Marriage/Parenting: Never Say Never

It’s one of my favorite Beatle songs: You Never Give Me Your Money. But McCartney’s tune does contain an unwitting bit of counsel for married couples who want to happily journey up their own pleasant Abbey Road.

Criticism is sometimes a painful necessity even in the most solid of marriages. (Although Ben Franklin sagely observed: “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half closed afterwards!”) But certain words are the toxic “third rail” if you barge into a verbal corrective. Most criticisms begin with the word You. But please don’t use these as the second word: always . . . or never.

Consider. What is the spouse’s instinctive reaction when you begin: “You always do such-and-such”? “You never get that whatever thing right”? A defensive barrier goes up and they instantaneously retort: “I do too.” “You do not.” “Do too.” “Liar.” “Shut up.” “No, you shut up.” “I hate you.” And you sound like a pair of six-year-olds who had too much sugary cereal.

The reality is that, no, your beloved does not always do that particular bad thing. Secondly, it is far better to talk about your feelings than their failings. “Honey, it kind of stings – I feel bad – when you invite 30 people over for dinner, and don’t call me first . . . so I can pack and move to another state. What do you think?”

I’ll never forget a lively family workshop where I shared this always/never principle. Putting it in the form of a quiz question, I asked the group: “What’s often the first word of a criticism?” They all guessed correctly: “You.” When I followed up with: “Okay, what’s usually the second word,” a man in the back cheerfully raised his hand. “Idiot!” (It took ten minutes to get the group back under control.)

Dale Carnegie once flatly asserted that criticism simply doesn’t work. The stark reality is that it makes our partner defensive. Especially when we’ve thrown an exaggerated always in their face. So if you want to preserve marital peace there in your cramped yellow submarine (yeah yeah yeah), then watch your lead-ins. And do it eight days a week.