Save this Marriage

Giving in Relationships

November 30, 2008

I have been seeing a couple that is stuck in a non-nurturing relationship. Each spouse says to me, "My spouse doesn't make me feel like giving. My spouse is selfish. For me to give would feel like a burden; it would feel phony. When my spouse starts giving to me, then I will naturally want to give too. Then, I will match what they give to me."

In this situation, I want to encourage each party to begin giving a lot more, and to do so unilaterally, not as a quid pro quo. There are other situations where I would discourage a spouse from giving more, such as when one spouse is truly selfish, abusive, exploitative, and narcissistic. But that is not the case with this couple. They are both good people, but each came into the marriage having been taken advantage of and wounded in previous relationships.

I would like each party to view themselves as benefiting from giving, not as being burdened and diminished. Torah instructs us that we should give 10% of our resources to others, where we expect no return and where the person has done nothing to earn the gift. That is known as "tzedakah." Most importantly, Torah says that we do not need to feel diminished at all by doing so, but rather we can feel "rich," fulfilled and joyful.

Is this position realistic, practical or is it a formula for prolonging abuse?

Obviously, we can not feel generously charitable if we are frightened or believe that our giving was coerced or manipulated from us. We need to be in a situation where we have freely chosen to give.

We all have within us a destructive force that distorts or colors our thoughts and our perception of reality. On such destructive thought is: "If I give now to someone who isn't giving back to me, I am a fool, a loser, and an abused person." Torah says: "That view is false. Yes, you are a fool, a loser, and an abused person if most of the time you give to someone who doesn't give back. But you need to learn that at least 10% of the time you can give tzedakah and give it happily."

There are a number of ways that Torah makes this point. I would like to share one such way that I particularly enjoy.

The language of a culture tells you a great deal about the values and perceptions of that culture. In some academic disciplines this relationship is referred to as "the Whorfian hypothesis."1

More specifically, concerning our issue of giving, both Hebrew and Yiddish have a linguistic oddity that concerns giving.

On Saturday nights, many Jews recite a set of blessings that include the verse: "You will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow" (Deuteronomy 15:6). It is interesting that, in the original Hebrew text, the verb root for "to lend" is that same as the verb root for "to borrow." This verb, "avat," means one thing and also means its opposite.2

This is not the case in English, where we do not have a single verb that means both borrow and lend.3

What makes this linguistic oddity even more intriguing is that it also occurs in Yiddish. The verb "borgen" in Yiddish can mean either to borrow or to lend.4 And although Yiddish is closely related to German, nonetheless, this oddity does not occur in German, which has separate verbs for "to borrow" (borgen or leihnen) and for "to lend" (verleihnen).

What message is embedded in this linguistic oddity?

Let me answer that question by bringing in one additional linguistic idiosyncrasy.

The Hebrew word "v'natnu," meaning "and they shall give," appears frequently in the Bible. The word is a palindrome, that is, it reads the same whether you read it from left to right or from right to left. In English, for example, the word "level" is a palindrome.

Our sages interpret this biblical palindrome as a promise from G‑d: "Be assured that if you step forward generously to give, rewards will come back to you. If you lend generously to others, G‑d will see to it that either you do not need to borrow, or that when you need to borrow, you will receive your loan."

For this process to work in your marriage, your spouse must see that your gift was freely given, not that they pressured you into it; further, it must be given without a bill being attached; it wasn't a trade or a sale, it was a gift. It is best if the gift was not at all expected and if you were not there waiting to be thanked.

A very simple example: A wife is rushing out of the house on a Sunday morning and she knocks over a small bookcase in the kitchen filled with her cookbooks. She yells out to her husband, "I don't have time to deal with the mess. I'll do it when I get back." She knows that her husband is also under time pressure that morning, and she accepts that fixing the mess that she created with her books is her responsibility.

How might the husband react? Let us assume that he is bothered that his wife is not heavily invested in keeping a very neat house. He feels she cares more about her career, or interacting with the children, than fulfilling his desire for a beautifully-kept house. He could be resentful.

Nonetheless, in my best scenario, he says to himself, "this is an opportunity; I can be genuinely giving and generous; I don't have to be hooked by anger; I don't like how I feel after I am angry. Hey, so my wife is a bit of a slob, or maybe I'm a bit of a neat-freak... but she is wonderful in many other ways; this is an opportunity for me to practice tzedakah." The husband takes the time to fix the problem. The wife returns home, while the husband is still out of the house, and finds everything in order. She can't even reach her husband to thank him right away.

Can you take it upon yourself to spend 10% of your resources attempting to touch your spouse's heart as a freebie? Can you enjoy the process? Watch and see what happens in return.


Benjamin Whorf was a linguist and anthropologist at Yale. He asserted that a language's nature influenced the habitual thought of its speakers. Some versions of this approach state that a person can only perceive those aspects of reality for which he has been given words. Alternatively, some researchers claim that the demands of the environment force a culture to develop certain words that are useful; for example, a skier has more words for types of snow than does a non-skier.


The Reuben Alcaly Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary (p. 1838) indicates that the infinitive la'avot means either to borrow or to lend. There is another form of the same root avot that only means to lend, namely, the infinitive l'ha'avot.


Note: There are some words in English that mean both one thing and its opposite. The word "ravel" can mean to tangle or to untangle. The word "hoi-polloi," literally meaning "the many" in Greek, was originally a pejorative term for the masses; but now it is also used to mean "the elite." The word "cleave" can mean either "to be attached to" or "to be split away from." I would welcome any other examples."Contranym" is a recently coined term for a word that is its own antonym.


Uriel Weinreich's authoritative "Modern English –Yiddish, Yiddish - English Dictionary" p. 705 defines borgen as both to lend or to borrow. He lists four other verbs for borrow (leien, antleien, oisleien, and oisborgen.) A common English error committed by Yiddish speakers is to say, "Can you borrow me five dollars." The Harkavy Yiddish-Hebrew-English dictionary, p.109, defines borgen as "to borrow, to take on credit or to give on credit."

Stressed Out

November 23, 2008

Dear Tzippora,

After five years of marriage, we have just begun fertility treatments. The problem is that these treatments are putting a real strain on our marriage. While I am not yet ready to give up my dream of having a family, I can't stand how stressed out we have become. Sometimes it seems easier these days to be alone than to spend time together. What can I do to protect my marriage during this difficult and challenging time?

Stressed Out

Dear Stressed Out,

Infertility treatments are often invasive, time-consuming, and expensive. In addition, many of the hormone regulating medications often prescribed can make you moody and depressed. The requirement to discuss aspects of your intimate life with outsiders, even medical professionals, is embarrassing and sometimes degrading. So the stress load placed on your marriage at this time is indeed considerable.

Yet now that you have identified the problem, you can take steps to protect your marriage.

Explain to your husband that you believe that this process is putting strain on your marriage and you would like to work together to protect your relationship. Here are a number of steps you can take:

Give yourselves safe-time in which to reconnect as a couple. During these times, relax and enjoy each other's company, and make discussion of treatment protocol off-limits. This will give you a chance to focus on the positive and fulfilling parts of your relationship, because fertility treatments can cause an intense focus on what is lacking.

Make a decision to actively fight stress by taking care of your health through exercise, proper nutrition, good sleep habits, and an occasional luxury such as a massage, an expensive dinner out, or even a weekend getaway. It is also important to surround yourself with positive, supportive friends.

Share with your husband the challenges and pressures you experience as a result of your treatment. Encourage him to share his feelings and his thoughts about this issue as well. Yet be prepared that he may choose not to open up to you. Many men prefer not to reveal their inner world in this manner. If that is your husband's choice, it is necessary to respect his decision and appreciate his willingness to listen.

Discuss how you and your husband can support each other during the inevitable rollercoaster and disappointments that are part of this process, and what steps you will take to keep each others spirits up.

Remember that you are in this together, and the strength of your future family rests on the foundation of a strong marital relationship.

Good Luck!

Are You Lovable?

November 16, 2008

What Makes a Person Loveable?

Being "loveable" is relatively easy to achieve during the dating process. After all, what is required other than being reasonably well-groomed, polite and pleasant? Sure, a little humor and a few unique strengths can also contribute to the mix but the personal demands remain low. Just be nice.

In marriage, however, lovability is a whole different ball game. To remain loveable a few weeks after the marriage, you're going to have to work harder to impress your new "room-mate." Sharing space and resources can throw up challenges to your character that just don't show up in the dating arena. How do you think YOU are doing?

Rate Yourself

Give yourself a numerical score between one and ten ("ten" being nearly perfect) on the following "loveable" marital traits. (And remember to rate yourself, not your spouse! You can ask your spouse to take the quiz too).

  1. Cleanliness. Now that you're living with your partner, you'll want to keep your belongings neat and organized. Your mess is not only unattractive, but makes YOU unattractive as well. Rate yourself from 1-10 on the Neat scale.

  2. Responsibility. Fulfilling your obligations is definitely loveable while neglecting them is sure to bring disdain your way. Do you keep to your commitments and promises in a timely fashion? Do you do what you're supposed to do without having to be reminded, directed or nagged? Rate yourself from 1-10 on the Responsibility scale.

  3. Respect. The ability to show respect is very loveable. Do you refrain from insulting, diminishing or otherwise putting down your spouse? Do you consistently use a pleasant tone of voice? Do you act as nicely toward your partner as you do to strangers, colleagues and friends? Rate yourself from 1-10 on the Respect scale.

  4. Cool, Calm & Collected. Being able to handle stress is an essential marital skill. There's nothing quite so unloveable as an adult who tantrums, throws fits, yells or otherwise routinely "loses it." Showing violent upset even once a year is enough to reduce your loveability by 90%. Showing moderate upset once a month has similar results. Unfortunately, no one actually likes, let alone loves, an angry person. Rate your ability to stay calm no matter what provocations come your way from 1-10.

  5. Communication. Some people don't yell – they just clam up. A warm relationship requires sharing of thoughts and feelings. Retreating into oneself leaves a partner out in the cold. Do you open up to your spouse about your joys, worries, frustrations, dreams, thoughts and ideas? Do your share? Rate yourself from 1-10 on the openness of your communication with your spouse.

  6. Affection. The quickest way to a person's heart is through warmth. Showing physical affection and being generous with compliments and appreciative remarks is very loveable. Do you lay on the acknowledgement, praise, gifts, treats and other shows of love? Rate your ability to show affection from 1-10.

If you score over 55 on this quiz, you are one loveable person! The lower your score, the more you can do to improve. You'll find that bringing your score up brings your marital happiness up as well.

Remember to take this test each year on your wedding anniversary.

More Than Best Friends?

November 2, 2008

Dear Tzippora,

My husband and I have a good marriage. I respect him a lot, and he is truly the nicest person I have ever met. After ten plus years, being together feels so natural that it is hard for me to remember what it is like to not be married to him. He is definitely my best friend. But sometimes in the middle of the night, I find myself longing for the romance that I dreamed of as a teenager, and I find myself wondering "Is this it?"

Married to my Best Friend

Dear Married to my Best Friend,

Marriage is a balancing act. A marriage itself is a partnership, a friendship, and a romance. Yet between working, running a home, parenting, car-pooling, and squeezing in a quick workout at the gym, many people find themselves already stressed out to their maximum, with little energy left to dedicate to their marriages. As a result, many marriages, even good marriages, grow stale and lose some freshness and sparkle.

Your letter describes the many fine qualities of your marriage, and yet you are still wondering if there could be something missing. It sounds to me like something is out of balance.

The Jewish marriage model is described in Song of Songs by the expression "achoti, kallah" – my sister, my bride. The ideal marriage contains both these aspects – a level of platonic friendship as deeply intimate as the relationship between a brother and a sister, and a romantic aspect symbolized by the excitement of a bride on her wedding day.

Although adolescent fantasies of romance need to be tempered with adult maturity and judgment, in a good marriage, there is passion as well as friendship. It seems like you have become so comfortable together that your relationship has taken on an overly platonic aspect. To regain a proper balance, you need to focus on rekindling the romantic component of your relationship.

A good place to start is to schedule a date night once a week. Use this as an opportunity to break out of the rut of your daily conversation, and explore new topics together. Choose an activity conducive to stimulating conversation, such as trying a new restaurant for dinner, or going for a moonlight stroll.

Planning a getaway just for the two of you is also valuable at this point. Even if actualizing your plans is still far off, begin to spend time planning and discussing together. These conversations will lay the groundwork for a successful holiday, and provide a framework for bringing your relationship into the foreground of your family agenda.

Ultimately, it is up to you to create the marriage of your dreams. Just like a successful garden requires vision and planning, so too, a marriage that is carefully nutrured will be more successful and rewarding than one that is abandoned to the course of nature and the ravages of time.

Any investment in your marriage is also an investment in the long-term intergenerational stability of your family.

Good luck, and enjoy!

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