Recently on vacation, I saw a young couple with two small kids leaving the beach. And as my Southern grandmother used to say, “God love ‘em.” The kids looked to be around 2 and 4 and were covered in sand, as were the toys, chairs, beach bag, and parents. While the kids were still in play mode, mom, on the other hand, was not. She was done.
Then it happened.
That thing happened that I see spouses do, that thing I pray not to do, that thing that derails the relationship, that thing that hurts, that thing they would have never done while they were dating, that thing that most people think little about it, that thing that is so common, that thing that some would say was deserved.
That thing is getting mean about a mistake.
In the middle of the chaos of leaving the beach, the husband placed the beach bag on top of the fence close to the outdoor shower, and it instantly fell to the ground spilling all the contents. The wife immediately became angry and frustrated and gave him a look that said it all. The message, “You’re an idiot.”
In all fairness to her, most of us have been there, done that. Our spouse makes what we think is an avoidable, stupid mistake and we react in an unkind way. Maybe our spouse breaks our favorite coffee mug, spills orange juice, loses their phone, forgets to close the garage door, tells the story all wrong, arrives late to pick up a kid, forgets something on the grocery list, or loads the dishwasher “wrong.” We don’t like it when they do these things and we react. Whatever our reason for an impatient or unkind response to our spouse’s mistakes, the result is the same: it causes damage.
Here’s why these reactions are often full of criticism and/or contempt.
Dr. John Gottman includes criticism and contempt in his list of the four things he sees in couples that predict the end of the relationship. Yes, how we habitually respond to our spouse’s inevitable mistakes greatly impacts the condition of our marriage. Belinda Luscome, author of Marriageolgoy says it this way, “contempt is the weaponized version of taking someone for granted.”
I have to imagine that when the husband and dad at the beach got the “you’re an idiot” look, and all the words around it, he felt taken for granted. He was spending time with his family at the beach on vacation. I’m assuming, like her, he contributed something to what made their vacation possible… Finances, agreement to go, prioritizing family over other hobbies, etc. And while I don’t know the whole story, and he may or may not do the same to her, I do know criticism and contempt are never helpful in growing and enjoying our relationships.
So, what is the correct response the next time our spouse makes what we think is an avoidable, stupid mistake? Treat them like we would a friend, or even a stranger.
I imagine if this woman’s friend had made the same mistake with the beach bag, she would have chosen a different response. Like her husband, the friend would already be regretting their stupid mistake. She would have felt no need to pile on her friend. In fact, she would have probably tried to reassure her it was no big deal. The key here is to choose the response vs. simply reacting. Let’s choose grace instead of grouchiness. Let’s choose humor instead of hate. Let’s choose calm over chaos. Let’s choose heart over hurt. Our spouses are going to make mistakes. These are actually great moments to show our spouses unconditional love and grace. These are opportunities to love the way we want to be loved. Yes, we choose how we treat the one we chose. Let’s choose well.
This post originally appeared on MarriedPeople.org and is reprinted with permission.
Ted Lowe is an author, speaker, and the director of MarriedPeople—the marriage division at Orange. Ted is the author of two books—one for marriage ministry leaders (Married People: How Your Church Can Build Marriages That Last) and one for married couples (Your Best US: Marriage Is Easier Than You Think). He served for almost 10 years as the director of MarriedLife at North Point Community Church. He lives near Atlanta, Georgia, with his four favorite people: his wife, Nancie, and their three children.