Many spouses today feel literally starved for a word of praise from their life’s partner
“Chaim” was a thirty-something turbo-charged real estate developer with a posh home in an upscale neighborhood. All his children were doing well in school. And he had no health issues on his plate. Why, I wondered to myself a few minutes into our initial meeting, was this highly successful, confident young man seeking my help?
Without my having to ask, Chaim answered my unspoken question.
“Basically, my wife and I have a pretty good marriage,” he assured me. “And we both care a lot for each other. But the real sticking point in our relationship is that my wife seems incapable of giving compliments.”
Chaim went on to explain that his wife “comes from a home where compliments were never heard. Both of her parents demonstrated their approval just by not criticizing. To be fair, therefore, I understand why this is challenging for her.
“I, on the other hand, come from a very dysfunctional home where neither of my parents was emotionally supportive or nurturing in any way. My father was, and still is, so self-absorbed that I often feel as if he looks to me to parent him. And my mother was always putting me and my siblings down. As a result, I suppose I have a greater than average need for the comfort and closeness I would feel if I could just hear a compliment once in a while from my wife.”
Unfortunately, Chaim is not alone. Many spouses today feel literally starved for a word of praise from their life’s partner. And this hunger simply cannot be satisfied by friends or other relatives, including children.
Some readers might shake their heads and think, “Why doesn’t Chaim just grow up, move on, and accept that his wife is simply not the complimenting type? Why is he insisting on chasing this modern, goyish, romantic fantasy of his, which is undermining his shalom bayis?
If you are one of them, you might be surprised to learn what Rav Avigdor Miller ztz”l had to say on the Torah’s injunction for spouses to “cling” to each other (Bereishis 2:24).
Among the details that are included in the principle of v’davak [cling] is the necessity to encourage and praise each other as much as possible. A husband should always be praising his wife — it’s never enough… A wife too should compliment her husband — she should make it her business to find ways to show her appreciation to her husband... Think of different things to say, different ways to praise him… Encouragement and praise are very important elements in a home — it’s a way of constantly strengthening the bond of loyalty. And therefore, even when it’s difficult, even when it doesn’t seem so natural, as much as possible, lavish your spouse with kind words. (Toras Avigdor, Parshas Bereishis, pp. 10–12)
Not only women can be compliment challenged; men can also. I recall, for example, one couple with whom I worked a while back. Before either spouse raised a complaint in my office, I encouraged them to preface it with a compliment. Each time the husband spoke, he would begin with, “The cholent was very good this week.” Given his wide girth, it was easy to see that his compliment was offered with utmost sincerity.
As the weeks wore on, however, all this man was able to come up with was a positive assessment of the cholent his wife prepared each week. To the wife’s visible relief, I finally called out her husband on his repetitiveness. I then offered them both a crash course on crafting compliments correctly.
In order for a compliment to hit its mark, it should include as much detail as possible. Instead of, “You did a great job,” for example, say exactly what your spouse did that impressed you and what you found so special about it.
In addition, whenever possible, try to include some expression of personal feeling. For example, instead of just saying, “You’re really good at that,” add that you feel proud and fortunate to be married to someone who has that skill or talent.
Finally, the best compliments are evidence based. In other words, if you are praising your spouse’s parenting, do not simply say, “I think you are a wonderful father/mother to our children.” Try to provide a concrete example to back up your positive assessment such as, “Yesterday, when Chani was kvetching nonstop in the car, I thought you had so much patience and compassion. You calmed her down much better than I ever could have done.”
The need to hear a kind word from one’s spouse is universal. And the obligation to praise one’s spouse is definitely Torah based, as Rav Miller so explicitly pointed out. The powerful impact of a positive comment, however, was dramatically driven home to me some time ago by one particular couple who had an exceptional marriage by all standards.
Both husband and wife had a deep respect and admiration for each other. When speaking to me about each other, they both lavished such praise on each other that I almost blushed hearing it. The wife lauded her husband’s Torah scholarship. And the husband extolled his wife’s management of all household affairs. The high esteem in which they held each other was undeniable. Why, then, were they coming to see me?
The husband was the child of Holocaust survivors who never complimented their children or each other. He found complimenting his wife to her face to be an insurmountable hurdle. And his wife was so desperate to hear the words he could not utter that she once took what she considered a drastic step. She wrote out, “You look beautiful,” on the back of a shirt cardboard. And then to remove all doubt, she added the following prompt in parentheses, “Read out loud.”
The wife waited until they were ready to attend their next simchah. Before they left the house, she handed the preprinted praise to her husband and asked him to say it.
The husband, who sincerely wanted to please his wife, took the cardboard and said, “You look beautiful. Read out loud.”
By including the directions, he was not being facetious. Rather he was being somewhat concrete and temimusdig in fulfilling her wishes. And she took it as such.
When describing the episode to me, the wife smiled and disclosed, “Even though he just read what I had written out for him, and even though he thoughtlessly added the instructions, ‘Read out loud,’ — believe it or not, it still felt good to finally hear that compliment!”
Dr. Meir Wikler, a frequent contributor to this space, is an author, psychotherapist, and family counselor in full-time private practice, with offices in Brooklyn and Lakewood. He is also a public speaker whose lectures and shiurim are carried on TorahAnytime.com.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 892)
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