Spouses are known to behave badly at times. They whine. They nag. They criticize, complain, lecture and rant. They lie. They forget. They neglect their responsibilities. They neglect themselves. They neglect us! In fact, the number of bad things they do is just too large to enumerate. Why do spouses behave this way?
When your spouse behaves badly, how do you explain it to yourself? Do you use any of the following popular explanations?
- He or she is trying to hurt me.
- He or she is evil.
- He or she is incredibly stupid.
- He or she is an awful person.
- He or she is mentally ill (although not diagnosable).
- He or she is just like his or her evil mother/father.
- He or she is out to get me.
- He or she gets pleasure out of my pain.
- He or she is a damaged person.
Toxic explanations for toxic behavior are, to put it simply, toxic. That person you stood under the wedding canopy with is still that person – that precious human being who you joyfully signed on with as life partners. Now that you're living together, you see other sides of this person. You see how s/he functions under pressure and stress, or handles overwhelming responsibilities. You see that he or she sometimes falls to pieces, doesn't cope, disintegrates and otherwise demonstrates human frailty. You see how that person deals with your displeasure and frustration, and how that person handles being hurt or diminished.
There is a commandment in the Torah to judge others favorably. This means we are obligated to look for benign reasons for their misbehavior unless all the evidence repeatedly points to a negative judgment. Even when a particular action must be judged negatively, we are not allowed to condemn the entire person – only that one behavior.
Here are some benign alternative explanations for bad spousal behavior. How often do you use them when your spouse behaves badly?
- He or she is tired, stressed or under the weather.
- He or she never learned a better way in his or her family of origin.
- He or she doesn't really understand how destructive this particular behavior is.
- He or she is reacting out of hurt.
- He or she has emotional baggage that accounts for this and it is not as "personal" as it might seem.
- He or she has been accidentally encouraged or reinforced in this particular negative behavior by my own actions or reactions.
- He or she can't do any better in this area due to various mental or emotional limitations.
Benefits of Alternative Explanations
Alternative explanations help reduce our rage and disappointment in our spouse's failings and errors. Although we may still feel hurt or frustrated, the intensity of these feelings can be lightened. Spiritually, a more positive spin on things is promised to come back to us on our own day of judgment when G‑d will judge us just as we judged others – most notably our spouse. The Torah teaches us that we are judged according to the very same standards we used with others – either a tendency to be strict, harsh and condemning, or a tendency to be lenient and understanding. Would you be willing to be judged according to your own rules?
It's hard to deal with our imperfect spouses. However, it becomes a bit easier when we look at them with compassionate and forgiving eyes. We can still set boundaries, ask for what we need, go to marital counseling and all the rest. We can still work toward improvement. We don't have to tolerate improper behavior. However, we can certainly interpret it in the most beneficial way possible to help ourselves and our partner. We can look for alternate explanations.