Save this Marriage

For Husbands Only: The Secret to a Great Marital Relationship

December 28, 2008

I have often dealt with young married couples who are in the throes of almost-separation or almost-divorce. The most unfortunate aspect of this tragedy is that so much suffering could be avoided if there were greater emphasis on acquiring educational tools for marriage before the wedding—or at least soon afterward.

Even in the best of relationships, there are constantly different issues that come up and require resolution: money, in-laws, conflicting life-views, how to handle differences, discipline of children, etc. And then there are all the natural complications introduced by expectations, a sense of "entitlement" and the negative beliefs and "unusable emotional inheritance" that the couple bring with them from their childhood.

Certainly each couple is unique, and therefore there isn't any one easy answer to the secret of a good relationship. But, over the years, I've seen, in practice, that the Torah's recipe for a couple's happiness provides a formula for what really does work.

The Torah speaks about a women being an ezer k'negdo ("a help-mate with/against him"), implying that her behavior is a result of her husband's attitude and actions! Briefly stated, if he is "worthy" she will be his helpmate. If not, she will oppose him. Indeed, a woman, by the very nature of her creation and her place in the home, reflects her husband and, at the same time, looks to her husband to take leadership – as the "man" of the house – to set the tone and direction for lasting marital harmony.

Time and time again, I have heard from women regarding what they need most in the relationship: "If only he would be more patient, if only he would speak carefully with me, if only he wouldn't get so angry all the time." The Sages tells us that women are kal l'fatot, "easily seduced." There are many interpretations of these words, but one which I always tell the men is that women are so easily seduced—willing to come close, to see your point of view, to give in for the sake of peace. What they are waiting for is some empathy, understanding, compromise, patience, negotiation, discussion, problem-solving. When faced with angry dominance, inflexibility and disregard, the distance created begins to gnaw away at the trust in their relationship. Sometimes that break in trust takes years, if ever, to be recovered.

Angry at Her "Defects"

This was especially so in the situation where a man called to tell me all about his wife; how angry and disappointed he was because of her "defects." He used the word "angry" about ten times during the first three minutes of our conversation. And, although he knew he was wrong to have such anger, he continued to focus on her behavior. They've only been married a few years, but for most of their history they were constantly bickering with each other. What prompted his call was that the last time they had an argument, he locked his wife out of the house, and she went home to her parents.

After hearing about her "defects," I learned the rest of the story. He told me that they are expecting their second child. She is working a full time job—not he! He doesn't seem to have any concrete or realistic plans in that area—just lots of "ideas." He often doesn't get up for morning prayers and has no regular Torah class.

I asked him what he wanted at this point. "I know I acted rashly," he said, "but I don't want a divorce. I'll do anything to get her back."

"Easy to say, but not easy to accomplish," I said. "Are you really willing to 'do anything' to get her back? It can be done—but it will require hard work, self-sacrifice and going through an educational process (counseling). Mostly, it will involve you looking inward, not outward; finding your self-leadership, and self-esteem, and rebuilding your marriage from a healthier position." He admitted that he was tired of the "revolving door" of anger and frustration. In fact, for some time, he had felt like a failure, and quite lost in terms of how to deal with the bitterness of his life.

A Wife's Needs

I told him the five things I consider most important to keep a marriage together. None of them involve material things, promises or impossibilities. They are completely attainable by average, growth-oriented people. (The fringe benefit: As he acquires new attitudes towards his wife, his feelings about himself would also become stronger and more secure.)

1) A woman wants to create a home, a nest, a safe place. She wants to bring children into the world and build a family based on Torah, i.e. ethical, moral, eternal values.

2) A woman wants her husband to be willing to solve problems without getting angry, depressed or anxious; without blaming or shaming. She wants to feel his leadership in this area.

3) A woman (and most human beings) responds easily to kindness, not force.

4) A woman wants refinement. She is always striving to look for what will produce wholeness and holiness within the marriage.

5) A happy wife = a happy life. All the effort that a man puts forth to allow himself to become a loving, cooperative, available partner to his spouse will result not only in her happiness, but in his own as well. The test of a man's faith is in the home, with his wife and children. They make demands on his time, his money and his nerves! It is totally different from every other relationship he may have with people outside the home. While a person can avoid friction and confrontation on the outside, it's difficult to escape difficult situations at home.

In this case, I didn't work with the couple, only the husband. He was willing to investigate his life, his ideas about marriage, and where the walls of discontent had come to be so impenetrable. He learned the skills of anger management and healthy communication so that he could find other ways to deal with his frustrations and disappointments. He discovered many of the infectious beliefs that kept him from seeing himself as a hero: "Who is truly strong? One who conquers his unhealthy tendencies" (Ethics of the Fathers—my translation).

We spoke about whether or not he could see his wife's requests in a different light, without the power struggle or the "right/wrong" labels. Taking a few scenarios one by one, he readily acknowledged the sincerity of her efforts to help him, not hurt him. She wanted the best for him and their children. He knows that. And he also knows that his life has improved immeasurably since his marriage.

He could see that when his wife asks him to go to prayer services, to learn, to stay away from the unsafe internet, she's asking for a commitment to a higher, more spiritually oriented level of living. So many husbands will see this as control – "She can't tell me what to do!" – and feel the need to take a stance against "manipulation." When I described this scenario, and asked if it sounded familiar, he laughed and said I was right. He definitely was in a power-struggle with his wife, and he wanted to win.

It took several weeks of sincere effort on his part, before his wife was willing to come back home. Certainly his actions "spoke louder than words." Although he doesn't have a job yet, he agreed to write down every effort he makes to obtain work; making calls, setting up interviews, sending resumes, etc. Meanwhile, in an effort to be more productive he has taken a volunteer job tutoring children in a nearby school. He is committed to daily prayer, and has taken on a daily Torah class. Through these efforts at greater self-discipline, he already has begun to feel that he is achieving a heightened emotional and spiritual awareness. And, most important, he reports a sense of "calm" in his home that he has never experienced before.


A Couple's Heartwrenching Struggle

December 21, 2008

The steps. Many of them. Once they were easy, skipping down... Today, each one has weight. The first time descending these very steps, I carrying my baby, my husband carrying the toddler, the other children skipping ahead and behind us. Today I carry each one separately. Each one a separate golden weight. Each my one and only precious, beloved weight. And I move forward and downward, slowly.... Down is how it feels; but this descent is to holiness. The plaza has changed over the years; the palpable holiness has not. How easily the paintbrush of consciousness brushes away the population streaming towards and away from the Kotel (Western Wall in Jerusalem). It's only myself... Memories and hopes and fears and prayers.

And suddenly I'm startled by a soft intrusion, a hand on my back. "Is it you?" she asks in wonder? I hadn't seen Shira in ten years. She was young and confused then. And now here she stands with a child by the hand and an infant in her snugli. Mazel tov! How happy I am to see her! When last we saw each other it was at my Shabbat table, she wasn't sure she'd ever have her own, nor was she sure she'd want one. And then the decision to move to Israel, study Torah, and now she is a wife and mother.

She asks, of course, about my family—she remembered and loved them all. And then she talks about her own journey. I see her beautiful and content... but she says it's no more than her facade. There on that ground, soaked through with tears of joy and despair, she adds her own.

Her husband of five years is different, she tells me. He seemed always loving and accepting; now she is expectant with a child who will need special care. It is early on in the pregnancy, the doctor and social worker at the clinic offer her escape. She needn't birth this not-yet-child, they tell her. This child will never be normal, will always need medical care and therapies and someone available every instant for every normal function. This child, they tell her, won't be able to go to school, and learn a trade, and be its own source of support. This child will exhaust them mentally, emotionally, physically and financially.

This child, she says, is my child. Mine and my husband's. But her husband feels differently.

"It's not yet our child," he tells her. "It is not yet developed enough to be our child. It has no resemblance to any of our children." And the burden is just too great for him to bear. He insists she find the words to say to G‑d, "Thank you for the blessings You've given us; this time we thank You for the possibility to safely and with much support avert the future heartache this will bring." He wants for them to make an appointment with their doctor, and proceed to maintain the integrity of their family as it is. And she is heartbroken. Unable to face the reality of the future, unable to move away from the identity of 'my child.'

Her husband is on the men's side, praying for guidance. I sit with her while she waits for him, and then all go for 'a coffee'; outside an art gallery, on most uncomfortable chairs, we talk.

He is quite adamant. He loves his wife dearly; he loves his children dearly; he will not jeopardize the comfort of his family. There are challenges enough that life brings, he says, without inviting the most difficult. And he insists that discontinuing this progress is in the best interest of his family. "G‑d gives us choices," he says. "We have the best medical expertise, and we have the freedom to make honest, healthy decisions."

But Shira is heartbroken and now turns angry. Accuses him of being insensitive and selfish. Accuses him of thinking of himself only. Accuses him of having no faith. And in her tirade, he shrinks. Eyes no longer meeting mine, shoulders sloping downwards, his whole body under assault.

His faith is intact, he tells me quietly. But she cannot hear it. He is heartbroken too, but she refuses to acknowledge that. She knows only that he wants to take her child from her, and will not hear his own torment. "But I'm the husband," he says, "and the father. And I need to use every bit of knowledge available to me to make this decision. Being sensitive to her feelings doesn't oblige me to decide by them."

Here they sit, a child on each lap. Together building their home and future, they've erected a wall between them. It takes some time, but each eventually can let the voice of the other in. We talk about their consulting a rabbi who is expert in both the law and the medical issues; someone who is expert, as well, in family counseling. And, we talk of how great is the love they have for each other; what they need now is to develop a respect each for the other's opinion. They will consult someone, they agree. They have some time yet to make this decision; they will use the time in productive research and counseling; they will avoid discussion between just the two of them.

Another cup of coffee...they leave with their children. I touch the stones of the Kotel again with my eyes...and begin the ascent...step after step after step.

Mother-in-Law Became a Widow

December 14, 2008

Dear Tzippora,

My father-in-law passed away several months ago. My mother-in-law is very sad and lonely, and has begun visiting us regularly. The problem is that when she visits, her sadness and pain fills the house like a black cloud. I know that she is so heartbroken that she cannot help it. Yet I am beginning to dread her visits. I am also concerned that she could have a negative impact on the children. Please help. How can I be sensitive to my mother-in-law's pain without becoming mired in her sadness, or allowing her to set the tone for the house during her visits?

Sinking in Quicksand

Dear Sinking,

Your question is an important one, and it is one of boundaries. Whenever we set out to help someone, we must be aware of how to maintain our own firm footing so that we do not become sucked into their pain and confusion.

Your mother-in-law's pain is immense. Although the official halachic mourning period (aveilut) has ended, her grief most certainly has not. Especially for an older widow, who does not aspire to remarry, the prospect of a lifetime alone is daunting and overwhelming. Unless the depression is, or is becoming, clinical in nature — in which case she must get treatment — it WILL diminish greatly over time.

It sounds like your home has become a refuge for her. Yet in a certain sense, it has ceased to be a refuge for you.

Your first course of action should be to speak with your husband. Are there other family members who could also welcome your mother-in-law into their homes at this time? Perhaps you could set up a rotation. Sharing the responsibility should ease your burden somewhat.

You should also consider having your mother-in-law over in conjunction with other guests, especially guests with whom she has a relationship. This will dilute the emotional intensity of her visits. Another option is to spend time with her outside the house. Invite her to come with you when you go grocery shopping, or take the kids to the park. Such munane activities can provide her with a respite from her loneliness without becoming an emotional burden for you.

Gently raise the issue with your mother-in-law about joining a support group for widows in their first year of widowhood. In such a group, she would be able to find much more than an escape from her physical loneliness. A society of fellow widows would also provide the emotional support and understanding she craves at this time.

You mentioned your concern that her presence in your home could be harmful to your children. Unless you observe concrete behavioral signs of distress, or trauma, there is no reason for concern. As long as you allow your children to speak to you openly about their feelings, and give voice freely to their experiences, they should not suffer any ill effects from contact with their grandmother's pain. Rather, this can be an opportunity for them to become more sensitive human beings.

Feeling guilty over what you cannot do for your mother-in-law is pointless and will only drag you down. You cannot take away her loneliness and pain, nor are you expected to. Instead you should focus on what you can do for her, and the special mitzvot you are in a position to perform. In addition to the mitzvah of honoring parents, there is another significant mitzvah, the mitzvah of 'Gladdening the heart of a widow." At this sensitive time, every small act you perform for your mother-in-law is a fulfillment of both these mitzvot.

Increase Your Marital Harmony

December 7, 2008

Here are five Torah teachings that can be used to increase marital harmony:

1. Respect: "Who is strong? He who controls his inner impulses."(Ethics)

Respect starts with self-discipline. Put simply: The ability to control one's own selfish urges. When a person can do this, only then can he or she behave respectfully toward another. Marital respect means setting yourself aside and recognizing your partner's intrinsic value,followed by actions that express this belief. A respectful person is a "strong person."

Examples of "respectful" behavior:

· Let your partner influence you.

· Accept your partner's right to make decisions.

· Emphasize your partner's value in speech and deed.

2. Commitment: "...a man shall leave his father and his mother and shall cleave (be one) unto his wife." (Genesis)

Your marital partner must be the most important person in your life—your number one priority. Being committed to one's husband or wife over and above parents, friends, work, or selfish personal interests can be challenging. Step back from your busy life and ask your partner: "Do you feel you are the number one person in my life?" If the answer is "no," ask why. Once you have the answer . . . get to work fixing the problem. Bottom line: A healthy marriage is made up of two individuals "committed" to each other. This means being "one" with your marital partner.

Examples of "committed" behavior:

  • Demonstrating loyalty through standing together with your partner during difficult times.
  • Daily choosing with speech and deed your partner as the most valued person in your life.
  • Feeling your partner's pain as your pain.
  • Staying far away from wrong relationships.

3. Caring: "You should love your neighbor like yourself (Ahavat Yisroel)." (Leviticus)

You have a unique relationship with your marital partner. Often, you are the only person that can perform a particular act of kindness, for the benefit of your spouse—and it is your obligation to do so. Your responsibility to care for your husband or wife supersedes your own personal feelings (as do all Mitzvot). This means "caring" even during those times when you don't feel like it. A healthy marital relationship requires "caring" all through the marriage.

Examples of "caring" behavior:

  • Warmly greeting your partner.
  • Nurturing your partner.
  • Comforting in sickness or emotional distress.
  • Expressing your appreciation for what your partner does for you.

4. Closeness: The Torah Commands us to affirm our fundamental relationship with G‑d by repeating twice daily, "Shema Yisroel."

Shema means to listen, or more precisely to understand. Through "listening" we come close to G‑d—an important goal in saying the Shema. So too, listening can bring a husband and wife close to each other. It is human nature to want to feel understood. Effective listening is one of the most powerful relationship tools that can be used to achieve relationship closeness. However, "listening" is a special skill that for many people requires practice and effort. The letters that spell "listen" are the same letters that spell "silent." Effective listening requires setting aside judgment, commentary, and advice—being silent—and just hearing what your partner says. Listening creates a safe and supportive relationship where your partner can express dreams, fears, and goals. This will lead to feelings of closeness for both the listener and the speaker. Feeling close keeps the marriage healthy.

Tips on how to be an effective "listener":

  • Don't interrupt when your partner speaks.
  • Let your partner know that you have "listened" by summarizing what you heard.
  • Ask your partner questions about how he or she feels.

5. Accepting differences: Before Moses died he blessed each of the twelve tribes. The tribe of Zebulin was blessed with, "going out." The tribe of Issachar was blessed with, "in your tents."

Members of Zebulin where merchants and members of Issachar were Torah scholars—one very different from the other. Each tribe had very different responsibilities, lifestyles, and needs. Yet they were instructed to "work together" in harmony. Zebulin was told to support Issachar's Torah learning, whereas Issachar was to share the rewards of their learning with Zebulin.

You are very different from your marriage partner. Yet marital success requires you "accept" these differences and work together to successfully build your family. Marital success does not depend on being the same; rather it depends on discovering the value in diversity.

Examples of using differences to increase marital success:

  • Valuing that you and your partner have different talents and letting this knowledge lead to delegating primary responsibilities according to individual strengths (parenting, finances, problem solving, etc.).
  • Avoid attempts to make your partner like yourself.
  • Praising your partner for his or her special talents or efforts.

Each one these five characteristics of a healthy marriage are supported or sabotaged by any one of the other four. For example: a relationship with not enough "closeness," can cause a deficiency in "commitment." Establishing a healthy relationship almost always requires hard work. Whether "the work" is talking together and sharing feelings, reading books on how to build a harmonious marriage, or consulting with a profession relationship expert, the rewards—marital harmony—are worth the effort. Without it, all other successes — financial, professional, community leadership — although important, will have little personal value. Only a happy marriage creates personal contentment and peace.

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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