Thinking Clearly in Marriage, Part One

May 9, 2009

10 min read


How to stay cool and collected when you're about to blow your top.

An excerpt from "Marriage" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

One of the most important life skills to master is being able to remain mentally and emotionally centered in order to think clearly about the best course of action. Mastering this skill will enable you to remain clear thinking in the face of criticism, insults, anger, nagging, or negativity, enabling you to bring out the best in yourself and in your spouse.

All of us experience challenging moments when we face people who are critical, frustrated, angry, and even hostile. Before saying or doing anything in such situations, we need to be in a centered state that enables us to think clearly about the wisest thing to say or do.

Being centered is a state, and so is being angry, frustrated, overwhelmed, or hostile. If someone's spouse is in any one of a number of unresourceful states, there is a strong tendency for that person also to access an unresourceful state. When one person is frustrated and lets it out at his or her spouse, this often serves as an anchor for the other person to pick up those feelings. If someone's spouse is angry, even mildly so, or outright hostile or mean, it takes much effort and practice to maintain an optimum resourceful state, exactly when we need it the most.

The benefit of a resourceful, centered state is that it is conducive to clear thinking. Decide upon the wisest course of action. Is it best to remain silent or to say something? What should you say to enable you to reach the desired outcome of protecting yourself and at the same time enabling the other person to become calmer and more reasonable? Both your tone of voice and the words you say will either escalate the situation and make it worse, or have a positive effect and calm things down.

Let us imagine a five-minute unpleasant interchange when both husband and wife are angry. Let us suppose that each one says something to the other for approximately twenty seconds. That gives each one seven or eight times to fire at each other with unpleasant statements. However, at any stage in the interaction each one could have accessed a resourceful state, thought clearly about the next best move, and restored peace.

The person who gets you off balance is yourself.

The best way to learn to stay centered in the face of a challenge is to mentally prepare yourself to do so. Think about the benefits to you and your family, the emotional and spiritual benefits, and the great losses caused to you and your family by acting at your worst in these challenging moments. These are long-term gains and losses that can either benefit you for your entire life, or cause pain for many years to come.

If someone paid you a large sum of money to develop the skill of remaining calm and centered when faced with criticism, anger, and other unresourceful states, you would definitely be motivated to do so. If the amount would make you one of the wealthiest people in the world, you would read anything you could, consult experts, and practice daily until you mastered this skill. Living a joyous life with a happy marriage makes you wealthier than the richest person if that wealthy person is unhappy. Spend as much time as you personally need on mastering the ability to remain centered and to think clearly in the face of any challenge. Developing this ability will save you much suffering and heartache and it can transform challenging situations into moments of great growth and joy.

Do you ever feel that your marriage partner is purposely trying to get you off balance? Perhaps yes, and perhaps it is an incorrect assumption. Regardless of the accuracy of your assumption, the person who gets you off balance is yourself. As soon as you realize you are off balance, repeat to yourself, "centered and balanced." Talk to yourself in ways that enable you to become calmer and more at ease. Visualize a relaxing scene or a centered and balanced role model, and imagine yourself being that person.

On the screen of your mind visualize any new action or pattern of talking you would like to integrate into your regular behavior. When you practice this enough times, it will become part of you.


Loving criticism is the ideal to strive for. This is listed in the last chapter of Ethics of the Fathers as one of the 48 tools to acquire Torah. The verse in Proverbs 9:8 states: "Do not rebuke a scoffer, lest he hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you." The Vilna Gaon comments: "A wise person is someone who continuously wants to grow in Torah. He appreciates it if you point out to him that he is doing something wrong. His goal is self-improvement, and he loves every opportunity to become a better person."

The way someone tries to correct us is a key factor in our being open to accepting criticism. Speaking with love and compassion, some people can point out ways that you can improve and you can feel grateful for their care and concern. We have a strong awareness that this person is not criticizing us out of personal motives such as power or arrogance. Knowing that this person sincerely cares about our welfare gives us positive feelings about listening to suggestions or corrections.

When someone corrects us, we usually prefer that they be concise and to the point. Some people tend to give long speeches when they want to correct us and the entire process is highly distressing. If this is a problem in your marriage, tell your spouse, "I can hear you better when you are concise."

If your spouse tactfully tries to correct you and does so in a way you appreciate, you don't need to make any special effort to stay centered and to think clearly. However, if your spouse tends to be highly critical and seems to be constantly criticizing you in a way you don't appreciate, make the effort to stay centered and think clearly. Don't immediately respond with a counterattack such as, "You have the same or worse faults." Or, "You don't like it when I criticize you, so why are you criticizing me?"

As you stay in a relatively calm state, think about the criticism you just heard. Is it valid? If it were said differently, might you be totally open to hearing it? Perhaps it could have been said in fewer words. Perhaps the tone could have been more loving and compassionate. Perhaps the choice of words could have been more tactful. If so, you can respond, "Thank you for pointing that out. You have a valid point. And in the future I would prefer it if you point things out ... (in a gentler tone of voice / with fewer words / more tactfully)."

If you feel the criticism is not valid, you can calmly and respectfully say, "I realize you meant well, but I would like to explain why your criticism isn't valid."

If your spouse keeps arguing that you deserve the criticism and you still feel you don't, it's wise to stop. You might say, "I'll think it over."

Realize there is a possibility that you are wrong, and the criticism was valid. As the Vilna Gaon wrote in his commentary to Proverbs 26:12:

"A person who is 'wise in his eyes' will not make positive changes. Since he thinks he is right, he is not aware of his negative and counterproductive behavior; but if a person is aware of his improper behavior, there is always hope he will correct himself."

You might feel that the criticism is valid but you are presently working on improving yourself in so many areas that this point is lower on your priority list. Perhaps if what you are doing is bothering your spouse, you might raise the priority status of this complaint.

Then there are situations when your spouse is criticizing your actions in areas that you consider inconsequential. Even though your spouse pointed it out, it is so minor that it won't make any difference at all in either of your lives. If your spouse is open to stop making these comments since they annoy you, just point out that you would prefer not to hear these criticisms at the present. If your spouse isn't open to stopping, realize that they are essentially harmless if you don't let them bother you.

I heard a husband constantly correcting what his wife said.

The wife said, "A week ago we went to my parents' home for supper."
"It wasn't a week ago. It was nine days ago," the husband corrected.

The wife said, "I paid twenty dollars for the gift we bought."
"It wasn't twenty dollars," said the husband. "It was only $18.50."

The wife said, "I returned the call the next day."
"It was two days later," the husband corrected.

Finally, the wife burst into tears and said, "He corrects everything I say!"

"Not everything. Only your mistakes," the husband interjected."

"There he goes again! I can't stand his constant nitpicking. Whenever I open my mouth to say anything in his presence, I am nervous because I know he is ready to pounce on me and correct me. Most of the things he corrects me about are insignificant and irrelevant."

This pattern is quite common and either spouse can be just as critical over minor discrepancies. The critical party would be wise to modify his or her criticism and let it go, especially when the exact details don't make any practical difference.

Peace between husband and wife takes precedence over saying the truth if that will cause needless resentment.

Some people argue, "If one doesn't correct minor mistakes, then major mistakes will take root. It's especially important for me that my husband/wife be accurate. Mistakes are untruths and I want only truth in my home."

The Torah priority is that peace between husband and wife takes precedence over saying the truth if that will cause needless resentment. In the Torah we find that God distorted the truth to prevent a lack of shalom bayit between Abraham and Sarah. All the more so, it is permissible to refrain from correcting a trivial and inconsequential error to protect shalom bayit.

If the critical party refuses to be less critical, it is important for the person on the receiving end of the corrections to become more empowered and to learn to handle the criticism with dignity and objectivity.

If your spouse is going to keep correcting you, master a positive or humorous attitude. As you mentally prepare yourself to hear corrections, imagine a large group of people cheering for you. Add music. In your imagination, keep practicing until you are able to desensitize yourself and you will be free of pain.

Be sure to come back to read Part Two: Thinking clearly in the face of anger, nagging and negativity.

Click here to purchase Rabbi Pliskin's book, "Marriage," Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

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