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Danger Signals

Danger Signals

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Focus On Your Marriage

There are good marriages and bad marriages, better marriages and worse marriages. Ideally, a couple who marries is interested not merely in having its marriage survive; they would very much like for the marriage to thrive. If they do not, then there is something wrong with their outlook and perspective on marriage.

Do marriages thrive? It is hard to say. Many people are hard pressed to think of couples within their immediate circle of friends who are actually thriving in their marriage. Of course, it does not help when one learns that two people who one thought were deliriously in love with each other, have decided to divorce. This destroys one's confidence in the ability to judge others and the nature of their relationship.

But we should not focus too much attention on other couples, and on the almost silly question of whether or not they are happy. This is the type of idle gossip that goes nowhere, and sometimes can be a negative factor in one's own marriage. One will often see another couple who is not as well off, and say—well, at least we are better than they. This may give birth to a complacency which, if entrenched, congeals the marriage in a state of permanent stagnation.

The Thriving Ideal

Marriage thrives when the couple applies the basic principle of "Love your neighbor (spouse) as yourself" (Leviticus, 19:18), to each other. In other words, if each of the marital partners, husband and wife, treats the "other half" as if he or she is part of his or her own being, then the marriage is in the thriving category. In such a marital dynamic, your spouse's pain is your pain, your spouse's joy is your joy, your spouse's concerns are your concerns, your spouse's needs become your responsibility. It is almost as natural a reflex as the left hand putting a glove on the right hand when stepping out into the cold.

Realistically, very few marriages actually attain the ideal, the mutuality and empathetic attentiveness that is truly indicative of a oneness within the union. But there is nothing wrong, and much right, with continuing to strive toward that ideal, however elusive it may be.

Demand of Yourself

However, there is a wrong way and a right way to approach this daunting objective. The wrong way is to demand the empathy, care, and sensitivity from your spouse. The right way is to gain that very empathy by extending it to your spouse.

Very often marriage gets stultified in the Kansas conundrum. In Kansas there is a law on the books which reads as follows: "When two trains come to an intersection, each of them shall come to a full stop, and neither of them shall go until the other one has left."

Couples can get caught in a debilitating debate over who is responsible, who must make the first move. But if a couple is bogged down in this type of drag-down debate, it is indicative of a flawed relationship, aside from it being a no-win situation. Instead of each pointing the finger at the other, and demanding of the other to make the first move, it would be healthier, both for inner growth and marital harmony, for each spouse to point the finger at the self and to say: It is up to me to make the first move; not to watch the other, but to focus on my own responsibilities, and to do my best in that regard. This is what self-transcendence is all about — looking at yourself, understanding your responsibilities, and then living out life in actualizing your responsibility towards others. In marriage, that responsibility is towards the primary other, your partner in life.

Continual Nurturing

Marriage is similar to human growth. Human beings do not grow unless they are fed. The fact that you had breakfast yesterday does not mean that you can go without it today, tomorrow, and the day after. The human being who desires to survive, to thrive, to have the energy to approach life, needs to address the necessities of life on a regular basis.

Marriage is somewhat analogous to an autonomous life. It is the life of a couple, and for it to grow and to develop, it needs to be nourished and nurtured on a regular basis.

The first danger signal in any marriage is when the commitment to nurture the relationship starts to weaken. Obviously, it is almost impossible to maintain the exhilarated feeling of the day of marriage, or even the exciting feeling of the first year together.

Sexual Discipline

In Jewish life, we try to avoid the routinization of the marriage through the sexual discipline. The Talmud (Nidah 31a) is quite clear in its insistence that the reason why husband and wife separate during the period of menstruation and seven days beyond, followed by immersion in the mikvah waters, is to regularly recreate the freshness of the marriage. It is only normal that after a while, excitement abates. Jewish law does not take marriage for granted. It insists on certain Divinely ordained protocols for marriage enhancement.

This marriage enhancement, however, only works if it is approached in the right manner. Neither of the couple should dare use the period of suspended sexuality to totally withdraw and neglect the other. There are different dimensions in which each marriage functions, including the spiritual, the verbal, and the sexual. In the time when sexual communication is proscribed, verbal communication is ideal. Neither can be accused of using the verbal communication for ulterior motives, namely to get some sexual thrill out of it as entertainment. It is a time when the couple can effectively focus on the serious matters within the marriage; not that this cannot be done during the time of sexual eligibility, only that this is an ideal occasion for such communication.

There is always a danger to the union when the husband and wife drift away from the opportunities to communicate with one another, from reinforcing their relationship through finding out what the other one is thinking, and what are the concerns of the other. True partnership is sharing, and true sharing includes the sharing of one's innermost feelings, even one's innermost secrets. Obviously this will not happen overnight; it is a trust that evolves over the years. But each partner in the marital union should very consciously push forward in this direction, to bind the marriage in an even closer link as the years go by.

Attentiveness to the Other

When routinization sets in, and routinization is often the step before boredom, this is the time for each member of the marriage relationship to take stock, and to stop the possible attrition of affection, by adopting and embracing strategies for becoming closer. The best way to do this is to set aside sacred time on an ongoing basis, whether it be once a week or once every two weeks, whether it be one hour or two hours; time in which the couple has only each other and spends that time developing the relationship on a more profound level.

Admittedly, there are marriages that exist, or maybe even thrive, without the couple ever having made this type of sacred time commitment. But invariably, these thriving marriages are categorized by a special level of attentiveness to one another that seems to escalate over the years, almost naturally and spontaneously. When this happens, it is truly a G‑dly blessing. It is when this does not happen that intervention of some sort is of utmost importance, to assure that the marriage does not get thrown off course.

Focus Beyond Self

Usually, a commitment to making the marriage thrive is the best strategy to avoid the marriage collapsing. If one aims only to make the marriage survive, then this is a strategy of low expectations which can sometimes engender even lower results. And, as was mentioned before, but which cannot be overemphasized, when striving towards thriving, the focus should be on what contribution each can make on his own, rather than on what contribution the other should make.

With all the efforts that one may expend to enhance the marriage, there is no guarantee that these efforts will succeed. Sometimes, in spite of one's going out of the way to assure the viability of the marriage, the marriage does not take off, or does not reach the ideal expression that one desires.

There are times in the marital union when one or both of the partners will wonder whether they are really happy. It is always better to focus attention on whether you are making your partner happy, rather than on whether your partner is making you happy. Also, it is vital to assess whether your partner is happy, content, and at ease in the relationship.

Inattentiveness

Anyone with some level of empathy and the ability to sense the feelings of others, can surely ascertain whether one's partner is stifling emotions, or is holding back from sharing concerns or communicating in a meaningful way. Often, the marriage starts to disintegrate when one of the marital partners feels neglected by the other, and is disappointed that the other has not picked up on a hurt, or a sensitive concern, that may be vexing. Or, it could be an off-handed slight, unintended but real, that sets the marriage off course.

Because each of the marital partners means so much to the other, a little neglect here or there can be devastating. It is for this reason that the Talmud advised, in strongest possible terms, to always be alert to the oppression of one's wife (Baba Mezia, 59a). Hurt comes easily in a marital relationship, since each member of the marital union relies primarily on the other for emotional support and understanding.

What would be of no significance whatsoever in ordinary human interaction can become a serious matter in marriage. Seeing your friend and just casually giving a wave without saying hello, how are you, how is everything, may not be a serious matter. However, the failure to do so with your spouse can be devastating.

Especially devastating can be the act of omission—the simple failure to commiserate with your spouse who has just had a bad day at the office; or the failure to call up when out-of-town on business, to inquire about how everything is at home. It could be a more serious failure to be with a spouse who has just endured the trauma of a spontaneous abortion, or loss of a relative, and to neglect her.

Neglect  a Serious Matter

Since the wrong that is involved here is not an actual commission of a perverse act, or a despicable deed, but is more the omission of a concern that should have been shown, sometimes the one who has failed to show such a concern does not understand why it is such a serious issue. This sometimes makes matters even worse, since the adversely affected spouse is hurt that there is not even an acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

It is easy for resentments to build up in such a scenario, because there is so much reliance on the partner for emotional support, and great disappointment when that support is not forthcoming. Disappointment is often the prelude to bottled up resentment and ill-feeling that can adversely affect the marriage in all its dimensions.

Human beings are usually quite good at sniffing out what it is that they need, and are also very alert to the hurt that may be inflicted upon them either directly or by neglect. It is when they do this to others that human beings usually lack commensurate alertness. However, the operative dynamic of "Love your neighbor as yourself," seeing your spouse as part of you, is likewise an imperative to be alert to those hurts of your spouse, as if they were your own.

Thus, resentment, suppressed emotions, withdrawal from vibrant communication, a sense of being upset, or down, or even depressed, are indications that something is wrong. It may not necessarily be something that is wrong with the marriage; it may simply be something that is bothering your spouse. But if it bothers your spouse, and you do nothing about it, it can then become an impediment in the marital relationship.

Agreeable Disagreement

Ideally, one would like to go through the entire marriage without having any arguments with one's spouse. However, that is a difficult ideal to achieve. One may even argue that having disagreements is not necessarily the end of the world. It is not whether or not husband and wife disagree that is as crucial as the question of how they disagree.

If the disagreement is on issues of importance, and it is carried out with respectfulness for the other one's person and the other one's opinion, then that disagreement can be a healthful exercise. It should result in a consensual agreement based on an appreciation by each of the other's viewpoint. This is one of the singular advantages that comes with marriage; the combining of two viewpoints, the sharing of ideas, and the mutual enhancement that comes from greater input.

When the argument becomes embittered with personal aspersions, when the argument is projected in a heavy-handed manner with lack of respect for the other, then this is a danger signal in the marital dynamics.

It goes without need for elaboration that abuse of one's partner, physical or verbal, is unconscionable, and its manifestation in marriage is a danger signal of the most serious magnitude.

Neither of the spouses has the right to impose views, or to become a dictator in the marital context. Lack of mutuality and consultation, be it on matters of finances, on matters of where to go for a vacation, or where to send the children to school or to camp, or any other issue, are an indication of a fundamental imbalance and deficit in marital communication.

Religious Disparity

Religious differences too can interfere with marital harmony. When the couple is not on-side in their religious commitment, when each goes in a different direction, the marital balance is upset. If, for example, the husband or the wife has suddenly decided, for whatever reason, to escalate religious observance, and does so with a great amount of exuberance, there is a danger of leaving the other one behind and creating a schism within the marriage.

This is not to say that one should hold back on developing religiously. It is to say that in becoming more embracing of religious categories, one should also at the same time embrace the religious category of loving one's spouse, and make sure that whatever develops does so in harmony and in partnership. Granted, this is difficult, and arguably even sometimes impossible. It still is nevertheless vital for a spouse who has become more conscious of and sensitive to religious expression, to make sure that religious expression does not become the first step towards marital disintegration.

The Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah, 9:9), in a fascinating vignette, states that to save a marriage, there is even a ritual of erasing the name of G‑d, which under normal circumstances is a most grievous breach. This projects the vital notion that G‑d willingly steps to the sideline in order to save a marriage. The message and the implication are clear. To use G‑d or G‑dliness as the excuse or cause for driving a wedge in the marriage is a distortion of the G‑dly.

Conjugal Difficulties

Finally, one of the clear danger signals that marriage is not the way it ought to be is the matter of conjugal relations. With this component of marriage, as with others, much depends on the nature of the relationship as it evolves. What may be a danger signal for some couples may be nothing more than the usual for others. All human beings are different, and the nature of how they relate to each other is a unique expression of their differences.

However, each of the marital partners can know very well through what goes on in the bedroom whether there is something wrong in the marriage.

This is not to suggest that there must be a pressure placed upon either spouse to "perform" as per the societal dictates. What is of utmost concern is not sexual performance; what is of utmost concern is the caring, sensitivity and warmth that should characterize the embracing moment. Technique is not what is at issue; affection is what is at issue. When affection is lacking, or when there is disinterest in the personal communication and more in just the physical thrill, then this is a warning signal that all is not well in the relationship.

Whether or not a conjugal experience is successful is not related to the proper exercise of "technique," as much as to the expression of true affection and the showering of love. This is the primary ingredient in the conjugal union, and of course the primary ingredient in marriage. When this is missing, it is a red alert, a call for action.

Extra-marital involvement is a more serious impediment to the marriage. Most often the extra-marital affair is the result, rather than the cause, of marital difficulty. However, although it is only the result of marital difficulty, it could easily become the cause of marital collapse.

Alert to Dangers

This chapter has spelled out some, but not all the danger signals that can impede the marital flow. There are others, such as the financial woes that can disrupt even a smooth relation-ship. Interference of relatives can also cause problems, as can the ill health, physical or mental, of either spouse, or other members of the family. The loss of a child is also a potential danger point. One of the couple may be mired in melancholy as a result of the loss, whilst the other may want to get on with life. The spouses go in diverging paths, often to the point of divorcing.

Not all danger signals are an indication that the marriage is on the rocks and doomed to failure. They are only to be seen as alarm clock awakenings to the fact that the marriage, even if it is good, is languishing in the problem areas that need to be confronted, for the marriage to continue along the road toward thriving.

If one is oblivious to the dangers, then one risks marital stagnation, and possible marital disintegration. In being alert to the danger signals, one is alert to the responsibility to intervene at the earliest possible moment, to head-off the syndrome that can be generated by the undesirable realities.

Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka is a noted author, lecturer and Jewish activist. He is the rabbi of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and is the co-president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
The Jewish Divorce Ethics is reprinted with the gracious permission of the author
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