Sailing Relationships with R’ Ali

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QUESTION:  

Dear Rabbi Ali, 

I am gaining so much clarity from your monthly articles. Thank you. I do have an issue that has been bothering me for quite some time. I’m married for 17 years, and my wife has a comment about almost everything I do – the way that I dress or eat, where I go and who I’m with, etc. She gets upset and criticizes me regarding these things and it’s getting worse. Any insights would be greatly appreciated.
 

R’ ALI’S RESPONSE: 

This type of question regarding criticism is a common one  I receive from both men and women. Here, I would like to give some perspective and tips for the reader, as a condensed version of a number of emails I exchanged with the questioner.   

First, let’s talk about the one who criticizes. We should all be aware that criticism is damaging to any relationship and is unacceptable. Acknowledging that you may be too critical or negative is the first step towards minimizing your criticism.  

Frequently I hear, “But I was triggered.” You may have a valid point, but you are not justified in delivering harsh criticism. At the end of the day, we all have free will to decide how we will react to any situation. This doesn’t mean keeping quiet when something’s bothering you. It means you need to find a more appropriate way of expressing yourself than by using criticism. This is similar to what we try to teach children about speaking appropriately. We should aim to learn how to talk things out maturely and calmly. For some people this comes naturally, for others it doesn’t. Don’t feel bad if it’s a challenge for you. With some hard work, you can get it right. 

Now let’s look at  the one being criticized. There are really two issues here, criticism and control. “You’re going to wear that? No way!” is control. “You know you look ridiculous,” is criticism. My general approach to this situation is to state your case kindly but firmly and to stick to the topic.  

Don’t let your spouse’s reaction steer you off course. For example, as a response to the previous critical comments you can say, “I understand that this shirt is not your type, however I’m going to wear it. I like it very much.” When your spouse responds with something like, “I can’t believe you. Why do you have to be different?” Stay on track. “I value your opinion. However, I am buying this shirt.” 

As for criticism, it can come in a different form such as hurtful words or a put down. These should be handled in a different manner. If critical remarks happen only once in a while, and it’s clear that it’s because your spouse is in a bad mood when it happens, the best thing to do would be to ignore it and move on. It is hard, but very doable. However, if the criticism is a constant, you should let your spouse know how you feel. You can say, “It hurts me when you speak like that.” Stating how you feel (an “I” statement) and not shifting the blame onto your spouse is the safest and easiest way to get your message across in a non-threatening way.  

Some people will let their spouse know that they are hurt, however it will come across as an attack. This approach won’t accomplish anything. Remember, the goal is to put a stop to the criticism, not to vent. It’s very hard to debate an emotion. If you are clearly stating how you feel versus what they did wrong, there’s not much to talk about. Even if it seems like your spouse rejects what you have said, most likely the message got across.  

You may need to repeat this message a few more times. However, from my experience it almost always works. Of course, your timing and your tone is important and you will have to figure out the best way to say how you feel and when to say it.  

This tip works for the most part if it is done right. The hard part is resisting the emotional roller coaster. Don’t take the bait of entering into an argument and you’ll be fine. Your spouse will eventually accept your decisions.  Remember it’s a balance of being both kind and firm. The firm without the kind won’t work out too well. If we’re patient and persistent, with Hashem’s help we’re sure to have smooth sailing relationships.