Hopefully, you realize that you are not the only one with negative feelings. Just as there are things your spouse does which bother you, there are things that you do which drive your spouse absolutely crazy.
In order to complete the communication loop so that messages are properly sent and received, it is necessary for both spouses to learn how to listen to negative feelings without becoming defensive. This is much more difficult than learning how to express negative feelings effectively. As a rule, we all find it much easier to become angry and vent our annoyance than to listen to someone who is irritated with us. Nevertheless, for a marriage to succeed, each spouse must be able to hear the other’s complaints without defensiveness.
Being defensive means speaking and acting in ways that justify or condone your own actions. It is a way of defending yourself against the accusations of your spouse. Excuses, rationalizations and even “explanations” are all forms of defensiveness. Another very destructive type of defensiveness is mounting a counteroffensive by attacking your spouse in response to his or her criticism.
“I only meant to …,” “Do you know why I said that?” and “Well, you’ve done the same thing to me plenty of times,” are all common examples of defensiveness.
What is wrong with being defensive? Isn’t it a good thing to “set the record straight”?
No, it is not. When you start listing all of the reasons why you should not be blamed for some misdeed, you signal to your spouse that you are only concerned with being vindicated and you are not at all concerned about your spouse’s feelings.
Suppose you were put in charge of keeping an eye on the chicken in the broiler. And you goofed. It burned. Your spouse comes into the kitchen sniffing the air and says, “I smell smoke. Is something burning?”
You reply, calmly, “No, there’s nothing burning. The chicken just got a little too well done.”
“Well done?” your spouse fumes, looking at the crispy, black chicken in the broiler pan. “You call this well done? It’s burnt.”
“Oh, come on, don’t be so fussy,” you say trying to downplay your error. “It’s just the spices on top that got a little black. There’s nothing wrong with the chicken. I love it like this.”
“But I specifically asked you to keep an eye on the chicken so it wouldn’t burn. How could you let this happen? You may like the chicken cooked this way, but I hate it like this. Why weren’t you more careful?
“Look, I didn’t deliberately spoil your dinner. I was distracted by a phone call. As a matter of fact, it was your mother who called and I was trying to calm her down about receiving the flu shot. Come on, let’s eat. I’m hungry.”
Yes, you made a mistake. But, no, it was not the end of the world. And, no, it was not worth getting all worked up about. But if your spouse is disappointed that the chicken was cooked longer than expected, by trying to defend yourself, you are downplaying your spouse’s feelings. Your spouse will get the impression that his or her feelings do not count, are not important and, as far as you are concerned, are not worthy of consideration.
In short, defensiveness on your part only pours grease on the fires of your spouse’s anger. It makes your spouse feel unheard and disregarded.
So how should you respond to criticism? What is the non-defensive reply to negative feelings?
The most effective way to listen is to acknowledge the reality of the situation and reflect the negative feelings. You might say something like, “Yes, the chicken did get cooked longer than you wanted. I know you asked me to keep an eye on it for you and it is not the way you like it. Now you are annoyed with me for ruining your supper.”
Many people would find it difficult to take such full responsibility for their actions. They would be fearful of their spouse rejoining with, “You are absolutely right, I am annoyed! So why weren’t you more careful?!” And then they would anticipate an escalation of the anger and resentment.
While that is true in theory, in practice it simply does not work that way. Once you have acknowledged your spouse’s feelings and accepted responsibility for your actions, you would be surprised how quickly the hostility subsides.
But are you never allowed to present your side of the story? What if you believe the matter was blown out of proportion? Can you never challenge your spouse’s perception?
Of course you can. And you should. But not right away. As Chazal taught, “Do not appease someone when his anger is aroused.” (Pirkei Avos 4:23)
Tomorrow is soon enough to “set the record straight.” If you wait until tomorrow, your evidence will be given far more careful consideration because it will not be evaluated under the influence of a hot temper.
Hold on here, you are thinking. If my spouse is upset, then he or she needs to know the reasons for my actions right away. In order to properly evaluate what happened and react appropriately, my spouse must be able to understand my motivation and all of the extenuating circumstances surrounding the episode. Right?
Wrong. In order to assign blame or to pass judgment, your spouse needs to take all of the extenuating circumstances into consideration. But if your spouse needs to vent hurt feelings of frustration or disappointment, the extenuating circumstances are totally irrelevant.
Now let us return to the burned — excuse me — the “overly well-done” chicken. If the spouse who neglected to turn off the broiler in time were in court and sentencing was about to take place, then all of the mitigating circumstances would need to be evaluated. But if the proceedings were being conducted at home and the other spouse was merely venting feelings of dissatisfaction and disappointment, then defensiveness would be out of order. Furthermore, defensiveness would only frustrate the disappointed spouse even more by convincing him or her that no one is listening or truly cares.
Dr. Meir Wikler is a noted psychotherapist and family counselor in full-time private practice with offices in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Lakewood, N.J. This article has been reprinted with permission of the author and publisher from Ten Minutes a Day to a Better Marriage: Getting Your Spouse to Understand You by Dr. Meir Wikler (Artscroll, 2003).