How to Turn Your Spouse’s Criticism Constructive: Paul Miller
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Paul MillerPaul E. Miller (MDiv, Biblical Seminary) is executive director of seeJesus, a global discipling mission, and best-selling author of books and interactive Bible studies including A Praying Life and J-Curve. He and his wife, Jill, live in the Philadelphia area and have six children and a growing number of grandchildren. Follow @_PaulEMiller on Twitter, listen to the Seeing Jesus with Paul Miller podcast, or learn more at seeJesus.net.
Could your spouse’s constructive criticism shape you into a better person? Author Paul Miller chats about chucking defensiveness and recovering humility.
How to Turn Your Spouse’s Criticism Constructive: Paul Miller
Dave: I was thinking, just now—I think I know what you’re going to say—but if I asked you, “What was your biggest surprise about marriage?” Specifically, our marriage. Biggest surprise?
Ann: I think my biggest surprise was you.
Dave: Was me?
Dave: In what way? This is not what I thought I would get for an answer.
Ann: Ohhhh. Really?
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife® Today!
Dave: What was your biggest surprise about marriage? Our marriage?
Ann: I think I was surprised of how my feelings could go so up and down. But to be truthful, I had expectations of what you would be like and how you would treat me.
Dave: And I just let you down.
Ann: I was surprised by it. Let’s just say it like that.
Dave: That’s a nice way to say it! [Laughter] Just now, I was thinking that my surprise would be—I was surprised at how awesome and wonderful and great it can be. And I was surprised at how hard and agonizing it can be to be in a committed, marriage/love relationship. It’s both sides.
Ann: I don’t think I realized there would be the hard because we loved each other so much and we loved Jesus so much.
Dave: That’s what I was surprised about. I just didn’t think it would be that hard. We’re going to talk about how love can be awesome and wonderful and beautiful, and also sometimes hard—with Paul Miller!—who is back in the FamilyLife studios. It’s been awhile since Paul’s been with us. Paul, welcome back to FamilyLife!
Paul: Thank you! It’s good to be here again!
Dave: I don’t know what when you were here last time; I know we talked about your book The J-Curve.
Dave: Your ministry is seeJesus?
Paul: Yes, that’s right.
Dave: Tell us what that means—seeJesus.net I know is where we can find you.
Paul: The Greeks come to one of Jesus’ disciples, and they say, “We want to see Jesus!” In fact, that used to be our mission slogan, “Helping people see the beauty of Jesus.” People had no idea what our ministry was—did we sell artwork? [Laughter] It’s really seeing His beauty, which is inseparable from understanding how to love.
Dave: You’ve always been in Philadelphia?
Paul: No, I grew up in California; used to spend my summers in southwest Oregon. My dad was a church-planting pastor out there, so we lived in San Francisco and also in the San Joaquin Valley.
Ann: Tell us about your family.
Paul: We have six children. Our fourth child, Kim, is disabled. The other five are married, and all of them are married, so we have 15 grandchildren. I’ve asked Kim if she wants to get married—she’s our fourth daughter, who lives with us with disabilities. Kim has consistently said, “No, because it’s too noisy.” [Laughter] Yes, it’ just noisy!
Dave: That would be a surprise about marriage—that it’s noisy!
Ann: It’s kids and grandkids! It’s noisy! [Laughter]
Paul: Yes. She’s started thinking through. She thinks of her nieces and nephews like, maybe, wine? They’re best on the shelf for a few years until they quiet down. [Laughter] Or cheese?
Dave: That’s a good perspective.
Ann: That is good. Paul, you talk about love.
Ann: Our definition of love when we say, “I love you,” or, “I love this.” You’ve studied love, and you’ve defined love. And you’ve looked at the Author of love, which is Jesus. Are we skewed in our view of love, even in our marriages and relationships?
Paul: Yes. I would say at several levels. One of the most obvious is that people misunderstand love as a feeling. It has huge feeling components to it. But we tend to sit on the “happy” feelings that you often experience when you’re falling in love, which is great. But there’s also sadness and anger. There’s a kaleidoscope of feelings when it comes to love. That confuses people.
Also, because love—the beautiful thing about intimacy is when it’s mutual. So, they come into marriage, and their expectations are really high. And then—
Ann: You’re describing me; this is good.
Paul: Which are good, but the work of intimacy they are simply not prepared for. And they’re hunting for balance, and they’re hunting for evenness, and love is not balanced.
Ann: Why didn’t anyone ever tell us this?
Dave: That’s why we’re doing this program right now. There’s somebody listening, especially a pre-married or a married couple—this is going to be really, really helpful. We’re going to dive in a little bit to your book A Loving Life in a World of Broken Relationships. Relationships are broken. So, to love in this broken world is something we need to learn how to do. Like you said, it’s not just how I feel. I need to learn how to love. So, Paul, coach us!
Ann: But in our culture we feel like if our feelings are continually disappointment, anger; I feel like I’m not in love—we assume it’s because we’ve married the wrong person.
Ann: And you’re saying those feelings are normal in a relationship.
Dave: By the way, we both thought that, early in our marriage. [Laughter] We married the wrong person! We felt all those things, and you’re not supposed to feel those if you’re really in love!
Paul: Yes, that’s one of the dominant moods of our culture. It’s not just in marriage—people feel that with their work, with their relationships. So, they’re checking themselves, “How am I feeling about this?” and if they’re not feeling good, then they will either pull back, or—. I’ve even had two or three people mention, just in the last month, of someone in a family relationship outside of our family where they had said, “I need space from that relationship.” It no longer felt safe. You can’t get more modern than that.
Again, that needs qualifying. Sometimes you do need space, and sometimes relationships aren’t safe, but it’s like the master narrative. It’s kind of the quest, and the quest is for this soul that is unruffled by life. That deeper quest is that you think your soul will be fulfilled in marriage, but in fact your soul gets exposed in marriage.
Ann: Oh, that’s it, right there.
Dave: Yes, let’s talk about that.
Ann: Our soul gets exposed in marriage.
Dave: Because a lot of people don’t think that’s the reality that they want in marriage. “I don’t want my soul exposed.” But that’s a beautiful thing! Even though it’s agonizing.
Ann: What do you think that means?
Paul: As you know, we are two sinners that are coming together that are truly—let’s give them a good start—are truly in love with one another but unaware of their dark side—what Scripture calls “the flesh.” I would say the modern method of intimacy is that as you begin to see your spouse’s flesh, you think, “Ok. If I just point out to them their flesh, then I’ll feel better about them loving me, and we can be intimate. And if they don’t notice what I’m saying, then I’m going to repeat it.” I call it “intimacy through criticism.”
Ann: That’s what I did for years, thinking, “Oh, he surely doesn’t see it. Let me point it out.” [Laughter]
Paul: Right. And what better thing would your spouse want—
Ann: —to motivate him! I thought he would say, “Thank you! Thank you! I never realized!”
Dave: You would think after six months of it not working, they would stop and try a different tactic, but we just double down. [Laughter]
Paul: Yes. I love couples that have been married for 40 years, and they’re still picking away at one another. A couple times I’ve said, “Let’s just think about how many times you’ve said that critical comment to your spouse.” You can easily get up to a number of 5,000-10,000. [Laugher] Has it worked? Doesn’t seem like it’s working. Maybe you want to try a different strategy, like prayer, or just being quiet. Or what Jesus does at Gethsemane and says, “I take this cup.” Or maybe they’re never going to change, and that God wants to use this to draw you into the humility of Christ.
Ann: Paul, I just have to stop for a second and say, “My sisters, my friends, are you hearing that?” because as a woman, I really thought my criticism—I didn’t even think it was criticism! I thought my words were helpful. I thought I was helping Dave and trying to motivate him to change. Then, I did double down. I thought that he surely isn’t hearing me because he’s not responding, so maybe he’s not hearing me. Paul, it had the opposite effect. All he wanted to do was pull away.
Ann: I love that you’re saying, “Just take a second. It’s not working. It’s not working.”
Paul: Has it worked?
Ann: It has not worked, and it doesn’t work. But I do see that it changes marriages, because I know that Dave really did start pulling away from me. I continually blamed him. Just take a second to look at myself; to take a second to pray, “Lord, how should I change this?” That’s wise counsel from you.
Paul: Yes. Let me flip it, though. It is God’s principal, chosen physical path to make men great, though. If as a husband, you can be attentive to your wife’s corrections and work at it, it is a way to greatness for men. As you begin to develop new habits—and that was one of the things that happened early on in our marriage as my wife began to poke away at my character. After getting through the first recoils, it began to make me a better person. It’s that kind of chiseling of manhood.
In Western civilization—and Western civilization is not better than any other culture; I’m not saying that—but it has been deeply imprinted by the Gospel and Jesus, where there’s this call within marriage to not seek fulfillment outside of marriage but to be solely focused on your spouse. These are the cultures that have developed strong women. And strong women make strong men. So, I’m just giving the flip side of that.
Ann: I think what I ended up doing is I stopped criticizing so much. Then, when I needed to speak the truth after I had prayed about it, I did say something to Dave, and then he could receive it because I wasn’t a constant belligerent voice of critique in his head.
Ann: Once in a while I’d say, “Hey, I’m seeing this. And that was probably more helpful.”
Dave: Yes, in our story—and every marriage is different (we’ve shared this many times here, so listeners have heard this)—but she flipped the script, and started calling out the good in me. At first I thought she was lying because she was more critiquing, and then she started saying, “You’re a good man,” or a good husband, “And I see these things.” Over time, I felt loved and respected by her. And then when she had a hard truth, like, “Hey, I have something to say,” I was more apt to receive it because I felt like, “Wow! She really believes in me. She loves me.”
Then, as I was studying the Word and teaching on marriage, we realized, “That’s part of God’s design for Christian marriage,” is that a husband and wife will sharpen one another to become what?—like Christ! That’s the goal! One of the greatest gifts we receive from God is our spouse, who sees more than anybody else is going to see. When they speak something, we can get defensive and say, “I don’t want to hear that,” or we can go, “This is a gift. God wants me to work on this area. Thank You for this woman/man who’s calling this out.”
But what we typically do is push them away. “I don’t want this. I don’t feel like I’m in love anymore,” and we go looking for somebody else. They’re going to be nice for a while and then they’re going to do the same thing as well, right? Is that sort of a description of what—?
Paul: Yes, very much so. I like to flip what Jesus hears from His Heavenly Father on several occasions from the heavens. Jesus hears, “This is My beloved Son with Whom I am well-pleased.” What the husband or wife will hear when they get a barrage of criticism is the flip of that. “You are my unworthy husband with whom I am displeased.” Or, “You are my unworthy wife with whom I am displeased.”
When that gets down to become a narrative—it can be either side—when that becomes a narrative in the soul—and the soul already bends that way, towards guilt and shame—then everything is shaped above the water line by that narrative of what they are saying to you.
That’s why it’s so, so important to nourish in your heart a sense of the love of God for you, which is the Gospel; so that you’re hearing the same narrative in your soul that Jesus hears. You know that God’s pleasure for you is infinite because the blood of Jesus is infinite, and that God is for me.
Then, I can actually hear the criticism. That actually gives me the courage, whether you’re a husband or a wife, to speak to a critical spirit. What happens when you speak to someone who has a critical spirit in any relationship, but particularly in marriage, you get more criticism.
Ann: How did you do that? Speak to a critical spirit?
Paul: For me, stage one was being attentive to the criticism. But at some point, after that, I began to really learn and soak in the Gospel. I studied the Gospel for me, just resting in God’s love for me. I knew my soul was disoriented at its core level, and I needed to learn again. What I’m talking about feeding faith in your soul, that core faith that God is for me. So, if God is for me, then I don’t have hear an internal narrative of “You are my unworthy husband.” Or “You are my unworthy wife.”
Ann: “Son, or….”
Paul: I can listen to criticism; I can take it seriously; I can be gentle in my response. Maybe as part of that, as a ministry to my wife, I can speak honestly to her about having a critical spirit.
Ann: What would that sound like, to speak honestly to her about a critical spirit?
Paul: “Honey, do you know you’ve reminded me about this five times today?” Just a sentence; do you know what I mean?
Ann: Just a gentle answer turns away wrath.
Dave: I like how you’re saying it gently because I’ve said that screaming. It doesn’t go as well. “Do you know you’ve told me that five times today?” It just causes more criticism.
Paul: Yes. So, waiting and praying for a time—I’ve also learned that there’s no perfect time. Then, you might be criticized for, “Oh, you’re timing’s bad; how you said it is bad.” If there’s criticism of how I’ve shared the criticism. By the way, the gentleness with which I say that came because my wife was critical of how I was critical about her criticism. [Laughter]
Dave: I’ve been there before!
Paul: What do I do? How do I keep that from getting into a quarrel when she’s critical about my criticism of her critical spirit? How do you keep that—because you’re right on the edge of a quarrel at this point. You listen to her. I go lower. I say, “Well, how could I have done that? How should I have said that differently?”
Dave: Go soft.
Paul: Humility is the key to all that. You can only get that from Jesus.
Dave: Paul, I was thinking when you were talking about receiving the love of God for ourselves—your book title, A Loving Life Starts with Being Loved. When you were saying that just a minute ago, I thought that requires in my mind—you can tell me whether I’m right or wrong—two things: confidence in God’s love for me, and humility.
When somebody critiques you, a prideful, arrogant person gets defensive. A humble person knows this is a gift. Even though it’s hard, I’m receiving something I need to hear, but I won’t receive it if I’m not confident in that I am a beloved son/daughter of the King! Is that true?
Paul: That is very true.
Dave: Part of me thinks that is the root of all of our issues—probably not all, but most of our issues in marriage or in life. I don’t truly believe that. You were talking earlier, you have just saturated yourself. Is that how a person gets there?
Ann: In the Gospel?
Paul: The little phrase I coined was, “Preach the Gospel to yourself.” I need to speak it to me. I need to hear God’s love for me. What that does is that it frees me to hear criticism. It frees me from how my flesh is wanting to react to that criticism. It frees me when I feel the anger welling up in my spirit to weigh and pray. I pray every day that I would get it right; that I would be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.
Paul: I can have written three books on love! I need to pray that every day. [Laughter] It’s not like I’ve graduated beyond this because my flesh is omnipresent until I go to be with Jesus. Knowing that allows me to say, “I need Jesus to help me today to love.” I don’t outgrow my need for the Spirit of Jesus to be in me and possess me.
Dave: What you just said, Paul. I think we’ve all done this. I remember preaching a sermon three or four times on a weekend about this very thing. When your spouse or someone speaks truth to you in love—Ephesians 4:15—it’s a gift from God. It’s to mold you to become like Christ. Receive it. Don’t get defensive.
Then I literally walked home two hours later. Ann points out something, and everything in me…. It just happened last week! I won’t get into it, but she was like, “When we’re out with people sometimes you do this too much.” You know what? I knew when she said it—she’s 100% right. I can feel it even when it was happening; I was talking too much. And everything in me is still, “Yes, but…”
It’s like you said. “God, I need Your Holy Spirit right here, right now because my sin nature, my selfishness, is rising up to defend myself against a gift. She’s telling me something I need to hear, and I need to listen to.” I’ve just preached and told other people to do it, and I’m struggling to do it. Have you ever been there?
Paul: I’ve been there so much. That was the last thing we did together, was on the J-Curve. It’s been part of my life for about 30 years. So, as my wife comes to me, and if she says it badly, I don’t have to critique her in the moment for how she’s saying it. I can actually focus on her heart and her meaning.
The only way I can do that is to think of the letter “J” going down into death, is the path of Jesus—He goes down into death and up into resurrection. Instead of grasping at resurrection, I go down into the death God has in front of me. It’s a little mini death, right at that point. I can take that death, even in that moment, knowing that how to receive my wife/what she’s saying is a path, helps me. That path, if you do it a lot, develops ruts in your life.
Dave: That’s a good word because we want to skip the down.
Dave: We want to jump to resurrection. I think of Paul—I think it’s Philippians 3:10—saying—
Paul: “I want to know Christ and the fellowship of sharing in His suffering, becoming like Him in His death.”
Dave: And the power of His resurrection!
Paul: And then the power of His resurrection comes out of it! But I don’t begin with resurrection. I begin with death. And maybe the resurrection is just me being attentive to my wife, even if she does it badly, and taking her seriously and not dismissing that. And Jesus always meets me in the death because my will gets snapped.
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Wilson with Paul Miller on FamilyLife Today. Ann’s going to share what stuck out to her in today’s conversation in just a minute. But first, Paul has written a book called A Loving Life in a World of Broken Relationships. You can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329. That’s 800-“F” as in family-“L” as in life-and then the word “TODAY.”
Later this week, we’re going to be joined by author Philip Yancey. His book is called Where the Light Fell. It’s a memoir that he’s written, and we’d love to send you a copy as a thanks when you partner financially with FamilyLife. You’ll help more families hear conversations just like the one you heard today—conversations that point to the hope found in Jesus Christ. You can give at FamilyLifeToday.com, or again, my calling at 800-358-6329. That’s 800-“F” as in family-“L” as in life-and then the word “TODAY.”
How much time are you spending with your spouse? And what would your family look like if you took intentional time pursuing the people you love the most? That answer could be inspiring, or it could be eye-opening. One year, five hundred hours, a lifetime of impact. FamilyLife has developed a resource called Five Hundred Hours Together. It’s a one-year marriage challenge. We’d love you to check it out and learn more. You can find our link in the show notes at FamilyLife.com.
Alright, here’s Ann with what stuck out to her the most from today’s conversation.
Ann: Whenever I’m around you, when we were with you the last time—Paul, it’s obvious you sit at the feet of Jesus. You don’t have those responses. I wrote down what you said. “I have become attentive to criticism.” Wow! Most of us run so quickly away from criticism. But because you’ve spent so much time with Jesus, you know who He calls you; you know that He loves you. You know that.
Ann: You can be attentive, even to criticism because you know that you’re a son of the Most High God.
Shelby: Ok, if we’re being honest, we’ve all had a boss or someone who we just couldn’t stand, right? Are you guilty of that? I definitely am. Tomorrow on FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann are joined again with Paul Miller who will talk about how he endured in love through similar circumstances that I just mentioned. That’s tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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