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Save this Marriage

Fantasy and Fury

December 27, 2009

The couple had barely completed their brief intake papers, which included a small handwriting sample, when, her eyes blazing with fury, the wife pounded on the small table between us and yelled, "He has to grow up! I need a husband who is a real partner, not a lazy good-for-nothing who won't take responsibility and is totally clueless about my needs!" Her husband sat hunched in his chair, looking like a hapless cat that had somehow survived the spin cycle on a washing machine.

"How exactly do you want him to change?" I replied, knowing that she would provide me with a list of demands I've heard so many times.

"He should understand my feelings and know what I want without me having to spell it out to him like a first grader, and he should appreciate what an incredible wife he has."

"I do appreciate you," he whimpered.

"No, you don't. You are totally unreliable and unpredictable and you are always running away from me!"

My heart broke for both of them. There she was, heavily pregnant, feeling abandoned and alone. "I understand your anger," I said, to which she responded angrily, "I'm not angry! I'm just fed up and I want him to change!"

"I understand," I said, "I'd like to help you calm down, and help him become more reliable. But growth comes from love, not force."

"That's not true," she glared at me. "I have gotten him to be more responsible, and that's because I don't let up on the pressure!"

"But everyone is paying a big price," I said. "How do you think your hostility affects your children?"

"At least they'll learn how not to act," she snapped back.

He looked broken, lost in his own world. I sighed as I glanced at his tiny, broken, almost autistic scribbles and her huge, overpowering handwriting. "I'd like to help you both grow from this situation in a way that is safe and respectful to both of you."

"I don't have time to wait," she said tersely, "And, anyway, I'm not the one who needs help."

After an exhausting hour, in which I saw that she was not ready to take responsibility to deal with her loneliness and pain in a more kindly manner, I finally said, "I'm sorry. I don't think I can help."

"That's what they all say," she responded, and went on to list the distinguished rabbis and therapists she had schlepped him to. And then added, "But you're all wrong! I'm not giving up!"

I ushered them out of my office, refusing payment, for I had certainly failed to deliver the goods, as she had rightfully accused. They had just left when the phone rang. A man, whom I did not know, launched in quickly, "What can I do with a wife who doesn't act like a wife?" When I asked for an explanation, he said, "She has no enthusiasm for me and hates when I try to be affectionate. I try so hard to please her, helping with the children and the housework and always asking her what more I can do. But she just turns a cold shoulder to me. She gets excited when she talks to her sister, but for me, nothing. This is not the way a wife should be."

"How should a wife be?" I asked.

"A normal wife is excited to see her husband. She should crave affection and be happy that I try so hard to please her. Instead, she is so cold and distant. What can I do? I need love and communication! I want you to talk to her and get her to change." My heart broke for him – and for all the couples who live in loneliness and strife, craving what they cannot get.

It is human nature to try to get people to change and be what we want them to be, especially our spouses, parents, children and siblings. And most of us try an endless variety of tactics to make our dreams come true. We nag, demean, denounce, scold, complain, tear our hair out, lecture, scream, talk/refuse to talk, get passive/aggressive, sigh frequently, cry, beg, bribe, insult, criticize, coerce, accuse, run after/run away from, talk endlessly, try to induce shame and guilt, check up on, threaten to commit suicide, slam doors, deliver ultimatums, stomp around, lie, hint, act submissive, give oodles of compliments, do anything to please no matter how difficult or disgusting it is, enlist the support of rabbis, call family members to tell them how awful it is, drag them into counseling, drag them out of counseling, hurt them back so they'll know how it feels, suffer in hostile silence, have children in the hope that they will change, go crazy, get thin, get fat, get addicted to the internet, try endless medications, write letters to them, monitor their reactions, hound them, lock them in, lock them out, try to teach them lessons and shake them up, provoke, peek in wallets, search the cell phone, try to figure out what caused them to be like this, analyze what caused us to marry them, give up and then try even harder and then blame ourselves that we didn't try hard enough. (If I have forgotten anything, please add to the list.)

From childhood, we are trained to think of men as saintly, loving individuals who honor their wives and listen to them with infinite love and patience. And we are trained to think of women as kindhearted, ever-smiling, organized and wise, with boundless energy and compassion. We read hundreds of books and articles about how the ideal man, woman and marital relationship "should" be.

Thus, when we are faced with a different reality, we are shocked to find that we cannot mold others to fit our fantasies and make them more loving, spiritual, attractive, communicative or smart. We are determined to get them to fit those images, certain that we have the power to fulfill our needs if we just try hard enough. Isn't that what all the advisors tell us? "Be loving and respectful and you'll be loved and respected." When the reality doesn't fit the fantasy, we get angry at the person, or G‑d.

The greater the gap between the fantasy and the reality, the greater our pain. Anger fills us with the hope that we can mold others. We fear that if we stop being angry, we will fall into utter despair and unbearable aloneness. We think we have no choice but to be either enraged or depressed. The fantasy of molding others into living up to our expectations – a fantasy often encouraged by therapists and writers – does nothing but create more pain and heartache.

So how do we handle the pain? First, it is important to realize that love, understanding and appreciation are like rain; the amount we get is up to G‑d. When we learn to accept G‑d's will, we calm down and can think more clearly. Second, we must allow ourselves to feel the normal feelings of frustration and grief which accompany an unfulfilling relationship. Third, we must find where this pain is pushing us. Therapy is certainly an option, but if, after years of discussion, there is no growth, it is best to look at other options. Due to their loneliness, many unhappily married people write books, get degrees, become involved in community projects or services.

We are told that "G‑d is close to the brokenhearted" (Tehillim 34:19). This is because the brokenhearted have nowhere to turn but to G‑d. And that is the ultimate reason for the trials and tribulations we all suffer.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe said, "Turn your pain into a project." I took that as my motto and encourage others to do the same. One of my projects was the creation of 39 "coping cards," which I used myself to help me accept G‑d's reality. On these cards, I wrote all my favorite phrases from our sages. Like the 39 different works which were necessary to build the Holy Temple, I worked hard to internalize these 39 messages and build a temple in my own heart, struggling to create faith, joy and love despite the presence of people who were not on the same spiritual path.

It is not easy to accept G‑d's will. But clinging to a fantasy which can never be fulfilled is far more painful. May G‑d soothe all the broken hearts and help us feel His love.

What Spouses in Good Marriages Do

December 20, 2009

I wish I could write an article that would magically change your marriage, but I can't, because that is not the way people learn and change. Character improvement, though transformational, is slow and while invigorating, often very uncomfortable. What I can offer the reader is an article that, if studied alone or with your spouse, will leave your marriage far better off. You will have created more love in your marriage. As is said about balanced mainstream diets – they work if you follow them.

Since my parents divorced, and as a therapist, I've studied what couples in good marriages do and think differently. Whenever I would meet a long-married couple who appeared to have a good relationship, I would interview them about their marriage and listen to their stories. I began to recognize recurring principles that emerged in these conversations. I also noticed that those relationships lacked feelings of resignation, frustration, bitterness, arguments, feelings of rejection and loneliness.

Dysfunctional Marital Techniques

But first, a brief and incomplete study of some dysfunctional techniques, things we say, that we utilize to improve our marriages – all leading nowhere. I list them so the reader will be able to realize if they are engaging these techniques.

Arguing / Fighting:

  • You are wrong.
  • My way is better.
  • My way makes more sense.
  • I am logical.
  • My way is economical.
  • My way is faster.
  • I want it.

Manipulation / Intimidation:

  • Reward.
  • Punishment.
  • Passive aggression.
  • Moodiness.
  • Withholding emotional and physical intimacy.
  • If you really loved me you'd do it my way... because it is so important to me.
  • Making a person feel guilty or bad.

Toleration:

  • You are wrong and you should do it my way. I am bigger than this whole argument – and your pettiness.
  • I will suffer for our marriage.
  • It's not worth the fight. Have it your way (but you're wrong).
  • I'll give in this time, but I get to redeem my giving in for something that I really want another time.
  • Do it your way, but leave me out of it.
  • I'll join you once in a while, but don't expect me to really enjoy it.
  • I'll do it and look like I enjoy it (maybe even enjoy it a little), but I'll let you know very subtly that I'd rather be doing something else.

Stonewalling:

  • Crossing your arms.
  • Rolling your eyes.
  • Adopting a fixed "stone-face."
  • Walking away.
  • Speaking very little, or if at all, grunt and puff.

Criticism:

  • Attacking your partner's personality.
  • Attacking your spouse's character.
  • Not focusing on a specific behavior that bothers you, but generalizing "I'm upset that you missed car pool" vs. "I can't believe you missed the car pool. You're so irresponsible."
  • Bringing up past mistakes and issues to prove your point.

Defensiveness:

  • The problem isn't really with me, it's you!
  • Denying responsibility.
  • Making excuses.
  • Meeting one complaint with another.
  • Fogging or making an issue unclear.

I am not going to address how to stop or transform all of the above dysfunctional marital techniques, but allow me suggest the following principles that have proven successful in healthy marriages and that help address many of them.

1. They stopped trying to change each other.

2. They learned to love and nurture each other's uniqueness.

They arrived at this realization through genuine appreciation of their spouse's uniqueness.

Please note, a person should not allow themselves to become an emotional, intellectual or spiritual doormat in the presence of their spouse. I am not speaking of situations where there is physical or emotional abuse, substance abuse, rage, depression, anxiety, OCD, workoholism, etc In these situations, change is required because there is a danger to the individual, marriage and family. There are times when the spouse may have to reassess their commitment to the relationship not out of revenge, but because love has boundaries that do not include the destruction of self.

In good marriages, spouses learn to love their partner without expecting that their spouse change or be worthy of their love. Of course, no one would mind if their overspending spouse would become more frugal, but the relationship does not depend upon it. In good marriages, spouses allow and support the other's emotional, intellectual and spiritual experience. There is no room for thoughts or words like, "How could you think that?" or "You shouldn't feel that way." When ideas, emotions or differences of opionions are discussed, it is done with interest and respect.

a) In good marriages, spouses listen to their spouses, even if it is uncomfortable for them to hear.

b) In good marriages, spouses understand that helping their spouses comes from a healthy attitude, not manipulation, threats or complaints.

My wife, Danka, can testify that our marriage had some rough spots (ouch) in our early years, but thankfully we improved. Danka is a wonderful and intense woman. When she gets involved with something she finds meaningful, she won't let go until she has mastered it. A few years ago, she began taking a class in Nia (a type of dance) at the woman's gym and became smitten with it! Some people might have taken an extra class or two. My wife became an advanced Nia instructor and still dances and teaches today. My wife's intensity is a wonderful quality; nevertheless, it can be overwhelming - and expensive. She loves talking about Nia, but I don't always feel like talking about it, or the new healing art she is studying … so I have three options:

a. Tell her I am not interested.

b. Tell her I am interested but only pretend to listen. Know how that works out? Spouses catch on pretty quickly.

c. Make myself interested because she is my wife, and if she is interested in Nia, I would like to know what she finds so fascinating. If I enter her world, than I actually appreciate it. And if I am feeling overwhelmed, I say, "Honey, I really appreciate Nia but I really don't feel like talking about it now. Let's go for a walk and talk about something else…" If my wife feels and knows that I love and respect her, she'll understand that I'm not rejecting her.

Two Are Better Than One

December 8, 2009

Have you noticed that you're better at some things than your spouse is? Have you noticed that your spouse is better at some things than you are? Have you thought that this is just great? Or do you find it to be terrible?

When people first choose a marriage partner, they perceive differences with tolerance. They might even find those very differences attractive! However, once a couple lives together in marriage, those differences take on a new, less favorable, appearance. In fact, many people are upset and troubled by discovering that their partner has different competencies than they do.

For example:

  • "I have patience with the children – why can't my spouse have the same kind of patience?"
  • "I can clean the kitchen in ten minutes – why does it take my spouse hours to do the same little task?"
  • "I find it easy to put the kids to bed at night– why is it a big deal for my spouse?"
  • "I can be social with people – why on earth does my spouse find it so difficult?"

Differences that were originally viewed through starry eyes now instigate conflict and disappointment. They can seem larger than life, casting a negative shadow across the marriage. Eventually, they can even blind us to our partner's good points, as stated by Moshe Ibn Ezra, "Love blinds us to faults, but hatred blinds us to virtues." Without acceptance – even a celebration – of differences, marriage is doomed to suffer.

The inevitable fact is that spouses bring different competencies to a marriage. In fact, this is just as it is meant to be. The Talmud tells us that G‑d specifically made Adam first, an individual, so that we would appreciate the significance of each person's unique contribution in the song of creation. No two people are alike. In marriage, one is just great at balancing the checkbook (and one isn't). One is a social organizer (and one isn't). One is great with a hammer and nail (and one isn't). In fact, it's really quite nice to have someone right in the same house who can pick up the slack for you. It eases your burden a bit. Each of you can "specialize" at what you naturally do best, and thus compliment each other.

Every marital responsibility can be divided according to natural inclination, talent and ability. Let's look at food shopping, for instance. One partner may enjoy walking the aisles, picking out produce and products. It doesn't have to be the same person who unloads the car and organizes the pantry. The shopping task can be broken down so that each partner does what they do best (or, if they're equally competent, they can alternate errands weekly). Let's look at childcare. One partner may find it easier to get the kids out the door in the morning while the other finds it easier to get them into bed at night. Or, when both are needed to get them into bed at night, one may find story time a good fit, while another may succeed at bath time.

Is one partner better with money? Perhaps that partner can take a leading role in the family's finances, while the other does routine jobs of handling monthly payments. Is one a better communicator? Perhaps that partner can teach the other a few rudimentary communication tricks while allowing the other to express their concern in other ways (i.e. cooking, buying gifts, arranging play-dates and so on).

Appreciating the natural, unique abilities of your partner and putting them to work can enhance respect and love. Instead of trying to turn your spouse into someone else, you can let your spouse be his or her best self. Indeed, when each partner can play to his or her strengths, the marriage will experience minimum stress and maximum strength.

Feeling lonely in your marriage? Constant fighting, arguing and bickering? Money problems keeping your apart? Or is jealousy ruining your intimacy?

Even the best of marriages experience times of trial, while some marriages seem doomed to constant ugly conflict.

With a roster of rotating marital therapists, this blog will help you gain the communication tools and relationship consciousness to successfully find and build committed, loving and connected relationships.


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