Q. We’ve been living in France since the beginning of our married life, and for more than 20 years my American wife has been complaining about my French compatriots. She criticizes just about everything: our habits, our culture, our behavior, etc. I actually sometimes agree with her comments, but her criticisms are continual and systematic, and I’m finding it more and more difficult to put up with them. What can I tell her to get her to change her attitude?
A: Your letter really strikes home, as the phenomenon you describe is characteristic not only of my own marriage but of the relationships of many I have counseled, and I suspect that, in intercultural couples where one spouse has moved abroad through love for a person rather than for that person’s country, a deep nostalgia for the culture and the people one has left behind fuels the criticism as much as or more so than any unwillingness to adapt to the new situation. So it’s important that you leave plenty of space for your wife to be able to express her sadness over having left home, and that you make sure to demonstrate emphatic agreement when you find her comments well founded. Some of her negativity might be siphoned off that way.
Now take a minute to reflect on how you respond to her criticism. Do you react defensively (“America’s not so great, either”)? Aggressively (“Oh, for God’s sake, are you going to start that up again?”)? Disgustedly (a contemptuous look and then walk out of the room)? Logically (“You have a nice house, a good husband, a car, so please stop complaining.”)? All these reactions are justifiable, but do not demonstrate the personal feelings of hurt, fear or disappointment that might be beneath them. If she realizes that her comments might wound you in your love of your country, frighten you that (she might leave eventually if it gets bad enough), worry your children (her position is bound to create loyalty conflicts for them) or disappoint you in your efforts to create a happy environment for her, she might well become more aware of the deeper, more emotional effect of her criticism on you, and cut back on it. But first you need to take the time to explore these feelings for yourself, and then to share them with her during a moment of calm. A few minutes’ sharing of genuine feelings with the woman in your life will get you – and all men – a lot more mileage than hours of expertly conceived logical rebuttal.
On her end, your wife needs to take charge of her own aggressiveness toward the French and stop making you pay. There are ways to do that with professional help. Have her call or e-mail me for some ideas. By the way, using his sense of humor, my own husband found a very creative solution to this problem. When I get started, he labels the French “les Nains,” (the dwarfs) and the Americans “les Géants” (the giants) in his responses. The ensuing laughter totally defuses the situation!
Follow-up: Thanks to Thomas Krischer for sharing with us his method for meeting French people: shortly after moving into his apartment, he and his wife invited everyone in the building for an aperitif. Many accepted, laying the groundwork for further, more substantial exchanges.
Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she also teaches PAIRS, a skills-building course in intimate relationships.