Many of us have a favorite aunt or uncle. Why are they our favorites? Because they always have something nice to say to us. “Oh, you’re so special.” “You’re the prettiest!” Or, “I always knew that you would amount to something big.” These compliments are music to our ears and are instant pick-me-ups to get us through the vicissitudes of life. It therefore goes without saying that compliments in a marriage make the union much more sweet and pleasant.
The reverse is also true. We intensely dislike criticism. If our partner is always finding fault in us, it severely dampens the enjoyment of being together. Constant criticism generates a dislike of spending time together which, understandably, is a severe blow to marital success.
We all know this equation. Compliments are great; criticism is a downer. So, how come in the average marriage the ratio of criticism to compliments is 80/20 – if we’re lucky? Since praise and accolades cost us nothing, why are we so stingy with our compliments and why does criticism flow so freely from our lips when we know that it’s so destructive to the mood of the home?
Let me share with you a simple secret to explain this puzzling dynamic. We complain and criticize naturally when something is wrong or is missing. For example, a husband walks into the home and trips over the laundry strewn on the stairs, and then he walks into the kitchen and, instead of seeing the table set for dinner, he sees the cereal bowls not cleared away, he then wrinkles his nose in disgust from the smell from the leftover pots and pans from last night’s dinner. With exasperation, he calls out to his wife in an annoyed tone, “What did I walk into? The city dump? Is it too much to expect a little order and something to eat at the end of a hard day?” Another example. A wife goes out shopping to the butcher, who accosts her “Mrs. Schwartzkopf, you have some nerve walking in here with the size of your bill. Please don’t come again unless you bring a check.” She then goes to the grocery who similarly assails her in front of other customers. “When will you have the decency to pay at least some of your overdue bill?” She then goes home to her husband and attacks him. “My mother warned me that you’re a loser. Why can’t you bring home some money? I’m embarrassed to go out of the house.”
Now, let’s examine the flip side. A husband comes home and the house is spotless, the aroma of a freshly brewed cappuccino and the smell of freshly baked rum cake wafts through the air. Does he gush lovingly to his wife, “What an unbelievable homemaker you are?” No! He thinks that it’s expected. After all, he works a long day. Likewise, if all the bills are paid and no collection agency calls are haunting the family, the butcher runs out to offer the choicest slice of meat and the grocer has the order waiting with a smile, does the wife come home and say, “What a special man you are!” These things are expected and it was “part of the deal.” In short, we are motivated by that which is missing or wrong to criticize and complain but we have no such natural motivation to compliment. We need to be self-motivated to do so, realizing that it simply makes the home a sweeter place to be. Furthermore, in Torah terms, it is a fulfillment of “V’ahavta l’rei’acha k’mocha – Love your fellow man/woman like yourself.” For, just like we covet compliments and praise, we should offer them to our spouse.
This balance between criticism and compliment is referred to in the verse, “Yeish boteh k’madkores chorev u’lishon chachomim marpeh – There are those who utter and it’s like the piercing of the sword, while the tongue of the wise is healing and soothing.” I heard from Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, zy”a, that many spouses, upon visiting the gastroenterologist, find out that they have multiple stomach ulcers. Often, says Rav Miller, this comes from the shrewish tongue of a marriage partner, whose multiple naggings and criticisms act as a dagger to the stomach lining causing much ulceration.
So, the smart husband and wife will develop a vocabulary of praise such as “I admire this about you,” “What a wonderful thing you did,” “How lucky am I to be with you,” “How smart I was to marry you,” “It’s a pleasure to come home to you,” “You make life worthwhile.” The more you do this, the better you will get at it. One thing more: it’s important that praise be sincere and not mere lip-service, as we taught, “Divray emes nikorim – Words of truth are recognizable.” In the merit of accelerating the compliments to our life’s partner, may Hashem bless us with long life, good health, and all kinds of sweetness.
Sheldon Zeitlin takes dictation of, and edits, Rabbi Weiss’s articles.
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