Save this Marriage

I Can't Stop Nagging!

October 25, 2009

Q. I can probably be called a "professional nag." I badger my husband for everything, from the tie he chooses to wear, to the way he talks to me, to the odd hours he keeps. Of course, my criticism doesn't help anyone, but I cannot help doing it and it makes me feel terrible. How can I learn to bite my tongue?

A. The Bal Shem Tov taught that when a person is faced with a situation that compels him to judge others, he should be aware that this person is a mirror image of himself and his opinion of the other person is, in fact, a judgment on himself. The following story illustrates the Bal Shem Tov's idea.

Nathan the Prophet came to King David, and told him a story about a wealthy man who owned many sheep and cattle. One day, the rich cattle dealer stole the beloved lamb of a poor man who had raised it from birth. When King David heard these words he cried out, "The man who has done this deserves to die…"

At that point, the prophet told King David that the story was merely a parable describing one of the king's actions. By accusing the rich man, the king was actually pointing a finger at himself.

With this in mind, a totally new perspective opens to us. When confronted with a behavior or character trait that impacts us, we can understand that there's a message. Rather than leaping to pass judgment on that person – either positively or negatively – a moment of introspection can lead to remarkable results.

Our spouses (or in-laws, neighbors, kids… those who know how to push our buttons) are our mirrors, and also our greatest teachers. Like the cattle dealer to King David, they reveal something about us.

When a person charges others as defective, he's often got the same defect. As someone once said: when pointing a finger at someone, you're actually pointing two fingers at yourself. On the surface, this idea may seem ludicrous at best. But human beings are biased. It's painful for us to see our own shortcomings, so we bury them deep inside our consciousness, determined to forget them. That is why our normal human flaws are more easily visible in those who mirror us than in ourselves. When we shift focus from the other person to ourselves, we discover similar traits inside us.

Mirror images reflect both positive and negative aspects. When an acquaintance meets you with a wide smile, you can't help but smile back; a nice compliment elicits a kind word in return. And let someone express their admiration for you and you'll find that you've actually admired that person all along.

When you're witness to another person's tears, does it touch a chord in you? Does it evoke your own tears and pain? Scientific research indicates that there are mirror neurons that get activated when we hear of another person's pain, so we actually feel the pain to a certain degree.

Similarly, when you're hurt by your husband's manner of speaking, does it perhaps reflect the way you talk to him? Does his crazy schedule drive you nuts because sticking to a routine schedule is hard for you? Or perhaps the opposite is true – do you feel frustrated by the rigidity of your schedule and therefore harbor jealousy for his freedom?

It can be challenging to decipher the reflection we see in our "mirrors," but when we realize that they offer us a whole world of information, the process of acceptance and change can begin. Then, as we learn to adjust ourselves accordingly, our mirrors will change. Suddenly, those things that bothered us in the other person will no longer take on the same importance. And as we learn to accept and appreciate ourselves, we learn to value and cherish our loved ones as well.


October 18, 2009

"I don't think you should scream at the kids," Miriam says to her husband, only minutes after he yelled at all three youngsters for not listening to him. She's not wrong, of course. Screaming at the kids is not a preferred method of education and guidance. It brings many risks, including the possibility of harming the kids and destroying the parent-child bond.

However, Miriam's husband, Aaron, isn't feeling appreciative of the parenting tip. "Don't tell me how to raise my children!" he shouts at her. Clearly, she hasn't yet cured him of his tendency to raise his voice. He's now yelling at her, as well as the children. An ugly argument ensues, traumatizing the children who feel guilty for "starting" it, and also harming both husband and wife. Everyone is upset. What went wrong here?

A Time and Place for Everything

Although Miriam's words were wise, they were delivered at the wrong time and in the wrong place. Therefore, the results were disastrous. Since Miriam and Aaron have been married long enough to have three kids, Miriam ought to know by now that Aaron is sensitive to criticism. She should also know that he hates when she criticizes him in front of his children. He feels demeaned. Although no one likes to be corrected publicly, many men are particularly sensitive to feeling a loss of status induced by rebuke. A father wants his children to respect him. When a wife corrects her husband's parenting technique in front of their kids, the husband may feel that he is losing the children's respect. Sometimes he'll flair up in anger, trying to huff and puff his way back to authority. Unfortunately, although this may win him the power of intimidation, it does nothing to increase anyone's respect for him.

Although one could say that the husband needs to toughen up and not be so reactive, there is another strategy more likely to succeed. Those who want to wait for their spouse to change often wait indefinitely. Instead, they can learn to work with their spouse's personality. They can learn to recognize sensitivities and, whenever possible, respect them. We certainly appreciate when our spouse recognizes our own sensitivities and is respectful of them. This is something that husband and wife can always do for each other.

In Miriam's case, she could have waited for a better time in which to help her husband with his parenting skills. Hours later, when he's calmer, would be more ideal than confronting him while his adrenalin is still running. She could have selected a better place in which to have the discussion – somewhere private, out of earshot from their children. Even when she chooses the right time and place, Miriam needs to learn the art of offering rebuke. The "sandwich" technique of "praise, correct, praise" works well in fulfilling the Torah mandate of not hurting someone while in the process of correcting him. Alternatively, beginning a rebuke session with an acknowledgment of the good intentions of the person and/or the difficulty of the situation, lowers defenses and helps them to be more receptive. For instance, Miriam could have said, "I know how frustrated you must have felt when the kids refused to cooperate with you. It's great that you're trying to train them to listen more – they really need that. I'm concerned, however, that when you yell at them to get your point across, they may focus only on your loud voice and fail to get the message you're trying to convey. I don't want them to start disliking you because you're a great father and they need you. Do you think you could address them in a quieter tone? Then you wouldn't have to get so upset and you could still educate them – maybe even more effectively."

Sure, this kind of communication requires restraint, thoughtfulness and planning. It's far easier to blurt out our thoughts and feelings as they occur. Yet we have a responsibility to not aggravate people with our communication. A little bit of thought can transform a harsh message into words of loving concern. As it states in Proverbs, "A soothing tongue is a tree of life, but harsh words break the spirit." We are supposed to think before we speak in order to use the power of our mouths for good. Pursuing a peaceful home is one of the highest goals to which we can aim.

The Road to Happiness in Marriage

October 12, 2009

The road to a better marriage begins by evaluating the quality of the relationship and by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What are the most important principles of your marriage?
  • What were the dreams and aspirations that started your relationship?
  • Did you marry for comfort, pleasure, money or honor?
  • Are you willing to make your relationship the most important part of your marriage?

Visualizing your values and seeing whether or not they are central to your marriage can help you understand the road you are traveling on. Unfortunately, our society has sold us a distorted image of marriage, which maintains that external factors such as money or comfort are the factors that make marriage work. Just think about how popular culture depicts the perfect couple who have all the conveniences one could ever imagine. They have all the money, pleasure, and fun they could ever want – but are they happy? That's the million dollar question.

I believe that there is no real way of telling how happy a marriage is, except for one factor: ask them how their relationship is doing. Afterwards, you'll know if their happiness is real or illusive.

Although many people may choose core values such as wealth, pleasure and honor for their marriage, in the long run, experience has shown that these external values are temporal. Happiness in life has very little to do with externals, and those who focus on the external values often find their relationships unsettled, lacking direction, and without the strength to last a lifetime. In fact, over the years, I have witnessed many families who have little financial means, yet have the power of a healthy relationship. Against the conventional wisdom that money buys happiness, these families prove that success is dependent on other variables such as spiritual values, healthy attitudes, and high levels of emotional intelligence. Above all, they are dedicated to maintaining and nurturing the most important commodity in their lives, their relationship.

As a young rabbinical student, I spent one of the most rewarding Shabbat experiences of my life volunteering in an old age home in Sanhedria, a small community in Jerusalem. My predicament was that I wanted to spend Shabbat visiting the old age home, but didn't have a place to stay. Thinking out of the box, and knowing I was in an a community famous for their willingness to provide for others, I decided to take a chance by asking some locals if they would be kind enough to take me in as their guest for Shabbat. After waiting for about five minutes in front of a store, an elderly man walked by. In my broken Hebrew, I tried to explain to him where I volunteered and what I needed. Without blinking, the man said that he would be delighted to have me as his guest.

The elderly man met me just before sunset at the local synagogue and brought me home to meet his wife and family. When I first entered into his home, I felt that I was walking into one of Roman Vishniak's scenes from pre-war Poland. Despite my initial discomfort, my fears were quickly relieved when I was warmly welcomed and asked to bring my suitcase into the room I would be sleeping in. After arranging my clothes, I was served a pre-Shabbat treat: a hot cup of coffee and some chocolate pastries. Just as I finished my last bite, Shabbat began, and I ran off to evening prayers at the old age home.

After praying, I returned to my host's apartment to sleep in a very comfortable bedroom. The next morning I awoke and realized that despite the fact that they had seven children, there were only two bedrooms, and I was sleeping in one of them! It turned out that they had set up their children's beds in the living room and the parents had slept in the one remaining bedroom! Embarrassed and overwhelmed by their generosity, I walked out of the living room to wish a good Shabbat and, once again, my hosts insisted I sit down for another cup of coffee.

That Shabbat, we spent hours eating, drinking tea and learning about each other. What amazed me the most about this couple was their tremendous sense of happiness and camaraderie. Love seemed to permeate their home and their relationships with the people who happened to enter their lives.

That Shabbat, I was given a present far greater than a bed to sleep on: a glimpse at the secret of what makes and sustains good marriages. That secret is a commitment to building meaningful relationships, and an overriding desire to do kindness for one another.

Investing in your relationship takes time and effort, and is a challenge for all couples. In my own life, for example, I believe my relationship is so important that my wife and I try to schedule time alone together at least once a week to focus on our relationship. Despite the pressures of our busy lives, we try creatively to make sure we are investing in our marriage. Sometimes we go out to a restaurant to eat or just take a walk down the block together. Other times, we go grocery shopping together or head to the local convenience store in order to enjoy a few minutes alone just schmoozing about our day. When life goes into overdrive and time is limited, we take a "time out" for ourselves, and spend a few minutes in a quiet and secluded room in the home just talking to one another.

It really doesn't matter what you do or what you talk about during your private times together. What matters most is to give your spouse the feeling that he or she is the most important person in the world.

Of course, the way to build emotional equity in marriage is to make as many deposits as possible. In general, positive statements like complimenting one another, sharing appreciations and speaking kind words are "deposits." Every time you tell your spouse that you appreciate them, and their actions, you are building more emotional wealth. You can even think of a compliment as a dollar. Imagine how rich you could become if you increase the amount of times per hour you compliment your spouse!

And it's not just complimenting that works; actions speak louder than words. Helping each other with daily tasks such as shopping for food or cleaning the house are ways that couples increase their emotional equity with one another. The point is that it doesn't take a large budget, or a lot of time, to build a relationship. Even the simplest gestures can make a difference in your lives.

The opposite is also true. Couples will deplete their emotional savings by criticizing and exercising external control. Trying to force one another via manipulation or by insulting each other decreases emotional wealth, and can even put some relationships into bankruptcy.

At the end of each month, I suggest that couples take a look and see how their emotional savings account is developing. They should check how many deposits they've made and how much was withdrawn. The goal is to become aware of the overall growth of the relationship and to see if it is getting stronger, or needs more nurturing.

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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