Is the Marriage Vaccine Dangerous?: A Response to My Critics

Ironically, my article about not criticizing in marriage has engendered a hailstorm of criticism. I welcome this opportunity to discuss the issues raised in a respectful way. I trust that my critics and I share the same goal: to promote successful, flourishing marriages, although we disagree about the means to that goal.

First, I must point out that the Facebook page – with 219 mostly condemning comments – posted just the story at the end of my article, completely out of context. Had people read the full article, they would have seen that the suggestion to refrain from criticism was addressed to both husbands and wives, and had no misogynist overtones as those responding to the story without the full article inferred.

The main point of contention is whether refraining from criticizing one’s spouse is tantamount to stifling open communication in a marriage. As one comment declared:

I don’t think just stopping criticism is the answer. Bottling up your feelings is not a good answer. Going on a criticism fast will not be effective unless you find a healthy way to express your needs. The woman in this story went through so much emotional pain just because she couldn’t find the words to say, "I feel upset and hurt because of your planned trip to Atlantic City. Can we talk about this?" That isn’t criticism. That’s expressing her needs. …

The Torah says, "rebuke your fellow Jew" and in the very next passuk it says, "don’t bear a grudge." The way not to bear a grudge in your heart is by speaking up and communicating, and in a loving relationship with open communication, there should be plenty of room to express your concerns if your spouse is making a decision that you find upsetting.

Or as another commenter put it:

This story isn’t doing any service to anyone. The woman is repressing her feelings. Her husband is buying her off. Criticism isn’t the same as expressing a negative. 

Criticism is not the same as expressing a negative? But isn’t that exactly what criticism is – expressing one’s disapproval about a person, action, or situation? The dictionary defines criticism as: “the act of passing severe judgment; censure; faultfinding.“

So, the real question in marriage is: What do I do with my negative judgments about my spouse’s behavior, appearance, or ideas? Does “good communication,” which is crucial to a marriage, mandate expressing my negative feelings to my spouse? Does choosing not to say what I’m feeling constitute repression, which will only lead to resentment and an eventual explosion?

Does “good communication,” which is crucial to a marriage, mandate expressing my negative feelings to my spouse?

The right to express one’s feelings is a sacrosanct value in modern Western society. But what if your feelings are negative? What if the husband feels – truly feels – that the wife spends too much time on her iPhone? Should he tell her so? What if the wife feels – truly feels – that the husband wastes too much time watching sports when he could be spending that time with her or the kids? Should she tell him so?

Harville Hendrix, America’s marriage guru, innovated Imago Relationship Therapy and appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show 17 times. His bestselling book, Getting the Love You Want, sold more than 4 million copies. In his introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of the book, Hendrix makes a startling admission. In his original edition of the book and in the thousands of workshops he gave worldwide, Hendrix advocated that if you feel anger, you should express it to your partner in an exercise he called, the “Full Container.” At the same time, he taught a method for the partner to listen to the expression of anger with compassion. After twenty years, he realized that expressing strong negative feelings was actually disastrous. As he wrote in the Introduction to the 20th anniversary edition:

At the time, we believed that this catharsis would reduce the amount of tension in their day-to-day interactions. The opposite proved to be true. We discovered that the more couples practiced the exercise, the angrier they became with each other in their daily lives.… As I explain at length [in the new chapter], we now believe that eliminating negativity is the most powerful way to transform a love relationship. [p. 10]

After twenty years of counselling and training many thousands of couples, Hendrix concluded that “eliminating negativity” is better than expressing it.

Eliminating negativity is better than expressing it.

The Torah actually prohibits negative speech, even if it is true. Speaking about another person (lashon hara) alienates both the speaker and the listener from the person being spoken about. Speaking words that hurt the person you are speaking to (onaat devorim) alienates the criticizer from the criticized and vice versa. There is indeed a commandment to "rebuke your fellow Jew rather than hold a grudge in your heart. However, the parameters of giving proper rebuke are carefully delineated by the sages. Rebuke must be given privately, and be specific (not, “You never…” or “You always…”). The person rebuked must feel helped rather than criticized. But already 1,500 years ago, the sages said no one knows any longer how to rebuke properly, so the mitzvah of rebuke can be rarely properly fulfilled.

A male commenter on the above site quoted a statement attributed to the Chofetz Chaim, "More than we have lost the ability to hear criticism, we have lost the ability to deliver it."

This Jewish approach limits the vaunted ideal of “open communication.”

So, if we don’t express our negative feelings, is there no alternative to repressing them? How do we do what Hendrix calls, “eliminating negativity” if we don’t express it? (Hendrix presents his own exercise in the rewritten chapter of his book.)

Every person must first be aware of his/her feelings. Repression is physically and psychologically harmful.

Next, every person must take responsibility for his/her feelings. As any cognitive therapist will explain, your feelings are the result of how you frame the situation. If you frame the situation differently, you will feel differently. Blaming your spouse for your feelings may feel empowering, but it denies your innate power to choose a different, healthier, more connecting outlook.

Next, one must introspect and question one’s motive for expressing negative feelings to one’s spouse. Usually the motive is to change the spouse’s behavior. Or it is payback for having been criticized by him or her for the same thing. As mentioned in the original article, criticism never works to change anyone. No one changes in the long term because one’s spouse has pointed out what one is doing wrong. Rather, it leads to arguments, distancing, and often – divorce.

Despite many commentators alleging that the story was made-up or was written by a man or even a rabbi, the story is a true story written by the wife.

Let’s take a look at the story that provoked such fury. (BTW, despite many commentators alleging that the story was made-up or was written by a man or even a rabbi, the story is a true story written by the wife.) Her husband of two years wanted to go to Atlantic City with the guys for a friend’s bachelor party. The wife wrote, “My husband and I are very careful not to go out at night without each other too often.” (Several commenters erroneously wrote that the couple had decided NEVER to go out at night without each other. But that was not so.) The wife was upset. She believed that Atlantic City is no place for a married man without his wife, plus he would be out all night. And the following day was their anniversary. The wife was “furious.” The husband, on the other hand was “so excited” by the upcoming trip.

The wife, who is a member of my marriage webinar, had undertaken as an experiment to do a “criticism fast,” which means not to criticize her husband at all for a month. Many members of the Kesher Wife Club discovered that when they stopped criticizing their husbands, their husbands felt safe to open up to them more and showed them more affection. So, this young wife was committed to not criticizing her husband’s choice to go to Atlantic City. She probably was aware that if she told him how she felt, he would cancel the trip, and then he would feel resentful and she would feel guilty.

The next morning, he came home and caught a few hours’ sleep. “When he woke up, I was puttering in the kitchen. I resolved to hold tight to my criticism fast, because I knew this argument could get very ugly and ruin our anniversary.”

This is where criticism between spouses usually leads. The criticized party either gets defensive or counter attacks. Criticism never breeds closeness.

When she felt capable of stating how she felt without anger or rancor, she stated her feelings, after first giving him a chance to talk. I smiled at him and asked him if he had fun. I listened to the entire story of his night before I expressed to him how I felt, in the nicest way possible, without criticizing him. I said, ‘I missed you last night. I felt very lonely sleeping in this big bed by myself, and I feel very uncomfortable with the idea of one of us being out all night.’”

Because she stated her feelings while refraining from criticizing him, she got a positive response. “He right away apologized, and told me how he perfectly understood and would be more considerate next time.” No arguments, no proving who was right, neither of them grabbing the moral high ground. After that, they celebrated their anniversary in a mood of love and mutual respect.

Many of the commenters either disbelieved that the story could really end so well or disdained that her husband gave her his gambling profits to buy new clothes. “I’ll take the opportunity to speak my mind over new clothes any day,” wrote one woman. Her husband was not “buying her off,” as another commenter wrote. Rather, this wife saw that the results of her experiment with the criticism fast was that her husband showed her more affection and generosity. She wrote, “It was actually the best day we have ever had together since we got married!”

The marriage improved. When either spouse stops criticizing, marriages always improve.

Perhaps my critics are confusing suppressing women with working to suppress one’s own yetzer hara (lower self) – the greatest accomplishment for all women – and men.

One section of the article that drew heaps of scorn was the idea that a person trying to change an ingrained behavior pattern should chart his/her successes and reward the body. “The idea that a grown woman should have a chart where she marks off her ability to keep quiet and rewards herself is appalling to me.” Others labeled it a device to suppress women.

Actually, the method of charting and “rewarding the body” is a proven technique from the School of Mussar founded by Rav Yisrael Salanter. This technique has been practiced for almost two centuries by the followers of the Mussar Movement, some 98% of whom are men.

Strangest to me is that the majority of comments condemned my article as a brazen attempt to suppress women. I myself am a strong-minded, very expressive woman, and the advice was directed to both men and women. Perhaps my critics are confusing suppressing women with working to suppress one’s own yetzer hara (lower self). Since my first trip to India in 1968, I have been working on myself, systematically trying to overcome anger, hatred, and all forms of negativity. I am far from getting there, but I know that this is the greatest accomplishment possible for all women – and men.

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