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.
Part of the problem is that suggestions, like jokes, require good timing and delivery. Had I shared my microwave wisdom before Eric pushed any buttons, I could have saved Eric's cookie rather than making everything harder to swallow. Had Eric asked what I thought about the household cleaning situation instead of simply offering his "fix," he might have averted my tirade.
For us, though, the criticism issue represents a slice of a bigger problem. We don't offer each other enough praise. Relatively minor negative comments strike like stones because there aren't enough compliments to soften their impact.
For example, while poking around the fridge one Friday night, I noticed a package of 80 percent lean ground beef. Not wanting to sound mean, I weighed my complaint before lodging it. "Just for future reference," I said meekly, "I really prefer 90 percent lean ground beef, or leaner."
Again, Eric didn't respond with gratitude. "I know," he replied. "I remembered. But it was the only thing on sale. You didn't have any meat on the list at all. I wasn't going to get any. I knew you'd complain. You don't have to eat any."
Touchy, touchy. But he was right about the list. I'd sketched a grocery list earlier in the week, intending to go shopping myself. Because I reflexively check the meat department for sales, I didn't bother to write "meat" down. But I got busy and never made it to the store. On his own initiative, Eric grabbed my spotty list and made a noble attempt at the weekly shopping. Instead of thanking him, I grumbled about a few grams of fat. No wonder he snapped.
It may sound as if I've learned nothing about constructive criticism since our wedding three years ago—or perhaps even since elementary school—but the ground beef story ends relatively happily. A few silent minutes after his outburst, I asked him why he'd sounded so frustrated. Conversation quickly turned to the problem of praise. Eric pointed out that our dog gets a treat when he does something right, but too often we fail to reward each other at all.
So on my next trip to the store, I bought a box of chocolates: "spouse treats." In addition to verbal—and other kinds!—of applause, a spoonful of sugar helps the inevitable criticism go down.
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