One criticism a day! Who am I kidding?

I had seven criticisms today just from one of my husband Steve’s grocery shopping expeditions. Of course, I believed that every comment was crucial to his shopping education. Luckily, he was in a good mood and simply agreed with most of what I said and let the rest float by him.

Steve is generally easygoing, but when he’s not, our relationship could definitely benefit from the “one-a-day” rule. This rule is especially important for those of us who reflexively criticize or instruct our partner as a habitual way of responding in relationships when we’re under stress—which may be a great deal of the time, even if we’re not aware of it. If we practice limiting ourselves to one criticism a day, we will think more clearly about what really matters in our marriage and let the rest go.

My best “Let the rest go” lesson was a vacation Steve and I took to Mexico some years back. On this trip we agreed that we would not speak one word of English, not to each other nor to anybody else.

Because I was equipped with a very small Spanish vocabulary, I had to learn to settle into silence, because even a simple comment to Steve would have required me to consult the dictionary. Obviously, I lacked the grammar for elegant complaints such as, “If you had only been thoughtful enough to let me know how late you’d be, I would have preferred to meet you at the Cathedral.”

Realistically, I can’t suggest that you and your partner forgo your native tongue for a while so you can experience how many of your criticisms-- to say nothing of your good advice and little corrections--can go by the wayside. Just take my word for it: One criticism a day is sufficient. Figuring out which one matters most is a good exercise. Start just with the weekends, and see how you do.

Some couples really can tolerate a great deal of criticism. You’re lucky if you have a partner who feels so solid, calm and good about himself that he can let your criticism and negativity slide by him much of the time, and consider the good points you are making without distancing or shutting down.

But once couples move past the honeymoon or “Velcro” stage of the relationship, such Zen-like forbearance is a rare commodity. Many fine people can’t tolerate much criticism or instruction from their partner, even if they truly appreciated it at the early stages of the relationship when they felt valued and chosen. If you want to increase your daily quotient of critical comments and corrections, you need to also increase your positive, loving ones, so that the latter outnumber the former by the divorce -busting 5:1 ratio.

The habit of criticism is hazardous to any relationship. If you take away just one thing from my book, Marriage Rules, let it be this:

No one can survive a marriage (at least not happily) if they feel more judged than admired.

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