How could being nice to our spouses ever hurt anything? I’ll rephrase.
It’s the things we think are nice that sink relationships in the long run.
As poet, T.S. Eliot, wrote, “Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.” Here are three well-meant remarks that wind up wasting marriages:
1. The automatic “Yes, dear.”
Ah, the plight of the long-suffering martyr. You love your spouse so much you’d do practically anything for him or her — no matter how much it grates on your nerves. In the face of disagreement, you’re certain if you grit your teeth and force out a “yes, dear,” goodness will prevail, all in the name of chivalry. That’s how they did things in the good ol’ days … right?
While conceding to your spouse in some matters is a great way of avoiding needless arguments, avoid the role of the voiceless “yes man.” Husbands and wives both need backbones to keep their marriages stable. Couples who continually forgo hashing out their grievances often put off the illusion of getting along, but unresolved disagreements and pent-up frustrations eventually take their toll, eroding intimacy as irritations fester.
Remember, marriage isn’t for martyrs. It is for partners. Have a voice. Compromise. Agree to disagree — but do it lovingly.
2. Misguided or insincere praise: “You’ve never looked better,” or “I loved it (cringe).”
Your wife spent six months after your first baby working her fanny off (literally), and you’re a big fan of the results. In your excitement, you say something like, “Honey, you’ve never looked better!” Or, in sadder news, maybe hubby tried throwing you an adventurous romantic pass that “fumbled.” Disapproval would embarrass him and squash his romantic motivation, so when he asks your thoughts, you cringe and blurt out, “I loved it!”
In the first scenario, your sincere praise feels really good to your wife — as long as she’s thin. But when baby number three comes along and the weight just doesn’t come off like it did before, your once flattering comment haunts her as she mourns the death of the body you favored. In the latter scenario, insincere praise might leave you adding something to your romantic playbook that you’d rather have left out.
Consider your praise carefully. Are you setting the bar too high, dooming your spouse to a lifetime of trying to match or outdo old triumphs? Or are you setting the bar too low, dooming yourself to a lifetime of pretending to like something you don’t?
3. The innocent insult: “I feel like you’re __ .”
You’ve seen enough romantic comedies to know that every good couple argues nicely by using “I feel” statements. They’re called I-messages, and we often pair them with a practice called active listening — validating our partners by repeating back what they’ve said and expressing understanding. Often, we hear it go something like this:
Wife: “You haven’t been helping me with the dishes. I feel like you’re being inconsiderate.”
Husband: “I understand what you’re saying. You’re right, I’m being inconsiderate.”
Then, the couple kisses passionately and walks, hand in hand, into the sunset … Unfortunately, that’s not how this pans out.
Just because you sprinkle a potentially insulting criticism with a sugary “I feel” doesn’t mean your spouse will graciously swallow it — and rightfully so. “I feel you’re being immature” is really no less hurtful than “you’re being immature.” And while your spouse can understand you until you’re both blue in the face, you’ll notice that those dishes are still sitting in the sink, acquiring a lovely fur coat.
Use “I feel” statements appropriately — to talk about your emotions, not to label your spouse as unfair, silly or irresponsible. Instead, address specific behaviors that bother you, finding fault with actions — not your spouse’s character (e.g. I feel stressed out when you don’t help with the dishes because…). Remember that, while understanding each other is a good starting point, the only true way to address issues is to empathize and then take action to repair hurts.
Let your inner voice be heard. Praise your spouse in meaningful, non-intimidating ways. Avoid sneaky labels, and remember, those dishes won’t wash themselves.