Cracking Down on Criticism

Do you ever feel as though your spouse criticizes everything you do? Have you found it difficult to explain how that makes you feel? Do you worry whether there is any hope for him or her to change? You aren’t alone!

One of the most disheartening and debilitating expressions of controlling behavior is criticism. All of us are prone to complain once in a while. But when complaining about circumstances turns into a degrading personal attack on a family member, the wounds delivered are deep and painful.

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Complaint becomes criticism when you focus on pointing out what is wrong. It is also true, however, that a critical, controlling spirit may be expressed in what you don’t say or do. The stark absence of encouragement and affirmation can be just as damaging as cutting words of criticism.

Do you tend to control or badger your spouse through criticism? Do you want to break the critical cycle? Here are a few guidelines:

Complain, but don’t blame. There may be times when you will complain about a problem at home, but don’t use that situation as an excuse to find fault with your spouse. The idea is to fix the problem, not affix blame.

Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. Instead of criticizing by saying, “You always embarrass me in front of our friends,” say, “I feel hurt when you talk about my bad cooking skills with our friends.” When you start by pointing the finger of blame, you are forgetting the importance of examining your own heart. When you use “I” statements, you invite your spouse to respond to your pain instead of defend himself or herself from your attack.

Be factual. Instead of blasting your spouse over a messy kitchen, be specific without attacking. Try something like, “I get frustrated when you forget to put caps on bottles and leave dishes in the sink. It would help if you remember to tighten those lids and put your plates in the dishwasher.”

Take care of issues quickly. Don’t fall into the pattern of letting hurts build up and then exploding with criticism. The sooner you take care of conflicts, the less chance you will drift into a critical spirit

Take some time to examine what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. Consider new ways to communicate the same information. You will be better heard when your words are better communicated, when you speak with warmth, love, and honor.

What Topics Should be “Off-Limits” with Friends?

Q: Are there certain topics about each other that should be off limits in our conversations with our friends? Where should we draw the line?

A: One of the things we love to tell people is that when we interact with our friends—especially when we’re not together—we envision each other to be there anyway. If you’re getting ready to say something about your spouse, envision him or her there and decide if he or she would be pleased with what you’re about to say. Would you get a smile? If not, then you’re probably about to violate a boundary and what you’re thinking about saying should be left unsaid.

It’s best not to talk about sexual issues that are private. Don’t talk about something that would embarrass your spouse. 

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People sometimes get into their little small groups or Bible studies and start talking and the stories start flying. If you jump into the fray in order to top that last story, you may find yourself exposing a story about your mate that is very embarrassing. Don’t do it. Instead, keep your boundaries high. Picture him or her there, listening. In all your words about him or her, show honor, respect, and love. When you do that, you allow your mate to fail with you, and he or she knows that the failure is safe and private. There is great security in that.

Bottom line, always ask, “Is what you’re going to say honoring to your spouse? Does it help or hurt? Does it respect or ridicule?” Think about these questions before you open your mouth.

Enter Your Spouse’s World

Let’s think for a moment about what Jesus left behind when he entered human history as a baby born in Bethlehem. He had enjoyed uninterrupted intimacy and fellowship with his Father in eternity. Anything and everything the Father was involved in across the expanse of the universe and the heavenly realm, the Son was also involved in. Jesus enjoyed moment-by-moment adoration and devoted service from angelic hosts.

Furthermore, he was completely free of the bonds of time and space. He could be anywhere and everywhere at his will. He wasn’t confined to a human body that could only occupy one spot on the map at a time. He knew nothing of hunger, weariness, or pain. Christ forfeited the comfort, security, and privilege of heaven to save us from sin. He laid down his life in more ways than his ultimate death on the cross.

When Jesus said, “The greatest love is shown when people lay down their lives for their friends,”  (John 15:13) he wasn’t just talking about becoming a literal martyr. He laid down his life for us more than 33 years before he was nailed to the cross. Every prerogative of deity he set aside was a sacrifice. Every limitation of humanity he assumed to enter our world was a death. Jesus laid down his life the moment he left heaven for earth. Calvary was just the conclusive act in the sacrifice.

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Laying down your life for your spouse is a vital element of renewing love. Just as Christ’s sacrifice culminated in the resurrection, so your sacrificial love infuses your marriage with new life. And literal martyrdom has little to do with it. There may come a time when you would have opportunity to save your spouse’s life at the cost of your own. It happens on rare occasions. But more than likely, your sacrificial love will be lived out in everyday choices you make to honor and serve your spouse. When you do this, even in small, seemingly insignificant ways, you are emulating Jesus Christ, the greatest lover of all time, the lover of our souls.

One way you may lay down your life is by setting aside your prerogatives, just as Christ did. You have certain justifiable prerogatives and rights. For example, you may feel it’s your right to play 18 holes of golf every Saturday. After a hectic work week, bashing your Titleist into the next county is a great release. Let’s even assume that your dear wife doesn’t give you any flak for spending four or five hours on the course each week.

But could you set aside that prerogative for your dear one occasionally by spending a Saturday taking her anywhere she wants to go or doing anything she wants to do? We’re not talking about giving up your golf date and then sulking about it while she drags you through a dozen model homes at a snail’s pace. We’re talking about taking delight in honoring your wife with a day you determine to enjoy because it’s something she enjoys. The experience may give you a sense of what it means to lay down your life for your friend.

Another way to lay down your life is to enter your spouse’s world in order to honor him or her, just as Jesus entered our world to bring us the gift of salvation. In the process, you may assume some limitations just as Christ did, but that is the sacrifice of love.

Let’s say, for example, that your husband is into woodworking as a hobby. In order to honor him, you may choose to enter his world in a number of ways. Spend time with him in his shop, showing interest in his projects and learning about the various tools and techniques he uses. Save up your spending money, and buy him that special router he’s been wanting, just as an I-love-you present. When you see a woodworking show scheduled at the local exhibition hall, be sure he knows about it, and consider attending with him.

Each of these steps will cost you something in time, money, and/or energy. That’s what makes sacrificial love the “greatest love.” As you die to yourself in order to love your spouse in these ways, you breathe life into your relationship. Your sacrifice is the oxygen of renewing love. And the benefits to your marriage will far outweigh the cost to you.

Men spell intimacy S-E-X

When we surveyed couples, it was no surprise that men cited sexual intimacy as their number two love need. We have learned over the years at men spell intimacy S-E-X, and women spell it T-A-L-K.

God created males with a strong sex drive. Men also have the uncanny ability to compartmentalize their lives. They live in “boxes.” They have a work box, a church box, a friend box, a sports box, a sex box, and so on. The sex box is always on the periphery of their lives, ready to be opened at a moment’s notice. Men forget all the other boxes when they become sexually aroused.

Women, however, tend to tie all of these boxes together. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that when one box is open, they are all open. That’s why open and vulnerable communication is so important for a woman. That’s what helps her sort out all the rest and relax into physical intimacy.

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Most of men don’t like to talk about sex with anyone. That includes friends and wives. Rarely will a husband approach his wife and say, “Let’s talk about our sex life.” Men want the sexual aspect of their life to take care of itself. But after years of counseling couples, I (Gary) can tell you, it rarely does.

When Your Husband’s Need Isn’t Met

When a man’s sexual needs are not met in marriage, he responds in one or more of three ways:

He feels rejected as a person

Often when a man’s needs are blocked, he will feel rejected and will isolate himself rather than express his frustration and verbally connect with his wife. Many men won’t even risk opening up about their feelings of rejection because that only subjects them to fear of further rejection.

He shuts down or pulls away

Some men, when their need for sexual intimacy with their wives is not met, will just shut down emotionally. They begin to withdraw from their wives and isolate themselves.

What do wives do when this happens? Sadly, most welcome the relief. Some wives rationalize that “sex isn’t like food or air. He doesn’t need it.”

He Looks Elsewhere to Get His Needs Met

When a man feels rejected or isolates himself, the enemy is right there, ready to provide an alternative that will ruin not only his family but also the generations that come after him.

Some men turn to other women. Other men turn to a perverse fantasy life and pornography. With the Internet, this is now even more readily available in the home.

While husbands are certainly responsible for their own moral decisions, a wife plays a key role in keeping her husband from desiring to meet his God-given sexual needs in a place other than their marriage. She is the person chosen by God to fill those needs. That doesn’t mean she’s a sex slave; it means she has the privilege of being the sole person to meet her husband’s sexual needs and to have him meet hers as well. Thus, you play a vital role in your husband’s contentment.

Your Husband’s Need for Sexual Intimacy

Sexual intimacy is a very real and vital need for your husband. When you respond to him sexually, you affirm him beyond anything you could imagine. This will result in a reciprocal response from your husband. He will be increasingly motivated to meet your deep needs for affection, nonsexual touch, and tenderness. So what can you do to be sure you’re meeting this need for your husband?

Talk to God about the Issue

One of the best places to begin is to be honest with God and directly admit to him what he already knows: The sexual aspect of your marriage may need some review. For some couples, of course, the sexual relationship is the only aspect of the marriage that is working. Typically, though, couples who are struggling with conflict, disappointment, lack of communication, isolation, and pain report that their sexual relationship really is a barometer of the problems in the marriage.

Start with Your Own Heart

Before two bodies touch, two hearts must touch. And before two human hearts open up to each other, our relationship with Christ needs to be open and transparent.

As you bring the issues of your heart to God and ask him to cleanse you, he promises to forgive you. “If we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong” (1 John 1:9). And as you receive his forgiveness, he brings you into intimacy with him. When that happens, your heart is prepared for the intimacy of the marriage relationship with your husband

Learn What Satisfies Your Husband

It’s necessary for each of us to become a student of our spouse—emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and sexually. Study your husband. Learn everything you can about him: his sexual rhythm, his needs. The mystery—and beauty—of a healthy sexual union is the desire to be known at the deepest, most intimate level. The best source for finding out what your husband desires and needs is your husband.

Commit Yourself to Meet His Needs

Your husband’s sexuality is so entwined with his masculinity that as you reach out to him and meet his need for sexual intimacy, you will affirm his God-given masculinity. So commit yourself to meet your husband’s needs in this area of sexual intimacy. But don’t keep it quiet - tell him of your deep desire to encourage him sexually. And then do it!

A fulfilled and vibrant sexual relationship is part of God’s plan for a great marriage. That’s why when a man and a woman are committed to oneness in their marriage, their sexual relationship only gets better.

We Don’t Agree on Discipline

Q: Whenever it’s time to discipline our children, I always end up being the bad guy. How can I get my spouse more involved in disciplining our kids?

A: This can be another area where opposites can complement each other. In our family, Barb was the “no” and Gary was the “yes” when it came to the kids. We laugh about it today, but at the time it was tough.

We look back, however, and see that Barb was strong at creating boundaries and structure, while Gary was far more able to give our girls “wings,” releasing them, helping them make their own decisions. The balance was good for our kids.

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The biggest suggestion we make is that if you are disagreeing about your disciplining of the children, you must disagree outside the earshot of the kids. If dad is being heavy-handed about something (we’re not talking abuse here, just strict discipline) and mom disagrees, then mom must keep her mouth shut until she and dad can talk privately. Then, if something is misunderstood or needs to change, it can happen after the fact. You as parents must always present a united front to their kids; otherwise, the kids will wise up, circumvent you, manipulate you, and pit you against each other. That just leads to chaos. 

Also understand that each of your children is very different (as if you didn’t know that already!). Different genders and different stages of life demand different parenting strategies. Treating all your children the same doesn’t work, treating a boy and a girl the same doesn’t work, and treating boys and girls at different stages the same doesn’t work.

Communicate beforehand when possible what would be the best disciplinary strategy for that particular child for that particular infraction. Parenting is hard work, and it helps for both of you to be on the same page as much as possible. Learn together to be reflective and prayerful. Discipline with love and consistency. Those are some of the best gifts you can give to your children.