Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace -- Proverbs 3:17
The Torah was given only to bring peace to the world -- Maimonides
It Takes Effort -- No Exceptions!
Hollywood's depiction of "happily ever after" couples has set the bar very high. We all have a mental image of an adoring husband and wife who are just meant for each other. This idyllic couple instinctively understand each other's feelings, and their romance never fades. We've all heard that "life isn't the movies or a romance novel" and acknowledge the truth of this statement, yet we still entertain the hope that perhaps we can be the exception to this rule...
The reality is that, yes, there are soul mates, husbands and wives who are intended for each other; but that alone doesn't guarantee a smooth marriage.
No marriage has ever survived on passion and love alone. The erroneous assumption that this may be the case has unfortunately destroyed many a salvageable marriage. Maintaining a successful and harmonious marriage involves work, commitment and dedication.
According to the Talmud, forty days before a child is born, a heavenly voice announces the identity of this soul's mate. While the souls of these predestined couples are eminently compatible, this does not mean that their temperaments and habits are matching. Marriage involves a constant effort to ensure that the couple's physical and emotional sides are as harmonious as their souls—which according to Kabbalah are really two halves of one great soul.
Marital issues are especially common during the early days following the wedding. During the infancy of marriage, spouses discover to their great astonishment that the loving angels they married are actually humans who have faults and weaknesses! The awareness that this is a normal phenomenon, and a process that every couple goes through and which can be worked out, is reassuring. Many, many couples who experience these early marriage difficulties come to terms with "real life" and proceed to have exemplary loving relationships.
No marriage has ever survived on passion and love aloneThe bookshelves of any library or bookstore are lined with books devoted to solving marital harmony issues; many of them containing helpful suggestions and theories. In the following lines we will attempt to give you some insights gleaned from Torah sources.
It's Worth the Effort
The Torah ascribes utmost importance to maintaining peaceful loving relations between husband and wife. No effort is spared in the attempt to achieve this goal. In the words of the Talmud: "Great is peace between husband and wife. For the Torah says that [in order to – hopefully – bring peace between a husband and his sotah wife] G‑d's name which is written in sanctity should be erased in the [bitter] waters."
Another prime example of the high priority assigned to preserving marital peace: Honesty and integrity, normally considered to be inviolable values, are suspended for the sake of ensuring peace between a married couple. G‑d Himself established this precedent. When Sarah was informed that she and Abraham would be blessed with a child despite their advanced age, she incredulously exclaimed, but "my husband is old!" When G‑d subsequently repeated her words to Abraham, He tactfully changed her words to, "and I am old"!
When a couple cannot resolve their differences, it is more than a personal issue; it is a national tragedyOur sages tell us that the divorce of a married couple causes the very Altar in the Holy Temple to weep. The Altar is a national symbol which provided atonement for all of Israel. The metaphoric weeping of the Altar illustrates that when a couple cannot resolve their differences, it is more than a personal issue; it is a national tragedy.
It's All About Attitude
When a couple encounters turbulence during their shared life-voyage, the key ingredient to working out the issues and resuming a smooth journey is their attitude towards the challenge they are being presented. An absolute determination and resolve to making the marriage work is vital.
Why the resolve? Why not take a "wait and see" attitude -- if things work out, great; otherwise, there are always other eligible bachelors available on the market?
The Jewish view of marriage clears up this question. Husband and wife aren't two separate entities; as aforementioned, they are two halves of one whole. Thus if one spouse is exhibiting irritating or callous behavior, it's not his/her problem alone -- it is their shared problem and challenge.
It is human nature to be judgmental of others. Seeing another's character flaws and shortcomings causes us to distance ourselves from the offensive individual. Another person's deficiency is glaring. This is not true, however, regarding our own failings. Our love and care for our own self is unconditional and unwavering; we don't stop loving ourselves just because we're annoyed or upset about having done something foolish or thoughtless. Dwelling on our own deficiencies doesn't cause us to lose our self-love; it only causes us to search for ways to improve. The deficiency aspect isn't glaring at all, what we see is a challenge that must be overcome; an opportunity for self-betterment.
This is exactly how we should view a spouse's faults. A spouse's flaws should generate a feeling of empathy and a determination to do whatever it takes to help the most important person in person in one's life to be the person he/she can and wants to be.
Marriage comes with bumps -- and sometimes mountains, and sometimes bumps which seem to be mountains... But G‑d doesn't present us with challenges which we are not equipped to handle. As long as we take the attitude that this is our problem, these bumps are surmountable challenges, not roadblocks.
Marriage comes with bumps -- and sometimes mountains, and sometimes bumps which seem to be mountains... No two people are alike. Every person is a product of a combination of genetics, past experiences, and unique talents and potentials. Thus a relationship -- which by definition involves more than one person -- is always a tricky proposition; it involves two people who are willing to accept differences of opinion and temperament. While this is true in any relationship, the need for accepting differences becomes more pressing when the relationship is all-encompassing, such as marriage. Add in to the equation the natural differences between the genders, and it is obvious that making a marriage work takes sensitivity and wisdom.
Yes, maintaining a happy marriage requires work, but this is what makes the marriage relationship so meaningful and beautiful. It brings out the noblest of human qualities -- the willing to transcend one's natural self and focus on a greater good. The ability to give is one of the greatest gifts we were given.
The ability to see the larger picture is the key to happy marriage. Which issues are non-negotiable, and which are minor irritants? An honest evaluation will reveal that most of the issues which are the causes of contention and discord are relatively minor. Compromise and the ability to remain focused on the important matters can solve the overwhelming majority of "issues."
Take time out to work on your marriage. A second honeymoon, if possible, is always a good idea.
At times, however, the gulf which separates husband and wife is too great to be bridged with their own powers. Neither can relate to the other's needs. At this point, the involvement of an objective third party is needed. Ideally, this arbiter should be a qualified rabbi, rebbetzin, or other individual who possesses Torah values. Undoubtedly, at times this person will feel that the issues raised necessitate the involvement of a professional therapist, in which case, again, preference should be given to a therapist who is devoted to Jewish ideals.
What should be our reaction when a friend or relative is going through marital woes?
So many marriages are destroyed by well intentioned individuals who offer their "helpful" adviceThe Torah provides us with a shining example to emulate. Aaron the High Priest is described as a "pursuer of peace," a marriage counselor par excellence. Despite his responsibilities in the Sanctuary, and notwithstanding his prestigious position as the High Priest of Israel, he would personally visit couples who were mired in marital difficulties. He would attempt to dissuade them from divorce, explaining to them the drastic consequences of such an action, consequences which cannot be envisaged beforehand.
He also had another tactic which he would use to bring together quarreling people. He would approach one party and report how remorseful the other one was. "He so desires to mend the relationship, but is lacking the courage to do so!" Aaron would then proceed to the other party and repeat the same lines... Next time the two met, they would embrace and bury the hatchet.
Now, whether either of these tactics will work in any particular case depends on the specific circumstances involved. The lesson, however, is clear -- it is our responsibility to do all within our power to heal relationships.
Sadly, so many marriages are destroyed by well intentioned family or friends of the husband or wife who offer their helpful advice. They "care" so much and cannot bear seeing their loved one going through such misery, that they advise them to cut and run. They commiserate with their friend or relative and thus reinforce their bitter feelings.
Hard as it may be, we are not being a friend by taking sides. We are actually causing irreversible damage! If we have nothing to say which will benefit the relationship, then we must keep our silence.
[The exception to this rule is an instance where abuse is involved. In such a case, it is a mitzvah to extricate the abused spouse from a harmful setting. However, before intervening, great care should be taken to ascertain that indeed it is an abusive situation. If there is a doubt, approach your rabbi -- or another wise individual with experience in the field -- and allow him or her, an impartial party, to render a decision.]
Aside for all the practical measures mentioned above, there are spiritual steps which can be taken to improve marital harmony. Torah and mitzvot are the conduits for divine blessings; blessings which can certainly assist in successfully navigating the often tricky waters of marriage. A home which is predicated on Jewish values, Torah study, and mitzvah observance is one which is a worthy receptacle for blessings from Above.
The fire remains an everlasting flame when it has G‑d at its centerOur sages teach that a marriage is not just a relationship of a man and a woman, but a three-way relationship that must include G‑d as well. An allusion to this is that the Hebrew word for man, ish, is the same as the Hebrew word for woman, isha, with the exception of one letter in each word. The word for man has a "yud" and the word for woman has a "hei," which are the two letters that represent G‑d's name. The letters that they share in common spell aish, fire. The idea is that a man and woman together are like a fire. They can be intense, passionate, but that fire can also burn out. What keeps the fire an everlasting flame that illuminates and warms is one that has G‑d at its center.
Practically speaking, as well, a home which is devoted to a higher ideal automatically possesses a unifying quality. It lifts its occupants to a level of selflessness which is necessary for resolving conflicts -- or avoiding them in the first place.
There are also certain home-oriented mitzvot which have a greater impact on marital harmony:
The steady flow of blessings into a Jewish home is primarily contingent on the observance of the laws of Family Purity.
A couple whose relationship is experiencing difficult times should consider implementing the laws of Family Purity in their marriage. A couple already observing the rules of Family Purity should consider taking a refresher course on the subject. Over the time, vital details can be forgotten or overlooked.
Practically, as well, the laws of Family Purity prevent the relationship between husband and wife from becoming stale and unexciting. The physical separation mandated by Torah law allows the couple to refresh their romance and passion on a monthly basis. Even without the spiritual benefits offered by Family Purity, jumpstarting the relationship with a "mini-honeymoon" each month is a great way to maintain marital love and harmony.
A couple already observing the rules of Family Purity should consider taking a refresher courseKosher mezuzot provide blessing and protection for all the occupants of the home. In the event of marital strife it is advisable to ensure that a kosher mezuzah is affixed to each doorway of the home. If this is already the case, have a scribe check the mezuzot to verify that they are still kosher. Donning tefillin every day is also a powerful conveyer of blessing. They, too, should be given to the scribe for a thorough inspection.
When we are kind to others, G‑d is kind to us. The most propitious times for giving charity are every day before prayer, and in the moments before lighting Shabbat and Jewish holiday candles.
Previous Broken Relationships
It is stated in the holy books that at times marital strife can be a consequence of a previous relationship which ended with residual hard feelings. Both husband and wife should explore their personal history -- was there perhaps a broken engagement or divorce which left the other party feeling wronged and hurt? If this is the case, the offended person should be located and a sincere apology along with a request for forgiveness should be presented.