I meet a couple of friends each morning to work out. Inevitably, the conversation turns to the guys complaining about their wives. This makes me very uncomfortable, so I try to change the subject. What constitutes legitimate “letting off steam” — and what is downright degradation?

Tom: There is a very fine line between the two, and it takes great care not to cross it. And yet, while the line is fine, the difference is profound. One builds up our spouses and marriages, and the other denigrates both. And a thoughtful person usually can sense when the conversation devolves into something it shouldn’t. (And, of course, we should point out that this issue isn’t gender-exclusive.)

Usually, when someone complains about a spouse, he or she doesn’t stop to think about the impression this paints in the mind of the listener. Think about it for a minute: As a husband, hopefully a man knows and appreciates all the great qualities of his wife. However, his buddies may not know about these qualities. Some of them may not know his wife at all, except for the things he tells them. In other words, a friend’s perception of a man’s spouse may very well consist exclusively of the things he has told him. Now, if a man only refers to his wife when it is to complain about her, what kind of shrewish mental image is he constructing for his friends? In their minds, after enough conversations, she may sound downright horrendous. The Church calls this the sin of “detraction.” As Father John Hardon, whose cause for canonization is under way, wrote in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, detraction is “revealing something about another that is true but harmful to that person’s reputation.”

Since in marriage the two are one, and called to grow in perfect love for each other, detraction is particularly offensive when committed against a spouse.

Caroline: Are we suggesting that you can never, ever share anything negative about your spouse? Of course not. Marriage is hard work, and no one has a perfect spouse. There may be times when you’re really struggling and you’d like the counsel of a wise and trusted marriage veteran. Or maybe you’d just like to talk and let someone listen. We believe those cases are best handled privately, one-on-one, with a close friend, family member or spiritual adviser. If you are torn because you really want the prayers of your friends, you can state your intention in less explicit terms. For example: “I’d like to pray that my wife and I can come up with a good game plan for household responsibilities.” And leave it at that. A simple prayer request is so much more beneficial to the body of Christ than a complaint like: “My wife nags me constantly about the yard and it’s driving me nuts!”

So what should a person do in this kind of situation? Be the leaven for your friends. Be bold! The next time the conversation takes a downward turn, speak up and say that you’re not comfortable with constant “spouse bashing”; then interject a positive comment to turn the discussion around.

The McDonalds are family-life directors for the Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama.