The Burnt Chicken Lesson for a Great Marriage | Dr. Meir Wikler

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).

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  1. Gosh I really hope people don’t have marriages like that. If that situation occured in my house and I talked to my wife that way or my wife talked to me that way we would have much deeper rooted problems then one of us being defensive on the reply to the other one being fuming over burnt chicken. We would be both be researching divorce attorneys because that seems like a very, very unhappy marriage. This situation here sounds like the marriage of first graders.

  2. Dovid, unfortunately it is more common than u think, way more common than u would expect. Dr Winkler is not making these things up. This type of situation he probably deals with on a regular basis.

  3. If these situations are way more common then people think then it is a very, very sad state of affairs of what a yiddishe home has become. It would definitely help to explain why there are so many issues with children nowadays. That is a shreklech home to be raised in and all the advice and tips don’t help the fact that these people are mechusar major middos and have serious fractures in their relationship. You don’t need scotch tape and epoxy, you need to restart from scratch and make these people into mentchen.

  4. Dovid, I wonder what your wife would say. Mr Winkler’s example is spot on. In a marriage where both spouses feel comfortable sticking up for themselves, things could escalate quickly and in marriages where one spouse just swallows it all, that spouse is being a abused. If it is the pettiness of fighting over chicken that you are “laughing” it, rest assured Mr Wikler’s intention was to use something petty and have you apply to more heavy duty things

  5. I have no idea what your point is. Anyway, I asked my wife and she agreed 100 percent. We are both very, very happy not be such an immature and babyish marriage like that. It sounds so pointless and soul sucking. Neither one of us would ever engage in a conversation like that, that’s just no way to talk to anyone let alone a spouse. Just awful. Fuming over burnt chicken, ribbeno shel olam. Being appointed to watch chicken roast like a child with a task, the whole thing sounds like a marriage of 5 year olds, not one aspect of any of that story or dialogue sounded at all like the way matire adults would inter6woth one another. If it is how they are engaging then they have seriously deep issues going on between them and being on the defensive is the least of their problems, why they are talking down to each other and being condescending and just generally treating each other like garbage would probably be a good place to start.

  6. I conpletely agree with Dovid. The chicken example is so petty and ridiculous, its hard to figure out how he means we should apply this to other bigger scenarios. This burnt chicken story is just a matter of bad middos and immature selfish personalities. Anyone with good middos would say

  7. Woops sent too early. I meant to write that a couple with good middos and who care for one another would never have such a conversation.
    “Oy the chicken looks a little burnt”
    “Oh my Im so sorry I got so busy and totally forgot about it!”
    “All right well nothing to do about it now, its probably not too bad. Ill just pull off the outer layer”

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