Some people can never accept a compliment. If someone does try to compliment them, they change the subject, look away, blush, cough nervously or all of the above. Sometimes they even try to disqualify the compliment by making a joke or belittling themselves and/or their accomplishments.
They find it easier to praise others and often do. But when they are on the receiving end of positive feelings, they openly display their discomfort. When someone like this is involved in a committed relationship, such as marriage, his or her partner will be put at a distinct disadvantage.
It is beneficial and even necessary to be able to express positive feelings to your spouse. If your spouse is someone who is uncomfortable with compliments, however, you will be blocked from being able to communicate your positive feelings. As a result, you will have no way to offset the negative feelings which you will inevitably need to convey.
Danielle and Avi had reached the boiling point in their marriage. For the first time in their 19 years of marriage, Avi had used the “D” word (divorce). Avi had always considered himself happily married and was even surprised to hear himself utter it. Danielle was devastated.
Avi had a much easier time asking for help than Danielle. In fact, it was Avi who came to me first, without Danielle, just “to figure out what was going on” between them. When they were seen together, they each readily acknowledged their communication difficulties and eagerly agreed to enter marriage counseling in order to learn how to improve their marital communication skills.
Significant, long-standing in-law and parenting conflicts practically melted away as Avi and Danielle learned how to speak and listen to each other more effectively. At that point, Danielle timidly complained during one of the counseling sessions that she was finding it difficult to come up with topics to discuss at home when it was her turn to speak.
“This would be a good opportunity for you both to practice expressing your positive feelings to each other,” I suggested.
Avi was delighted. Danielle squirmed in her seat. I cautioned them both that it might require some practice and recommended they begin in my office.
Avi volunteered that he always felt frustrated by Danielle’s discomfort with praise. For that reason, he jumped at the opportunity to be the first speaker.
“I really admire how well you manage our home and take care of the kids,” Avi began, enthusiastically. “Whenever they go out, they always look so neat and well dressed. Some kids you see on the street seem poorly taken care of but I always feel proud of how our children look.”
Danielle’s face was visibly flushed. She started giggling nervously and then turned to me. “He is only saying that now because you told him to.”
“Dr. Wikler may have instructed me to praise you now,” Avi countered, “but those are my true feelings.”
Turning to Danielle, I observed, “It seems that you are not comfortable hearing someone compliment you.”
Danielle then revealed that she grew up in a “European” home where children were never praised directly. Her parents would sometimes praise Danielle and her siblings to neighbors or other relatives. It was considered “spoiling” children, however, to offer them any direct approval. “If we did not get punished or scolded,” Danielle explained, “it meant we were well behaved.”
Two weeks later, it was Avi’s turn, again, to practice expressing his positive feelings to Danielle. “I really enjoyed your delicious home-baked challos this past Shabbos,” Avi said with a smile.
“And you especially liked the fact that you did not have to stand in line at the bakery this week to buy challos like you usually do,” Danielle replied, playfully.
“And I also enjoyed…,” Avi kept going.
“One minute,” I cut in. “Avi, do not continue to praise Danielle with a second compliment if she has not properly accepted the first.”
“What did I say that was wrong?” Danielle asked, somewhat defensively.
“You made a joke out of Avi’s compliment,” I pointed out. “Even though he laughed and was willing to continue, you still used humor to deflect his appreciation. If you ever want to achieve greater closeness in your marriage, you are going to have to learn how to accept Avi’s positive feelings without being so uncomfortable.”
“I want to. But it is difficult for me,” Danielle confessed. “How can I overcome my upbringing?”
“You simply have to practice listening to Avi’s appreciation while you are making a deliberate effort to avoid deflecting his positive feelings. That means you should not change the subject, make a joke or avert Avi’s compliments in any way.”
It took another few weeks of communication exercises, both at home and in my office, for Danielle and Avi to achieve a relative comfort level in expressing their own and listening to each other’s positive feelings. And when we met for our termination, or wrap-up, session, Danielle acknowledged how she felt about this aspect of the therapy.
“When you first asked us to express positive feelings here in your office, I thought you were out of your mind. And I thought to myself, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this.’ But, then, I thought a lot about what you said — that my being unable to accept compliments hurts Avi — and I decided to trust your judgment.
“Now that we’ve been expressing positive feelings to each other for the past few weeks, I see how important this is. I see how you were so right. This positive feelings business adds a dimension to our relationship that I never thought possible — And, yes — we are much closer, now.”
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).
Thank you. That was a beautiful article.
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