I love my wife, but I really hate her “things you do wrong” list. I pull away to avoid it, but the more I pull away, the more tempted I am to check out of the relationship. During normal times, things are fine. But whenever we argue about something, out comes the list of the things she thinks I do wrong and she does right. I know that keeping score is dangerous and wrong, and I don’t want to start my own list of everything I do right and she does wrong! It is easier to sort of ignore her and check out. But I know that could doom the marriage. So how can I handle her criticism without making a list of my own?
Dear Feeling Defeated, First, I’m so sorry both of you are going through this. But second, I applaud you for your awareness that your current strategy of self-protection and “checking out” will likely only make things worse in the end. I can tell you are the type of man who truly does care about your wife and the marriage, and you have what it takes to do the hard things necessary to try to lead your marriage back to a great place.
The reality is that your wife is displaying all the symptoms of a wife who isn’t feeling cared for. And you are displaying all the symptoms of a husband who isn’t feeling appreciated. You’re caught in a trap that happens to millions of marriages – but thankfully, I’ve seen dramatic change when just one person takes action to break the cycle.
Let me offer a few thoughts, but also encourage you to get some counsel from a counselor or therapist; a good counselor will be able to give you some additional tools to break the cycle. From my point of view, one key here is to fully recognize that you can’t change her. You can only change yourself. In other words: you don’t need to feel helpless.
There are lots of things you can do that will make a big difference. Perhaps most important, I think you will see a great result if you do keep a list of your own: but make it a different kind of list. Specifically, change what you focus on – instead of focusing on and resenting the critical things she is saying, focus on what you appreciate and love about her – and tell her those things. Does she insist on picking up your dry cleaning for you? Does she make your favorite meal because she knows you’ll love it? Do you love those times she smiles at you when you come home from work? Do you think she’s beautiful? Does she cuddle up next to you in bed? Is she patient with the children? By practicing “keeping score” of the wonderful things your wife does, you’ll find gratitude welling up. You’ll want to give back.
Most importantly, if you start telling her those things you love about her, suddenly she may feel more cared for and “the list” may come out a lot less often. This isn’t always a quick magic bullet – but if you can set aside your understandable desire to protect yourself and instead focus on what you love about her, I truly believe you will find yourself leading your marriage into that delight you are both longing for.
Shaunti Feldhahn is the best-selling author of eye-opening, research-based books about men, women and relationships, including For Women Only, For Men Only and her newest, The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages. A Harvard-trained social researcher and speaker, her ﬁndings are regularly featured in media as diverse as The Today Show, Focus on the Family, and the New York Times.