Save this Marriage

Nervous Newlywed

May 25, 2008

Question:

We are newly married, and although we are very much in love, I am scared about the future. I look around and there is so much divorce in the world. How can we make sure that we will stay in love, and that our marriage will last over the long term? Is there anything we can do, or is it all just chance?

A Newlywed

Dear Newlywed,

You can rest assured that a successful long-term marriage is not a matter of chance at all. There is a lot you can do to invest in your marriage, and that work already begins now, in the early stages of marriage. The first year of marriage is known as the shanah rishonah, and it is a period when it is appropriate for the couple to dedicate to getting to know one another and solidifying the centrality of their commitment to one another, and to their relationship.

Slowly, over the course of this year, your identity will change, as you become not only an "I", but also a "we", and begin to make decisions based on the needs of your spouse as well as yourself.

Here are some concrete things you can do during this time:

Experiment with different types of compromise. See what works best for you, and in which situations it is important to say, "You care more about this than I do, so why don't you make the decision on this one."

Pay attention also to the times you will need to say, "I can't compromise on this one without resenting it, because it is too important to me." Women are especially prone to keeping silent and than boiling over with resent later. Now is the time to begin learning how to communicate and negotiate.

Learn to call a time out if a conversation gets too heated. Words that are spoken carelessly in anger can nevertheless cause deep wounds. Learn to apologize, even if you were provoked. Learn to forgive without getting an apology.

These are skills that will serve you well. If practiced regularly, they will become second nature.

In addition to these skills, there is another critical dimension to the evolution of a healthy marriage. Couples need time as a couple, and they need periods of separateness as well. Human beings are not able to constantly sustain intense levels of intimacy indefinitely. Even people who love each other need a break from one another sometimes. Learning how to give and take space from one another will help you to establish a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship.

The Jewish laws of ritual purity reflect this deep understanding of human nature. These laws help a couple navigate the cycle of intimacy so they are able to sustain platonic periods of friendship which strengthen and renew the bonds of marital love. It is highly recommended for couples to review these laws together in their first and subsequent years of marriage.

Peace Plans

May 18, 2008

Conflict on the Home Front

Jewish teachings describe marriage as a merging of two previously separated souls. They unite under the chupah to become one. The actual feeling of oneness, however, can be elusive in marriage. Two people with barriers around themselves, defensive walls up, don't experience themselves as "one." In fact, when conflict arises, they may feel very separate from each other, like strangers – even enemies – on the opposite side of the fence.

People often feel quite distant from their spouses. They may have strong differences of opinion. They may have very different ways of doing things. They may not understand each other. In fact, because men and women are so different in so many ways, there will be many areas of potential conflict just because of gender issues. In addition, there will be potential for conflict because there are two people coming from two different backgrounds and histories. And there will be potential for conflict simply because most people have no idea of how to prevent it.

Take Full Responsibility

Shalom bayit – a peaceful home – rarely occurs by accident. In most cases, people must consciously do things that will bring about peace in the home. They need a peace plan. Since differences of opinion will inevitably arise, men and women must be prepared with strategies that will minimize or avoid conflict. Here is one strategy that will definitely help: Take Full Responsibility.

Don't leave the establishment of peace and harmony up to your spouse. You make it happen. If this seems unfair, don't worry about it. It's the type of unfairness that allows some people to be millionaires. Even more precious than money is a peaceful home. If you are the one to make it that way – great! You've won much more than a million dollars! (Moreover, our sages tell us that the reward for establishing peace is very great not only in this world, but also in the world-to-come. So it's definitely a win-win for anyone who wants to "Take Full Responsibility.")

Refuse the Invitation to Fight

Now that you've agreed to take full responsibility, you can do the following. When your partner accidentally provokes you, refrain from responding immediately. This is called "refusing the invitation to fight." Immediate retorts are like logs thrown upon a fire, causing small embers to turn into raging flames. Perhaps your partner is making an error (we all do that sometimes, don't we?). Don't respond right away. Pause. Wait. Excuse yourself for a few minutes. Take yourself somewhere where you can feel your feelings, take steps to calm and soothe them and then – develop an effective plan of action.

Why waste time and energy fighting? Wouldn't it be so much better if you could help your spouse "see the light?" But you won't be able to do that with a retort. You will need a strategy, a plan of action. How should you say it? When should you say it? What will be most helpful? What will get the best results? All this takes some calm, unemotional thinking, so you'll need to release your feelings privately (let them flow freely but silently in solitude, or write them down and tear up the paper afterwards, or use an emotional release technique if you are familiar with one). If you need help with the problem-solving part, enlist a professional. Otherwise, devise a plan that has some promise and quietly try it out.

This is your peace plan. Never retort. Take full responsibility by refusing all invitations to fight. Take time to think and develop a love-enhancing, harmony-enhancing, marriage-enhancing intervention. Or, if the issue isn't that important, just let it drop.

The Torah tells us, "There is no greater vessel for G‑d's blessings than peace."

Celebrate Your Differences

May 11, 2008

Question: My wife does many things that irritate me. For example, she never seems to be ready on time, she gets very emotional, or she insists on long conversations before we go to sleep. I find this all very irritating. Sometimes we even fight about all of this. This is not what I want from my partner. I don't see a way out.

Desperate for a solution


Answer: Marital relationships blossom when a husband and wife not only tolerate, but actually celebrate the differences between each other. People need different things in life. Beyond the basics, some people need extra portions of respect, others affection, while some people cherish autonomy and independence, etc. Celebrating differences provides the opportunity for each individual within the relationship to secure, without conflict, what he or she wants or needs.

Cooperating with your partner in his or her efforts to attain his or her unique physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual goals creates a relationship imbued with genuine acceptance that lead to feelings of being understood, appreciated, and loved. Individual goals certainly must be reasonable, ethical and not injure anyone. If they meet this standard, it becomes the partner's privilege to support these goals in every possible way.

Marital relationships blossom when a husband and wife not only tolerate, but actually celebrate the differences between each other.

A selfless attitude brings with it not only peace and harmony, but also creates feelings of being loved and cared for by your partner. When you both take a position of acceptance with each other, you will both feel as if you are receiving daily gifts of love. This will then generate affection and friendship.

I would suggest to "Desperate" that you lower your expectations of what you want from your spouse as much as possible. Be honest with yourself. A relationship has certain basic requirements that cannot be compromised. The following are some useful strategies to help you achieve an accepting attitude toward your partner:

1. Understand that you and your partner are unique—and that this is a good thing. If you had married someone exactly like yourself you would have very quickly become bored.

2. Nobody is perfect. Not your spouse, nor you. As you want to be accepted, quirks and eccentricities included—so does your spouse. If you "accept" your partner, you increase the likelihood that he or she will in turn "accept" you.

3. By learning to adapt to your partner's special ways of doing things you become a better person. You learn humility, patience, and how to love unconditionally. All valued character traits and necessary ingredients for a healthy and happy life.

Strive to create pleasant interactions—actions devoid of criticism, anger, or judgment. For example: Talk about topics that are of interest to both of you, spend time together working on valued project, or take turns sharing meaningful feelings and future goals. Doing so will make both of you feel good being together and will create an atmosphere in the home of genuine peace and harmony. When you and your wife emote acceptance and appreciation, soon your feelings of "desperation" will be transformed to feelings of being "loved."

A person's relationship with G‑d includes how he or she relates to others. This applies in particular to how we treat our marital partner. You have an opportunity to perform the greatest mitzvah of Ahavat Yisroel (love for another Jew) specifically with your husband or wife. Why? Because no one else is in the unique position to help, comfort, or love him or her as you are.

The Torah teaches us a universal lesson: "Who is a happy person. The one that is happy with his or her portion in life." Your greatest portion in life is your husband or wife. When you are "happy"—you celebrate— how your partner is special.

Getting Ready for Marriage

May 4, 2008

When teenagers fantasize about marriage, they are certain that their future holds only ongoing love and appreciation for each other. They do not expect to have conflicts or to experience doubt, jealousy, frustration, anger and disappointment. However, the reality is that those emotions will inevitably arise. It is wise to prepare yourself ahead of time for these times by noticing how you handle conflict and loss in your life today. When you marry, you do not suddenly transform into a patient, joyful, mature or responsible person. You must work on cultivating healthy habits now. The following exercises will help you gain maturity:

ONE: AVOID PERFECTIONISM. Perfectionism leads to unnecessary guilt and shame, both of which destroy relationships. The truth is that we all have limitations. This is part of being human. Love is about accepting and loving each other despite the disappointments. You cannot have a healthy, honest relationship with your spouse if you are always trying to prove that you are superhuman. You will be too exhausted to be nice if you are busy putting on a daily performance! At times, you must be able to say, "I'm sorry. I just can't do this." You may not make the kinds of special meals, be as cheerful or as organized as he would like. He will disappoint you in some ways as well. Practice accepting your own and other people's limitations, such as roommates and family members, without getting angry at yourself or them for not being perfect.

TWO: SEPARATE YOUR INITIAL RESPONSE FROM YOUR SECONDARY RESPONSE. We all have a primitive animal brain, located at the back of the head, which contains violent, immoral and irrational responses to events – the kind any one- or two-year-old experiences when frustrated, hungry or over-tired. Thankfully, we also have a neo-cortex, located behind our forehead, which is responsible for controlling these urges. For example, you may sometimes experience the urge to attack because your spouse has hurt your feelings or was not available when you were in distress. Notice when you do not follow these initial responses. Be proud of these victories. Self-control is the basis of self-respect. You'll have endless opportunities to practice! One of the biggest acts of self-control is to be silent when you cannot think of a respectful way to talk about your feelings.

THREE: ACT POSITIVE EVEN IF YOU DO NOT FEEL IT. The greatest antidote for depression, anxiety and rage is positive action. Women tend to have more mood swings than men. Learn to ignore them as much as possible; they all eventually pass. Do not over-share, as this can bring you both down. Instead, walking, cleaning or even smiling can put you in a good mood. You do not have to feel good to act good! No one likes a bossy person, nor a clingy, depressed individual who is too focused on her moods to function.

FOUR: GIVE UP TRYING TO CONTROL OTHERS. You start off your marriage with love for each other, but will kill those good feelings if you try to change each other! You may not realize it, but when you give advice, the underlying message is, "You're stupid and inept. I don't respect you." So refrain from giving advice about what to wear, what to say, how to clean the dishes or how to think or feel, as this destroys self-confidence! Unless your spouse is doing something dangerous to your physical or mental health, resist the urge to criticize. Whenever possible, tell your spouse, "You make great decisions. I trust that you to know what to do." Practice now, complimenting the people in your environment for doing their best, even if it is not up to your standards. And if people give you too much advice, practice saying, "I'm building my self-confidence by making my own decisions." You did not get married in order to be "fixed." You married in order to experience unconditional love; to feel accepted and respected as you are. Criticism destroys love.

FIVE: GIVE UP THE DREAM THAT YOUR SPOUSE CAN UNDERSTAND YOU 100%. No one understands anyone 100%. You don't even understand your own self completely! Men and women have different needs, values and interests. Men like to solve problems; they generally do not want to dwell on feelings, as this makes them feel weak and needy. Therefore, men "bond" by talking about facts or their successes. Women, on the other hand, bond by talking about their problems, frustrations and disappointments. Rather than advice, they generally just want a soothing, empathetic response, such as, "I understand." Few men like to talk about their feelings – at least, not for long. Unless he voluntarily supplies the information, do not ask your husband, "How do you feel?" He may take your question as an attempt to control, probe and belittle. Help your husband understand what you want by stating clearly, "I need empathy, which means that you just need to say 'Aw…I'm sorry you're in pain.'" Or, say, "I need advice." Men love to be in the role of rescuer.

SIX: TALK ABOUT YOUR SUCCESSES. Men and women have a need for both closeness and independence. These two needs are essentially contradictory. You need closeness, which requires that you be able to be vulnerable and share your deepest feelings. On the other hand, you need the independence to develop your own personality and talents. Both men and women hold two major fears: a) marriage to a bossy, dictatorial type who destroys their sense of self-worth, or b) marriage to a clingy, depressive type whose needs are so great that their own growth is stifled. The best way to avoid being overly needy or overly dictatorial is to build yourself up in your own eyes and the eyes of your spouse. Talk about your successes. After all, if you keep putting yourself down, you are implying that your spouse made a poor decision in deciding to marry you. Tell each other about your difficult acts of self-discipline – how you went to work even though you were tired, controlled the urge to eat junk food or said a firm "No," to the demands of a difficult person.

SEVEN: DO NOT SECOND GUESS. In the Talmud, (Pesachim 54,) we are told that, "No one knows another person's thoughts." When someone is in a bad mood or disappoints you, you may be sure that he or she trying to hurt you intentionally. Unless abusive or mentally ill, assume that the person is doing his best, but simply does not have the emotional maturity or skills to do any better. What distinguishes healthy guilt from unhealthy guilt is intention. We all inevitably hurt people, because it is impossible to fulfill all their needs or always know how to please them. And we all have annoying habits. If you accidentally cause pain to your spouse, simply apologize and say, "I'm sorry. I had no intention to hurt you." Practice now by forgiving those who have no intention to hurt you. If necessary, clarify what happened.

By practicing these acts of maturity now, you will be better prepared to live with love and forgiveness in the future.

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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