Marriage without criticism

When I was young back in Texas, I used to drive with my parents to visit my aunt and uncle. They had been married for many, many years, and like most members of the World War II generation, they stayed together through the years, regardless of endless conflict and unhappiness.

I watched dumfounded as my aunt leveled my uncle with withering sarcasm and criticism, enumerating his various inadequacies and failures. Amazingly, my uncle deflected her with a quiet “Now, Margaret” and went back to reading or tinkering with a project. It eventually dawned on me that their pattern was set: she criticized him and he tuned her out. Much of their time together had become ritualized and meaningless. It seemed strange to me then–and it seems strange to me now–that the people we love the most are also the ones we criticize and attack the most.

Having children very often brings up tension in marriages. As mothers feel stressed and worn down by the care and maintenance, they need their husbands help with housework and child care, and they may want more emotional support as well. What is meant as a plea for help can sound to a husband as harsh criticism, and conflicts can escalate as the criticisms become more personal: “You don’t care. You come home and want to turn on the television and space out, while I do all the work. Why don’t you take a look in the mirror and see how lazy you are?”

Criticism erodes the loving trust that keeps couples together. It wears us down and creates defensiveness and anger. It will arise in almost every relationship, and how you deal with it can make the difference between healthy relationships and troubled ones. Both men and women criticize their partners, but for different reasons.

Men usually criticize their wives to diminish them, to “put them in their place”. A man like that is feeling a lack of power or love and appreciation in his life. So, he attacks his wife. Some men take out their inadequacies and frustrations this way. They feel weak and “feminine” and it scares them, so they put down their woman to feel better. Criticism like this is a form of abuse; it is completely unacceptable, and a man who repeatedly does it is less than a man. Men should take a strong look at their motivations for criticism and the effect criticism is having on their marriages. For men, criticism often comes from self-loathing.

What about women’s criticism? Some women criticize to hurt their men because they feel hurt and under-appreciated. A sharp tongue is their best weapon. However, most women I know criticize or “nag” for a very different reason: they are actually trying to help their men. Of course, we men don’t know that. What we experience is that our wives are trying to change us. And nobody likes to be changed; we want to be the one who decides whether we’ll change, so we resist or tune-out any effort to change us. Men who get negative messages too often from their wives may become alienated, shamed and angry, and they may refuse to even listen to criticisms, much less make needed changes. That, in turn, may make a woman even more frustrated and increase her criticism.

Most married men want two things: more sex and less criticism. But underneath these is something more basic. What men want most from their women is appreciation for what they do. Men want to feel that they’ve made their women happy and that they are a success story–heroes even–with their wives and families.

What men hear too often, however, is how far they are from pleasing their wives, whether it’s housework, hygiene or communication. Every man no doubt needs to make changes to become stronger and better, but think about it: how many women try to change and improve their mates? It’s probably over ninety percent. Now, how many men want to improve their wives? Strangely, very few men try to change their spouses. A man’s attitude is apt to be, “She may be a little messed up, but she’s what I’ve got.” If a man criticizes his spouse it usually isn’t to change her; it’s to wound her.

Women, on the other hand, see their men’s faults very clearly and resolve to clean them up. Even engaged women or newlyweds have a plan somewhere in the inner recesses of their mind to develop their men. In some ways, marriage for women is a giant improvement project. It’s like urban redevelopment of a “blighted area”!

If a man’s smart, he’ll listen to any constructive criticism, because it’s likely to be correct and useful; our women are likely to see us more clearly than anyone else because they know us best. There’s a bonus here as well: truly listening to, and acting upon, a woman’s criticism is the fastest way to get less of it and to become a better person, too.

The task for women is to give honest and helpful criticism, yet show unconditional love for their men. A woman must keep in mind that her husband isn’t the source of all her problems or put on earth to make her feel whole. It’s fine to constructively criticize, but never lose site of the fact that a man is much more likely to change if he feels loved and accepted.

So, if harsh criticism is hurtful, what’s the alternative? Here are some specific recommendations:

  • Instead of criticizing, make a simple request. Make your request loving and specific and tell your husband how much the new behavior would mean to you.
  • After you’ve requested what you want, back off and give your man room to deliver. Men love to feel they’re independent. Never hover around waiting for the changes you want.
  • Present the issue as a problem for which you need help. Ask a “how to” question: e.g., “How do you think we can get all this done?” Remember: he is not the problem–getting the housework or child care done is the problem. Ask your man to come up with options and make suggestions.
  • Make it personal, e.g. “Honey, it would mean a lot to me if you would clean up the dishes on the nights I cook. Would you be willing to take that on?”
  • Don’t call a special meeting to discuss housework or child care; in fact, you’re better off keeping the whole conversation low-key. If you call a special meeting, your man is likely to feel it’s going to be another “relationship talk”, and he will be told what he’s doing wrong. He’ll put up immediate defenses and tune you out or argue with you. Try talking when you are both engaged in another activity, such as gardening or riding in the car.
  • Above all, don’t belittle or criticize our man for his failings. Build on all the great things he does, rather than criticizing all he doesn’t do.


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