Last week, our column was dedicated to complimenting our spouse more frequently and scaling back on the complaints and criticisms. This is a sure-fire recipe for a sweeter, more pleasant marriage. This week, I’d like to add a word of caution: Do not try to stamp out criticism entirely from your union. There is a place in a loving marriage for constructive criticism. Let’s consider a verse in Mishlei, from the wisdom of Shlomo. There, he states, “Hochei’ach l’chachom v’yehaveka – Chastise the wise and he will love you.” What a challenging idea. Can a person ever love being chastised? We know that criticism is a downer that leaves us disgruntled, or dispirited at best. How is it possible to love the one who gives you criticism?
The answer is as follows. We are always looking to upgrade the quality of our marriage. We want it to get better and better. But, if we are not told what we are doing wrong, we will continue making the same mistake over and over again without realizing the distress we are causing our partner. If we are told, we can correct this and have a more enjoyable relationship.
Let’s take an example. Chavi is a neat-freak. So, when she sees her husband Chaskel’s desk askew, she straightens out everything into one neat pile. For him this is a disaster, for the clutter on his desk for him represented a certain hierarchy of responsibility. He knew exactly where each paper was and there was reason behind the placement of everything. Now, it’s all messed up. Every time Chavi does this, he gnashes his teeth. “Everything’s all messed up now.” Chaskel, for his part, leaves his dirty plates in the sink without ever running the hot water to clean off the residue to prevent it from becoming solidified. Every time Chavi sees this, her husband’s lack of courtesy and responsibility gnaws at her.
Imagine if they had an apparatus where they could openly tell each other these small modifications in a pleasant and non-confrontational manner. These adjustments would definitely make their shared routine much more pleasant. He would be encouraged to carry his clothes to the hamper instead of throwing them on the floor and she would learn to pick-up his phone calls on the click even when she’s on with her mother. He would shut off the alarm clock more quickly and she would bring the hair dryer to the other side of the house when he’s still sleeping, and the list goes on and on. These benefits and improvements, when spread out over the years of marriage where these small transgressions no longer repeat because of one successful conversation, are cumulatively very successful at enhancing the marriage.
Unfortunately, in many marriages, spouses do not allow themselves to productively absorb these pleas from their mate. Rather, they go into an immediate defense mode and respond irately, “Don’t you ever have anything nice to say?” “You’re always criticizing me.” “You always find fault.” These reactions often come from low self-esteem, where any word of correction is a further blow to one’s weak ego, and is therefore intolerable. Sometimes, what’s helpful is to designate a certain time, perhaps Rosh Chodesh which is a time of renewal, to dedicate a few moments for couples to discuss with one another things that can perhaps be improved. For some, it might even be done via a monthly letter which further ensures that there should not be aggravated repercussions. A letter has the added benefit that one could read and re-read it, considering it in a level-headed manner. One also does not need to save face when privately reading a letter.
What is equally important to mention is that there are times when criticism and complaints are not called for. Moments of intimacy are not an arena for such negotiations. Nor are special nights out with your spouse a time to speak about imperfections. Generally, occasions when the children are around are also not appropriate to have such conversations.
I will close the way I opened. Keep the criticisms and complaints rare and the compliments liberal. Praises and accolades are great sweeteners to our unions. In that merit, may Hashem bless us with long life, good health, and wonderful shalom bayis.
Sheldon Zeitlin takes dictation of, and edits, Rabbi Weiss’ articles.
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