A few days ago, I made a post about how it is important not to censor or shame our partners in public. Today, I came across this post in "The UnWed Community" (link below) where the author wrote about seeing a conversation in a supermarket over milk where the wife said to her husband, "no, get this one not that one" and then threw in, "it's called saving money." The author wondered aloud if one of the reasons men often resist remarriage is that they are tired of this kind of repeated disrespect. I guarantee you that she is on to something.
As many of you know, I had a brief second marriage to a person I still admire in many ways. The primary reason I chose to end it was because of her volcanic temper. However, a strong and related reason was that I was exhausted by her constant criticism and running commentary on everything I did. "Honey, you parked crooked." "Why did you use two washcloths [to clean the counter]. I only use one." "You know that diet soda is just as bad for you as sugar soda right?"
I could literally go on and on with examples. But, with few exceptions, after a weekend at home, even if there had not been a volcanic outburst, I was exhausted by the constant criticism and commentary and could hardly wait to go back into the office on Monday to have a break from her. But that's all wrong. I want home to be the place I find peace and respite from my job. I don't want the workplace to be the place I go to escape the turmoil and self-image beat down at home. So, yeah, I guarantee you that a lot of men are not wild about the idea of remarrying because they got tired of condescending criticism in their first marriages.
If we want marriages to succeed, particularly second or third marriages, we have to be willing to examine our own selves. If you really step back and look at it, you know it's not okay to make sarcastic comments insulting your partner's intelligence--in public or private. It is small minded and petty. This person you are now insulting is the person who chose you, who may have fought for you, and who agreed to join his or her life to yours. Do you think he or she would have made that decision if they knew they were signing up to be the victim of constant little insults and slights? Those small abusive comments are not simply throw away lines. They matter. After years or decades of this, they can add up to serious trauma.
One of the great women I dated and almost married in my mid-single years comes to mind as I think about this. I chose not to move forward after I met her parents. They were mostly nice people. But there was something shocking in the way her mother treated her father. He was a kind, soft spoken man. But, it seemed like his wife thought everything he had to say was stupid. When he would make an ordinary remark or observation in the conversation, she would look over and glare at him. He would instantly become very apologetic and act very embarrassed. Sometimes he would put his hand over his mouth as if to say, "There I go again saying something stupid and out of place." The irony in this was that the wife, who thought she was so much more socially adept than her husband and needed to rein him in, was actually the one making the other people in the conversation uncomfortable. Now, it may not be entirely fair to make judgments about a person from the way her parents interact. But seeing how her mother treated her father, combined with sometimes controlling and condescending remarks she directed at me, I was not inclined to move forward.
John and Julie Gottman write about "The four horsemen of the [marriage] apocalypse." These are the four things that signal the end is coming. Two of those four are criticism and contempt. Contempt is simply treating your partner like you are better than him or her. It is making condescending or mocking comments. It is treating your partner like he or she is stupid.
You may feel that you can insult your partner in a kinder way and that makes it okay. It doesn't. It just doesn't.
Let me be clear on something. You can only be responsible for your own conduct. Your constant nagging did not cause your former husband's affair (for example). Many men and women endure a lot of criticism without seeking comfort through another partner. But, while you are not responsible for your former partner's contribution to the discord in your prior marriage, you must be responsible for your own part. If your own part was criticism or contempt, you now have an opportunity for growth.
If you have a tendency to be critical or make condescending comments, I have a few suggestions that might help you in future relationships:
1. Breathe deeply and let go of your need for control. People can be just as addicted to control as to alcohol or tobacco. I promise you, the world is not going to hell in a handbasket because you stopped directing traffic for a few minutes. (I know, I'm mixing my metaphors.) You will find more peace in your relationships and in your heart when you let go of the need to run everything.
2. Pause. When you feel the impulse to correct your spouse in one way or another, pause and ask yourself whether it is actually going to contribute something valuable. If it's not, bite your tongue. Perhaps it would have been okay if the wife in the attached essay had said, "I usually get this kind of milk because it's cheaper. Is there a special reason you wanted the other kind?" That is more respectful, less demeaning, and allows for the fact that her husband might have some ideas or preferences too.
3. Practice the golden rule. If you are inclined to make snarky comments to a partner, try to pause and ask yourself how it would feel to be on the receiving end of the comment. Imagine if that same wife who complained to her husband about the milk came home excited about a new pair of shoes and her husband said, "You could have gotten something just about as good at Ross for half the price. It's called saving money." A lot of husbands have ruined their marriages with such comments, repeated in various ways over years. If you want a new habit, perhaps you need to try to bite your tongue every time you feel like lashing out for awhile. Perhaps you should try not to say anything critical or "helpful" for 40 days and 40 nights to break the habit.
Friends, mid-single life is a great time to reevaluate how you show up in relationships. Are you showing up as the know-it-all who has to constantly correct your partner because he or she always does it wrong? Are you worried that if you take your hand off the steering wheel for one second your partner is going to crash the car? Do you feel the need to constantly give your partner suggestions for how to improve? If you were like that in a former marriage, it is a near certainty that you will be that way in the next one unless you use the power of intention to shift your thinking to a more peaceful way. It is worth doing the work. I promise it is.