My wife and I are making a concerted effort to improve our marriage. Although she is a wonderful woman and a great mother, it drives me crazy at how negative she’s become over 12 years together. She is often critical about the most insignificant things. I didn’t pick the right pajamas for the kids. I didn’t separate the laundry colors properly. This really bothers me, but jumping all over her for it won’t win me any points or strengthen our relationship right now. Yet how can we improve our marriage while she’s like this?
-Tired of Negative
Ironically, you’re being negative about her negativity! And I totally get it – in my women’s books and conferences I constantly hammer women to ruthlessly avoid criticism and negative words because it is so painful for any spouse… but especially for men!
And since you said your wife is a “wonderful woman and a great mother,” my guess is that she’s not a mean person; she simply doesn’t see how painful her negative words are for you. Or doesn’t see them as negative at all.
If you want to improve your marriage, you cannot depend on her to change. In fact, to break the cycle you will have to try the same no-negativity approach with her that you’d wish she had with you. And in order to control the way you respond to what she says, you’ll have to control how you think about it as well.If you want to improve your marriage, you cannot depend on your spouse to change. Click To Tweet
How do you do that?
Well, it turns out it is a habit of mind. A habit, by the way, that we can apply to any fault in our spouse that is driving us nuts. Because it can be quite impossible to simply “ignore” something that bothers you that much.
As nationally-respected therapist Dr. Michael Sytsma put it in a recent interview, “When you’re trying to work through a very real concern, the more you try NOT to focus on something, the more power you give it.”
I recently asked him how he helped couples address any such situation. If “not focusing on something” doesn’t work, what does? I think his method is invaluable, and you can use it to break your cycle. As he explained:
For example, I look at the couple dealing with an affair. Telling them not to think about this big, obvious, overwhelming thing would be counterproductive — because then it becomes hard NOT to think about it. It is like trying to NOT think about the pink elephant in the room.
Instead, I tell the couple, “When we want to think about the pink elephant, what if we picture a grey African elephant on the savanna instead?”
He then asks them to picture how an African elephant would look … how its tough hide might sound as it brushed through the grass… how it might have a baby trotting alongside. And then he asks the couple if they can picture it. They always say yes. And thinking about the grey African elephant – something healthy, something functioning the way it is supposed to – has taken their minds completely off of the overwhelming pink-elephant thoughts that were consuming them a moment before.
In the same way, I don’t think you can force yourself to just ignore your wife’s negative words – they are there and real and painful to you. Your concern about them is like the pink elephant in the room. But you can choose to instead focus on the things that are healthy, that are functioning the way they are supposed to. For example, when your wife says you didn’t sort of the laundry properly, think about the fact that she does so many of the household chores and the last few things she did to take care of you. And remind yourself that she appreciates you and truly doesn’t realize how she sounds.
This is one way of — to paraphrase the Bible — thinking about what is worthy of praise, rather than what is worthy of driving you crazy. Your concerns haven’t vanished — they are still something that will need to be addressed — but they won’t have the power over you any more. It will be so much easier for you to respond well, and lovingly. And as your wife feels unconditionally loved and appreciated, as your marriage improves, she is far more likely to be willing to hear what you have to say, when the time comes.Focus on what is worthy of praise, rather than what is worthy of driving you crazy. Click To Tweet
Helping people thrive in life and relationships is Shaunti Feldhahn’s driving passion, supported by her research projects and writing. After starting out with a Harvard graduate degree and experience on Wall Street, her life took an unexpected shift into relationship research. She now is a popular speaker around the world and the author of best-selling books about men, women, and relationships. (Including For Women Only, The Good News About Marriage)
Her newest book, The Kindness Challenge, demonstrates that kindness is the answer to almost every life problem, and is sparking a much-needed movement of kindness across the country. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.