Recently, a woman we were counseling claimed her husband said many critical things about their relationship to her. We asked about how often he had done this. After a few questions, the couple agreed he had said nothing critical in at least 30 days. In fact, the wife agreed he had said nothing critical for a year but she had a firm recollection of what happened year ago. What is going on here?
Another husband explained that he would come home and his wife was in a fury over a fight they were having. Problem was-he never had such a fight. After a while, he figured it out. She was talking to herself while he was away at work and predicting his responses. And then, she would get angry over the responses she was predicting he would have. By the time he walked in, the fight had been raging for hours within the wife and the husband was not even there.
Thus, the wife, who believed her husband has been complaining about the marriage, truly believes he is complaining even when he hasn’t said single word because she is having a conversation with herself. Think of the toxicity of that. Actually, we did not have to just think about it. It was an issue in counseling. Among other problems, the poor husband was dumbfounded.
The truth is, we all have conversations with ourselves. If you just stop and think about even the last hour you will see you talked to yourself about a lot of things-the temperature, what you have to do, what you are going to eat. Thoughts flash through our minds. The real issues are: will you control your thoughts and what will you think about.
One of the most important choices we make every day is what to focus on. We are assaulted with a massive amount of stimuli and data (and we were, even before the internet). At this very moment, you sense the temperature in the room, the sound of your computer, the light in the room and the feel of your clothes on your skin, just to name a few. Yet, until we called those things to your attention, you were probably oblivious to them. In short, your brain tuned out all sorts of stimuli. It is truly one of the miracles Hashem made in creating us that our brains can filter all these stimuli without our having to do anything consciously.
The same is true about our perceptions of our spouses. Generally, we don’t focus on exactly how they look, smell, move. We operate in a generalized world about them.
But there are critical choices we make (implicitly or explicitly) about our spouses every minute of every day. Do we focus on their strengths or their weaknesses? Do we focus on what they do right or what they do wrong?
In words that are applicable to every marriage as well as every other relationship our rabbis instructed us to judge every person favorably (Pirke Avos 1:6). In fact, there is a strong basis to see the obligation to judge others favorably as a Biblical obligation (Shevuos 30a from Vayikra 19:15; Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvos, Positive Commandment 177). The Chofetz Chaim writes that “all major commentators agree that the obligation to judge others favorably is Biblical” (Sefer Chofetz Chayim, Introduction, Positive Commandment 3, Be’er Mayim Chayim). Once again, there is no secret footnote in the Talmud that excludes spouses from this obligation or protection.
What does that mean in practical terms? Rabbi Noach Weinberg had a great insight into this inyan (as with so many other things). Al Capone was a notorious gangster, well known for murdering his opposition. Asked Rav Noach, what do you think Al Capone’s mother thought of him? Rav Noach answered, she probably said “My son, Al, he is so brave.” Even Al Capone, at least according to his hypothetical mother, had good points. Similarly, we need to focus on the good points of our spouses (and everyone else, of course).
 For a well-reasoned article dealing with this obligation, its basis and its practical limits in a non-marital context, see Zimmerman, Shiur #04: Dan Le-khaf Zekhut – Judging Others Favorably available at www.etzion.org.il/en/shiur-04-dan-le-khaf-zekhut-judging-others-favorably.