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I watched a young woman lift her crying baby from the stroller at the airport. Her husband began to fold the stroller up for stowing, and she said, “You don’t have to fold it up, yet. Not until we’re at the plane.”
He stopped, puzzled, but pushed the empty stroller along. “We should get some bottled water,” he suggested.
“No, I just want to get to the gate,” she said, jostling the baby to quiet her down. “They’ll have water on the plane.”
Again, a little more defeated, he fell into step with his wife. “Do you want me to try?” he asked, reaching for the infant.
“No way,” his wife said. “That’ll just make it worse.”
I hear banter like this all the time. One partner suggests an idea, and the other one shuts them down. Sometimes it’s brusque, sometimes it’s just matter-of-fact. But it always has the same result: The silenced partner feels diminished, unappreciated, disrespected and unloved. Sooner or later, those feelings are joined by resentment and depression.
And let me be clear—while this example shows a woman being dismissive, by no means is this fault more typical of females: Men and women can both be to blame.
It’s easy to fall into this critical trap, especially if you like to be in charge and micro-manage your world. First of all, it doesn’t sound like out-and-out criticism. You haven’t called anyone a nasty name, after all. But let’s look at the scenario again.
The husband decided to fold up the stroller. This actually makes sense, to more quickly navigate crowded walkways. But the wife had a different idea, and wasn’t flexible enough to allow for more than her own plan. Then, when he suggested getting waters, she dismissed it as a waste of time. Finally, when he offered to help quiet the baby, she slammed him with the message that he was inept.
Imagine how that husband would have felt if the wife had simply buttoned her lip and let him take care of the stroller himself. Is it really worth having an opinion about when to fold a stroller for storage? And then what if she had said, “Good idea,” to his bottled water suggestion? After all, flight attendants are busy and can’t always provide water when every passenger wants some. Finally, when he offered to help with the baby, she could have let him! Or she could have said, “Thanks—I appreciate that. Let me try a little bit longer, though. Maybe in a few minutes.”
These kinds of responses are team player responses. They don’t divide a couple into You versus Me or Boss versus Employee.
Every one of us, the world over, likes to feel appreciated. Kindness warms our hearts, and respect builds bonds. Yet so many marriages begin on the road to disaster because this one aspect of the union got neglected.
Soon after the honeymoon, most couples settle into the dance they will do for the rest of their lives— the adjusting to daily life that every couple has to face, including habits and quirks, preferences and styles. Sometimes we make delighted discoveries, sometimes we have to choose our battles and decide if it’s really that important how someone else folds the towels.
But inevitably there will be moments when a critical thought forms in our minds. How can she like that stupid TV show? Why does he put his socks on that way? And soon any departure from the way we do things seems wrong. We decide those variances are little nicks in the surface of our placid life, and need to be fixed.
We all know what’s wrong with our spouse. Some of us keep a running list. Still others drag the list out from time to time for an inventory, reviewing our mate’s progress. Marriages take work, we tell ourselves. So here’s a to-do list our partner will surely appreciate. Right?
Wrong. Most of us are guilty of criticizing the person we once thought was our dazzling ideal. Hearts pounding, we made vows and imagined the wedded bliss ahead. And then reality arrived along with things we never noticed before. Or challenges we’d never experienced. Even without big trials to navigate, many couples fall into discourteous discourse like the airport couple.
Let’s look at the wife. It could be she grew up in a critical home where she heard little else, and was never taught better manners. It could be she’s harboring resentments under the surface, and straining to keep even this civil a tone when she really wants to explode over unresolved issues. It could be that she’s simply given up on the dream of a great marriage, and gotten lazy about how she speaks to her husband. As for him, maybe he’s been treated this way all his life, and this is just more of the same. Or perhaps he’s tried to reason with her but she’s unwilling to make any effort, so he has resigned himself to being constantly disregarded. It could be any number of things.
So here’s a challenge that, like Mission Impossible, you can choose to accept, even if it sounds a bit crazy. I’ve tried it and can testify that it never fails. It works. Every time. Whenever you open your mouth to correct your spouse, stop and formulate a compliment instead.
It’s so easy to criticize, to become negative. It takes discipline, creativity, and love to do the opposite. When you see your spouse putting the pie plate in the wrong cupboard, say, “Thank you for unloading the dishes.” When they get lost driving, say, “I know you’ll figure it out—you always do.” And when he offers to get bottles of water at the airport, say, “Why didn’t I think of that? We’ll probably need them.”
Now turn this around and imagine living with someone like that, who only sees the good in you, who thinks your ideas are brilliant, and your heart is good. If you think you have no annoying foibles, you really are dreaming. And wouldn’t we all love it if someone gave us the benefit of the doubt when we make mistakes? How stressful would it be to constantly walk on egg shells, living under the fear that we’re going to blow it again and feel like an idiot? It’s hard to feel a spark of desire for such a taskmaster, either.
But when we feel that blanket of acceptance—and even admiration—something magical happens. We want to please that darling person who loves us so much. We want to find out where the pie plates are actually kept. We want to be able to laugh at ourselves when we get lost driving. We want to make our spouse happy and comfortable. We want to return that generosity of spirit, that level of kindness.
I see my husband do this all the time. Here’s just one example. Bob will go outside to fix a sprinkler, wrap up a hose, whatever—and I will forget he’s out there and lock the sliding glass door. Soon I will see him pantomiming that he’s dying of thirst, or running from a burglar (he plays both parts), and I’ll start laughing. He easily forgives what would make many others blow their stack. And then he reminds me how many things my brain is juggling and how easy it would be to forget here and there. Truly, there is no excuse, not even my ADD, but he is quick to forgive and even remind me that I am not losing it.
As the spouse who is turning it inside out and giving a compliment in place of a criticism, guess what else happens? You learn how trivial most things are, how truly unimportant all these picky little issues actually stack up to be. Does it really matter if you go to the 5:45 movie or the 6:30? If he wears work shoes to a party is it honestly the end of the world? Or if she lets the pans soak for an hour, does this have eternal importance? If he wants to fold up the stroller now, will it honestly spoil the trip?
You also develop the wonderful habit of looking for the good and giving honest praise, a trait we’d all like to be known for.
This one simple technique—well, simple to explain but not always simple to do—can have an immediate effect on your marriage. Even if you only try it for one week, you will notice dramatic improvement—in both of you.
And let’s go back to that airport couple for a moment, and look at the one person we haven’t addressed yet—that baby in the stroller. Do we want that child to grow up in a home filled with disapproval and constant correction, or in a home where love shines and people know they’re appreciated? This Marriage Miracle can impact families and future marriages for generations to come.