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Compliments can be a loaded weapon

Of the many things husbands have to be careful about, you'd think compliments wouldn't be one. You'd think no man would ever risk a demerit for clear praise like, "You look great tonight."

You would be wrong.Long-married men know this. Flattering a wife is trickier than brokering peace in Bosnia. Land mines are everywhere.

Take, for example, something this simple: "You look great tonight."

Never say that to a wife. Her response will not be, "Thank you."

It will be this: "Are you saying I usually don't?"

The only safe way out is to retreat: "What I meant is, you always look great and it's a crime I don't tell you . . ."

But that feels like kowtowing, as in, "Forgive me, ma'am, I meant no offense." In life, kowtowing is often wise, such as when facing an IRS auditor, firing squad or peeved wife, but men never do it.

We learn early not to kowtow, usually at summer camp, after some big kid tells us that's his cookie we picked in the food line, hand it over. And we do, feeling kowtowing is the way to make this punk leave us alone. Instead, it shows weakness, leading the big kid to give us wedgies the rest of the summer.

It's a useful lesson but gets us in trouble in marriage.

If we saw that, we'd retreat in a compliment crisis: "What I meant to say is, you always look great." But it doesn't occur to us that 40-year-old mothers-of-three should be treated differently than punk 9-year-old boys, so we have to show we're not backing down by adding:

"You just look especially great today."

The first time a husband says this, he feels he's outwitted his wife, kept up the compliment, but in a non-kowtowing way too clever for her to see.

He's wrong. When it comes to comments on appearance, they have yet to invent the nuance too subtle for a wife to catch.

She'll respond: "So I don't `look especially great' most nights?"

This kind of challenge can induce panic, which you have to fight as it makes you defensive, the worst place a husband can be: "I never said that, you just heard that."

That's true. He never said that, meant it or even thought it. It's absurd that anyone could have heard such a message.

But he's wasting his time because in all of marital history, there has never been a case of a husband convincing a wife he did not say what she claims she heard.

That applies no matter how opposite her perception is from his words.

Husband: "I picked up some cheap curtains for the bathroom window, just temporary until . . . "

Wife: "Well, I'm sorry you don't think I do anything around here, window treatments don't happen overnight, and not that you'd know, but laundry doesn't just happen either, or meals, or the bills, and I don't see you making sure the kids have shoes that fit or everything else I'm trying to do to make your life better, but if you think I'm neglecting the family then say so instead of bulldozing ahead with your own decor plan because you have zero faith I can handle it . . . "

Feeling accused of a felony they didn't commit, most husbands will begin to explain that you took them wrong, they're innocent, honest.

But no matter how eloquent your proof, it won't work because of the first survival rule of husbands: Never defend yourself against false charges. It only convinces them you're guilty.

You want to be acquitted?

With a judge, you deny the charges. With a wife, you have to acknowledge them.

Even if they're groundless.

I'm not saying you confess. You validate: You totally understand how someone could make those charges. You don't blame; who wouldn't feel that way?

There's a shorthand way to get that across, and it may be worth trying the next time you're accused of a statement you never made.

Replace: "You don't hear what I'm saying."

With: "I hear what you're saying."

If you hold to that as long as it takes, avoiding even a phrase of veiled defense - a single "but" will kill you - you'll be exonerated.

I don't know why, but it works. Of course, knowing this doesn't mean I practice it most of the time. The problem is that males need to stand our ground. Which conflicts with the female need to feel validated. Which they can't feel unless we give ground.

The only answer, I suppose, is to give compliments right the first time. I think I brought that off once. I forget what I said, but do remember it was perfect praise, a clean tribute with no double-meaning, the kind of flattery spoken by leading men in movies, which makes your wife ask why you never say such things.

At least once, I did.

But now that I recall, the response wasn't what I hoped for.

She did not say, "Thank you." She got suspicious.

"What did you do?" she asked.

Huh?

"You broke something, didn't you . . ."