By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Criticism, Poison to a Marriage
By this point, the following statement is probably self-evident, but because it is so important, and it literally can be the make or break of a marriage, it needs to be spelled out explicitly: Criticism is one of the greatest enemies of shalom bayis, and the cultivation of emotionally healthy people for that matter. In particular, a woman is extremely sensitive to criticism from her husband, even if it is not direct criticism. Even something that you would just consider to be constructive feedback or sharing a good idea, she may take as biting criticism.
Particularly when a man does not intend to be critical, and he really is just trying to help, he can become bewildered by the sharp, negative reactions that he may receive from his wife. Understanding what is going on, then, is crucial. So, what is the reason for this? Why is it that women can take their husbands’ “innocent” critiques so very hard? Why is it that even when husband is just “telling her a good idea on how to improve this that or the other” or just asking an “innocent” question about the way she does something that she may have such a negative reaction?
The Steipler writes, and this is another one of those major klalim that you need to sear into your mind, “The primary hope a woman has in her whole world is that she should she have a husband who loves her, and if she sees that this is not so, it is practically a situation of pikuach nefesh because of her intense pain and sorrow over her lonely state as if she were a widow during her husband’s lifetime.” Furthermore, the Chazon Ish writes, “The nature of a woman is to take pleasure in the favor that she finds in her husband’s eyes.”
It is fundamental to realize that pleasing her husband is the uppermost, primary concern for a woman. Practically everything she does, she does to please him. To make him happy. To care for him and give him that which will sustain him and provide for all his needs. Even in those things that she does that are not immediately or directly for the sake of her husband there occupies a primary place in her mind the thought, “I hope my husband will be pleased with this.” Ultimately, her whole life and everything she does revolves around her husband. For that reason, whenever she senses his displeasure, no matter how slight, she takes it hard. Very hard. To hear a word, or even just a hint of criticism or disapproval from him is to feel like her world is crashing down around her. Everything that she lives for is evaporating before her eyes in an instant. She feels bereft of the most important thing she needs in life: her husband’s love, appreciation, and validation.
This description may sound totally surreal to a man. Partly, that is caused by him finding it difficult to believe the statement of the Steiplerupon which this reality is predicated. And partly it is caused by wondering in bewilderment, “Why should a momentary criticism cause such turmoil? How can one moment undo endless hours, days, months, and years of a solid, loving relationship?” The answer to the first issue is simply that if you do not understand it now, you will see that it is in fact such a basic reality when you start to progress with your efforts to improve your married life. The second point is a result of not having yet come to terms with the fact that emotion is not rational. You cannot explain to an emotion that the way it is feeling doesn’t make sense. Emotion does not work with logic, and as mentioned above, women function primarily with the power of emotion. For emotion, all that exists is the current moment, because this is how it feels right now. Everything else is irrelevant.
No, that does not mean that all of your past, positive experiences with her are gone and lost forever. On the contrary, women are often far better than men, precisely because of their emotional nature, at recalling their past experiences. Because of this, they can even remember things down to the finest details such as what color bow they were wearing at their siddur party. After the crisis blows over, the relationship can quickly reassume its overall positive, character; depending on how the mistake is negotiated.
What it does mean, though, is that right now, in the moment, she may not feel anything but your disapproval; and that can be excruciatingly painful to her and burn to the core. It can quite literally be a traumatic experience for her. A trauma that does not just blow away with the wind.
Now, imagine a woman would experience multiple moments like that on a day-to-day basis? What do you think that is going to do to her? That there are so many women who in fact do live with such a horrible reality is a major testament to the incredible strength of Jewish women. We men cannot begin to fathom what they are going through. A woman who regularly hears critique from her husband, or even just “innocently placed good tips and ideas”, is suffering a pain that could reduce us men to ashes were we to endure it. And if you don’t believe that Jewish women are in fact that strong, just think about childbirth. It is hard to imagine that there is nary a man who could go through such an experience and come out alive, let alone be happily willing to go through it again multiple times!
However, their incredible resilience does not take away from the fact that they are also very delicate and sensitive. It is one of those wonders of creation. A woman who lives with a husband who is regularly pointing out to her things that she could be doing better is suffering. How much more so if her husband is a truly critical guy; if he is not just “innocently popping some good pointers”, but actually speaks with a critical tone, then her yissurim are literally norah v’ayom. She may not have to go to gehinnom at all because she is getting it here in olam ha’zeh. Rachmana litzlan.
If you are not yet married when reading this, consider yourself extremely lucky. As mentioned in the previous installment, men have a tendency to be very critical with their wife and children, and they have a tendency to notice everything. As such, the average guy who does not make a concerted, deliberate effort to overcome this tendency may well wind up subjecting his wife to gehinnom on Earth. Not good. Not good at all. That’s why you are extremely lucky; because you can start right from the getgo ingraining this self-control and good habit into yourself. It will be that much easier for you to achieve this. Make no mistake, though, it will not be easy.
But it’ll be a lot easier than if you only start to correct this flaw after months or years of doing it wrong.
But even for those of us who have been doing it all wrong for a long time, there’s no reason to despair. Hashem will help you if you give it your best. Even someone who has in fact been subjecting his wife to gehinnom on Earth for countless years can do teshuvah and mend his ways. He’ll have to work hard, but if he really means it he’ll get there. And women, G-d bless them, can be very forgiving. So don’t give up. Not only because there is no excuse to continue doing an issur no matter how long you’ve been doing it, but also because you will succeed. Work hard, be sincere, employ concrete changes that will ensure improvement, and Hashem will help you. Sure, you might stumble a lot along the way, but in the end, with Hashem’s help, you’ll reach you’re goal.
On a practical note, any time you are about to point something out to your wife, stop! Think about what you are about to say. If it is a good idea how something can be done better, a pointer about how to improve this that or the other, and certainly if it is actual critique, don’t say it! Just bite your tongue (hard if need be) and leave it.
Instead, find something positive to say about what she did. A word of praise or appreciation.
This will be very difficult at first, but you can do it. Over time, it’ll get a lot easier. If you do this, in addition to getting the tremendouszechus of treating your wife well and having a wonderful marriage, you are also going to have the amazing benefit of growing into a pleasant person who makes everyone around him feel good and that people love being around. You will become a builder; someone who builds up everyone that comes into contact with him. Remember? Marriage is a people grower. You shteig so much from doing the right thing in marriage.
Disapproval vs. Personal Taste
In the context of this discussion about criticism, it is important to note that there is a significant distinction between disapproval and personal taste. Let’s elaborate on this a bit. Take the following example. You come home for supper and see that your wife is still bathing the kids. Punctuality is important to you, particularly when your stomach is growling, and you say, “Why don’t you start the bedtime process thirty minutes earlier?” Even if you say it in a completely non-accusatory tone, you have just expressed disapproval. She takes this very hard. Particularly in that moment. You could not have chosen a worse time to say it. Here she is, probably exhausted and at the end of her patience-rope trying to get everything done so that she can serve you supper – and for all you know she may have started an hour earlier than normal but one of the kids threw a tantrum, another tossed something down the toilet that clogged it, and a third suddenly remembered to do their homework – and you just broadcast to her one thing, “No good!” That is how it hits her. And it hits her hard. Very hard. That is an example of disapproval.
Now let’s give an example of personal taste. Supper is quinoa-mango soup. It does not agree with your palate. At all. “How’s supper, dearest?” Assuming your relationship in general is good and both you and she are in a good mood, you could say this: “You know, this soup is really something! How did you manage to get such a smooth, creamy texture? And the blend of colors is really striking. Did you ever take culinary courses? This looks like a dish that would be served in a fancy restaurant!” She’s no fool. “So, you don’t like it?” At this point, you could say, “You know, I don’t know what it is about me. I must have such immature taste buds, because seriously (and say it in a genuine tone of voice) I would expect to see something like this in a gourmet cookbook.”
You see the difference? You are not expressing disapproval. You just happen to have a personal taste that doesn’t agree with what she made. And you’re saying it in a way that only utilizes expressions of genuine praise for her and self-deprecation for you. Although she will obviously be disappointed; after all, she put so much love and effort into trying to make you happy and it didn’t work, she won’t be hurt and insulted. Because it is not a matter of your disapproval, it is just your personal taste. She didn’t do anything wrong. On the contrary, she managed to make a dish fit for a king; just it happens to not agree with your palate.
For good measure, if you are going to tell her on the spot, you ought to add in, “Dearest, thank you so much for trying so hard to please me. I really appreciate all the effort and tremendous amount of love that you put into making this for me.” When you say these words, make sure to look her deeply in the eyes and really mean it. (It goes without saying that such words should certainly be regulars when she does make something you like).
It may be nicer, though, to wait until tomorrow to tell her. You could fudge the truth now for the sake of her feelings, and then casually bring up your little “it was amazing gourmet but my immature taste buds unfortunately couldn’t appreciate it” speech a different day. It may soften the impact a bit. Whether you go with the on-site approach or wait-a-day approach will depend a lot on the particular dynamic of your relationship and your wife’s particular personality. In any event, you should never ever say you don’t like it if either one of you are not in an upbeat, good mood. In that situation, you must fudge the truth now for the sake of shalom.
Just to make this point abundantly clear, were you to have said something like, “You know, if you’d let it cook longer, or add a bit of cumin…then it would have come out much better,” that would be expressing disapproval. Don’t do it; even if you are convinced that it is true. It will only damage. A lot. Don’t worry, she’ll eventually figure out your taste buds real well. Both through trial and error, and through directly querying you on what your preferences are.
One of the absolute worst things you could ever say to your wife is, “Why don’t you do it like this, that’s how my mother does it.” Chazalrevealed to us that the natural disposition of mother-in-law to daughter-in-law and vice versa is one of hatred. That’s right, hatred. Even if they appear as loving towards one another, there may very well be a natural, automatic hatred that rests deep in their hearts which is undetectable to others. Not to say that they cannot overcome this tendency. But to ignore the baseline nature is playing with fire. Even without this revelation of Chazal, though, it would be elementary to realize that a woman is very sensitive to whether or not she is “measuring up” in terms of the care that she is providing for her husband. Telling her or even hinting to her that her performance falls short of what you used to get from your mother is like a serrated dagger straight into her heart. As much as you need to avoid expressing critique and disapproval in general, you have to be exceedingly careful to never ever express this type of comment.
Once on the topic of in-law relationships, it’s k’dai to mention that it is also very important to withhold any negative comments about your wife’s family, even if you are convinced that they are deserved. This is true even if she started complaining to you about them. Aside from the fact that such a conversation is very likely to be a violation of lashon hara, if you add in your own two cents, she may well get upset with you! “They’re my parents so I can say what I want. But, you? You’re just plain badmouthing them!” That is often what people are prone to think. As Rav Shimshon Pinkus says, a father-in-law is not a father, a mother-in-law is not a mother, and a brother-in-law is not a brother. You need to be very careful how and what you say to and about your in-laws; both out of the general consideration of bein adam la’chaveiro, and the specific consideration of shalom bayis. The need to praise your in-laws is often greater than regarding your own parents and siblings.
Furthermore, you need to make sure that the delicate in-laws relationships are not interfering with your shalom bayis, from either direction. It can often happen that the involvement of his parents or her parents can cause problems. Obviously, there is a serious consideration of kibbud av v’eim (again, from both angles), and you need to be careful about how you deal with it. Sometimes, it may be necessary to keep a distance. Whatever the case may be, one thing needs to be crystal clear, once you are married you and your wife are one unit and that unit always comes first. Rav Avigdor Miller emphasized that husband and wife must be 100% faithful to each other. Not only in terms of intimacy, but in every regard. So, for example, if your wife is getting criticized by someone for something she did, you come to her defense. Even if she really was wrong, when you are with other people, particularly your family, you defend her. You respectfully but firmly insist that they immediately desist from their negative comments.
Another illustration of this principle was said by Rav Yitzchak Silver. For example, let’s say that your wife is very uncomfortable being around your family. Maybe it’s your mother, your sister, or maybe even your father. Now, your parents and siblings are expecting you for the Pesach Seider. Their turn is long overdue, “and Bubby is going to be there and really wants to see you and the kids.” You don’t have a choice. You’ll just have to disappoint them. Your marriage and your shalom bayis is the first priority over everything else. Never forget that. Therefore, if there are issues with either your parents or her parents (or siblings, etc.), do not make light of the issue. Immediately speak to aRav or your Rebbi or some other competent person who can advise you on the correct course of action, and follow through with it. Even if something as drastic as moving to a different country is what’s necessary to ensure the health and stability of your marriage, so be it (but don’t make such decisions without being shoel eitzah).
On the Topic of Clothes
This comes up a lot. Your wife just bought something new. As women tend to be, she is quite excited about it. She tries it on for you and proffers the inevitable, “Well, how do you like it?” Hopefully you love it and can honestly answer, “It’s absolutely fantastic! It looks gorgeous on you; how lucky is that piece that you decided to buy it!” But what if you don’t? It’s definitely not going to have a positive effect on shalom bayis if your wife wears things you don’t fancy. So, you are going to have to tell her when you don’t like something. The only question, though, is how.
Now, before we get to that, let’s be realistic, you aren’t going to love every single garment your wife ever buys. There are only a certain number of styles out there at any given time, and the notion that she’d be able to hit the nail right on the head with every single piece is just not realistic. At all. So if the piece doesn’t arouse your disfavor leave it. If it is pareve to you, there’s no reason why you should make any issue out of it. Once you are going to just leave it, why not do it in a way that makes her happy. You don’t have to turn on your maximum effusiveness; that you can reserve for when you really do like what she’s wearing. Nevertheless, at least a “very pretty; I like it” is definitely in order. Don’t worry that it isn’t the truth. There is a mefurasheh Gemara that says that not only is it mutar to do such a thing, it’s a mitzvah. If she’s clever, which women usually are, she may say, “Oh, so you don’t like it. Well, then, why don’t you just tell me the truth?!”
If you tell her point blank, “You’re right; I really don’t like it. Not that I think it’s ugly or anything; just I don’t find anything appealing about it,” she is going to be upset. Depending on how much time and effort she put into it, she may even get really upset. Such a statement can sting a lot; much more than we men may imagine. She is not happy that you told her the truth; not at all. She may even start to quarrel with you over your “too-picky” taste and whatnot. Having just been asked your honest opinion about the matter, it can be quite startling to all of a sudden be blamed and attacked for doing just that! The reason it’s happening, is that she is hurt and upset and she (momentarily only, don’t worry) sees your “refusal” to like what she bought as being the source of her angst. So, she is taking it out on you.
As an important aside, in general when something like this happens, that she gets all upset at you over what you perceive as nothing, realize that if you lash back you are going to defeat your own purpose. After all, don’t you want to be happy? The only way you’re going to be happy is if you have a good marriage. And lashing back, even if you were unjustifiably attacked, is only going to bring you the exact opposite of what it is that you really want. Do you want to be dead-right or do you want to be smart and happy? Be smart and realize that she is just having a difficult moment because of her sensitive emotional nature that is getting her worked up. If you take it like a man and just respond with soothing reassurance, apologies (even if they are completely undeserved), and a bit of patience, the storm will pass and you will have scored it big both in olam ha’zeh and olam ha’bah. A worthwhile investment, don’t you think?
Coming back, often she really does not want you to tell her the truth if that truth is going to hurt her. What she really wanted, at least in a certain sense, is for you to be a better liar! No jokes. She wants you to forever be adoring of and attracted to her. This is an important thing to know about the language of that nation called women. Not always do they say what they mean or mean what they say. That is, according to the rules of our male language. For them in their language there is nothing duplicitous at all about such a manner of expression. You see, in the feminine language there is a massive amount of intuiting going on. Feelings and emotions can be deep and raw. It can be uncomfortable or “not nice” to express certain things outright (for women, that is); so there is a tremendous amount of “reading between the lines” going on. Don’t be surprised. Don’t Chazal say that women have binah yeseirah? Well, they use it in very large measure in the way that they communicate. To a great extent, in the feminine mode of communication it is up to the listener to intuit the speaker’s true intentions. This is actually one of the more difficult facets for men to learn; simply because binah yeseirah was not given to us. Still, we can learn it. Slowly. But it can be done. Keep your antennas attuned for these types of “please intuit what I am really saying” statements; it’ll go a long way in helping you cultivate great shalom bayis.
Coming back, what are you to do, then, when your clever wife sees right through your feigned compliment? As we just discussed, if you do tell her the truth, she may not be too happy. What you should do is keep reiterating with more emphasis that you do think the garment is pretty, and that you do like it. Again, you don’t have to hit your highest octave of enthusiastic approval, but you should increase the degree of emphasis with which you reiterate that you do like it. Whatever you do, do not get impatient and do not get upset; even if she does. Make sure to always stay cool like a cucumber, ride the storm (if there is one) like a pro, and eventually she’ll accept the fact that there are some things you like and some things you love.
What about those instances, though, when it is not pareve? What are you to do when you really don’t like it? You find it decidedly unappealing. If that is the case you cannot just leave it. There cannot be a situation wherein a woman is repelling her husband. That is antithetical to shalom bayis. So you’ve got to tell her, but you have to be a mentsch in how you do it. You have to tell her the truth while at the same time being considerate of her hurt feelings; to try to mitigate and minimize the sting as much as possible. Something like this may work:
“First of all, I want you to know that I really appreciate all the effort you go through to find appealing clothing which is both tasteful and tzniusdik. It really does mean a lot to me. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for you to sift through all the inappropriate pieces out there to find something which complies with the gedarim of tznius and is also attractive. I cannot even begin to describe to you the tremendous schar you get for the zechus of this amazing mitzvah. It gives great nachas ruach to Hashem when a true Bas Yisrael such as yourself behaves in this correct manner. I am so, so very proud of you. Regarding this particular garment; I think it is very nice and it shows that you have excellent taste. That being said, for some reason it doesn’t carry personal appeal to me. I hope you are not too upset by that. Honestly, I do think it’s nice and that you have great taste, just for some reason this particular piece doesn’t seem to agree with me. I realize that having to return or exchange it may be a burden on your time. Please tell me what I can do to make it a bit easier. Perhaps helping some more to get ready for Shabbos this week, or arranging babysitting for when you need to go shopping?”
By saying it in such a manner, you are shifting the focus to how much you appreciate her, you are not disapproving of her because it is inherently pretty just your capricious taste happens to not agree with it, and you are offering to help mitigate the inconvenience of having to return it. Most men would probably find such a lengthy “presentation” to be so way over the top as to be downright pandering. This is a major part of marriage, though, as we discussed above: realizing how very different your wife is from you and providing her with her needs according to her unique personality and character, both as a woman and as an individual.
It goes without saying that if you really work hard at overcoming the male, critical nature and instead make compliments and praise the standard fare in your home, it will be that much easier for her to accept the disagreeability of your personal taste when such occasions inevitably arise.
By the way, as long as we are on the topic of clothes, it’s k’dai to point out that even though the inyan of beautification and self-adornment is primarily the realm of a woman vis a vis her husband; nevertheless, a husband also needs to be careful to maintain a respectable appearance for his wife as well. No, you don’t need to stand in front of the mirror for ten minutes making sure you get the knot on your tie just right; but you ought to be particular, for example, to keep your hat brushed. Ditto for not wearing torn shoes, having a scraggly beard, or wearing the same shirt for two weeks. Looking like a shlump, aside from being a chillul Hashem, is not exactly going to make it easy for your wife to feel ever adoring of and attracted to you. Obviously, maintaining proper hygiene by showering regularly, brushing your teeth, and the like is a kol sheh’kein.
 Think about it, men as well, in a moment of anger, can forget everything that was or will be and the only thing that is influencing the person’s thoughts at that moment is the angry feeling.
 If, though, the family budget only allows for such purchases on relatively rare occasions, and the garment can be returned or exchanged, it makes sense that most women really would want to know the raw truth. Still, be a mentsch in how you say it. Perhaps something like, “First of all, I want you to know that I really appreciate all the effort you go through to find appealing clothing which is both tasteful and tzniusdik. It really does mean a lot to me. The garment is very nice and it shows that you have good taste. That being said, for some reason it doesn’t carry personal appeal to me. I hope you are not too upset by that. Honestly, I do think it’s nice and that you have great taste, just for some reason this particular piece doesn’t seem to agree with me.”