Even in the best of marriages, a spouse's behavior can be irritating at times. Numerous studies have proven that criticizing a spouse for a certain behavior will cause an intensification of that behavior. For example, if a man criticizes his wife for being overweight, she will probably gain weight. If she criticizes him for not spending more time with her, he will probably spend more time away. This is because people who cherish their independence and want to preserve their identity will do the opposite of what others want as a way of saying, "You can't control me!" In addition, a person who feels hurt by criticism may consciously or unconsciously want to hurt back, signaling, "I'll get back at you for hurting me by doing what I know hurts you." Yet, no matter how much people hear how counter-productive criticism is, most will continue to criticize or use other "control tactics" in an effort to get their spouse to change.

Few people realize how difficult it is to change and how painfully slow the process is, far more evolutionary than revolutionary. In truth, what comes easily to one can be excruciatingly difficult for another. Yet people think that whatever is easy for them should be easy for others! A neat-freak thinks that anyone should be able to whip a kitchen into shape in a quarter of an hour, and cannot understand what the big deal is to put things in their place. An emotionally expressive person may not understand how difficult it is for some people to share their feelings or even to be aware of what they are feeling. A screamer may think he's being "honest," and saving himself from an ulcer by venting, not even realizing how painful it is for others to have to live with an explosive person.

When we experience a conflict with a spouse or child, we can take two steps to defuse the situation. First, acknowledge the other person's pain. Tell the person, "I know how hard it is to live with me and not get what you dreamed of."

The next step is to make a few simple self-disciplinary gestures each day and share the most minor "victories" with your spouse. This should be done not only to please the person, which is a wonderful goal, but also with the awareness that if G‑d gave you this spouse, then by making these gestures, you will grow spiritually. For example, a couch potato can say, "I actually took the stairs instead of the elevator! Hooray for me!" A highly introverted person can say, "Know what? I'll have a victory and go with you to that event instead of staying home." A chatterbox can say, "I'm having a victory and will not interrupt!"

Mina (all names have been changed) used to berate her husband for being stingy. He complained that she was wasteful and would mention the items she had purchased that he deemed unnecessary each time she came back from shopping. When she asked me what to do, I told her to tell him, "I turned off all the lights in order not to waste electricity. And I took a quick shower instead of a long one like I wanted." And she kept a list of what she wanted to buy and did not buy. By showing him the list, he no longer felt that his wishes were being ignored. He saw that she was sensitive to his fears of financial ruin and cheered her efforts to improve. Mina recently told me that she realizes that her husband is thrifty, not stingy, and knows that his concerns have validity. She is also proud that she, too, has become more frugal and more conscious of the need to conserve.

Simon knows that his wife is upset about his weight because she is worried about diabetes and heart disease. He's not ready to go completely healthy, but he can tell his wife, "I had a victory! I had only half a can of Coke instead of the whole thing." Or, "I wanted five cookies but only ate one!" In this way he lets her know that he does care about her feelings and does want to take charge of his health, even 1% of the time. Because she cheered his victories and didn't push him to go faster, he slowly began to change his habits.

So, for your own growth as well as to improve your relationships, let your spouse know, "I'm having a victory!"

  • "I turned off my cell phone so that I can give you all my attention."
  • "I'm choosing to go to sleep on time so that I can function tomorrow."
  • "I'm choosing to clean up right now instead of putting it off."
  • "This time, I'm going to be prompt and won't keep you waiting."
  • "I'm going to help a friend, even though it is difficult."
  • "I went for an interview even though I was nervous and didn't know the way."
  • "I am sticking to the speed limit."
  • "I'm not dithering over this decision any longer. I'm deciding and that's that."

Once you start making those little gestures and talking about your victories, your spouse may be willing to do so as well. I found this very effective with my own children, too. If a child wants you to be less uptight, tell him, "I'm having a victory and taking three deep, relaxing breaths right now."

May G‑d help us all improve our traits, thanks to the very people who we may be irritating. Of course, this only works when two people truly respect each other and want to improve. If not, then this work must be done on our own. Either way, G‑d cheers every step forward.

We connect to the Supernatural by doing the supernatural. It truly feels supernatural to do something that is against our nature.