"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
March 26, 2009
Criticize spouse tactfully
by Orson Scott Card

They're at a party or dinner. The husband starts to tell a joke. The wife immediately snaps, "Oh, don't tell them that old story." The husband falls silent with an embarrassed grin.

Or the wife has just made a comment in Sunday school, and the husband says, "What she meant to say was ..." and corrects her. She looks abashed ... or angry.

They criticize each other's taste in clothing or in food, they demean each other's intelligence, they tell unflattering stories about each other, and it's hard to know whether it's worse when the object of these criticisms is absent or standing right there. Absent, it seems like deep disloyalty to the marriage; present, and it feels like you've stepped into a quarrel.

We've all met a married couple like this, or perhaps more than one. They embarrass everyone around them. Yet still they persist in this pattern of public criticism.

And yet there are times when love requires that you say unpleasant or difficult things to a spouse. Think of that timeless fodder for standup comics, the question "Do I look fat in this?"

What that sentence really means is, "I'm really anxious about my appearance and I need your reassurance that I shouldn't be embarrassed to go out." And so the answer usually should be, "You look wonderful. That color is great on you."

Sometimes, though, there are unflattering things that your spouse can't see. For their sake, you have to say careful things like, "I'm not sure you'll really be comfortable with how much your underwear shows through," or, "Maybe you want a slip," or, "I think you'll be happier wearing something else." (This last one only works if there is something else to wear.)

Most of the time, though, even if there is a problem it's not so serious that you need to tackle it right then. When your spouse is anxious before an event is not the best time to break the news that a particular outfit does not look good. You have to ask yourself: Right now, does she need confidence or advice on clothing?

And that's when your spouse initiates the criticism by asking a question. When your criticism is uninvited, it is all the more important to be careful about when and where.

1. Never in front of anyone else, not even the children. And by "never," I mean NEVER.

This is one of the hardest rules to follow for those who have the criticism habit. But why is it so hard?

It's not because your spouse needs to be stopped right now -- that only applies if he's about to break some precious object, or the law.

Most of the time, one spouse criticizes the other because the criticizer feels the anxiety of embarrassment. One spouse is ashamed of the other and criticizes publicly in order to make that feeling of anxiety go away.

It is a selfish act by the criticizer, a desire to show that he (or she) is not part of the actions or words of the other.

It reveals that your fear of embarrassment is stronger than your loyalty to your mate.

2. No matter how embarrassing your spouse is, publicly criticism or demeaning is almost always worse.

It's like that moment in Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Bennett publicly stops his daughter Mary from boring everyone at a party with yet another lengthy and mediocre piano solo. He meant to spare everyone the tedium of listening, but instead he caused them the greater discomfort of watching him mortify his daughter in public.

3. Miss Manners says: No one should hear criticism on the day of the performance. Judith Martin wrote this maxim in her book on raising perfect children, but it applies just as readily to spouses.

When someone has just done something they felt anxious about, one ounce of criticism will outweigh three tons of praise. There is no criticism of something that has already happened that cannot wait until the next day.

"But I might forget it if I wait till tomorrow!"

Exactly. If it's so trivial that you don't remember it the next day, it doesn't need to be said at all.

So there should be no quarrel on the way home from the party. Save the criticism for later ... if it still matters.

4. Pick a safe and neutral time. You're alone. You're not in a rush to do anything else. You're at peace with each other. Now you can say:

"My most adored and beloved spouse, you are still the most handsome/beautiful person in the world to me. But I think that it is time for you to stop wearing: (a) shirts that tuck in, (b) form-fitting tops that reveal every contour of your underwear from behind, ( c) shirts that are so short that when you bend over or squat, people start looking for the proctologist, or (d) that old toupee that no longer matches any part of your surviving hair."

This applies to jokes they tell, the level of gossip they share, how they talk about the children in front of others, or even how much and when they criticize you.

It will still not be easy for them to hear it -- but at least you're alone and you're not causing any public shame. Your criticism then has a real chance to be constructive instead of destructive.

Remember that the Lord says reproof should be accompanied by reassurance that your love is stronger than the bands of death.


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About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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