out to your spouse that won't end up backfiring on everyone.

If you'd rather focus on the "need" or "commitment" part of your relationship, there are ways to do that if you're very careful. When your focusing on the "need" part of what keeps you together, it has to be a deep and sustaining one, not a superficial and/or insulting one. You can say, "I couldn't have made it to where I am today without you." But you cannot say, "I would have left you a long time ago, but I really need your paycheck."

When it comes to focusing on your commitment, you want it to sound like you'd gladly make the same commitment again today, if given the chance, and not like your serving a prison sentence. Do say, "The best decision I ever made was to share my life with you." Don't say, "I made a promise and I'm keeping my word until death releases me from this living hell."

To borrow a phrase from the movie Super Troopers, the common theme here is "Same team! Same team!" You want to convey that you need your significant other because she is an invaluable member of your personal team of two; or that you're committed to your relationship because you want to be together, not because you're stuck with one another. Get the difference? If you do, congrats! You're way ahead of Ben Affleck.

Nailing the shout out to your spouse might not win you an Oscar, but it could earn you two things that are much more valuable: (1) a spouse who feels loved and appreciated rather than slighted and embarrassed, and (2) people around you who admire the kind of partner you are, rather than wondering whether you're really an A-hole in private.