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Save this Marriage

Lonely Soul

June 28, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

If I am happily married, and I believe that I am, why am I still lonely? Shouldn't a good marriage "cure" all these feelings of loneliness?

A Lonely Soul in a Happy Marriage

Dear Lonely Soul,

In order to answer your question, it is important to recognize what a good marriage can and cannot provide. A good marriage can provide companionship. It cannot provide non-stop company and unlimited attention to your needs. A good marriage can provide a partner to help you raise your family according to mutually determined goals. A good marriage cannot provide an identical twin who will always read your mind, and do things your way. A good marriage will provide you with a very special friend who truly shares your life with you. A good marriage cannot provide you with another parent, who will anticipate your unexpressed needs and satisfy all your desires.

In short, a good marriage will meet many but not all of your needs for companionship, love, and understanding. Yet, if even good marriages allow room for feelings of sadness, loneliness, and unmet needs, what is so great about marriage that the Torah writes "It is not good for man to be alone" (Gen. 2:18)? Meaning, on an existential level, it is not good for man to be alone; it is better and healthier to have a partner.

The answer is that marriage is not only about what we ourselves receive within the context of our relationship. Marriage provides us with an opportunity to give to another human being on a very deep level. Marriage creates an environment where even the most simple act is transformed into an act of giving – when we choose to buy the brand of toothpaste our partner prefers; when we shut off the light because our partner is into saving money or conserving energy; when we remember to buy eggs on the way home; when we don't buy chocolate because his doctor told him he'd better diet or else. Marriage is the forum that elevates our smallest, most insignificant acts into acts of chessed (loving kindness), giving each the unique status of a mitzvah.

The relationship that G‑d shares with the Jewish people is likened to a marriage. This teaches us that G‑d has committed himself to an intense and unique relationship with the Jews, and we, in turn, have undertaken an intense commitment as well. How can we possibly understand this Divine commitment, this cosmic marriage? We begin to get a taste of that cosmic partnership when we value and honor our own commitment to our spouses.

Pay attention to your loneliness. Allow it to teach you what you need to know about yourself, without assuming that it necessarily implies a flaw in your relationship. Does your internal life need attention? Do you need to develop your own personal interests or spiritual pursuits? Do you need to reconnect with family and friends that you have lost contact with? Or have you perhaps temporarily lost contact with your spouse, and allowed life to encroach upon the sacred time and space that belongs to your relationship? If that is the case, schedule some special time together. Shabbat is an ideal time to reconnect, without the modern day distractions of cell-phones, text messages, email, and iPods.

I believe that at heart, each of us has a lonely soul, and that that loneliness keeps pushing us to reach a little further in order to connect more deeply with our Creator, and with those who share our world.

Thanks for writing!

The Relationship Rule

June 21, 2009

The Relationship Rule puts it simply: "I only give and I only accept respectful communication." Put another way, "I do not give, nor do I accept, disrespectful (or abusive) communication."

Living by this rule goes a long way to ensure that one's relationships will be healthy and harmonious. It is a rule that one conveys through both actions and words. One who lives by the Relationship Rule is careful to speak in a pleasant tone of voice—even when rebuking others. All words must be "kosher" – no insults, name-calling or bad words. This person doesn't roll eyeballs, mumble under his or her breath, screech, yell or whine. Neither does he or she slam doors, hang up phones, stamp feet, throw objects, raise a hand or otherwise communicate utter disrespect for another human being. Nor does this person accept such treatment from anyone else.

The Relationship Rule helps keep marriage and family life safe and loving. But, because we're human, it isn't always easy for us to apply it.

We may have been raised in homes that didn't live by the Relationship Rule and our brains may be wired for drama or other forms of hurtful behavior. We may have to fight hard to maintain our human dignity and respect the human dignity of our partner. However, this is one fight that is worth fighting.

For some, the more difficult battle is boundary setting. These people have no trouble being respectful; it is the way they were born and/or raised. It is natural for them. However, they may be victims of abuse by others. (The Torah calls hurtful words and actions "abusive.") They may have to learn how to stop others from treating them badly. Doing so is an actual mitzvah, since it contributes to building shalom bayit (a peaceful home). It is, after all, impossible to have a happy marriage when one person is hurting the other.

Sometimes a course of individual therapy will help a person find the inner resources necessary for appropriate boundary setting. Sometimes the support of a third party in the form of a marital counselor or rabbi can be helpful for the purposes of boundary setting. There are times, too, when outsiders must be involved in order to set the appropriate boundaries.

Children benefit greatly from seeing their parents living by the Relationship Rule. They get to directly experience and implement the Relationship Rule in their daily interactions with their parents. And this exposure and experience will also help them to build loving homes of their own one day. Give yourself, your marriage and your kids the gift of The Relationship Rule.

Coping with a Still-Birth

June 14, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

Several months ago, my wife gave birth pre-maturely to a stillborn. It was horrible and shocking, and the medical community had little explanation for us other than these things sometimes happen. Yet now that some time has passed, I feel that we should move on, and I can't understand why my wife is still grieving this loss like it just happened yesterday. Am I insensitive or is she refusing to move on?

Baffled Husband

Dear Baffled Husband,

I commend your sensitivity for posing this question, and having the insight to question your own reaction as well as hers. It sounds like the two of you have responded in very different ways, and as such, it is a challenge to sensitively relate to each other's position.

Your individual experiences of this loss are very different as well. First of all, your wife carried and gave birth to the infant. She and the baby shared a unique connection during the months of the pregnancy, and in many ways the baby's presence was more tangible and more real for her than for anyone else— even you. Her loss is also more tangible. Her emotional reaction is compounded by the physical reality of her changing body. Even several months later, she is still considered post-partum, and her hormones are still affecting her moods.

As her husband and the baby's father, your own experience of this baby was of something outside yourself, and therefore it may be much easier for you to put aside your grief and move on. Furthermore, because you remain physically unaffected by the loss, it is easier to return to a state of feeling normal.

Having come so far only to be deprived of the satisfaction of knowing her baby is understandably heartbreaking for your wife, and it is important to be patient and understanding of your wife's need to grieve. Having a baby that dies in utero is a very traumatic experience. As the Jewish sages say "More than the baby wants to feed, the mother wants to nurse it."

Although you feel consciously ready to move on, the fact that your wife's continued grieving is disturbing to you may mean that on an unconscious level you have unresolved emotions of your own. It is fine to put aside some of your own grief for later as long as you recognize that these unresolved emotions may resurface further on.

In the meantime, rest assured that grieving a post-partum loss for several months or even several years is well within the range of normal, and is not considered reason for concern unless grieving interferes with one's normal day to day functioning.

May G‑d grant comfort to you and your wife,

“Just Let Her Be Alive!"

How a Terrorist Attack Changed My Perspective

June 7, 2009

Ephraim left the house in a tiff, slamming the door hard to make a statement. This was the end. She'd gone too far. The kitchen was a mess when he came downstairs to make himself breakfast. She, of course, was still sleeping. The dishes were dirty; the pots were still on the stove, not a dishcloth to be found.

He had told her endless times that it bothered him to find the house like this, day after day. She used to reply, "I'm not going to be a slave to your concept of cleanliness. If it bothers you, you clean up," and in the beginning he started doing dishes, sweeping the floor, collecting the kids' toys and schoolbags which were spread all over the house.

They had many fights about it, he recalled as he started the car and drove to work. In the end she agreed at least to make things tidy before he came home. But then the babies came one after another, and she began to slide back into her old habits—slothful habits, he reminded himself, thinking back to his mother's warning: "That girl isn't for you; she doesn't know the first thing about housekeeping and she doesn't care."

How right she was, his beloved mother, of sacred memory. She always kept an immaculate home; it was a pleasure to step into the kitchen. He parked the car in front of his office and kept recalling how things had come to such a head.

When the babies were tiny, she'd get up several times a night to feed them and comfort them; so, of course she couldn't get up to see him off in the morning. But that was years ago. The kids now got themselves out to school and she remained sleeping, out of habit—bad habit. What did she really do for them all? It was all on him—making a living, doing the shopping, all the errands, and no sign of appreciation or remorse. Well, he had had enough. Today, he thought, as he waved to his co-workers in the office and sat down hard on his chair, today I'm going through with a divorce. Ephraim made an appointment to meet with his friend Marvin, an expert on divorce proceedings, during his lunch break. "How sorry she will be now," he thought almost with glee.

The morning flew by with the regular meetings, phone calls to clients, paper work, and all along he was watching the clock, looking forward to his appointment with Marvin, enjoying the moment he envisioned, the "talk," when he would mention casually, "I've started divorce procedures today." As he was walking out of his office, he saw a few colleagues huddled around the radio, looking serious. "There's been another terrorist attack in town; someone blew himself up on Rehov Jaffa. Shh… Listen!" The radio announced the facts—20 wounded so far, 2 killed, but the numbers were expected to rise.

"Where on Rehov Jaffa?" Ephraim asked apprehensively.

The radio announcer repeated his spiel as if in reply: "At 12:15 a bomb exploded on Rehov Jaffa, corner of Rehov Hillel, outside of Café Aroma. At least 22 people are being evacuated to hospitals; 3, no 5, known killed."

All around Ephraim workers were frantically calling their loved ones. Ephraim suddenly remembered that Aliza usually went to her beauty parlor on Rehov Hillel that day. His throat went dry. He called her cell number; no answer. She always answered her cell. He looked up the number, his hands were shaking. He found two parlors on Rehov Hillel. The first one told him that no one by that name was in their shop; the second number didn't answer. What to do now? The radio was announcing numbers of hospitals to call for information. He started calling around.

"Information Center," answered a woman with an Anglo-Saxon accent.

"Do you have anyone by the name of Aliza Cohen?" Ephraim inquired. The woman (a social worker it turned out) asked him to wait a minute.

"No, nobody by that name here. Wait, I'll check if she's listed in the other hospitals." A moment later she returned and said, "No, that name doesn't appear on any list. Why do you think she might be hospitalized?" asked the social worker.

Ephraim told her, in a voice he hardly recognized, that she didn't answer her cell phone and that she was expected to be in the vicinity of the terrorist attack at that hour.

Ephraim could hear many phones going off at the other end. "We do have several unidentified…" Here the social worker paused. "People who were brought in – who can't talk and have no identity papers on them. Can you describe Aliza?"

Ephraim felt himself almost crying, "She's very beautiful; she's got blond hair, she's 42 years old."

The woman on the other side of the line prompted him, "Any identifying body marks? How tall is she? Color of eyes?"

He realized the social worker was filling out a form, even as she tried to be helpful. "She's about five feet tall, she's got um…green/brown eyes." Then he broke down altogether.

The woman was very kind. She took his phone numbers and promised to investigate. She assured him that many times when there's a terrorist attack cell phones in the area don't work; many times people aren't where they were supposed to be. But Ephraim knew his wife; she never missed her beauty parlor appointment.

"Oh G‑d! What will I do?"

His friend, Chaim, offered to take him to the hospital, instead of waiting to hear if Aliza was among the unidentified. "And what if…what if she was dead?" Ephraim felt such anguish, an overpowering feeling of loss and devastation…he couldn't stop crying. He hadn't cried since his mother died. All his earlier emotions of frustration, anger and a desire for revenge were completely forgotten. "Oh G‑d, please, please let her be alive," he prayed all the way to the hospital.

There must have been 200 people desperately looking for relatives descending on the hospital. The Information Center had long lines of desks, with phones ringing non-stop. Some were led to the emergency room or outside the operation theater where their loved ones were being treated. "Those are the lucky ones," thought Ephraim, supported by his friend, Chaim. Others were led into closed cubicles and came out, either hysterical or with red eyes. Those were being sent to Abu Kabir, to identify – bodies. There were now over 45 wounded and 12 dead. "Not in that room, please G‑d," Ephraim prayed as he'd never prayed before, "not in that room."

While he waited his turn to meet with a social worker he called his children. They were fine but none of them had seen their mother. They weren't worried because she was often out somewhere when they came home from school. They didn't know she was scheduled to be in the exact spot where the attack took place and he didn't tell them of course. Ephraim took out his book of Psalms and continued to pray with all his heart.

All along his mind reeled, of their happy life together; of their dates before they decided to marry; how much he wanted her to be his wife; their first little caravan which dripped in winter from the rain and was boiling in the summer, but how it became their own little Garden of Eden. He thought of their first child, and what a wonderful feeling it was to hear him say, "Abba" and "Ima" for the first time; the worries together when the children were sick; how supportive she was when his mother deteriorated; how she was always so beautiful and he was proud to see her across the room at a celebration, and say to himself, "That's my wife."

"Oh G‑d," he groaned, as he remembered his plans for that day. "Only let her live; even if she's maimed, only let her be alive," he prayed into his book of psalms.

His cell phone went off. He thought it might be the social worker. "Hello," he answered tentatively, wondering if it would be good news or bad.

"Hello Ephraim," it was Aliza. He jumped from his seat. "Aliza! Aliza, it's you! You're okay?" Everyone in the room was looking at him; he was shouting, he was crying, he was jumping up and down—but he didn't care.

"Yes, I'm fine. I knew you'd be worried because you know I go to Selina's on Wednesday. I was there…I saw it all. Ephraim, it was awful. My phone didn't work. The police closed off all the streets and I couldn't find a phone to call you for over an hour. Are the kids okay? You must have been so worried…"

"It doesn't matter," Ephraim said. "It doesn't matter, as long as you're safe…nothing matters."

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.

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