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Save this Marriage

See It Your Way

March 26, 2010

Marriage is very sensitive to cycles. In good periods, a husband and wife get along harmoniously and overlook minor offences and insults. In bad periods, the couple experiences conflict and each spouse becomes hypercritical of the other; small issues balloon into major catastrophes. While it is easy to slip into a negative cycle, it can be excruciatingly difficult to get out of one. Gears lock. A bad eye is turned on everything. The relationship is soured.

During negative cycles, spouses often feel overwhelmed and hopeless. "I never should have married this person. I'm trapped in misery. I'll never experience true love." A person's mind becomes flooded with dark thoughts and his or her heart becomes heavy with grief. Usually, the sufferer waits for the spouse to somehow change the cycle, to lift the two of them out of the pit. However, the wait can be a long one – sometimes endless. It's best to take matters into one's own hands.

Change the Cycle Yourself!

Instead of waiting for your spouse to rescue you and your marriage, you have the option of doing it yourself. You – completely on your own – can transform a current negative cycle into a positive one. This is true whether your down cycle has lasted only a day or two or whether it has been on-going for the last decade. This is true whether your marital issues are relatively minor or whether they are seriously major. It is true whether you are currently seeking professional or rabbinic guidance or working things through on your own.

In other words, there are no impediments to your success. I am not saying here that you can, independent of your spouse, make a good marriage (for instance, if your spouse is routinely negligent, irresponsible, irritable, etc., your marriage will necessarily suffer). I'm not even saying that you can, totally on your own, save your marriage (for instance, there may be nothing you can do in the case of a truly abusive partner). All I am saying is that you can – totally on your own – change a negative cycle into a positive one. This is an important accomplishment even in troubled marriages or even when marriages must end. For average marriages, the skill is wonderful to possess because it helps keep you in the happy zone many more days of each year!

How?

The first step to transforming the cycle is to empty your mind of negativity. Use the power of your imagination to see you and your spouse living harmoniously, in your best positive cycle. Keep your attention focused on this image day and night. Put up reminders around your house to help keep you focused on the image: a prayer for a peaceful home on a wall plaque in the hallway, a picture of your wedding day on the refrigerator, a love poem in the bedroom, a small note on your bookmark – anything that you can think of that will remind you to use your imagination positively.

Positive pictures create an opening for G‑d. We can close the gates to blessing by believing that G‑d can't help us. G‑d created the universe and life itself – He can also heal a marital cycle. Imagine the healed scene and ask Him to make it happen. Trust fully that G‑d can bring it about. Don't worry about your current reality. Don't use rationalization to explain to yourself why this can't work in your situation. Go beyond the rational into the realm of faith. It is here that you will find your true reward.

If you don't actively work on this, it is only natural that pessimism and negativity will fill your mind when your spouse isn't behaving in a way that pleases you. As Rabbi Yitzchok Ginsburgh writes: "Left to its own devices, the mind will by default tend to fill itself with negative thoughts that spring from its unrectified subconscious. It is therefore necessary to consciously occupy the mind with positive, wholesome thoughts." This won't happen on its own – you have to forcefully steer your mind in a positive direction when it wants to go the other way!

Negative thoughts and images are like a form of negative prayer, putting the problem "out there" all day long. Positive thoughts and images, on the other hand, are a constant call to G‑d to send positivity our way. Images, particularly, have the power of attraction, bringing into reality whatever it is that we hold in our minds. Holding a positive marital image in mind – for hours, days, weeks, months, or if necessary, years – can help bring the scene into your life. Accompanied by prayer, positive actions and patience, these images can help you break negative cycles and enter positive ones. You and your marriage will certainly prosper!

So, You Want to Change Your Spouse...

March 19, 2010

A common theme (read more here) in successful marriages is the realization that you cannot change your spouse. This includes trying to change your spouse sweetly, sourly, beggingly, manipulatively, angrily, or any other –ly you can devise.

Researcher Dr. John Gottsman found that 69% of issues that couples disagree on early in marriage are not resolved later in the marriage. Sixty-nine percent! So, don't marry someone and don't pin your happiness in marriage if you have plans to change your spouse, because it usually doesn't work and it'll leave everyone involved feeling unloved, judged and misunderstood. The changeable 31% will be addressed further on.

Often, spouses tell me, "Yes, I understand what you're saying, but what about his socks on the floor?! Why can't he put his socks in the laundry hamper? Is that not a sign of disrespect and inconsideration? ...Does he think I'm his maid?" Or, "Does she really need so much clothing? Doesn't she understand we have bills to pay... how many pairs of shoes does she need?!"

Let me address this issue with another story. After many years living in the Israel countryside, my wife and I were still unable to deal with moths. My wife, Danka, hates those creatures. She hates them so much she lets out a scream if they take her by surprise. This scream is not a one note yelp, but a full-throttled, high octave, Night of the Living Dead shriek. I can handle the moths, but Danka's unexpected screams throw me into the fight-or-flight reaction. Adrenalin pumping, I'd yell at Danka, "Why do you have to petrify me by yelling? It's just a stupid moth!" And she'd reply, "I can't help it. I just react."

It took me a long time to understand her simple words, "I can't." She can't because that is the way she is… the same way he "can't find" the hamper. While it is true that both spouses should change words and actions that cause their spouse discomfort, there are things that people cannot change or can change only with years of slow progress.

Referring back to Dr. Gottsman's research, you cannot decide which category a particular issue falls in, the unchangeable 69% or the changeable 31%. It took me a long time to stop rolling my eyes when my wife said something I thought didn't make sense – and I wanted to stop rolling my eyes - but it is hard to change even with the best intentions.

Will he ever stop sock dropping? Will she ever have enough shoes? Will he ever learn to put away food after eating? Will she ever make a simple request in less than three minutes? Don't pin the meaning and happiness of your marriage on it. Sometimes people just are the way they are – and it is not for you to judge whether they must change. Go to therapy if need be. You might be right, but your love should not depend upon it.

Couples get into the worst fights over perceived insults and hurt feelings based on seemingly little issues: missed or defrosted meals, an empty gas tank, no more toilet paper, crumbs on the table. But these issues do not have be a source of conflict. Just because someone can't stop a certain behavior does not mean it is directed at you. People in difficult marriages often make an art form of taking many things personally.

Don't make your love of your spouse depend on these specific things. Instead, work on learning to love, enjoy and nurture your spouse—just as he or she is.

Dealing with Setbacks

March 11, 2010

Question:

Although our first three years of marriage were wonderful, time has drawn my wife and I apart. We have been seeing a qualified marital therapist for several weeks now and while, in the initial stages, we enjoyed a definite boost to our marriage, we seem to be at an all-time low now. We both find the situation very distressing. Is this normal?

Answer:

We've all hit that setback, when we feel like we've taken one step forward only to move two steps back. In the beginning, when inspiration runs high, change seems to come more easily. However, this initial surge of motivation can seldom, if ever, hold for too long and the process of change and growth may seem like a drudge.

At times like these, it's tempting to throw in the towel and give into despair. Nevertheless, it's important to remain objective, to step back and take an earnest look at the whole picture.

The low period that you're now experiencing is a setback not from your original struggles, but from the good times that followed. Look for the tiny seeds of change that have been sprouting in the past few weeks. Tap into feelings of gratitude for the nice times you've shared and keep reaching for your very worthwhile goals. With persistence, you will achieve them.

Setbacks are part of progress. This idea is expressed by the Baal Shem Tov with the analogy of a young child learning to walk. In the beginning, a parent will hold the child's hand while walking backward to both encourage the child to walk toward him/her and support the child so that he doesn't fall. To really learn to walk, however, the child will have to let go of his parent's hands and walk forward on his own two feet. He'll probably fall at first, but eventually will succeed.

The same is true of any change, growth or improvement we seek. When we resolve to work on ourselves, G‑d holds our hand and helps us succeed. Eventually, G‑d lets go and steps back. That is when we need to do some work on our own. These ups and downs are an inevitable part of the process, and necessary for us to truly grow. Here are some tips to ease the way along:

  • Take responsibility where it is due, without placing blame on others.
  • Take care of yourself. Lack of sleep, insufficient nutrition and overexertion are often big factors behind minor setbacks.
  • Practice patience and be kind to yourself. Problems don't disappear overnight. Acknowledge the fact that change is a process that happens step by step.
  • Take heart from past setbacks that you've successfully surmounted. Write them down and keep them as encouraging reminders that this, too, shall pass and that you will get back on track.

So hang in there. Setbacks are inevitable, but the more we practice getting up when we're down, the easier it becomes.

Sleepless After Robbery

March 5, 2010

Dear Tzippora,

My house was recently broken into one night. The thief took very little – just my purse and my husband's laptop bag. However, he also stopped in the kitchen and helped himself to a drink; I know this because he left his cup on the table. Even though it was a very minor break-in, I can't stop thinking about what would have happened had somebody in the family woken up just then, and encountered the thief. This reoccurring thought fills me with terror, and though a month has passed, I still can't sleep at night. I am terrified of every small noise after dark. I check on my kids all night long; if I had my way, they would all be sleeping in our bedroom. My husband thinks I am crazy, that I have been acting weird since the robbery. Why can't I get over it? Why do I keep replaying it over and over in my mind?

Sleepless

Dear Sleepless,

It is important to recognize that you lost much more than your purse during the robbery. Your sense of safety and security has been compromised by an intruder in your home. Even though the intruder is no longer present, you are still grappling with the sense of extreme vulnerability his uninvited presence created.

Being robbed is very traumatic. People respond to trauma in different ways. Explain to your husband that what he sees as weird behavior is actually an example of a post-traumatic stress reaction. It will take time to heal from the feeling of acute vulnerability which you are experiencing. A month is not that long when you consider the impact this robbery has had on your inner world.

It would be a good idea to take active steps to reestablish your sense of safety. Perhaps you may wish to change the locks or install a new burglar alarm if you haven't done so already. You may even wish to consult with a home security expert. Explain to your husband that this money is an investment in your mental health as well as your physical safety. It is necessary to restore your sense of wellbeing. These tangible steps will help you regain a sense of control over your world.

A very important practical step is to have your mezuzot checked by a scribe to make sure that they are properly written and that none of the letters have faded. If you do not have mezuzot on all your doorposts, now would be a good time to invest in them. The placing of a mezuzah on the doors of a home or office protects the inhabitants — whether they are inside or outside.

Yet real control is the control within. Tell yourself that the time for being scared has passed. You went through a very frightening experience, and your family emerged unharmed. Now you must make a conscious decision to move on. When you find yourself playing the what-if game, imagine a CD player in your mind. Visualize removing the disc of "what if," and replacing it with a new disc, the disc of "we are fine; it's over now." Listen to this new disc, and its soothing message. Use it to help you fall asleep.

Remind yourself, as well, that G‑d watches over each of us and loves us, like a parent loves his only child. Strengthening your bitachon, optimistic faith in G‑d's watchfulness and protectiveness over you, should make you feel calmer.

In another month's time, if you are still as anxious as you are now, or if you find yourself growing more anxious rather than less, it is important to seek the help of a professional who will work with you one-on-one to help you regain your sense of safety.

Thanks for writing,

Tzippora Price, M.Sc.

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