The idea of "constructive criticism" for your spouse, or from your spouse, seems like a euphemism at best; and a guaranteed fight at worst. Therefore, we feel the need to wade into these murky waters with you for the purpose of helping to clear the waters of this idea so that you can have a better marriage than you ever dreamed possible.
As with most of the things we write about, these topics usually come from a client's question or something we are working through. This one came from a question. We get asked some form of this question fairly often, but the most recent iteration sounded like this;
What do you do if you have “constructive criticism” for your spouse? People do things differently and if you see somewhere where things could be improved upon, how do you share that information with your spouse without offending them?
This is a great question for us to answer, but is more nuanced and complex than you might originally think. Each of the topics below will factor into whether you can offer constructive criticism to your spouse, as well as your chances of accomplishing what you are hoping for.
We talk about timing in marriage often. There is a time to play together and a time to be serious. There is a time to joke and a time to share somber family news. And there is a time to offer constructive criticism, as well as a time to avoid any kind of criticism. Timing is important.
One way to assess timing is to understand whether or not you can currently and reasonably expect your spouse's full attention. If your spouse is in the middle of a project, wait for a better time. Maybe your spouse is processing some serious or unsettling events from the day, or week, or maybe your spouse is simply tired, too tired to give you their full attention. If this is the case and your spouse cannot reasonably give you their full attention, then you are doing both of you a favor to wait for a more opportune time.
Furthermore, one of the most important things you can incorporate with regards to timing is learning to ask. This can be as simple as saying, "There is something important that I need to run by you, is this a good time?" Asking a question like this allows your spouse enough control over the timing that they will less likely feel surprised or caught off guard. This will result in a better outcome for both of you. Lastly, on the subject of asking, if you and your spouse are not used to affording each other the courtesy of asking, this may feel awkward at first. Because this would be unusual behavior for you to ask permission to talk about something important, your spouse could respond in an unusual way as well. This is fine. Just stay consistent with asking because doing so will eventually become the norm.
Wayne Dyer once said, "Attitude is everything, so pick a good one." We agree. If you are hoping to put your spouse into their place with what you think of as “constructive criticism,” it likely will not turn out well — for either of you.
One way to think of attitude is to learn ways to think the best of your spouse. This means that if your spouse is due home and running late, you can choose to think they might be stuck in some traffic, or the opposite, that they may have made an unscheduled stop at a friend's house to avoid being with you. The first scenario has you offering concern for your spouse by thinking the best, but the second scenario will have you adding four-letter words to their name by thinking the worst. If you have a choice in how you view your spouse, and most of us do, always adjust your attitude toward thinking the best.
Our individual preferences may seem like they are out of place here, but I can assure you that is not the case. Let me explain.
Let's say, for example, you like to keep your nightstand clean and tidy. The only thing you think belongs on the nightstand is a lamp and maybe your phone, but only if it is because your phone is currently charging. Your spouse, on the other hand, keeps a box of Kleenex, some spare reading glasses, a notepad and a pen for late-night inspiration, some keys, a cough drop or two, and several other things you don't recognize. In this scenario, you might offer "constructive criticism" to your spouse because you believe that they need to think of their nightstand more as you do and keep it tidier. This would be a great example of each spouse having individual preferences. If you are able to recognize your “constructive criticism” for your spouse to be merely an issue of your own preferences, then you are more likely to see your concerns as a suggestion for your spouse, rather than a demand of your spouse. Your spouse will be more likely to see it this way too!
Tone, much like attitude, is something you have control over that can make a big difference in how you communicate things to your spouse. An easy example is a spouse who apologizes by adopting a sarcastic tone and saying the words, "I'm sorry, sheesh.", but does not mean it at all. On the other hand, someone who apologizes in a soft and sincere tone by saying, "Goodness, I am so sorry for my actions a minute ago. That was uncalled for and you did not deserve that from me," is someone who understands the importance of tone when talking to someone as important as you, their spouse.
There are two things about expectations that make them very difficult in a relationship. The first is that they are usually unspoken, meaning that your spouse is often unaware of your expectations. And the second is that your expectations of your spouse are often unrealistic, meaning that expecting your spouse to deliver on them will leave you both disappointed and frustrated. We have written a full article on expectations here. You are the one that needs to manage your expectations.
We use the term "relational equity" to refer to the current balance in your relationship bank account with your spouse. Is that balance in the positive because you have made a lot of deposits lately, or is your relationship account currently in the red with a negative balance because you have both had to deal with some difficult things lately? If your relationship account is currently in the red, please re-read the section above on timing and choose to wait for a better time. If, on the other hand, your current relational bank account is overflowing, you are in a much better position to offer your constructive criticism or to receive it.
The term "constructive criticism" can mean different things to different people (and at different times). This makes all of this feel more like a landmine than a nice warm blanket, but if you learn the six skills in this article you will certainly stack the odds in your favor. Be gentle. Be smart. Be loving.
Lastly, it was somewhat by accident that these topics form the acronym TASTER, but if that helps you to remember these ideas (and have a better marriage), that works for us!
If you have any comments or questions about this post, we would love to hear from you using our contact page here.
By Brad & Tami Miller. Copyright © 2021