My lowest "grades" in elementary school consistently came in one subject: "Responds well to constructive criticism." I was lucky to pull a check-minus. If my husband, Eric, had been graded in the same subject, he wouldn't have done much better. The tiniest suggestion provokes either of us to a frenzy of self-justification—even when the topic is frivolous.
Take the "sensor reheat" button on our microwave. It's handy for returning leftovers to an edible temperature. Therefore, it must be the perfect button for every nuking need, right? Eric thinks so. He uses it to rubberize bagels, turn sandwiches to mush, and scorch the insides of peanut butter cookies.
One afternoon, as Eric nibbled the surviving edges of a cookie, I casually mentioned that "sensor reheat" really isn't a good choice for baked goods. Oddly enough, he didn't say, "You're right. Thanks!" First, he pointed out that he had torched his dessert, not mine, so it was really none of my business. Then, the coup de grace: "You always criticize me!"
But I'm just as guilty. Recently Eric, never a fan of my clean-only-when-company's-coming system, proposed a household chore schedule. He wasn't saying I needed to do all the chores myself, just that I ought to be more aware of them. Instead, I became aware of every muscle in my neck tensing.
I reminded Eric of how much I hated the job lists my father used to hand down. I told the story of my neatnik college roommate whose cleaning plan would have run a maid service ragged. Eventually I got around to the gold standard of griping: accusing Eric of shirking his share of housework. I spent five minutes growling at a suggestion that, on reflection, wasn't half bad.1