“Bringing Out the Best in Marriage,” Ensign, Feb. 1981, 11
A few months ago I joined a group of friends for a long-awaited reunion. We had not seen each other for many years. Many of the group had changed dramatically: some had lost hair, others were heavier, a few were even thinner. It was interesting to note, too, the apparent emotional and spiritual changes.
I was particularly intrigued by one woman. In high school she had been a very shy person, not particularly popular with the fellows. Now she appeared as a strikingly attractive, enthusiastic woman. Her spiritual and emotional growth were equally obvious. Throughout the evening I observed the interaction between this woman and her husband, and it soon became apparent why she reflected such a peaceful and beautiful countenance. She had been blessed with a partner who was positive and supportive, and both of them had developed through the years into extremely mature and happy people.
Close observation leads me to believe that the growth of individuals after marriage is largely dependent upon the positive or negative attitude of their partner. Indeed, what you think of your wife or husband can determine to a great degree what she or he becomes. Your partner can become a slave and a grouch, or a productive and charming person. You both progress according to the way you treat each other.
Some years ago a woman complained to me about her unresponsive husband. I asked her to describe some of his behavior. She indicated that in most cases he was a very negative person. He would come home in the evening and complain about the untidy home. Occasionally dinner was not ready on time, which elicited criticism. She was neither as attractive nor as intellectually stimulating as her husband desired. He was negative with the children as well, offering mostly critical comments.
I then asked the wife to describe her behavior toward her husband. She admitted that most of the things she did were designed to hurt him. In fact, quite often she planned a meal late just to make him angry. Likewise, the more he urged her to take better care of herself, the less desire she had to make herself more attractive. Their home was frequently in disarray simply because she had no motivation to clean it. On the whole, she did little to please or praise him.
I felt that there was enough basic love within their marriage that they could put it back together—providing they made a strong effort to develop positive feelings for one another. I suggested that she return home and change her appearance, clean the house, read a good book, and attempt to become more interesting and attractive. She was counseled to greet her husband each night with a smile and a positive attitude.
Such a drastic change in attitude came as a shock to her husband. Initially, he was very suspicious, certain that something was wrong or that his wife was being pleasant because she had some ulterior motive. But as she continued with the positive behavior, he began to enjoy the special attention she gave him and was pleased with the obvious improvement. Much of his negative attitude disappeared, and he began to offer positive comments. He spent more time at home, and developed a better relationship with the children. The marriage soon returned to a sound and productive state.
Many wonderful things can happen in the lives of people if they can just turn their attitudes from the negative to the positive. Most of us do not purposely neglect our partners and their emotional needs, but too often we go week after week taking each other’s finer qualities for granted, never expressing any special love to our spouse or giving positive reinforcement for the good things he or she does for us.
On one occasion I met with a couple who had been referred to me by a bishop. As the couple fired off a barrage of complaints against each other, I attempted to guide their conversation toward the affirmative aspects of their relationship—qualities they had first admired in each other, the deep pleasures they had shared, the mutual goals they had set many years before. They began to talk about their family, friends, and other important people in their lives; it was apparent that they really did enjoy this aspect of their relationship. This led to a review of their goal for financial security, which they had successfully met. As we talked further, the antagonism gradually drained away. After a few additional meetings, the couple agreed to give their marriage a second chance.
Many marriages do not develop in a productive way because of what we call “negative feedback.” Too often feedback is detrimental to a relationship because it is not given in the right spirit; also, it frequently is given at a time when it is not welcomed or needed, or when there is not time enough to clarify its meaning. If negative feedback is to be worthwhile in a marriage, it must be requested by the partner. That is, a partner may want to know how well he or she is performing as a parent or a provider or a priesthood leader. But such information should be given only after it is requested.
It is important in a marriage to receive information that will allow you to improve as a partner. But hearing only negative things can really be discouraging. That is why I am careful to offer criticism only rarely, and then only after I ask myself these questions, as suggested by Dr. Sidney B. Simon (see Negative Criticism, Illinois: Argus Communications, 1978):
1. Is my partner in any shape to hear my criticism right now? Sometimes we do not time our criticism very well. It is given at a time when we are very upset or tired. A partner may return home late from work, thus disturbing the timing of evening activities. Some parents wait up for a teenage son or daughter to arrive home, only to spend time venting their emotional frustrations in the early hours of the morning. It is much better to acknowledge the fact that you are pleased that the child is home, and then wait for a better time to talk about the problem when emotions have had a good night’s rest.
2. After giving criticism, am I willing to take the time necessary to help my mate pick up the pieces? Quite often criticism is offered at a time when partners are not able to talk it through. One man described the hurt when his wife voiced a negative comment just as he was leaving town on business. There was not time enough to talk through the criticism. He left in a depressed and discouraged state, which adversely affected his trip.
3. How many times has my mate heard this criticism before? If a partner is asked to clean up the garage or kitchen or pick up his or her clothes or be more responsive to the needs of the children, and no change takes place, consider another approach. We often become deaf to constant criticism or nagging about the same thing.
4. Can my mate do anything about the criticism? Sometimes we criticize people for being shy, heavy, thin, inconsiderate, or insensitive. Such labels are often difficult or impossible to overcome. I know one wife who wanted a taller husband; this was a real frustration to him since he simply could not grow. Criticism is occasionally given about behaviors or attitudes that are very difficult to change. While all of us should work to become as perfect as we can, partners should be sensitive to what can realistically be changed in a reasonable amount of time.
5. Is the negative criticism simply an emotional expression of my own hurts, fears, and psychological needs? It is easy to observe when a person has lost control and is simply venting feelings. If we lose control during an exchange with a spouse so that our heart beats rapidly and our speech is impeded by a lack of emotional restraint, then we can be assured that the exchange will only lead to contention.
6. Does my partner really need a negative comment right now? Would it not be better to show love and consideration and express positive thoughts at this particular time as a means of encouraging the loved one? Most people recognize their faults and want very much to improve; in an atmosphere of love, acceptance, and support, they are able to move toward those goals in their lives. But if they are constantly reminded of their negative traits, never receiving positive reinforcement for good behavior, it becomes almost impossible for them to change.
All of us have blind spots in our lives—observable areas of deficiency that we ourselves do not recognize. It is important in a marriage to create an atmosphere in which our partners may call those deficiencies to our attention. Hence, there must be developed a great amount of love and trust. The motive behind giving criticism must be one of attempting to help the other person. Most importantly, it should be delivered in small doses so that it can be absorbed.
If you welcome feedback, both positive and negative, then it is much easier for the spouse to provide it, and you are in much better position to accept and change in the way that you should. Invite your spouse to have a conference with you. Give him or her the opportunity to evaluate the home environment and your method of performing as a mate. Asking how you can be a better husband or father or wife or mother is a good question to discuss at appropriate intervals; and needed changes will come more rapidly when the criticism is given in an attitude of love and concern.
What then are some specific ways that you can build on the positive aspects of your marriage?
1. Take inventory. Write down all the things about your spouse that you really cherish and that are important to you. Reach back into your marriage as far as you can to pull out those characteristics or attributes that were important to you during your courtship.
I once asked a couple to do this. They predicted that it would be impossible to list more than two or three positive feelings. The list started with just a few obvious items such as “good cook” or “sense of humor,” but it expanded quickly to include characteristics that were present in each other’s behavior but often overlooked. After working at it for some time, both came up with long lists that frankly surprised them.
2. Admire openly your partner’s skills. It is important to let children, friends, and associates know of the admiration you have for your partner. This can be done without boasting or egotism. Simply call to the attention of those around you the positive characteristics or behaviors of your partner. Your loved one will enjoy hearing you list these items and will respond in a similar manner.
3. Watch your own negative emotions. Sometimes an outburst of anger, criticism of your partner in public, or rude behavior in the home generates an oppressive atmosphere which can expand and become an integral part of life. Every effort should be made to avoid such emotions.
4. Rekindle your romantic love. Return to the romantic love and association you once enjoyed with your partner. Think about the good times, the beautiful memories, the long conversations that were once an important part of your marriage. Find special ways to share your love and concern. Fall in love all over again.
5. Talk softly. In most homes where a positive atmosphere dominates, family members respect each other so much that harsh and loud words are not used. Anger is not a part of the daily routine; uplifting words are used to encourage each individual to grow and develop in a positive way.
6. Maintain constant integrity. It is vital that marriage partners maintain a high sense of honesty and integrity. Trust and love aid considerably in building positive relationships—and repentance and forgiveness can restore a sense of integrity where it has been lost.
7. Renew your spiritual faith. In a home where numerous negative feelings exist, spiritual faith is generally lacking. It is important that husbands and wives pray and study the scriptures together. They should attend their meetings and give service in the Church in order to avail themselves and their families of the spiritual growth and blessings that come from activity in the gospel. Dedication to the Lord’s work will generate positive feelings and attitudes in our lives.
Each person in a marriage sees himself or herself as a sensitive and important person. We respond to change more rapidly when these positive ideas are reinforced. As spouses, we can dwell on our spouse’s negative traits, or we can reinforce our spouse’s positive traits with kind, sincere expressions: “I love you.” “You are an important person.” “You can do better next time.” “We can learn from our mistakes.” “I want to help you.”
A marriage nourished by positive comments like these can’t help but grow into a beautiful and long-cherished experience.