Mark Twain once famously quipped that he could live two months on a good compliment. Most of us, if we’re being honest, find this observation relatable on some level or another. Whether we acknowledge it or not — often women will but men won’t, because to acknowledge it is to admit weakness, vulnerability, and need, traditionally seen as feminine frailties — we all need praise from time to time. It is a basic human desire to be affirmed. Buried within the most secure psyche is a jumble of half-articulated insecurities and a sprawling welter of human needs. That’s why single people (or people in bad relationships) find themselves so often feeling lonely: “people are meant to go through life two by two,” notes Thornton Wilder in Our Town. “‘Tain’t natural to be lonesome.” To be fair, most of us don’t do kind, good, or noteworthy things in our lives for the recognition; we do them for their own sake, for the sake of those around us, for the sake of our character development. We do them to enact a positive change in our own little corner of the universe — but a little recognition can bolster and buoy our determination to do more kind, good, or noteworthy things in the future.
Think back on your childhood. Were you more likely to finish your chores and homework if you were threatened with grounding, or if you knew you would get a gold star on your achievement chart posted with pride on the fridge? Didn’t you perform better in athletics or the arts when your parents showed up and were cheering in the front row of the bleachers or the auditorium? If you’re of a certain age, you probably participated in the Book-It program and you probably vigilantly read x number of books each summer because that God-awful little $2.99 personal pan pepperoni pizza ($2.99 in 1992, anyway) was ever before your eyes as a tangible reminder of what you were striving for. We are hard-wired to respond to systems of reward and praise because we all, on a fundamental human level, long to feel special, unique, talented, lovable, irreplaceable, unrepeatable. “Secure people don’t need praise” is a bullsh*t outlook on life. We all need praise, from the six-year-old at the karate awards ceremony to the 22-year-old landing the first real job out of undergrad to the 44-year-old for the epic work promotion. Perhaps at times this need is a manifestation of our own neuroses, but more often than not it is simply that we want to be seen, known, loved, and appreciated for our finer qualities and achievements. As Tolstoy once observed, “In the best, the friendliest, and simplest relations . . . praise is necessary, just as grease is necessary to keep wheels turning.”
How does this apply concretely to relationships? Put succinctly, most women ask for affirmation; most men don’t. I know, spare me your sputterings, I’m being an antifeminist asshole. But search your feelings — you know it to be true. All day long, to varying degrees, the vast majority of the women I know (myself included) beg, cajole, and angle for praise. Do you still love me? Does this make my butt look big? Did you like the chicken parmesan I made? Do you think he likes me? Is she prettier than me? Did you read/like/THINK-IT-IS-AWESOME-AND-DESERVES-A-PULITZER that article I wrote (frequently guilty of that one, right here)? Did that [fill in work project here] meet all expectations/demands/specifications? Are you mad at me?
Men, as a general precept, are exponentially less likely to ask for affirmation or demand it, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need to hear it. So sometimes we must take it upon ourselves to offer it unasked. Ask yourself the fundamental questions: Why are you with this guy? What do you love about him? What about him makes your skin flush, your toes tingle, your heart go pitter-patter, your world glow in widescreen Technicolor? What does he do that makes you smile? What is he good at? What are his passions and gifts? [If you don’t have a ready answer for these questions, you are a) probably an awful, selfish, and unobservant person, or b) have much bigger and more unresolvable problems with your relationship/marriage than this article can address.] It doesn’t take much to make someone feel loved and affirmed, but too often we overlook the many daily opportunities to do so.
Case in point: I spent the better part of this schoolyear facilitating a fledgling high school drama program with a group of lovably inexperienced students, 85 percent of which had never been on a stage before. Their months of hard work — and mine — culminated in two performances a few weeks ago of the classic Kaufman and Hart comedy, You Can’t Take it With You. My husband is a man of few words and (unlike myself) a laconic and reserved presence on social media. When he got home (I had to stay at the school with the kids for a few hours and strike the set), I happened to thumb through my Facebook notifications on my smartphone as I vacuumed the dressing room while nagging the kids to hang up their costumes. “Had a great time at You Can’t Take it With You,” he had status-updated, tagging me in it. I actually glowed phosphorescent. This dude I love is in some ways a stereotypical military man (think Captain von Trapp with way better abs) — so neither an exhibitionistic personality, nor profligate with praise, nor an easy-to-please critic — which meant that simple sentence meant the world to me. What took him eight seconds to type made my week.
Why, so often, don’t we stop to affirm the little things? To return to Our Town, “Let’s really look at one another! It goes so fast… we don’t have time to look at one another.” Why does “STOP LEAVING YOUR G-DDAMN DIRTY SOCKS ON THE BATHROOM FLOOR AND TAKE THE TRASH OUT WHILE YOU’RE AT IT!” spring so much more readily to the tongue than “Thank you for dinner, it was delicious,” or “congratulations on your successful project!” or “I love the way you crinkle your nose when you smile” or “you are the best kisser on the planet” or “you are so gifted at acting/ painting/ saxophone-playing/ public speaking/ football/ dancing/ philosophy/ wood-burning/ stamp-collecting/ writing/ film analysis/ mindblowing sex/ all of the above”? Are we all just overwhelmingly mean and negative people, or are we simply distracted, navel-gazing, careless, and woefully out of practice? We often lavish praise on our friends, our colleagues, and our children — yet rarely on our long-term significant others. Why? You’re with this person, which ipso facto means at some point you thought he/she was the bees’ knees. Rediscover why that was the case, and tell him/her so often.
As an important corollary, STOP CRITICIZING NOW. I’m not saying there isn’t a time and a place for constructive criticism when a loved one’s behavior is damaging or dangerous to himself or others — but I’m talking about the thousand petty cruelties we all unthinkingly utter to our loved ones a thousand times a day for no apparent reason. My mother used to remind us growing up that before we opened our mouths, we ought to carefully consider our words in light of this three-pronged principle: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, DON’T SAY IT. No one has yet choked on a harsh word swallowed.
Why is this particularly important in zen and the art of relationship maintenance? Because women are inherently more verbal than men. Studies have repeatedly shown that men, on average, speak 7,000 words a day to a woman’s 20,000 — that’s a 13,000-word disparity! In other words, if you were born with two X chromosomes, you are scientifically speaking far more likely to say the first thing that comes into your head without weighing the consequences. It’s basic science, ladies. We start talking sooner in life, and some of us never stop. Talking so much is a wonderful blessing: it makes us wonderfully empathic and compassionate with our friends. It makes us socially adept, inviting others into our circles with relative ease. It enables us able to articulate ourselves, comfort and advise loved ones, express our affection, and affirm others with great facility (in fact, studies have shown that BOTH men and women prefer to go to women to discuss their problems). But like the Golden Touch, this gift comes with a very steep downside: it also makes us preternaturally gifted at criticizing others. Look at little boys and little girls on the playground. Boys will punch each other in the face, get sent to the principal’s office, and laugh about it over chocolate milk and Lunchables a half-hour later. Girls fight metaphorically, but they fight dirty; they meticulously size up the vulnerable spot of their victims and verbally go for the jugular, letting fly catty words that may rankle for years to come.
That propensity, when carried into adulthood, is a relationship killer and a potent force for domestic discord. Because guess what? “Oh, now that you’ve pointed out one of my own flaws (which I am doubtless already painfully aware of) in the most hateful and mean-spirited way possible, I will immediately reform my errant ways,” said no man ever (actually, said NO PERSON ever). This applies trebly so for criticizing or mocking your significant other in public (Facebook counts!). Yes, he/she has flaws. You have a few yourself. Either the trait or behavior you’re tempted to pick apart is a fixable flaw, in which case there are better ways to draw attention to it, or it’s an unfixable flaw, in which case drawing attention to it does no good anyway, or it’s not even a flaw at all but just a trait, tic, or preference you happen to find inconvenient or annoying, in which case YOU’RE the problem, so stop being such a damn control freak. In any case, snide, soul-wrenching criticism in relationships — coming from either party — does absolutely no one any good. Stop cursing the darkness; light a candle or STFU.
You’re with this person for a reason, right? Presumably it was because you thought his merits as a human being outweighed his many failings. “Life is short, man, time is flying / I’m looking for baggage that goes with mine,” as Mimi sings to Roger in RENT. We are all broken, and we are all most lovable in our broken places. We all deserve someone who makes it their daily mission and number-one priority to affirm and not undermine us. We all deserve someone who doesn’t take an industrial sledgehammer to our sense of self-worth at every opportunity. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything.
In love as in medicine: first, do no harm.