Marital Communication: The Key to Marital Success | Dr. Meir Wikler

Silence is golden — but not always. There are times when it is both necessary and helpful to express negative feelings of criticism and disappointment.

And there is no relationship in which it is more important to be able to express negative feelings than marriage. Isn’t that a non-Jewish point of view? Isn’t the Torah perspective on this matter that one should always withhold his or her negative feelings? Aren’t we supposed to try not to express our feelings of disapproval? Let’s take a look at what the Torah actually says on this subject.

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart; surely you shall rebuke the members of your people; and you shall not bear sin because of him.” (Vayikrah 19:17)

Perhaps this pasuk is encouraging us to love all fellow Jews and not allow ourselves to feel any resentment. How do we know that this pasuk enjoins us to express our reproach openly?

The Gemorah clarifies this passage as follows. “From where do we learn that if someone sees a negative trait in his fellow Jew (s)he is obligated to censure him or her for it? As it is written, ‘Surely you shall rebuke.’” (Arachin 16b)

What, then, is the connection with the end of the pasuk, regarding not bearing sin? The Gemorah explains. “Perhaps it is even [permissible to rebuke someone in a manner which would publicly] embarrass him or her? [Therefore, the Torah] comes to teach us, ‘You shall not bear sin because of him.’” (Ibid.)

From these passages in the Gemorah, we learn two important principles of interpersonal relations. First, if someone is upset with a fellow Jew, (s)he is obligated to express his or her feelings of disapproval. The second lesson is that the criticism must be delivered privately, in a manner which does not cause the individual any public embarrassment.

The Rashbam, takes all of this one step further. As he put it, “You shall surely rebuke him or her for what (s)he did. And through this [process of effective communication of your negative feelings] there will be peace and harmony.” The open communication itself, then, will lead to peace.

While all of this is important between any two people it is even more important between husband and wife. If husbands and wives try to suppress all of their negative feelings toward one another, it will have only destructive consequences. Good marriages are not the outcome of spouses hiding from and denying all of their feelings of disappointment and displeasure.

On the contrary, good marriages are the outcome of couples learning how to communicate all of their feelings to each other in a constructive fashion.  

A number of years ago, a nationally syndicated comic strip ran the following cartoon. Two men were having a drink together. While his friend pays rapt attention, one of the men shares a recent personal revelation. “If I had known what marriage was going to be like, I would have joined the debating team in high school.”

As all comedians know, humor can be found in exaggerating the truths of everyday life. Hopefully, for most people, marriage is not one long debate. But there are times in every marriage when spouses feel that they are not communicating effectively with each other.

The most obvious example is when couples are quarreling or bickering much too often. The frequency of the arguments is one of the best indicators that effective communication has broken down, if it ever existed to begin with. When spouses raise their voices, they succeed only in displaying the depth of their frustration and disappointment. Beyond that, very little is accomplished. In most instances, only hurt feelings, sadness and even despair are the consequences.

A less obvious, but not less common, example of ineffective communication is when one or both spouses feels misunderstood, unappreciated, disregarded or disrespected. This state of affairs can, but does not always, lead to open displays of hostility. Sometimes, the agonizing spouse (or spouses) suffers in silence. The feeling of not being heard does not always trigger a confrontation. But the alienation and distance created may take years to overcome, if ever.

When couples are not communicating effectively, when they are not getting most of their basic needs met in the marriage, I have found it is helpful to work on their marital communication skills so that each spouse can get more of what they are looking for from each other.


Dr. Meir Wikler is a noted psychotherapist and family counselor in full-time private practice with offices in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Lakewood, N.J. He is also a prolific author and sought after public speaker.

This article has been reprinted with permission of the author and publisher from Ten Minutes a Day to a Better Marriage: Getting Your Spouse to Understand You by Dr. Meir Wikler (Artscroll, 2003).



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