Save this Marriage

Silence is Golden

April 26, 2009

Those who live harmoniously with a spouse usually have a couple of good tricks up their sleeves. They know how to bring out the best in their partner and they know how to diffuse conflict. They may have learned these skills by watching their parents, reading books, taking courses, studying Torah (the source of all wisdom!) or—perhaps they were gifted with patience and maturity at birth. Whatever the source of their knowledge, they have a knack for applying the right strategy at the right time.

One strategy that is lauded by the Talmud is keeping one's mouth closed when feeling provoked. In fact, the Talmud tells us that one who is able to accomplish this feat merits "a reward that is brighter than the sun"—this from a source that rarely mentions specific rewards for actions that we perform here on earth. Although we don't know exactly what kind of spiritual reward is "brighter than the sun" we know that its radiance is unlike anything we have experienced in our lifetime.

The Test

Of course, we all want to succeed at building and maintaining marital harmony. The question is how to accomplish this. How, for instance, can we maintain silence in the face of provocation. And by the way, this healing silence we are talking about is not the stony silence of withdrawal lasting hours, days or weeks after an argument. Rather, it is the momentary silence of refusing to retort, refusing to hurt in kind. It is a brief silence in which a person muzzles himself in order to prevent damage and it is followed minutes later by regular, loving communication. It is a passing silence whose aim is to restore and/or maintain the peace.

And although it sounds like it should be something that is easy to do – just keep one's lips tightly sealed – it is very hard to do when adrenaline is running. When one feels like one's just been punched in the gut or stabbed with a pointy knife; when one feels threatened, diminished, assaulted or otherwise wounded; it is very hard to keep one's lips sealed for those few minutes. In fact, the hurtful words seem to charge through the mouth as if of their own accord, without permission. They have their own agenda to defend against the "enemy." They are barely under conscious control. Their energy derives from the right brain, the emotional, subconscious center. Later, when the left brain comes back on-line, cool logic re-evaluates the scene with a variety of mature options that could have, should have been applied. However, at the moment of threat, these are largely inaccessible. It's as if we are operating with a "split brain," the right brain being temporarily dominant.

Passing the Test

The problem points to the solution. We need the right brain to have the full picture at the time that it needs it—that is, in the heat of the moment. Here we will discuss two ways to accomplish this.

One is to program the right brain in advance, according to the teaching of the medieval scholar, the Ramban (Nachmanides). The Ramban, in his famous ethical will (the Iggeret HaRamban), tells us to picture ourselves acting the way we want to act when we are provoked. Pictures are the domain of the right brain. By installing the correct picture in that location, there is a much greater likelihood of accessing the program under stress. After all, it is stress that will trigger the right brain into action. The Ramban advises us to generate the repetitive provocations that occur in our relationships and generate the desirable responses (i.e. keeping silent) and practice running these movies in our brain daily so that they will be retrievable at the time of need.

The second strategy to inform our right brain is bi-lateral stimulation. Bi-lateral stimulation of the brain allows left-brain information to flow into the right brain during times of stress. Normally, we go into "split brain" mode when stress hormones circulate. This results in a triggering of primitive, emotionally-based responses originating in the right brain (i.e. screaming, insulting, attacking behaviors). However, by tapping lightly alternately on each side of our body during a perceived attack, we can initiate an exchange of information between the two hemispheres of the brain.

This might be accomplished by keeping one's hands at one's side and tapping the right index finger against one's right hip, followed by tapping the left index finger against one's left hip and continuing this alternating movement in an unobtrusive manner the whole time that one's spouse is saying or doing something provocative. Left-right stimulation can be accomplished in many other ways as well: squeezing one's right toes, then left toes or moving one's tongue in one's closed mouth to touch the right teeth and then the left teeth and so on. The result is that left brain information will affect right brain functioning. The left brain knows, for instance, that maintaining silence is a crucial spiritual imperative with tremendous positive ramifications. It also knows that one's spouse is not one's enemy and that the issue at hand can actually be resolved when things calm down. It knows a variety of information that it can actually send to the right brain immediately, preventing the usual influx of emergency chemistry that causes an overtake of right-brain functioning. The heart will remain calm and it will become easy to maintain a few moments of silence.

The Pause that Refreshes

A few moments of silence accomplishes wonders. It fulfills the mitzvah of actively pursuing peace because it stops us from throwing logs onto the burning fire of anger. In addition to not aggravating a situation, it also deescalates a situation by injecting calm restraint into the communication. It helps us to build and maintain a peaceful home.

And although we think that our personal daily behavior is an affair of no consequence, nothing can be further from the truth. The cameras are rolling all the time, creating our own personal video that will accompany us on the day of judgment in the World of Truth. They are constantly recording each moment of our existence and transmitting the picture to the Heavenly Court for review.

Moreover, our Sages teach that our ability to actively pursue peace through verbal restraint has cosmic effects. When a spouse, in the privacy of a kitchen, manages to keep peace, G‑d alters world events. The Jewish people and the world at large may experience more peace because of the behavior of this one person. Indeed, each one of us should view ourselves as "the tipping point"—the one whose actions in a given moment can tip the scales of Divine mercy. The entire world is judged based on our own personal struggles. Nowhere is our challenge greater than within our own family circle and especially, within our private marital dynamics.

Yes, silence is truly golden.

Marital Secrets

April 19, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

My mother and my grandmother both say that a married woman needs to know how to keep a few secrets. They say that too much honesty is bad for a marriage, and that is why there is so much divorce nowadays. Yet this sounds very old fashioned to me. I feel that spouses should be able to be open with each other, and in a healthy marriage, women should not need to hide things, such as how much they spent on a new handbag. What do you think? Is there such a thing as too much honesty? Do spouses in healthy marriages still have secrets from each other?

A Straight Shooter

Dear Straight Shooter,

Your question is a very interesting and very complicated one. It would make a wonderful topic for a panel discussion. I suspect that as many people as you ask, you would get different opinions.

Let's imagine a scale, with full disclosure on one end and intense secrecy on the other end. Every couple will have their own unique place on the spectrum, and the majority of healthy marriages will fall in the middle range, rather than on either end. Let's look at why this is so.

Full disclosure could actually be very hurtful within a marriage. A woman who tells her spouse that she is concerned that she is no longer beautiful because she is aging does not want to hear that actually he was thinking the same thing. An answer such as "In my eyes, you will always be as beautiful as the day I married you" would actually be better for their relationship than a more "honest" answer such as "You really need to do something about all those wrinkles. Isn't there a cream you could buy or something?"

The Torah itself permits lying in this way for the sake of preserving marital harmony. When the Torah repeats the matriarch Sarah's incredulity at the possibility of having children so late in life, it modifies her answer to prevent causing discomfort to her husband Abraham (Rashi's commentary on Genesis 18:13). This is the precedent for permitting small lies and omissions within a marriage for the sake of keeping peace.

However, keeping secrets which are hurtful and damaging, such as gambling, an obsession with pornography, binge drinking, or other serious issues are entirely inappropriate within a marriage. I believe that the idea that the other spouse would be so hurt if he/she knew does not justify keeping the secret.

It sounds like your mother and grandmother are talking about "innocent secrets," such as your example of the cost of a new handbag. Assuming this really is an "innocent secret," and not a sign of destructive overspending and concealment, the presence of such a secret would not automatically be damaging to a marriage.

However, I would question what the cost of keeping the secret is, versus the benefit gained by keeping it. A woman should ask herself why she feels the need to keep such information secret from her husband.

In the old days, when women were much more financially dependant on their husbands, it is possible that this was one way of evening the score. Nowadays, since women contribute significantly to the family's finances, they are generally more confident about discussing these matters openly.

There is no one formula for marital happiness. However, as a general rule, it is important to remember that not insulting people, especially spouses, usually takes precedence over being completely honest.

Haunted by Her Past

April 5, 2009

It's a favorite dating spot. The first time I'd been in the Hilton lobby was to celebrate an anniversary; my husband and I spent the evening away from home and, with cell phones yet years away from popular use, we were alone.

Tonight the lobby is teeming with women. Hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds coming through the doors, waiting for elevators and escalators to take them upstairs to the international conference of women who head Chabad centers. Twenty-two-hundred women of all ages. Young women, newly married; young mothers with their babies in snugglies and strollers; middle-aged women; senior-citizen-status women...mothers and daughters, grandmothers with their grand- and great-granddaughters all attending the same professional conference, all passing through this lobby.

I've left the main dining hall for a few minutes, and at the entrance I am met by a face from the past. Newly arrived in New York two decades ago, she'd been directed to my husband to satisfy all of her burning issues of Torah, science, theology and art. We two had spoken on a number of occasions; our relationship hardly more than an acquaintanceship, she nonetheless asks me now if we can talk, and we find a quiet spot in the lobby downstairs.

It's grown dark outside, and I'm sitting across from a large window. Behind me is a mirror, before me I see both her, and her reflection. She is an attractive woman; for all the handsome beauty in the strong lines of her face, there is anxiety and tension. She's silent for several minutes, and I wonder what she's thinking. "I'm afraid," she tells me. "I'm afraid of being found out."

Married for more than a dozen years to a kind and intelligent man, she speaks of an underlying tension that, over the years, has grown to a palpable presence between them. Little disagreements have somehow become monsters of emotion. Differences of opinion have solidified positions that see no common ground. And now the children are old enough to be aware of the sea of troubles between them, seemingly unbridgeable. And, yes, they'd spoken with rabbis and even spent time in mediation with a counselor, but she is living, she says, in a state of fear. Twice now she's alluded to being fearful, but when I ask what she fears she deflects the question.

And now I'm fearful, fearful that she is being harmed in this relationship. And I wonder how, in these moments that I have her ear, to impress upon her the need for her personal safety.

But she goes on to speak of her husband and her marriage, and I sense no fear of him at all. And yet a third time she says to me, "I'm frightened." Of what? I want to ask again, but I remain silently listening. She speaks of their many arguments; to me it seems over issues relatively easy to navigate. And she says, more than once, that she's determined to "hold my ground"...to "not give even an inch"...to not let herself "be controlled"...and then, later, speaks of her determination to not relinquish "power."

Something's not in sync. She speaks strong words, "control," "power," and yet when she speaks of her husband there's no sense on my part of a man who is controlling or unrelenting in any way. Something's there that frightens her, but it's not, I feel, this man.

She speaks then of feeling lonely. Here in a room of over two thousand women, she feels alone. She speaks of feeling different from everyone. And then, again, she speaks of her fear of being found out. By now I'm convinced it's nothing to do with her husband.

I need to open this door, and as carefully as I can, I ask her if there'd been ever a time, or an occasion, somewhere before her husband, when she'd been made to feel powerless. If she'd been, ever, made to feel without control.

It was as if she'd been holding her breath...waiting...waiting to be asked this. Barely an instant's pause before she burst out, "Yes! Yes!...And I'll never let it happen again! I'll never be without power again!"

And there it was. After all these years of holding this terrible secret, there it was.

I would have expected tears of relief, or sudden remorse, but all I saw was lines disappear. Now she sits back in her chair. Relaxed, she seems. Composed. Outwardly, anyway. Her outburst was loud, but now she sits still. She's looking straight at me, but not seeing me. She's looking, I'm sure, inward. She is looking, I hope, at her future. She's named the monster. And now she's looking, I hope, at fearlessness.

I give her a few minutes, then say, "Let's talk further. Tomorrow, or when you're back home, we'll discuss finding someone whose expertise will guide you. You'll come to know deeply that it's not about him or the marriage together with your husband, you'll create a new dimension to your marriage. You'll be free to love him, and to let him love you..."

As we start walking back towards the escalator, she puts her hand in mine. Like a child, she lets me lead as we enter the dining room.

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