Save this Marriage

Powerful Words

And The Power of Words

October 26, 2008

Hebrew, the holy language, is unique in many ways. Not only does each letter express itself also as a number (aleph=1, bet = 2, etc.), known as Gematria, but words that have the same letters have a connection that is often profoundly meaningful and instructive.

Take the word regesh, meaning feeling. If you change the letters around, you get the word gesher, meaning bridge. What's the connection? Well, simply, if you want to make a bridge to another human being, you need to understand their feelings. Yes, simple, but not easy. We are often afraid or ashamed of feelings, our own as well as those of others. We are uncomfortable with sadness, grief, fear, anger and shame. We don't know what to do with such feelings. And so, we distance ourselves in an effort to protect from such storms of emotion. Unfortunately, in that process, we distance ourselves from our loved ones, as well.

In previous blogs, I discussed what can be controlled (i.e., "secondary" thoughts, speech and action.) I would like to focus now on what cannot be controlled – i.e., feelings, body sensations and first (initial thoughts). They cannot always be "fixed" or changed or relieved at the moment. We often just need to experience them and understand that they have their own life, coming and going, rising and falling, at their own rate and intensity, just like waves in the sea. The only thing we can do is give them the gifts of a listening ear, non-judgmental responses, and enough patience to work themselves out.

We do this automatically with infants. With a newborn, we are so quick to attend to feelings. We hear a cry and immediately we mobilize all our resources to attend to the child. We strengthen our connection through our attention, which gives the child a feeling of security and safety. We also do not hesitate to complement, notice and become emotionally overjoyed with every little accomplishment. We are excited with the new little person, and find it easy to encourage, praise and support.

Does the need for this type of attention ever stop? Do we reach an age where we no longer need someone to hear our feelings and have the patience to give us a loving response? Usually, we will use these words less and less with our children somewhere around the beginning of their school years, around the ages of five to seven years-old. Because of the stress and demands of everyday life, we find ourselves overwhelmed with commands and frustrations. "Hang up your coat, wash your hands, do your homework, stop fighting with your sister/brother." There are so many rules and regulations, so much "micro-managing" that is a realistic and necessary aspect of raising children. But, all too often we forget the other part: the emotional connection through words of praise, encouragement and acknowledgment. We forget to be excited or interested in what's happening in their world of feelings. We don't slow down long enough to truly listen, on a deeper level.

This phenomenon came through very clearly with a couple I recently dealt with. Both Yael and Yosef (not real names) are very fine people. Basically they have a "good enough" marriage; children, job and community were all in order. What was the problem? They don't experience closeness, depth or connection. Their marriage felt boring, and on automatic and they were both concerned and feeling lonely as a result of this disconnection. Whenever they did find time to be together, the talk usually drifted to problems and negativity. Their mood reminded me of another word association: choshech, which means darkness and shachach, which is forgetting. Why does it become dark or depressing in relationships? Because we forget to make time to attend to the priorities, to first and foremost make the bridge to the feelings.

In discussing their individual homes of origin, it became apparent that neither Yael nor Yosef came from a home where feelings were acknowledged and positive verbal expression was encouraged. Their parents did not relate to one another with a special nurturing vocabulary. What took precedence were the facts, not the feelings; it was intellect over emotion. Accomplishment at school, cleanliness, dress and food were all emphasized at the expense of more meaningful connections. As the children got older, they were expected not to need the emotional support or the proverbial "pat on the back." Feelings had to be hidden or suppressed under the pressure to "grow up, be a big boy, be brave and get over it."

We all work for some kind of wage, whether it is monetary or otherwise. What motivates all human beings, our "minimum wage," is to be acknowledged, heard and appreciated. For some people, this is an automatic part of their giving nature. For others, it must become a learned ability, and it takes a great deal of practice. But once you make it a part of your life, you will find it to be the easiest (and least expensive!) way to enhance your marital harmony.

Yosef and Yael began to practice some interchanges that at first felt awkward and staged. (It was!) It was like learning a new language with foreign words. They both laughed embarrassingly at their difficulty. And the fear was that it sounded so mechanical. Would it ever become natural for them? Well, again nature is teva, and drowing is tavuah. If we don't work to overcome our natural habits, they will, indeed, drown us in our old habits.

Yosef and Yael were grateful to find out that their problem could be softened through some introspection and reality checks. We investigated such questions as: "What's difficult about learning to compliment?" "What are YOU feeling when your partner expresses feelings?" "What is non-judgmental listening all about?" "What beliefs keep your emotions suppressed?" "Which communication roadblocks prevent your partner from expressing him/herself honestly?"

These are a few of those "roadblocks" that make it unsafe to express feelings:

1) Minimizing: "Oh that's ridiculous/not important…"

2) Maximizing: "That spells disaster/danger…"

3) All or Nothing: "The whole trip/day/event is ruined…." "You always/never…"

4) Perfectionism: "It's never good enough/right enough….."

5) History-izing: "You've never….you always….."

6) Comparison: "My mother/father….. never did it that way….

7) Denial: "It's not true…"

Yael and Yosef also had many opportunities to increase their own practice by implementing their new skills with the children by remembering to listen attentively, receive feelings and to support and praise whenever appropriate. Over time, as the children became confident that they would not be judged or ridiculed, the atmosphere in the home became calmer and more respectful.

Anger and Love—Do they Mix?

October 19, 2008

Anger Between Spouses

Love and anger cannot coexist together. Anger will always push away love. A person cannot ingest poison and then remain healthy; so, too, a person cannot receive anger and still feel loving toward the angry person.

Negative feelings are always more powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting than positive feelings. One or two negative interactions will easily spoil ten or twenty positive interactions. Anger in the form of criticism, sarcasm, hostility, or cruelty, is a very strong negative emotion. Anger is "love's poison."

It is normal at times to feel irritated with your spouse or other close family member. You may not like how they prepare food, dress, spend money, clean the house, parent, or talk with you. At these moments, you have a choice. You can respond either with patience, kindness and understanding, or with judgment, anger and conflict. If you respond with anger and criticism, you will almost certainly ruin your relationship.

Successful marriages are built with love and respect. Anger and arguing will drive a wedge between you and your partner, making mutual feelings of love and respect impossible. Simply, if you want a loving relationship, keep anger out of your home.

Some people think that arguments between husbands and wives are a necessary part of marriage. This is not true. The goal should be to never express anger, bicker, or get into a serious fight. Nobody wants to get sick. We do many things to avoid falling ill. However, when illness comes, we understand it is a normal part of life. The relationship between a husband and wife is the same. We strive for continual peace and harmony, but we accept the occasional marital conflict.

A healthy person can easily survive the flu, but a weak person cannot. The same is true for your relationship. If it is strong, it will endure the occasional mistake by you or your spouse, even though your goal is an anger-free relationship. If anger, as an unwanted guest, occasionally appears, quickly show it the way out. Make your home a special place filled with love and positive feelings.

What Should a Marriage be Like?

A relationship should be peaceful, fun, romantic, pleasant, and devoid of anger, criticism, hostility, and sarcasm. Realistically, you are likely to have the occasional disagreement or argument with your partner. However, the disagreements should be kept small and quickly set aside. When the disagreement is about a particular issue, and anger has not been mixed in, it is easy to have closure and move-on.

Your relationship is successful when you feel loved and cared for by your partner. You feel that in a time of need your partner will be there with you, and for you. Your partner is loyal, loving, and enjoys your company. Not all moments of the day are filled with romance and song, but you look forward to moments that can be. Many times, you are away from your partner, and you enjoy those times, but you look forward to when you are united again. Together, you work with your partner to build your family, and in many cases, grow your family by giving birth to children, and then, in partnership, you raise them.

King Solomon of biblical fame was the smartest man that ever lived. Many hundreds of years ago he declared, "There is nothing new under the sun." This certainly applies to the age-old human need to live in a family. What is new is the increased effort needed to make living in a family a positive experience for all. For most troubled families, the very first step to relationship success is ejecting anger from within the family's bosom.

Anger will fill the home with hostility and mistrust, and family members will prefer to be anywhere other than home. This is the tragedy caused by anger. Fortunately, the tragedy of anger is preventable.

In Judaism, idolatry is considered one the greatest sins. The Talmud compares an angry person to an idol-worshiper. When a person is angry they forget about G‑d; they forget that G‑d is good. They often lie, they embarrass others, they injure others, and they bear hatred, to name just a few of the many sins that being angry can lead to. Reject anger, and stay calm. Live anger-free, and your personal and relationship life will be quickly on the road to success.

Warning: Marriage is Hard

October 10, 2008

Romantic Delusions

Romance is wonderful, isn't it? Too bad it ends so shortly after marriage! Of course, the Torah advises against this practice; courtship should last for120 years. Unfortunately, the Torah faces tough competition with today's newspapers, glossy magazines, movies and internet communications. The message of modern society is: "You deserve a perfect mate and if yours doesn't fit that description, then ditch him and try again."

The divorce rate in large cities tops 60% and in smaller, more "family-oriented" towns, it hovers around 50%. People – in large numbers apparently – find their spouses unsatisfactory. Could it be that their expectations are out of line with reality?

Grounds for Divorce

Judaism allows for divorce. It is there as a healing tool in cases of marital toxicity. It is assumed that all or almost all marriages will be challenging, somewhat painful, very painful at times, disappointing, boring, crushing, hurtful and otherwise difficult. Jewish divorce wasn't created to address the pain in marriage any more than suicide is condoned to address the pain in living. Jewish divorce is meant for that small number of marriages that suffer fatal flaws such as untreatable marital violence or sexual or emotional repulsion (neither of these is a "fatal flaw" when responsive to treatment). In fact, most of your spouse's irritating behaviors do not qualify as "fatal flaws."

Human Imperfection Personified

Your spouse is "human imperfection personified." So are you, but that probably doesn't bother you that much. In any event, if your spouse engages in any of the following behaviors, he or she is within the normal, unpleasant range of personality possibilities:

  • Disrespectful and/or hurtful speech
  • Forgetful, neglectful or irresponsible behaviors
  • Inattentiveness
  • Lack of self-care
  • Disregard for your feelings
  • Poor communication skills
  • Poor listening skills
  • Poor parenting skills
  • Improper allocation of resources such as time or money
  • Mood issues
  • Insecurities, anxieties, fears and phobias
  • Anger issues
  • Negativity, excessively critical, demanding
  • Immature, impulsive
  • Controlling, selfish, inconsiderate
  • Not nice in any other way

Imperfect people get married and have children. Maybe they shouldn't, but they do. In fact, since there are no perfect people, it's probably better for the human race that they do. In any event, you married one and you are one, so don't be surprised when your spouse lets you down in a million different ways. Help your spouse to improve but most of all, help YOURSELF to deal with it. Enlist books, classes, counselors and prayer; do whatever you have to do to bring yourself, your spouse and your marriage to a higher level. Unless what you are dealing with is a Torah Certified Fatal Flaw, then divorce cannot be considered part of your solution. Divorce curtails the growth process. (If your spouse divorces you, on the other hand, then this is part of G‑d's divine plan for your life and very much a part of your growth process.)

Living with Your Bashert

G‑d knows you and your spouse intimately. Your spouse is, in fact, your "bashert" – the soul chosen to accompany your soul on life's journey. Your spouse - your spiritual partner, your other half – is there to help you develop YOUR potential. One's bashert is not necessarily a feel-good buddy. One's bashert can be someone who gives you quite the run for your money. He or she can irritate you to bits until you learn to be more tolerant, patient or understanding. He or she can hurt your feelings constantly until you learn to love yourself more. He or she can walk all over you until you learn to be assertive. He or she can ignore you until you learn to stand up and fight for what you want. Your spouse can draw you into dysfunction and despair until you learn to give others space to be themselves and do their own work. In other words – if you haven't quite got my drift – your spouse, even through his or her bad behavior, can help you perfect your character, correct imbalances and achieve what you never would have otherwise achieved. This, in fact, is one of the purposes of marriage – to help us grow.

When Does the Good Part Come?

As you develop into all that you can be, guess what happens? Your spouse improves! Your marriage improves. Your life improves. Romantic love is given as a gift from G‑d at the beginning of marriage to show us what we will be able to attain later on as a result of our own individual conscious efforts. Point your compass in the right direction and stay on track. Hard work in marriage is the norm. But the reward is commensurate with the effort.

Not Ready For All This Religious Stuff

October 1, 2008

She was new to New York, and new to Shabbat. The first time we met, she as my guest for Shabbat dinner, she seemed overwhelmed. Early morning arrival in Manhattan from her home town with a population of 5000, she'd come to NY to do some shopping for her newly acquired position as department head in a small accounting firm. She needs to dress for success, she was told. And Manhattan was where she was going to find her success style. Tired of trying on suits and shoes, she took an hour's break to have coffee and a book in Barnes and Noble, and in the travel section encountered her first chassidic man. My husband felt her stare - he in black hat, suit and beard perusing the Alaska travelogues - a conversation about travel ensued. It was Thursday afternoon, and an invitation for Shabbat dinner was soon proffered and accepted.

She'd never seen so many people in one place in her life; nor so many books under one roof; nor so much light as that of the Shabbat candles. Searching for fashion to make her professional statement, she discovered Shabbat was her soul statement. And so her journey began. She read and studied and listened to lectures and made friends. Learning about Shabbat and kosher and prayer and tzedakah, she learned about her soul's desires...about her real dreams and hopes and future.

Two or three years pass, and I hear from her. She is in Manhattan, this time to find her bridal gown; the wedding is very soon, he's her dream come true, and when they return from their honeymoon might she come over to introduce her beloved to me? He's the most wonderful man, she said, and I'm sure to be gloriously happy. But, this now in a softer tone, he's not ready for all my spiritual stuff; can we talk to you about it?

Two weeks later I open the door, and a burst of sunshine - wait, no, it's overcast...it's their smiles that I mistook for the sun - he's holding the door for her...they are unremarkable until you look at their faces. The face of love.They enter, and she smiles as the music reaches her ears...Hayden's Trumpet Concerto, she says, playing when I first encountered your husband in the Alaska section of Barnes and Noble....trumpets herald her first musical association with Judaism...trumpets heralding her new life, married ....

He is sweet, and very polite. No doubt less than completely comfortable, he nevertheless projects an easy manner, and is unapologetic about his feelings. Refreshing. He, like his wife, was raised to feel proud to be Jewish; completely integrated into American culture with no real connection to Jewish history or tradition or law, he felt awkward with her newly discovered Jewish life. Shabbat, kosher...to him these were quaint ancient practices, and although he'd heard that there were people living in modernity with these practices, he'd never met one. And felt very much alien to it.

His beloved soulmate, however, felt very much at home with it. How could they a marriage relationship build? Having discovered, finally, her Jewish identity, she could not abandon it. Yet, he never had thought to, nor was he now willing to, commit himself to the laws and practices governing Jewish life. And now the tears began to flow...she can't choose between the two, she sobbed. How could she choose between the love of her life and the love of her people? I'm not kosher, he said, and don't intend to be. Nor do I intend to keep Shabbat, or the holidays. And I never implied otherwise. The gentleness of his tone and the pure love in his eyes were all the assurance I needed to know this was going to work. All we needed was a program.

And so we spent the next few meetings working out a plan. Recognizing that each person's soul experience is unique and specific, and that no one person can impose her or his experience upon another, we discussed her love of G‑d and Torah and his love of her. And knowing that each Jewish soul finds its individual connection to G‑d, and that her yearning for conscious and deliberate spiritual living was not his yearning, we discussed how, in their mutual love and respect, she could live Torah without his feeling burdened by it.

We began with the three basic mitzvot of a Jewish home: She was committed to observing Shabbat. He wouldn't be confined by it. The decision was that he would support her Shabbat observance, would be present whenever possible for candle lighting and Shabbat dinner; would accompany her when he was so inclined to shul; and throughout Shabbat would do nothing to interfere with the spirit of Shabbat in their home. Kashrut - their home would be kosher. She, committed as well to keeping strictly kosher, would not impose that upon him; he would make his own decision about what and where to eat, but when they were dining together, at home or elsewhere, it would be kosher dining only. And although not committed to his own keeping kosher, he would do nothing to sabotage the kashrut of their home. And finally we discussed mikvah. This was her mitzvah. Out of love for her, he would respect it.

Six weeks later they visited again. Some cloud cover outside, but they brought with them brilliant sunshine. She handed me a CD of a once-only recording of Haydn's Trumpet Concerto by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ozawa. Your husband specifically remarked on this one, she said; we played it at our wedding.

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