Is there one thing a married person can do to prevent most of the ills of marriage? Is there a single practice that will eliminate the fever/chill cycles that plague most marriages?

Indeed, there is. However, “one shot” is not enough. Even two or three injections won't suffice. This is a practice that must be undertaken daily, perhaps several times a day. But its effectiveness has been proven, and the results are impressive beyond expectation.

What is this practice? Stop criticizing!

Criticism destroys more marriages than infidelity. It whittles away at the bond between husband and wife, feeds the negativity of the criticizer, and undermines the self-esteem of the criticized.

Studies have shown that the human brain is hard-wired to negativity. Psychologists call this, “the negativity bias,” the congenital tendency to notice and remember the negative more than the positive. It’s why a wife will remember the times her husband forgot her birthday more than the times he actually gave her a card or gift. It’s why a husband will focus on his wife’s one extravagant expenditure in a credit card bill filled with her necessary, no-fun purchases of food and supplies for the family.

After just two weeks of their refraining from criticism their marriage improved dramatically.

Noticing the negative is our default starting point, but personal and spiritual growth requires that we move toward focusing instead on the positive, towards what’s good in every situation and person. The half-empty glass always leaves the one who drinks it thirsty, dissatisfied, and unhappy.

Participants of my spiritually-based marriage program for women that I've been teaching for over a decade report to me that their marriage improved dramatically after just two weeks of their refraining from criticism. (Of course, there are some marital problems that do not respond to this vaccine; that’s why it’s only 84.6% effective.)

Spouses criticize because they see their husband or wife doing something wrong, and they want to stop the egregious behavior. Never are intelligent people more prone to folly than when they criticize in an effort to improve their spouse, because no one ever improves from criticism. Husbands still leave their socks on the floor after decades of nagging. Wives still spend too much time talking on the phone despite their husbands’ repeatedly pointing out what they should be doing instead.

Repeated criticism proves the adage, “Insanity is doing something over again and thinking you’ll have a different result.” In my marriage webinar, wives complain, “For thirty years I’ve been telling my diabetic husband what he shouldn’t eat.” For thirty years you’ve been telling him? And you expect a different result this time? Insanity!

Worse than Futile

Criticism is worse than merely being ineffective to change your partner. Criticism creates a toxic atmosphere in the home. No one likes to be criticized. Criticism estranges the criticized party, who is likely to retreat emotionally or even physically, finding manifold excuses not to come home. Criticism also harms the criticizer, who gets caught in a vicious cycle of focusing on the negative, of finding endless reasons to be unhappy and angry. Criticism erodes the marriage bond as surely as acid dripping on a rope weakens its fibers.

Criticism never helps and always hurts.

One of Judaism’s most sublime concepts is that the Shechina, the presence of God, rests on the Jewish home when Shalom Bayit [marital harmony] prevails. Marital friction drives the Shechina away. Criticism is a violation of the Torah’s prohibition of onaas devorim, speaking words that hurt another person. You may rationalize that you are criticizing your spouse in order to help him/her, yet criticism has never caused anyone to improve any more than a blowtorch has ever caused a rosebush to bloom.

How to Stop Criticizing

So how do you stop criticizing? Simply stop criticizing. Go on a “criticism fast.” Every time you are about to criticize your spouse, stop and say to yourself, “Criticism never helps and always hurts.”

The Mussar masters advise using a chart to change ingrained behavior patterns. Make yourself a chart with a box for each day. Every time you are tempted to criticize your spouse and you stop yourself, give yourself a check on the chart. When you get 10 checks, buy yourself a small reward that you'll enjoy. When you get 25 checks, buy yourself a big reward. A full-body massage will keep you on your criticism fast for at least a couple of weeks.

When you fail and blurt out a criticism, don't give yourself an “X.” Just pick yourself up and keep on going. As a wise person said: “A successful life is when you get up one more time than you fall.”

Here is a true (pre-Covid-19) story from one of the members of my Kesher Wife Webinar:

I am married for two years, and my husband and I are very careful not to go out at night without each other too often. This past Saturday night, one of my husband's best friends decided to plan a night out to Atlantic City with all the "guys" to celebrate his bachelor party. I was so upset when I heard about this. I said to myself that Atlantic City, the mecca of gambling, drinking, risqué shows, and single women on the prowl, is not a place for a married man without his wife. What made me more upset was that my husband was going to be out all night and come home in the morning. The following day was our anniversary, and I knew he’d be too exhausted to celebrate it properly. I was furious.

My husband was SO excited. I felt utterly disrespected that my husband thought that it is appropriate to be out all night and especially in Atlantic City. When Saturday night came, I was very grumpy but I did not criticize him because I am observing a criticism fast for one month.

When I woke up on Sunday morning around 6:30 AM, my husband still wasn't home. I began to cry. I was so emotionally overwhelmed. My husband came home half an hour later. I wasn't ready to greet him pleasantly without criticism, so I pretended to be asleep. He fell asleep until 11 AM. When he woke up, I was puttering in the kitchen. I resolved to hold tight to my criticism fast, because I knew this argument could get very ugly and ruin our anniversary.

When my husband came into the kitchen, I resolved not to let any criticisms escape my mouth. I smiled at him and asked him if he had fun. I listened to the entire story of his night before I expressed to him how I felt, in the nicest way possible, without criticizing him. I said, "I missed you last night. I felt very lonely sleeping in this big bed by myself, and I feel very uncomfortable with the idea of one of us being out all night." He right away apologized, and told me how he perfectly understood and would be more considerate next time.

After that, we spent the entire day together. We went for a walk in the park and then drove into the city for a romantic dinner at a fancy restaurant. It was actually the best day we have ever had together since we got married! I felt so close to my husband, and I felt so proud of myself.

On the way home, my husband thanked me for "letting" him enjoy his night with his friends, saying that he had a lot of fun but had been looking forward to coming home all night, just to be with me. I know how miserable our anniversary would have been had I criticized my husband. The rewards of refraining from criticism are priceless.

PS: Did I mention that my husband gambled and won money and insisted that I spend it on getting new clothes for myself? YES, the rewards are that good. :)

Covid-19 restrictions mean that many couples are spending more time than ever confined at home together. Whether that turns out to be a blessing or a curse depends on whether or not you choose to focus on the negative and voice it. In this particular test, being “positive” is the best outcome.