The answer should be clear. What, then, can I do to cause my spouse to understand my discomfort and to change, without having my criticism erupt into a full-blown fight?
Towards this end, we must train ourselves to answer the following questions correctly:
1. Does every mistake my partner makes warrant a critical reaction on my part?
2. When is criticism called for?
3. How shall I express it?
Let us examine this:
1. NOT EVERY MISTAKE WARRANTS CRITICISM
Your spouse fell short? Don’t hurry to react. If this is a one-time deficiency, your criticism will do more harm than good. If this is a repeated flaw and it really bothers you, you are justified and even advised to criticize. But you must do so according to the rules in the section discussing proper timing and method.
2. TIMING — WHEN TO CRITICIZE
Every person knows from his own experience that even if he is basically a good person amenable to accepting criticism in order to change and improve, he is nevertheless aware that there are times when he doesn’t have the patience or emotional strength to hear it and bear it. Each spouse must gauge the advisability of the right timing for criticism, e.g., not when the spouse has just arrived home or when s/he is in a rush. Wait a bit until s/he has calmed down and is relaxed. Don’t present criticism in frequent doses.
This causes: 1. A depletion of strength on the part of the one who is criticized and nullifies the motivation to change and improve. 2. It provokes anger that accelerates and accumulates in the heart of the one attacked, making him/her feel much lower and worthless in the other’s eyes. When despair and anger combine, the result is devastating. Did you make a disparaging remark to your spouse today? If so, wait at least a day before the next criticism, especially if you haven’t thanked or praised them in the meanwhile. It is like putting collateral in an account so that you will be able to withdraw from it. Someone who is always criticizing will reach a high overdraft and have to pay interest, as it were…
3. HOW TO CRITICIZE
It is written: “You shall verily reprove your fellow man — and not bear a sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17). According to the simple meaning of the verse, if you do not reprove your friend when you have the opportunity to prevent him from sinning, you are blameworthy because of it. This includes another clause: You must reprove your friend in a way that you yourself will not sin because of your reproof. If you insult him in the process of your reprimand, you will be sinning against him, and if this holds true regarding mitzvot, how much more so is it forbidden to scold someone for a personal need when the object of your criticism is hurt.
Therefore, even when a wife or husband’s behavior calls for a reprimand, you must look for the right words that apply directly to the issue, while altogether avoiding using hurtful words irrelevant to the matter.
Another important fact is to take note of who is present at the time of the rebuke so as not to “embarrass your friend in public” for whoever does so, forfeits his portion in the World to Come (Bava Metzia 59a).
Don’t forget that your wife is also considered “your friend.” If we try to understand from the psychological viewpoint why a person finds it difficult to hear criticism against himself, and why the one attacked usually retorts in kind, we will discover a simple principle: No one wants to hear that his behavior is not typical. A person wants to feel that he is fine. When he hears criticism, it echoes in his mind that he is not okay. This is immediately followed by a subconscious or conscious thought: What? I’m not okay? You’re not okay! And he will launch into a counterattack so as to defend himself and avoid feeling inferior.
This is why it is important to incorporate these three rules:
1. THE CRITICISM SHOULD BE DIRECTED NOT AGAINST THE PERSON BUT AGAINST THE DEED
For example, instead of saying, “It was not right of you to embarrass me in front of all those people when you said that I don’t help around the house,” you should say, “I felt very uncomfortable when I heard myself being accused, in front of all those people, of not helping at home.” In other words, always state what bothers you, rather than accuse the person you are speaking to. Thus, instead of saying, “You insulted me when you said…” Say: “I felt very insulted when I heard the words…” Don’t say that you are not right or that you are a difficult person; rather refer to the act as being very hurtful to you.
This is the only way to help the person being criticized accept the censure and to be able to compliment them in the future. For after words said in the heat of reproof, such as, “You are a heartless person,” how can you come back a week later and tell him/her that they have a heart of gold?
2. INSTEAD OF USING THE WORD “WHY,” MAKE IT A GENTLER, “I FIND IT DIFFICULT…”
The husband accuses his wife: “Why do you interrupt me before I finish speaking?” Instead of stating the fault, he should use words of a personal nature: “It bothers me very much when I cannot finish what I am saying.” To summarize the above two rules: Instead of opening with the plaintive “Why?” and pointing an accusing finger (“You!”), formulate the sentence focusing on your particular difficulty. Such a message is absorbed better and is far more effective.
3. BEGIN AND END WITH GENUINE PRAISE AND SANDWICH THE CRITICISM IN BETWEEN
For example: “You’re wonderful with the children / in your relationship to me / in organizing the house / cooking / but there’s one thing I wish you could try doing / I am not comfortable with … but all in all, I feel privileged to have such a good wife / I wish upon all husbands a wife as good as you.”
This way, our message has a much better chance of sinking in since we are saying that, “You’re really great, as I’ve just told you, but I do have a problem that perhaps you could help me with…” Our criticism will have a much better chance of being absorbed without causing pain or friction.
Adapted from 'Happily Married – The Complete Guide to a Successful Jewish Marriage' by Rabbi Zamir Cohen. Click Here to Buy Now