Save this Marriage

How to Get Your Spouse to Want to Change

Three Self-Reflective Steps

January 29, 2010

When we feel understood, honored and loved, we are more likely to listen to other's concerns about changing an aspect of our personalities. How does this work?

Step One: Ask yourself: does my spouse feel that I love, nurture, appreciate and celebrate who s/he is?

Step Two: Ask yourself: do I want my spouse to change because what s/he is doing is objectively wrong or because I just don't like it? Many of the things people argue about are not objectively wrong, rather, something that reflects the idiosyncrasies of the spouse, i.e., the infamous socks, empty gas tank, or being late because it takes longer to get dressed. This covers about 90% of issues, no exaggeration. So, what about the other 10% that you objectively believe still requires change?

Step Three: Speak to your spouse with love and without expectation that change is necessary for your marriage to thrive. You can say, "I have a mini heart attack at the end of each month when the bills come. Perhaps we could figure out where and how we spend our money." Then you might be able to bring up expenses to cut back on, and areas where your spouse might think about being more cost-conscious.

Begin to model health. If you are upset at your spouse because s/he yells at the children, spends money on frivolous things, leave a mess, etc., make sure that you aren't guilty of the same. This doesn't mean you cannot raise the subject, but introspect first, as we often find faults in others that we have, too. We are much more forgiving and accepting of our own faults than others.

The simple rule is, if you have developed a loving relationship because you have learned to nurture each other, then the natural reaction is to try to please each other – which includes changing oneself. It is almost as reliable as a mathematical formula.

I knew an old couple in Israel whose wife would buy excessive amounts of food that would inevitably go bad and be thrown away. Both Holocaust survivors, it was probably her way of coping with her past. He tried to get her to change, but eventually realized that she could not change... and simply loved her because he loved her. Not because she did or didn't change.

To identify someone's shortcomings is easy, but choosing to love your spouse means to love him or her because you choose to love, identify, celebrate, support and nurture his or her uniqueness.

When we choose love in the present, we are also choosing love for our children in the future. If they see us living a life filled with choices and attitudes that creates love, then our children will absorb this and choose love for themselves and for their children.

Marriage Meetings

January 21, 2010

Most couples can maintain sholom bayit – peace in the home – with a practical, easy-to-implement system: the Marriage Meeting Program. Couples who conduct Marriage Meetings report a twenty to eighty percent increase in happiness with their relationship, as these meetings foster a loving connection, a sense of teamwork, and a respectful resolution of conflicts.

Typically, men are likely to resist scheduling a meeting, but once they try, they are pleased with the results. One husband said this approach was "direct, refreshing, and sorely needed." Another stated that when his wife urged him to try a meeting, he was petrified, but he went along with it. He was very pleased with the results, and planned to keep scheduling meetings. Personally, I can vouch for Marriage Meetings. My husband and I have been holding them for 21 years, having started as newlyweds. I cannot imagine a better way to keep a relationship on track.

Here is how a Marriage Meeting works:

The meeting has a four-part agenda: Appreciation, Chores, Plan for Good Times, and Problems and Challenges. Set a time limit of 45 minutes to decrease the likelihood of fatigue. Meet when both of you are alert, not tired or hungry. Try meeting in your living room with your appointment books nearby. Avoid any interruptions. After you have established a routine, you can experiment by meeting in different settings.

The Appreciation part of the meeting comes first. Each partner takes a turn, saying specific things he or she appreciated about the other during the week. A few Do's and Don'ts to keep this part of the meeting flowing smoothly:

  • Do use "I" statements here and throughout the meeting: "I appreciate your calling me to say you'd be late getting home, and greeting me with a smile when you came in."
  • Do remember to express appreciation for positive character traits: "I appreciate your patience in listening to my complaints about my job."
  • Do say that you like what he or she has done to keep your home a peaceful sanctuary, whether by keeping the appliances in working order, scheduling needed repairs, attending parenting classes, or engaging in other activities that bring out the best in each of you.
  • Don't omit the obvious. Everyone wants to know, for example, that his or her financial contributions to the marriage are appreciated, that their spouse finds them physically attractive, etc.
  • Don't criticize. Stick with appreciation during this part of the meeting, even if sometimes the considerate phone call doesn't happen.
  • Don't fall into the trap of thinking there is nothing to appreciate. What about the time he picked up the children from school? Took out the garbage? And what else might you be taking for granted? How about the time he cooked your favorite dinner? Or that moment when she looked across the room at you and smiled? Or when he visited your aunt with you? That was kind, wasn't it? Tell him! Tell her!

Some of us hesitate to express appreciation. Do it anyway. Even if you blush! Before the meeting, write down a few things you want to mention so you won't forget. Stay with the positive. As you conclude your complimentary remarks, ask, "Did I leave anything out?" Your spouse may reply, "Did you appreciate that I picked your mother up at the airport last Sunday?" Of course! You appreciated that too. How could you have forgotten? You both smile, feeling good and ready to continue with the meeting's agenda.

Chores comes next. Here you discuss what needs to be done and you each report on what you have already done. Keep it simple:

  • Do list chores and agree on who is responsible for doing what, along with timelines. For example, if it's time to replace the toaster-oven, one of you mentions it. Either one of you can offer to pick up a new one by Thursday, or within any mutually agreeable time.
  • Do set priorities together, once the list is complete, so that what's important to each of you will get done soon.
  • Do put some chores on hold to make time for higher priorities. New linoleum for the kitchen can wait until after the leaky roof gets repaired or replaced. The checkbook can get balanced after the tax receipts are organized.
  • Don't wallow because you wish you'd taken care of something sooner, just move it up to the top of your to-do list.
  • Don't criticize. Maybe he says he'll fill out the forms for your child's new school by next week but you don't believe him, knowing his past record. Zip your lip and accept his good intention; progress reports will follow at future meetings.
  • Don't waste energy blaming yourself either for something you haven't done yet.

You will like knowing that your priorities are mutual, that you two are not working at cross-purposes. So if your home needs repairs, money needs management, or a wedding gift needs to be bought, when you both take care of business, each of you feels good.

Sometimes discussion about a chore becomes emotional, such as when one partner is feeling upset with the other about something relating to a chore. Instead of saying "I'm tired of having to remind you so often," save this part of the conversation for the last part of the meeting: Problems and Challenges. Keep the discussion around chores crisp, positive, and business-like.

Plan for Good Times follows the Chores part of a Marriage Meeting. Plans take energy; good times restore us, recharge our batteries. What if it's been so long since you've planned any enjoyable activities that you think you've forgotten how to have a good time? Perhaps you'd like a bubble bath or a workout at the gym, a walk in the woods, or a visit to a friend? A watercolor class you'd like to take? Would you enjoy camping or a different sort of vacation? Some Do's and Don'ts:

  • Do take time to think of activities you enjoy.
  • Do plan good times for yourself, dates with your partner, and family outings.
  • Don't fall into the martyr trap. You feel guilty about taking time for yourself? The happiness you feel after investing time in yourself will reverberate to your partner and children.
  • Don't forget to plan vacations – sometimes a getaway for the two of you, other times for the whole family.

Problems and Challenges, the last part of the meeting, is the time to bring up any issue for discussion. It can feel intimidating to say what's on our minds, not knowing how the other person will respond. Speak up anyway! This is the time to clear the air and seek solutions.

You love the idea of overnight guests, but you're feeling exhausted from having had so many lately. Talk it out and remember to use "I" statements, such as, "I want to host guests but I'm exhausted from how much company we've had recently." Maybe it's time to say "no" to potential guests for a while; alternatively, it may work fine to have them if others will agree to pitch in with the extra chores. Together, work towards a solution.

This is the time to talk about changing needs, transitions, and intimacy concerns. How will a new work or volunteer schedule affect your routines and relationship? Are you considering having an elderly relative come to live with you? Does one of you want more intimacy or crave more alone time? Concerned about money? What new challenges are you anticipating? Keep talking.

  • Do start small. Try to keep this part of the meeting light the first few times by only bringing up issues that are fairly easy to resolve. Once you have established a pattern of successful meetings, you can move on to more sensitive matters.
  • Do use "I" statements. They help prevent the listener from feeling criticized.
  • Do speak up, even if you are afraid of how your partner may respond.
  • Do brainstorm for solutions. List and consider a number of alternatives until one emerges that works for both of you.
  • Don't allow yourself to feel overwhelmed by seemingly unsolvable problems. Change takes time, especially for the bigger issues. Be patient with the process.
  • Don't blame. Attack the problem – not each other!

Here's an example of an easy problem for an early meeting. Ask your partner if he or she is happy with the meals you're preparing or whether something different is preferred, such as more vegetarian and fewer meat meals, or similar meals but with less oil, sugar, or salt. The answer is likely to emerge in the same meeting. Some of the more emotionally charged issues mentioned above may take weeks or months or even longer to resolve.

One of you may be more motivated to schedule meetings than the other. One partner may have a stronger need for closure than the other, feeling stymied when unresolved issues are allowed to fester. If that sounds like you, understand both your need and your partner's reluctance. Either way, express appreciation to your spouse for participating. Do something pleasurable right after the meeting, as simple as sharing a special dessert.

End the meeting on a positive note. Jerusalem wasn't built in a day; not every issue will be resolved immediately. Appreciate yourselves for hanging in there together and be confident about the process. Solutions will emerge in time.

To summarize, the structure of Marriage Meetings helps each partner feel accepted, appreciated, and heard by the other. It offers an assurance that virtually any issue can be discussed effectively and resolved over time, if not immediately. The meetings provide a supportive environment for the airing of different opinions. Regardless of how much any couple has in common, each partner is an individual with a unique personality, wants, and needs. While some people try to whitewash conflicts that defy their fantasy of "togetherness," noticing your differences is crucial, and doing so helps keep relationships thriving, so long as your differences are accepted in the positive spirit that well-conducted meetings generate.

Some of those differences are exactly what attracted you to each other in the first place, right? If you think your relationship has deteriorated to the point where a Marriage Meeting wouldn't be feasible, consider consulting a psychotherapist skilled in working with couples who can provide you with tools to improve your communications.

But try a meeting anyway – you never know. Regardless of how good you may feel about your relationship, there is always room to grow. Wouldn't you like to have a special time to hear how your partner appreciates you, to plan good times, to organize chores, and to address challenges successfully?

45 minutes. A small investment for a huge return.

LIFE: Linking Intelligence, Feeling, and Emotion

How to Listen to what Your Heart is Feeling

January 13, 2010

Q. Though I'm a very logical person, constantly pushing my emotions aside, I sometimes burst out in anger, surprising both my spouse and myself. Any thoughts on this issue?

A. It pays to get in touch with your emotions. Though emotions are often illogical, painful or frightening, they contain a lot of truth. Negative emotions can alert you to danger, inform you when it's time to change direction and thereby cultivate a longing for self-growth. Even when it hurts, a negative emotion can lead you to greater understanding. Welcome it. Be curious – take a look at it. Give yourself permission to say, "Oh, this hurts, let me find out what's going on here," instead of stifling it with "I shouldn't be feeling this way." In reality, the seed of pain becomes the seed for growth. When you discard the pain, you throw away the information it can give you. On the other hand, when you crack open the difficulty, you discover what it can teach you.

In the book of Proverbs, King Solomon advises: "He who is slow to anger is better than a strong man and a master over his emotions than a conqueror of a city" (Mishlei 16:32).

A strong man is satisfied with overpowering a city and killing its defenders. But a conqueror of a city derives no benefit from destroying its inhabitants. His more delicate task is to take control of the city while leaving its inhabitants alive.

According to Rabbi Yonah, the city is a metaphor for anger and its inhabitants symbolize one's other instinctual drives. Both the strong man and the conqueror overpower their anger. But the conqueror recognizes that other physical desires (the inhabitants of the city) are needed for survival. And so he keeps them alive, even though he subjects them to his rule.

The challenge is to experience the full spectrum of our emotions, to listen and evaluate our emotional life. As life unfolds, we can learn many lessons along the way. It takes courage and bravery to face up to whatever arises; it takes courage and bravery to surrender our will to the Divine. We have to form a bridge between our heart and our mind, between our feelings and our intellect so that we can understand with our brain what our heart is saying.

It takes courage to get in touch with our emotions, especially when they're negative. To some people, it may seem easier to escape feelings by cramming schedules and to-do lists until there's no time or room for feelings.

Simply disregarding feelings doesn't change them. Either they linger in the background and hurt us in subtle ways (such as affecting our logical thinking processes), or they backfire and emerge in very obvious ways (like angry outbursts). Left to ferment, they eventually bubble out of control. When you are confronted by an overload of emotions, it's more difficult to look for solutions in a clear and calm manner.

Anger is a feeling that is aroused within us when we are provoked. It is a signal to us. It may be alerting us to the fact that we're being hurt, that our needs are not being adequately met, or that we're not addressing something important in our lives. It is not the initial feeling of anger that is wrong, but the improper expression of anger. Here are some ways to deal with your emotions before they steam over:

  • Notice – Check inside to see what you feel. Observe your feelings with the objectivity of a news reporter: Ah, how interesting, I'm feeling angry. Embrace the feeling with wonder and curiosity.
  • Lower the volume – Reduce the strident voices of judgment, criticism and analysis, such as: I shouldn't be feeling this way. One shouldn't become so emotional.
  • Accept – Accept your feeling. Never give up on yourself for feeling the way you do. Acceptance invites improvement: If I'm okay than of course I can always do better.
  • Write down your feelings in a journal. Besides for its therapeutic effect, you will gain clarity after the dust settles.
  • Use I-messages. I-messages can help us communicate our feelings when we feel wronged without putting down, accusing, or attacking another person. A statement such as "I feel like I'm not being heard" makes for more effective communication than, "You don't know how to listen."

BlackBerry Distractions

January 8, 2010

Dear Tzippora,

My husband got a Blackberry for work purposes. The problem is that now his co-workers expect him to be on-call 24/7. He is always opening emails in the middle of dinner, while reading the kids a bedtime story, or even while we are taking a walk. I keep explaining to him how off-putting it is to have our conversations constantly interrupted by incoming email, but he just doesn't seem to get it. How can I get him offline?

Driven to Distraction

Dear Driven to Distraction,

We are witnessing a technological revolution. Modern technology is advancing much faster than our ability to assess what impact it will have on personal or family life. While technology brings beneficial advantages such as the ability to work from home, or to telecommute to the office, it also brings a host of disadvantages that are created by blurring the boundaries between work and family life.

The situation you are describing is an example of what happens when the boundaries become blurred. We become distracted by work, and find it hard to concentrate on our family during the hours that are intended to help families reconnect after a long day apart.

Explain to your husband that it is not a question of assessing the disruption to an individual conversation, but rather an overall sense you have that he is no longer available to interact with the family in the way that he was before the Blackberry's arrival.

Request that the Blackberry be turned off during specific hours so that family life can take center stage. Examples of these hours would be dinnertime, bedtime, and after-dinner family relaxing time.

You can also honor your end of the bargain by not answering the phone or checking your email during these times. We tend to have a double standard when it comes to our own lapses, and adhering to the same standards as your husband will place your both on even footing.

If your husband needs to be in touch with the office after work hours, allocate specific times for this purpose. It may also be helpful if he let those in the office know when he can be reached.

Remember that whatever practices you establish now will be observed by your children, and become internalized by them. Your current example will become their standard model for family interactions. This means that if you want your children to remove their iPods, or refrain from texting at the table in a few years time, you and your husband must both begin to model the self-control you expect from them in the future. This is an example of how your children's education for life truly begins at home.

How To Protect Your Love

January 3, 2010

In the early months, sometimes years, of marriage, most people are still "in love." After many years, however, a truly loving marriage becomes a rarer commodity. Along the way, things sour romantic and caring feelings. The longer the pain goes on, the more entrenched it becomes. Resentment, hopelessness and battle fatigue characterize many long-term relationships.

And yet, it doesn't have to be this way at all. When young couples realize how fragile their precious love really is, they will take strong measures to protect it. Unlike those who allow affection to slowly, almost imperceptibly, drain out of their marriage, they will rush to block the tiniest leak with a powerful plug. Not one ounce of warmth will be permitted to escape. Similar tactics are used by those who employed marriage counseling, allowing them to rebuild a damaged relationship. Now that it is whole again, they remain vigilant against the minutest emotional assault. Having learned the hard way, these couples know that love requires not only nurturing and maintenance, but also protection.

Protective Boundaries

Love flourishes in an atmosphere of respect and concern. Therefore, all married individuals need to learn to show respect and concern for their spouse and ensure that they receive respect and concern in return. Let's look at this two-pronged strategy for protecting love, starting with the importance of showing respect and concern for one's own partner.

There are times when a person feels irritated – many times, in fact. Feelings of irritation must be noted and not allowed to take the reigns of the vocal apparatus. "I feel irritated/annoyed/frustrated/furious/upset and I cannot speak until I calm down" is a safety-enhancing marital mantra. In the moment, one can say to one's spouse, "I'd like to collect my thoughts and talk to you about this later today." Then, the intervening period can be used to restore emotional equilibrium.

Speaking in anger leads all too often to abandoning feelings of respect and concern. Minimizing communication during times of significant irritation is a powerful way to protect love. On the other hand, venting emotion can have disastrous consequences, as stated in the Talmud, "He that wreaks his vengeance destroys his own nest" (Sanhedrin 102b). Although there is certainly some satisfaction in speaking one's mind, there is more satisfaction in creating and maintaining a lifelong loving marriage.

And this brings us to the second aspect of protecting love: ensuring that your spouse treats you with respect and concern.

Each person teaches others how to treat them. A person who tolerates mistreatment destroys their own relationship. After all, one cannot truly love (or even like) a person who routinely hurts them. One must prevent that hurt from occurring by stopping it in its tracks.

At the first sign of disrespect or lack of concern, one must stop the train. "Hold on! We can't go any further until we straighten this out. This kind of behavior harms us both; it hurts me and causes me to withdraw affection from you. It harms our marriage. It has to stop now." Whether the offence was a bitterly sarcastic remark or a forgotten birthday or anything else, it must be addressed at the earliest opportunity. When words are insufficient to affect a change, stronger action must be taken (i.e. arrange a meeting with an advisor, rabbi or counselor). It is inadvisable to let little things pass, because the path to marital unhappiness is a slippery slope. It's all too easy to let love slip away completely.

Protecting one's love is an actual mitzvah since it is the route to protecting shalom bayit, a peaceful home. Vigilance in this regard pays off with a lifetime of love.

Feeling lonely in your marriage? Constant fighting, arguing and bickering? Money problems keeping your apart? Or is jealousy ruining your intimacy?

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