“The Bold and the Beautiful: Dealing with Criticism in Marriage”

Dave and Anne diagonal

I’ll say two things from the “get-go” of this weeks marriage blog: 

1. Criticism can be healthy. 
2. Critical people are cancerous.

A relationship that lacks communication, or the wrong kind of communication, is an absolute way for a husband and wife to end up as roommates and not spouses.  Communication is one of the most important ingredients in a marriage.  I call it the “oil of the marriage engine.  Can you imagine going out to lunch with a good friend but saying very little to one another?  Better yet, imagine those same two friends doing nothing but criticizing the other—it’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?    Sadly, some marriages are filled with this type of dysfunction; and it’s tolerated and it’s toxic.

I grew up having a hard time with criticism.  I knew I hated it but didn’t realize till later in life some of the reasonings why. One of the biggest contributors is that I am a “words of affirmation” guy.  I thrived on encouragement coming from my parents, friends, and authority figures.  But just as much as I fed off of edification, criticism broke me down.  I wasn’t understanding the necessity or the reasoning behind it. 

It seemed that friends of mine could take criticism well and even grow off of it yet, for me, it cut me to the bone.  For a time, being one of the smallest boys on a large football team had me, on one hand, living with a chip on my shoulder and trying to prove myself and my place on the team.  But on the other hand, while watching older and more gifted players getting yelled at, caused me to be paralyzed by fear.  If they weren’t good enough, what does that mean about me.  It wasn’t till the breaking point of my senior season, where I discovered that I had been living in a sinking abyss of fear. After a devastating loss, one of our team captains called me out in a team meeting. “If we were as dedicated and practiced as hard as Barringer, we’d be undefeated.” I’d have to admit, it might have been the first time I had heard ANY encouragement from a teammate.  It shocked me and it changed me.  I looked at my teammates, captains, and coaches different. From that point, I not only walked with confidence, but when criticism came my way from the captains or even the coaches, I no longer felt broken down. What made the difference? Two things: First, I understood I was a valuable member of the team.  Feelings of insignificance took its toll on me and my play on the field. Second, I caught the heart of teamwork, care, and cooperation behind the team I played with.  If I was valuable, then the criticism was actually encouragement.  I’ll say it this way:

Healthy criticism is never separate from encouragement because they are intertwined. They co-exist.  To have one without the other only invites death. 

handling-criticism

Criticism is sorely misunderstood and misused, especially in marriage. 

There’s such a huge difference between the two statements we started with.  But because of the abuse of criticism, the lines are blurred.  You have some marriages that desperately need the help that constructive wisdom can help.  Without it, spouses keep their marriages on the spinning carousel of confusion and frustration.  Yet on the other side, a critical tongue has been used so many times to tear down spouses.  I’ll give it to you in the form of a TRUTH

The best way to let your spouse know how deficient they are is to critique everything they do.

It is inevitable in marriages that spouses will, at some point, have things about each other that need to be expressed.  Certainly patience, kindness, and humility should be exercised to the greatest degree possible.  NOTE: Not every on of your spouse’s imperfections or shortcomings needs to be vocalized.  However, there are legit moments in which the best course of action for the relationship is to convey a grievance regarding some  behavior or issues.  Unfortunately, many people approach such discussions in a way that leads to conflict – which exacerbates the problem.

But what I discovered as a member of the Stevenson Titans, is very applicable today.  People struggle with criticism in their marriage because: 

1. They don’t feel a part of the marriage “team”.  Decisions are always one-sided.  Feelings are never taken into account.  One person enjoys dominating life while the other feels insignificant.  Team means you work together.  The two become one and act as one. Does your spouse feel like you are a team?  Don’t answer for them.  Ask him/her.

2. They have never caught the heart of unity, care, and cooperation behind the marriage/team. With communication breakdown, you really don’t know where your spouse’s criticism is coming from.  If your spouse never hears encouragement/edification from you, your criticism does nothing but break them down with nothing to build upon.  I learn that I can’t just work out a muscle.  I need to eat protein.  Working out rips apart the muscle and the protein builds it up to be stronger. 

No one really likes to be the object of criticism.  No one enjoys having their faults pointed out to them.  There is no guarantee that your spouse will respond favorably when approached with a complaint.  In fact, it’s a natural reaction to respond with some degree of defensiveness.  This notwithstanding, if a criticism is presented in a caring, constructive manner, it’s very likely the potential of a positive response and outcome are increased.

Here are some ideas to help regarding constructive criticism in your marriage…

(1)  Timing is everything.  Control your tongue (James 1:26). You have to wait for the right moment. Completely avoid speaking out of frustration or anger.   It may feel right to you because you get to fly off at the handle, but in the end it will do more damage.  Also avoid initiating the communication at a time or in a location that is not conducive to the conversation (i.e. in front of kids, in-laws, parents, etc).  Sometimes a comment is warranted in a moment off need but wisdom needs to be exercised.  It’s often best to wait for a better time when you are in control of your temper, words, and tones and when the setting provides the best opportunity of your comment being heard.

(2)  Refrain from accusations or attack.  Remember to strive for peace (Hebrews 12:14). Be cautious to never phrase your criticism in a way that will intentionally invoke a defensive response.   Expressing your criticism in the form of nagging or griping will NOT be well received.  Name calling or similar tactics are obviously out of the question if you have any hope for a good outcome.  My pastor/mentor always taught me:  “If the tables were turned, how would I want to be approached?”

(3)  Be assertive, but humble.  Clothe yourself in humility (Colossians 3:12). There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking the initiative to address a situation in your marriage.  If you value your marriage, it is a necessity.  It may feel like an undesirable necessity, but it will help avoid future conflict and strife.  Deep down, you must have the right intentions, motive, mindset, and attitude.  You must get control over your emotions and, above all, approach the task with a sense of humility.  Otherwise, your attempts at criticism are doomed for failure and will make matters worse.

(4)  Stand in love.  Love is the only way to walk (Ephesians 5:2). This means you love, respect and esteem your spouse regardless of faults, mistakes, and so forth.  Marriages that are not built on a foundation of the unconditional love of God working through our lives generally will not endure.  This has to be expressed and demonstrated consistently in a relationship, even in the midst of conflict, both spouses can feel safe and secure in moving forward.

Conflict is not fun.  But it’s a part of having two imperfect individuals living in oneness.  Keep working as a team and never lose the heart of Christ within your marriage. 

Thanks for letting me ramble…

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