Parshas Vayeira begins with the story of the Malachim's visit to Avraham Avinu. After Avraham has given them a sumptuous meal, the Malachim surprise him with the prediction that he and his wife, Sarah Imanu would bear a child. Sarah overhears this bold prediction and reacts with skepticism: “And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have withered shall I again have delicate skin? And my husband is old!” Hashem immediately informs Avraham of Sarah’s skepticism, but does not reveal the full content of her words. He omits the part about Avraham being old, and only mentions Sarah’s own perceived inability to have children. Rashi brings the gemara that tells us that Hashem himself changed what Sarah had said, for the sake of maintaining Shalom Bayis (family peace) between Avraham and Sarah. We learn from here a general principle that a person is allowed to change the truth in order to maintain harmony in a marriage.
There are numerous lessons to be learnt from this incident and Chazal’s explanation. One of them is the great value of Shalom Bayis, to the degree that it is preferable to alter the truth rather than cause a possible rift in a marriage. This lesson is magnified when one bears in mind the great value placed on the trait of honesty in Torah thought.
There is another, less obvious lesson that can be derived from this story. My Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits shlita asks, why could Sarah’s comment about Avraham’s age have possibly caused a rift in their precious marriage. There was nothing vindictive in her observation, she was merely noting an obvious fact, that Avraham was aged. He answers, that we learn from here, that even a very innocent statement with the slightest hint of negativity can cause some kind of weakening in the relationship between man and wife. It is certain that Avraham would not have been upset with Sarah had Hashem informed him of her observation about his age. Nonetheless, the Torah teaches us that on some minute level, it demonstrated a certain lacking in Sarah’s great respect for her righteous husband. If this is true with regard to a tzaddik on the level of Avraham Avinu, how much more is it relevant to a normal person. The Torah is teaching us that even a factual observation about one’s spouse can cause harm in a marriage if it can be perceived to be negative in any way.
Of course, it is very difficult for a person to reach a level where he never says anything that could minutely imply a lack of respect of his spouse. Initially, a more realistic goal is to try to reduce more blatant types of criticism that cause so much damage in a marriage. Whilst such comments are unfortunately commonplace, it is impossible for a couple (or people in any other relationship) to develop a truly loving relationship. This is borne out by an observation of Rav Noach Weinberg on the verse that contains the mitzvo to love one’s fellow man. The passuk says: “Do not take revenge, and do not bear a grudge, and love your neighbor as yourself - I am Hashem.” It is not a coincidence when Mitzvos are placed in the same verse - there must be some kind of connection between them. What is the connection between the mitzvo of love thy neighbor with the commands not to take revenge or bear a grudge? Rav Weinberg explains that the Torah is teaching us that in order to properly love other people, one must remove the negativity that plagues inter-personal relationships. When a person is unforgiving of other people's flaws and mistakes, he will never be able to develop a genuinely positive relationship with them. This is particularly relevant in a marriage. If the spouses are constantly focusing on their partner's failings and begrudging them their mistakes, they will never be able to have a truly happy marriage. Only by removing petty negativity, can they attain the Torah's view of marriage.
The practical applications of this lesson are obvious - reduced criticism is the key to improving a marriage. How can a person reduce his criticism of his spouse? The root of criticism is focusing on the negative aspects of someone else’s behavior. In order to begin to reduce one’s critical words, he must first cut down his critical thoughts. One couple were plagued by constant criticism and bickering about minor matters. They were advised that whenever one such insignificant issue arose and they felt a need to make a comment, they should hold back and remain quiet. Initially, this exercise proved very difficult but as the couple persisted, they found that they looked at each other in a less judgmental and critical fashion. Perhaps this is one way in which the negativity in a marriage can be reduced and enable the relationship to flourish.