Save this Marriage

A Master Key to a Great Marriage

Opening the Door to Happiness and Serenity

November 29, 2009

We live in a world where everyone is looking for the secret key – the key to peace, serenity, blessings, abundance, health and everything good. Can there be one master key to open any door? What would that key be and how do we get hold of it?

There was once a wealthy man who lived simply and frugally. In his old age, however, he confided in a young friend that he wanted to live his last few years in style and comfort. Since he was old-fashioned, and had no children, he asked his good friend to undertake the project of hiring home designers and skilled architects to build him a state-of-the-art mansion.

The building of the structure soon began. Foundations were laid, brick by brick, story by story, the work was progressing well. And then our young man began to look for ways to cut corners. Having lived in a simple home all his life, what would the old fellow know about fine craftsmanship and superior quality? Besides, wouldn't it be a waste of money to build himself a house for just a few years? And so, the job was completed with cheap workmanship and second-hand material disguised under layers of sparkle and glitter. Few could tell the difference.

At the housewarming party, the elderly man stood up to publicly thank his young friend for all the effort he'd invested in the building of this project. And then, surprisingly, he handed the young man the key to the house. "Oh, I'm an old man," he explained. "What use have I for this mansion? It was for you, my good friend, that I'd intended the house to be built."

In today's world, where the operating principal is WIIFM (What's in it for me?), it helps to remember that whatever we do, we do for ourselves.

Although we all need to both give and take, a person with a giving attitude places a higher priority on giving then on taking.

A giving attitude means caring sincerely about the needs and wants of your spouse. All of us have needs and when we don't receive them, resentment can eat away at us. That is why it's important to maintain a balance of giving and taking between husband and wife. Yet, by placing the spotlight on myself, on receiving as much as I can, on ascertaining that my expectations are fulfilled, my demands seen to, we lose sight of the quality of the home we are trying to build, and love departs.

The act of giving is a G‑dly attribute. G‑d's giving is pure for He lacks nothing and thus takes nothing in return. We, too, who were created in the image of G‑d, contain the sublime power of giving, enabling us to spread happiness and to give of ourselves. Every person needs to have something on which to lavish his love and affection. No one's joy is complete unless he can share it with others.

In marriage, we have many opportunities to be giving and to fill our homes with loving-kindness. Handing something to your spouse is an act of giving. Greeting him or her in a friendly manner is a kindness, forgiving your spouse for something is making giving triumph.

Though it may appear that love engenders a giving attitude (we see that one who loves another will enjoy showering him with gifts and favors), actually, giving is what brings about love. A person comes to love the one to whom he gives. As a matter of fact, the root word of ahava is related to hav, which means to give. And in the timeless words of the Talmud, "If you want to keep the love of your friends make it your concern to seek his welfare."

What a person gives to another is never lost. By giving of ourselves, we extend a part of ourselves. This is the secret that unites, the glue that bonds, the embers that kindle true love. And this love, in turn, will make us want to go on giving; not only will it fill us with the pleasure and happiness that comes from giving, it will maintain and intensify this love. When there is love and peace between husband and wife, the shechina, the divine presence, resides in their home. There is no vessel that holds blessings except peace.

Giving, then, is the master key that opens the doors to happiness and contentment. It is the key to peace, serenity, blessings, abundance, health and everything good.

Can Our Friendship With Another Couple Be Bad For Our Marriage?

November 18, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

My husband and I are friendly with another couple, and we frequently get together socially. We have been doing this for years, and all enjoy each other's company. Yet, lately, I feel I am developing a crush on my friend's husband. Sometimes I find myself fantasizing about what life would be like if I was married to him instead of my own husband. While I love my husband, and would never act on my feelings, I am starting to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable around this couple. I find myself avoiding opportunities to socialize with them. How should I handle this?

Suddenly Shy

Dear Suddenly Shy,

It is natural for all marriages to have phases of intense closeness followed by spells of less intense intimacy, distance, and even ambivalence. There are even times when a good marriage may feel like a partnership, or a domestic living arrangement. However, wise couples understand this cycle, and protect the integrity of their relationship even during its dry spells. I suspect that it is precisely during this phase in your marriage that your fantasy took root.

Fantasies are not innocent and can be dangerous for long-term relationships. Left unchecked, a fantasy can breed widespread dissatisfaction, and eat away at the roots of your relationship. Therefore, it is important to recognize and respect your instinct to avoid interacting with this couple. This is a vulnerable time for you, and your shyness is a natural instinct urging you towards self-protection. It is necessary to be especially careful right now, in order preserve the sanctity and longevity of your own marriage.

While you say that you trust yourself, and would never act on your feelings, the Jewish Sages taught: "Do not trust yourself until the day you die." This teaches us that each of us is fallible, and we can't pretend otherwise. There is no such thing as a relationship that is affair-proof.

Modern society has broken down many social conventions which inherently supported and protected marriages. In the absence of these external societal constraints, one must be especially vigilant about developing an internal protective stance. This stance includes distancing oneself from unnecessary friendships and interactions with members of the opposite sex.

Explain to your friend gently that while you treasure her company and enjoyed your joint evenings in the past, right now you are finding it challenging enough to find time to spend together with your husband, and a foursome is a thing of the past. If your friend has a healthy marriage, she will be able to respect this.

Otherwise it may be necessary to find another friend in order to protect your marriage.

Best of luck,

Tzippora Price, M.Sc.

A Good Eye

November 15, 2009

The Choice is Ours

According to Rabbi Eliezer, a Talmudic sage, one of the most important traits that a person can develop is "a good eye" (Ethics of Our Fathers, 2:13), which means the ability to interpret our world positively. The way G‑d made our world, however, makes positive interpretation quite the challenge. There is evil and darkness all around us, problems at all levels from political to the personal. Neither nations nor individuals find it easy to live in harmony. Our imperfect worlds and relationships give us much to complain about and much negativity to focus on. It's always easier to see what is glaringly wrong than to see what is subtly right. And yet, the "right" is only subtle when we relegate it to a small corner of our universe. We do have the option, should we desire, to promote it to a front and central location where it can become the focus of our attention. Engaging in this act is what constitutes the development of our "good eye."

Choosing the Right Lens

In order to see what is right in our world, we must choose the right lens. First, we have to discard our default lens – the one that immediately zeros in on faults and failings. When it comes to marriage, wearing our default lens brings us acute pain. It is one thing to note that the world is an imperfect environment (in a general way) and another thing completely to zoom in on the imperfections of an intimate partner. After all, we see this partner daily. If all we can see is the wrong, we are sure to be miserable. It is depressing to look across the table and see a large lump of inconsideration, sloppiness, indifference, impatience, selfishness, irritability or whatever. It makes us sad, alone, frustrated and miserable to have to spend our time with such a "loser."

Of course, this same partner was once amazing in our eyes. That's why we agreed to marriage in the first place! She or he was clever, dazzling, funny, interesting, warm and wonderful. What on earth happened since the wedding day? Did we somehow suck the life from our partner, turning him or her into a shadow of a person? Or did that just happen by itself?

Funnily enough, others can still find that wonderful side of our spouse. People are often astonished to find that their unfaithful spouse managed to attract someone! How can such a terrible person be appealing? Of course, what is happening here is that the positive attributes are ever present. For someone else, they are in sharp focus. For a spouse, they may become too fuzzy to notice. Only the bad traits are visible.

Expectation Affects Performance

Research shows that teachers who expect their students to get good marks (because they were told that the students were very bright) end up with students who achieve highly. The teachers who "have a good eye" bring out the best in their students. It works the same way in marriage. Having a good eye brings out – and maintains – the best in one's spouse. In order to cultivate a good eye, imagine that you are trying to "sell" your spouse to someone else (i.e. imagine that you never married him, and now you have to find him/her a spouse – I know it's a little crazy, but try it!). Imagine that your future happiness depends completely on this sale. How would advertise your spouse? Think hard! Try to recall those good points.

Do the exercise daily. Eventually your good eye will become stronger. And when it does, you'll be happier, as will your spouse, and your marriage will thrive. Rabbi Eliezer's words of wisdom ring down through the ages.

It's up to us.

Male Brain, Female Brain

Keeping Communication Safe in Marriage

November 6, 2009 7:58 AM

I'll never forget the moment. It was almost thirty years ago. I was preparing dinner with my six-year-old, who was cutting the vegetables, when he looked up at me and said, "Mom, do you know who the strongest boy in my class is?"

"No," I responded. "Who is the strongest boy in your class?"

"Chezi," he stated self-assuredly.

"Why is Chezi the strongest?" I asked.

"Because he never cries," he answered solemnly as he cut the cucumbers.

My heart skipped a beat as I grasped that this child had already internalized a harsh reality, i.e. "To feel is to fail." To be a "man" means to be tough, in full control of one's emotions and immunized against fear, pain and sadness. It's the weaklings who talk about their feelings; successful people function to their maximum!

I had always encouraged my boys to talk about their feelings and said that it is often a sign of strength to cry. But my son saw clearly that boys who cry get crushed and ridiculed, and that the cold, indifferent, stoic types receive respect and praise. He's still a sensitive child, but specifically because he is so sensitive, he goes to great lengths to hide it, especially in the presence of the macho types.

From the time babies are born, girls tend to react differently to fear than boys. When female infants are startled by a loud noise, they seek eye contact with others. Looking into the eyes of a loving person lowers their cortisol levels, a stress hormone which spikes automatically whenever we experience anxiety. In contrast, when male infants are startled, their eyes tend to dart around and they withdraw into themselves! Avoiding connection when scared calms them down. So what makes girls feel better actually makes boys feel worse.

Numerous studies have shown that when women talk about their problems and fears, their cortisol level drops. When men talk about their insecurities, their cortisol rises! Being aware of this difference can make or break a marriage.

Thinkers and Feelings

In a book I wrote many years ago, Appreciating People, I described people as falling into one of two very general categories: Thinkers and Feelers. Thinking types (60% male, 40% female) focus on data and factual information. They do not share personal information with ease, if at all, and are bored and irritated by the expression of emotions. Feeling types (60% female, 40% male), like to share feelings and are very concerned about how they and others feel. Obviously, Thinkers feel and Feelers think, but their brains process feelings and thoughts differently. Thinking types (both men and women) tend to be less articulate about their feelings and less aware of the nuances of feelings. Anger is the one "permissible" feeling, as it makes them feel powerful. Even love can feel like a weakening emotion, as it implies needing others.

A brilliant woman once confided in me, "I see myself as a Thinking type. I am not very empathetic. I see that people are in pain, but I don't feel the pain or understand what they are making such a big deal about. I'm good at solving problems and telling people how to think, but if people want empathy, I send them to my husband, who is a Feeling type."

Save Your Marriage: Keep Communications Safe

If you are a Feeler married to a Thinker, communication needs to be a positive experience. If you complain each time you talk, your spouse will get the idea that "talking" is something to avoid. Feelings are contagious. When a person feels an intense emotion, everyone else is affected, like a tuning fork hitting a glass and causing all the others glasses to resonate. To avoid resonating with anxious emotions, he may get angry, defensive or simply retreat. The following may be helpful:

  • Make it safe. If you have a complaint, present it in a non-confrontational manner. Preface your remark with, "I have a problem. Do you think you can you help me?"
  • Avoid accusations. Most men hate to feel weak, helpless, scared or sad, as these emotions are seen as weak and "female." Any criticism is seen as a failure message such as, "You're not sensitive to me," or, "You don't help enough," or, "You're not investing enough in this relationship." Such accusations cause a cortisol spike, which is so uncomfortable that he will want to run away; suddenly he might remember that he has to meet a friend or, G‑d forbid, he may seek an addictive behavior to drown out the pain.
  • Give him physical space. If you have a complaint, do not present it while sitting across the table looking into each other's eyes. Save the eye-time for positive statements! Mention the problem briefly, in as few words as possible, perhaps while taking a walk or driving.
  • Focus on the solution. Let's say you want him to invest more time learning with the children or to not give them so many sweets. Start a statement with, "Help me understand why it would be hard for you to…."
  • Before expressing a strong emotion, tell him how you want him to respond. Say, "I need to vent for a minute. All I want is for you to tell me that it's going to be okay and that you'll see me through this." Then you can say how overwhelmed you feel or how difficult it is to be around a certain relative. Keep it brief to avoid a cortisol spike. Then conclude, "Thank you for listening. That was really helpful."
  • Take responsibility for your happiness. Do not tell him how depressed and lonely you are if your intention is to make him feel guilty. Men are terrified of failure and terrified of being dominated. Forcing change when he has no desire to change will only make him more resistant, rebellious and resentful.
  • Talk "victory talk." Turn whatever precious talking time you have into a safe, positive experience. Make him proud of you, instead of appearing to be a grouch and a nag. Talk about your victories – how you avoided junk food, didn't buy everything you wanted, or had the courage to put the phone down on an irritating relative. Instead of telling him about how the kids drive you crazy or the terrible things they did, make a list of their victories and tell your husband their victories. Tell him, "We have great kids!" Then, perhaps, he will want to be home more often and provide more help.

Fighting Back

How to respond to rage

November 1, 2009

Emotions are “catchy.” When someone is calm and happy, they lighten the mood of everyone around them. Similarly, when someone is agitated, they put everyone around them on edge. It is then understandable that someone may react in kind to another person’s anger. If a wife, for instance, starts shouting at her husband, he is likely to “catch” her upset and express anger to her. His anger-style may differ from hers; he may sulk instead of shout. Nonetheless, it is her mood that he is all too likely reflecting.

And yet, people can overcome the natural tendency to catch another's mood if they want to. One important incentive for "wanting to" is to be able to succeed in creating a peaceful home. "Peace is priceless for G‑d's name is Shalom" (Bamidbar Rabbah 11:18). The attainment of shalom bayit, a peaceful home, is not a matter of "luck." Rather, it is a matter of constant focus. It is a matter of vigilance against anything that would interfere with it. Even when one's own spouse is interfering, one who sincerely wants peace will devise ways to preserve it.

Therefore, when a spouse expresses anger, a peace-seeker can learn not to catch the emotion. An excellent strategy is to respond to someone's rage with sincere interest and curiosity (provided, of course, that the rage has not taken a violent turn and physical safety is not an issue!). One could say, for instance, "You're so upset! What is it about this issue that makes you feel so much aggravation [or pain]?"

Keep in mind that spouses get angry about odd things – a small mess in a corner of the room, an item forgotten on a shopping list, a missed phone call. The angrier the person is, the more likely it is that there is more to the issue than meets the eye. In fact, the angrier the person is, the more likely it is that the issue ties into old pains and traumas from childhood, currently being triggered by minor neglects (or, sometimes, by serious spousal misbehaviors). Trying to learn about the underlying frustration or pain can bring husband and wife closer together. On the other hand, responding to the surface issue defensively – "I was only ten minutes late! Stop hassling me!" – only aggravates the situation further and continues to mask important underlying communications and feelings.

Sometimes the deeper conversations about anger and upset have to wait until emotions are calmer. Still, taking one's spouse seriously enough to investigate the causes of his or her anger – whether immediately or within a few days – is a good way to come to a deeper mutual understanding and an excellent way to prevent further argument and dispute. Don't fight back. Instead, find a way to try to understand. If this approach isn't sufficient to end a cycle of marital fighting, enlist professional help – it really can help!

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