It has been said that what we focus on becomes larger in our lives. This truism seems applicable not only to the goals and dreams we have for our lives—and this can be a good thing, but also for the little annoyances that interrupt our marriage life.
Consider Jeremy. He is a 45-year-old successful banker. He has achieved essentially all of the goals he set for himself 20 years earlier. He has a thriving law practice, a lovely home and a marriage of 22 years with three vigorous teenage children. Jeremy is also active in church, where he has filled a number of leadership positions. He loves his church family and the friendships he has made there.
But, Jeremy has a growing problem. He has become more critical as time has gone by on some of his wife’s foibles. He notices, and comments upon, the house being is disarray during any particularly busy week. He notices, and comments upon, the few extra pounds she has gained over the years. He notices, and comments upon, his children’s misbehaviors and less than perfect grades. Jeremy has become critical and vocal about his complaints.
You might already guess the impact of his negativity on his marriage and relationship to his children. While his perfectionism has helped him thrive financially, it is driving a wedge between him and his wife and children. Furthermore, it seems the more he focuses on these issues, the larger they become to him. He has become less happy over time.
To be fair, Jeremy has some awareness that his critical nature isn’t serving him well. He can feel the rift grow in his marriage. He wonders if he is too critical, if he should “let some things go.” But, he doesn’t, and they become a wedge in his relationships.
“I have this feeling that I should cut everybody more slack, but I can’t seem to help it. I see the problems and I want to solve them. I think my wife should lose weight. I think my kids are capable of better grades. I think our home can be kept neater and my kids can do a better job of helping out around the home.”
“What effect, Jeremy, is your critical attitude having on your relationships?” I asked.
“Well,” he said smiling. “You don’t really need to ask that question. My wife doesn’t like me nagging her. My kids run when they see me coming. Even my colleagues seem to be stepping away from me. It’s not working for me.”
I applauded Jeremy for setting up this counseling session, and coming to talk to me was taking the first step toward change. He was doing what we call active monitoring of his behavior; seeing that if he continued to be critical, especially in the absence of encouragement, he would lose the respect and closeness with those he cares about. We outlined these additional steps:
1. Focus on the positive.
Like many others, Jeremy has become obsessed with the negative. As a result, these issues have grown in his mind. What we focus on becomes larger in our minds and so he must find things to compliment his wife and children on. He must have a counter-balance, if you will, to his destructive tendencies.
Scripture offers this advice: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8) Applying this Scripture isn’t just good for our relationships, it’s good for our soul. As we hide Scriptures such as these in our hearts, we find our attitudes changing for the better.
2. Keep things in perspective.
While Jeremy may have legitimate issues of concern, they must be kept in balance with the larger picture. Is his wife’s weight gain really that significant? Are his children’s grades really that concerning? Is the house really that messy? Often when we focus on a problem, it seems larger than it is in reality.
3. Talk things out with a friend.
Jeremy would do well to find someone to whom he can externalize his concerns. Keeping them bottled up will often only amplify a concern. Airing them out with a trusted friend will help him gain a healthier perspective.
4. Notice the effect of his critical attitude.
Jeremy may have legitimate concerns, but an obsessive focus on them erodes his well-being and causes a rift between him and those he loves. Criticism rarely changes the issues that concern us. Positive encouragement and support are the factors that often lead to effective change.
Please feel free to contact me for further information or advice on Marriage Intensives or consultations on what may be needed to assist you in your marriage. Share your concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website, www.marriagerecoverycenter.com.