As therapists and humans, we know all too well the universality of externalizing, especially in relationships and especially in marriages. Indeed, we can go back all the way to Adam HaRishon to find this ubiquitous behavior. What moves me to write, however, is a phenomenon that I have encountered with clients, and, let’s be honest, with myself as well. That is the experience of hearing a Rov or other wise person speak about the elements of Shalom Bayis, behaviors for successful marriages, and behaviors that damage marriages, and then applying the advice not to me, the listener, but to my spouse.
Many a client has told me of learning or hearing marriage advice, and has then used that advice as a cudgel against his or her spouse, seemingly removing him or herself from the intended audience and from candidacy for change. I would speculate that speakers who offer such advice assume as a given that the audience is applying the advice to themselves, not their spouses. It may seem utterly obvious to the speaker, and unnecessary to articulate. Still, when this happens, the advice isn’t just ignored, constituting little more than a lack of benefit to the marriage. Rather, the advice is used to the detriment of the marriage, contributing to righteous indignation, and judgment of one spouse toward the other. As such, speakers run the real risk of completely inadvertently and unintentionally doing harm to the marriage. I would therefore humbly suggest that such speakers strongly consider prefacing their remarks with an explicit call for listeners to apply the advice to themselves, not their spouses.
Suggested remarks: “As you would expect, we are going to be discussing ideas and behaviors tonight that contribute to good marriages, and those that harm marriages. Before we begin, I want to make something very clear. Whatever advice we discuss tonight should be understood to be directed at each of us in this room, including myself. It should NOT be understood as directed at your spouse. If you came tonight looking for more ways to criticize your spouse, or if you find yourself thinking that what I’m saying applies to your spouse and not to you, then you’ve not only missed the point, but you are misusing and distorting what I am offering. I don’t want to be responsible for being a source to criticize your spouse. That’s not why I’m here. Even if your spouse is here with you in the audience, please understand that whatever we say about the need to change and improve is intended for you and you only. If we all take responsibility for change, then we will move our marriages forward.”