Forgive Yourself

After working through the Seven Principles, it is probably very clear to you that there is no such thing as constructive criticism. All criticism is painful. Unlike complaints—specific requests for change–criticism doesn’t make a marriage better. It inevitably makes it worse.

What causes a spouse to be chronically critical? We have discovered that there are two sources. The first is an emotionally unresponsive partner. Put simply, if Natalie keeps complaining to Jonah about leaving his newspapers on the bathroom floor and he just ignores her, eventually she is likely to start criticizing him–calling him a slob instead of politely reminding him about recycling. This change in Natalie’s approach is understandable, but it is hardly helpful to her marriage since her criticism will make Jonah even less responsive.

The only way out of this cycle is for both of them to change–which won’t be easy It takes courage to be less critical of an unresponsive mate, and it takes courage to turn toward a partner who’s always harping on your flaws. But both changes are necessary to end the cycle.

The other source of criticism in marriage comes from within. It is connected to self-doubt that has developed over the course of one’s life, particularly during childhood. In other words, it begins as criticism of oneself. Aaron cannot really appreciate or enjoy his own accomplishments. When he has a setback in his business, he feels deep down that he is worthless. When his business is successful, he doesn’t allow himself to be proud. There’s a voice inside him that says this is not good enough. He continually searches for approval but cannot enjoy it or even accept it when it is offered.

What happens to Aaron when he marries Courtney? Since he has trained his mind to see what is wrong, what is missing, and not to appreciate what is there, it’s difficult for him to rejoice in what’s right with Courtney or their marriage. So instead of appreciating Courtney’s wonderful qualities, including her sweetness, her devotion, and the deep emotional support she offers him when he is in danger of losing a major client, he focuses on what he considers her flaws–that she is highly emotional, somewhat awkward socially, and not as meticulously clean around the house as he’d like.

The story of Aaron and Courtney is what’s wrong 85 percent of the time in most marriages. If you consider yourself inadequate, you are always on the lookout for what is not there in yourself and your partner. And, let’s face it: Anyone you marry will be lacking in certain desirable qualities. The problem is that we tend to focus on what’s missing in our mate and overlook the fine qualities that are there–we take those for granted.

If you recognize yourself in the description of the self-critic, the best thing you can do for yourself and your marriage is to work on accepting yourself with all of your flaws.

One route toward this forgiveness may be your personal spiritual beliefs. In Judaism, prayer is primarily used either for thanksgiving or to praise. Yet the religion claims that God does not require endless praise, flattery, or thanks. So what is the purpose of these prayers? They are not meant for God’s benefit but to help the person who is praying.

These prayers are designed to help us appreciate the works of God, this beautiful world we have inherited, and to notice and be thankful for the blessings we continually receive. Whatever your religion, there is a message in here for your marriage: Expressions of thanksgiving and praise are the antidotes to the poison of criticism and its deadly cousin, contempt.