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Save this Marriage

No Comparisons Please

February 22, 2009

There is a human tendency to look around and see what's better. I purchased this jacket, but now that I'm walking around the mall, maybe there is one that is even nicer or a better buy. Two minutes after being a satisfied customer, I am a dissatisfied customer, wondering if I could have done better.

We compare for other reasons as well. It's just part of being human. Our brain tends to categorize, discern differences and similarities, pros and cons. We are discriminating by nature. It is therefore only "natural" that we're always measuring and quantifying: is this car better than this one? In which ways? In which ways is it inferior? Our brains are always working—which is a good thing!

So it's perfectly understandable that we look at other's marriages or spouses and compare them to our own. "Sara and David go out together twice a week. We don't even get out once." "I always see Michael taking out the garbage. Why does my husband make me do it?" "Neely and Josh speak so nicely to each other. We never sound like that."

In our naiveté we believe that the things we can see about other couples translate into information about their relationship. They look like they're spending so much time together, so they must be happy. They never argue in public, so they must be enjoying a harmonious relationship. She always looks gorgeous; he's a lucky man. He helps her so much; he seems to be a great guy.

In fact, I wish I had a spouse like that...

However, there is a wise saying that no one knows what goes on behind closed doors. Mr. Nice Guy may be cold, mean, inattentive, critical or even unfaithful. There's no way for an outside observer to know. Ms. Smiles may be demanding, degrading, unavailable, uninterested, impatient, unreasonable or anything but nice; there's no way for you to know unless you live with her day and night for years on end. Marriage counselors and rabbis know all too well that surface appearances can be deceiving. There is no way to judge a marriage without living it in all its aspects.

And even if our friend's marriage is in fact what it seems to be and is truly better than our own in some important way, the Torah asks us not to think about this. "You shall not covet your neighbor's house…your neighbor's wife…nor anything of your neighbor's" (Exodus 20:14). Having faith in G‑d means trusting that He has given us what is truly good for us. Each person needs a unique financial situation, a unique health situation, a unique challenge in parenting and a unique marital situation—uniquely tailored for his or her own mission in life. We have no business looking at other couples and longing for what isn't good for us. We have exactly what is good for us right now.

If it doesn't feel good at the moment, prayer and action can bring about positive change. We have work to do and G‑d is there to help us do it. We can ask for whatever we want ("Please, G‑d, make my spouse less critical, more attentive, more patient…." "Please, G‑d, give me more patience, more understanding, more ability to love….") and He will help us attain it—precisely because we turned to Him and asked for help.

When we stood under the chupah, we recognized that our marriage was being overseen by G‑d. Now that we're living it, we need to remember that G‑d's protective canopy is still with us. We don't need to look outside. Rather, we need to look up—up to G‑d who can help us build ourselves and our homes.

Emotional Intelligence vs. Academic Intelligence

February 15, 2009

A major factor in understanding a crucial aspect of relationships is the difference between intelligence quotient (I.Q.) and emotional quotient (E.Q.). We often hear about the I.Q. as being the determining factor in one's ability to manage formal school education; the ability to learn, process and repeat information. From the ages of 6-18 we spend most of our waking hours in such endeavors.

What neuroscientists have recently discovered, however, is that much of what we see and hear goes directly to the amygdala (emotional center) without passing through the neocortex where logic and rational decision-making occurs. This simply means that we often feel and act before we think. In the heat of an argument or a hurt, what may be triggered, initially, are intense feelings of rage, fear, sadness or rejection.

This initial emotional response is, indeed, uncontrollable at first (that's why it's called an "initial" response). It is automatic and is based on so many variables in one's life—including genetic predisposition, birth order, nature/nurture, environment, etc. What we can do about our initial response, how or even if we act upon it, often becomes a matter of learning—emotional, not intellectual learning. No book knowledge in the world can help one integrate the "head" and "heart" unless he/she is as aware of and willing to accept the importance of emotional intelligence.

Indeed, basic emotional intelligence – such as self-managing of intense feelings, empathy, listening to others without defensiveness and criticizing, without contempt or character assassination – determines our life destiny every bit as much as does our IQ. One can be a brilliant teacher, but if his student is put down, shamed or disgraced, what remains in that student's mind is the negative aspect of the experience—not all the book-learning that may have been acquired. A knowledgeable doctor who lacks true caring and a gentle "bedside manner" can often do more harm than good to his patient. An exacting and rigid parent who is emotionally aloof or unavailable, may find the household atmosphere to be one of tension and resistance.

In marriage, as well, the EQ can make the difference between an enduring, loving relationship and one that gets mired down in "gravity" of everyday life. Decades of marital research shows that it is how a couple handles emotional flashpoints – the hurts and irritations inevitable in an intimate relationship – that determines whether the marriage will be a healthy one. The most stable unions are among couples who have found ways to air differences without escalating into personal attacks or retreating into stony silence. They have mastered the elements of emotional intelligence—briefly outlined as:

1) The ability to identify and define feelings; willingness to take the time to notice feelings, and to value their place in determining how we respond to ourselves and others.

2) The courage to express feelings to others when appropriate. One who has EQ can express feelings honestly – both positive and painful – when it is safe and helpful to do so.

3) The ability to manage moods without hurting others. Bad as well as good moods spice life and build character. The key is balance. Learning techniques such as "reframing" (seeing the event/person in a different light), distraction, and relaxation can put distance between you and others until the mood subsides.

4) THE ABILITY TO LISTEN EMPATHICALLY. The show of empathy –sharing the pain with another – expresses one of the highest levels of EQ.

5) The ability to control harmful impulses. Torah teaches that each of us is responsible for our own thought, speech, and deed. When one feels responsible and accountable in these areas, he exhibits traits of strength and trustworthiness.

6) The ability to adopt a Torah attitude toward painful events. No one lives a life free of pain. Our initial response to loss and pain is just that; an initial response. What we do with that response is the measure of our character.

7) Self-motivation. Here the recognition is that we create our own realities. Instead of blaming, shaming or procrastinating, we learn to meet life's challenges by tapping into our inner resources of wisdom, patience and love. Even when a predisposition to optimism or pessimism seems inborn, it has been documented that people can change the negative, self-defeating thoughts and behaviors with disciplined training routines.

8) An independent sense of self-worth. Our value comes from being created in "the image of G‑d" (not man). Therefore, we don't need to compete or compare with others, or be swayed by fads, opinions and/or judgments that go against what we know to be right for ourselves and our development.

In addition to what this awareness can do for a couple, this material might prove to be the source of some interesting discussions at your Shabbat table. Perhaps your family might want to see where they stand on the EQ "smart test." Your children will certainly have interesting insights and additions. They might even challenge everyone to a higher standard of middot, character traits, but whose literal translation means "measure." What exactly is the "measure" of a human being? How do we know when that "measure" exists—and to what extent? How do we integrate middot development in our understanding and practice of Torah? How do we take seriously the daily commitment to improving middot?

Share the learning with your children. We are, after all, their primary models.

Getting Husband to Pitch In

February 8, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

My husband never does anything around the house unless I nag him. If I nag him, he will do what I ask him, but then he complains that all I ever do is nag. I feel like I just can't win. How can I get my husband to pitch in and help without being a nag?

Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

It sounds like you and your husband are playing out a common pattern, where you are playing the role of "Mommy" and he is playing the role of "lazy child." It is time for you and your husband to sit down together as adults and as equals and discuss how you can develop a new system where you truly share the responsibility together, and which will emancipate you from the unpleasant role of needing to be responsible to make sure he gets his chores done.

Open up an honest discussion about household tasks. Find out which ones he prefers, and at which times he prefers to complete them.

One strategy that is effective in this area is to externalize the problem. Draw a chart or write a detailed list of household responsibilities and when they need to be accomplished. For instance dishes might be a daily responsibility, while laundry may be bi-weekly. Add a space to check off when something is accomplished.

Then, let the chart speak for itself. Positioned in a central location, it will function as a daily reminder without needing you to assist it. Let him be responsible for his behavior and focus on being responsible for your own.

It is important to realize that nagging is a communication pattern, although it is probably not one you would have consciously chosen. Most likely, it is something you learned or were exposed to in your childhood. In order to break this pattern, you will need to pay careful attention to the way you speak.

When you catch yourself nagging again, use it as an opportunity to learn about yourself. How are you feeling? Are you feeling tired or angry? Ask yourself, "what do I really need?" What are you really asking your husband for at that moment? Do you need to call attention to how hard you have been working? Do you need praise for your efforts or do you need permission to take a break?

Think about what it is you need to say, and then say it clearly. If you resent seeing him sitting down and reading the paper when you are doing housework with no end in sight, then give yourself permission to call an end to your workday and take a break too. Instead of nagging, you can announce, "That's it. I am off-duty."

Most women resort to nagging when their frustration level reaches its peak. At that moment, you husband may sense that it is dangerous not to give in, and go along with you, while secretly resenting it.

Breaking this pattern will enhance your marital happiness and your own personal well-being because it will help you to become aware of your true needs as well as relieving a major source of tension within your marriage. Since marital harmony is valued so highly in Jewish tradition, the act of improving your marital communication is not only an emotional achievement, it is a religious one as well.

I Want Him to Be More than He Is

February 1, 2009

Dear Bronya,

I always want my husband to do and be more than he is. I know I have to be happy with everything he does and is, but I always feel that I want him to learn more, be more religious, grow in his spirituality, etc. How can I change my attitude?

Wants More


Dear Wants More,

I understand your desire to see your husband constantly grow. And it's appropriate that you feel this way. The question is, how can you help him...?

The woman is called the akeret habayit, the "foundation of the home." But what are the tasks associated with that role? For a man, his tasks are clear. He is halachically responsible for the physical sustenance of the home. He has specific tasks to perform. But the akeret habayit, what defines her role? What are her tasks?

A woman's role is fulfilled not by her "doing" but by her "being"...just being. The "task" of an akeret habayit is her very being. It's in the atmosphere of her home — the environment that she creates.

Think back to your chupah, and the statement you then made. Before the legal proceedings could even begin - the ketubah, the ring, your groom's statement to you - before any of that could even begin, you made your statement. You approached him in your symbolic home, and you walked around him. Seven times. You circled him. Seven times a circle. And with this you promised to him that you would envelope him completely. That he would be totally embraced by you. By an atmosphere that you would create. You, being you, would create a home in which all that both of you aspire to could be nurtured and thrive.

Don't expect of him to be the fulfillment of your dreams...even your dreams for him. Nourish him with encouragement of who he is, not who you expect him to be.

Create an atmosphere that is so accepting and respectful and appreciative that he could not help but want to rise to its very heights. And, every single day, find something in him that you can appreciate and admire. Every single day.

Let me know if I can be of any further help.

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