Save this Marriage

Husband is too Complacent

May 31, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

My husband and I were high-school sweethearts. I never doubted that he was the one for me. Yet fifteen years down the line, I am starting to realize how different we are, and I am feeling constrained by those differences. My husband is much more complacent than I am. After work, all he wants to do is relax, watch a movie and have a beer. I am interested in learning, growing, attending Torah classes, and trying new things, and I feel that he is stagnating. It makes it hard for me to respect him when I see him wasting his time, and his life like this.

Frustrated Wife

Dear Frustrated Wife,

First of all, step back, and acknowledge your achievement. A long-term relationship such as yours is a major accomplishment in today's quick-fix and disposable culture. I suspect your husband's relaxed and easy-going nature has made it easier for you to maintain your long-term relationship, and while that same nature is frustrating to you right now, it is important to also see its benefits, and appreciate how they lend stability to your relationship.

Relationships have seasons, and it is normal for a couple to go through cycles of distance, or even estrangement, followed by cycles of enhanced intimacy and closeness. However, for the uninformed, these natural cycles can be baffling, and even cause for alarm.

It sounds like you and your husband are experiencing a phase where you are not in sync with each other, in which your individual need for growth appears to conflict with his desire for rest. Give yourself permission to focus on your own development right now and grow in the ways that you need to grow as an individual. Trust in your relationship, and its ability to stretch to accommodate both of you as unique individuals.

It seems like your husband is content to appreciate what he has right now. That does not mean that he is not a growing person. Growth is not a linear process, and development is often balanced by periods of rest. If he continues to work and fulfill his obligations to sustaining your family, he is still growing despite not having taken on anything extra. The fact that you are free to pursue your own interests without antagonism is a blessing in itself.

You say that your frustration stems from the way your husband seems to waste his time, and that this makes it hard for you to respect him. You are correct in your assessment that what your husband and society as a whole consider to be innocent diversions, such as drinking beer, playing video games, and watching movies, are actually truly problematic behaviors.

The real problem with the many readily available forms of entertainment is that they take time and motivation away from engaging in more meaningful pursuits, such as learning Torah, doing mitzvahs, and practicing kindness. Additionally, they also expose a person to inappropriate conceptions of sexuality and violence, that are spiritually and emotionally harmful to even the passive observer. Judaism teaches us that time is the most meaningful commodity that we have in this world, and the way we spend our time determines the type of person we are.

However, if your husband engages in meaningful uses of his time during the majority of his waking hours, he has demonstrated ample reasons to deserve your respect. Do not allow these problematic behaviors to corrode your underlying respect for him as a person, or to threaten the marital harmony in your home.

Marital harmony, otherwise known as shalom bayit, is the foundation upon which the stability of your family rests. Therefore, whenever one seeks to change or improve an existing relationship, it is important to do so in a way that promotes a peaceful, non-strained atmosphere in the home.

First focus on his other wonderful qualities that drew you to him in the first place, and then talk to him about those qualities you admire in him. Only after this can you gently explain that his squandering time in these unproductive pastimes is unworthy and at odds with a fine person you know him to be.

You can share with him your awareness about the finiteness of time, but be careful not to nag, or scold him like a lazy child. People often live up to the image we portray for them, and relating to a person in a negative way can cause them to strengthen those parts of their identity.

Instead, keep leading the way through learning, growing, and sharing with him all the wonderful things you discover. Help him to recognize just what he is missing out on. These efforts will enhance the atmosphere in your home, and infuse it with spirituality.

Thanks for writing!

The Married Bachelor

May 24, 2009

When a child marries, parents wonder, "Will he settle down and be a loving and responsible person?" I remember when I married off my oldest son and was so happy to see him grow into a responsible husband and father, who would often get up with a child at night so that his wife could sleep and was at her side when they needed to take a child to the doctor. He didn't seem to mind that he could no longer go out at night or spend days on trips to his favorite places. Perhaps because he was raised with the Victory Method, he managed the stresses without resorting to escapism or criticism, even when irritated or exhausted. That's maturity.

However, some married people never make this transition. They remain immature, wanting to be free to have fun or pursue their careers without the burden and responsibilities of marriage and parenthood. Although there are also women like this, the phenomenon is more common in men. The "married bachelor" type is well-known to advisors and rabbis, who chastise them, but rarely see change.

Many of these men did not really want to get married, but succumbed to family and social pressure. Feeling that they were forced into marriage and forced to have children, their "revenge" is seen in a passive-aggressive refusal to accept responsibility and an attitude of resentment toward their "restrictive" wives and "stifling" way of life. Some of the main traits are:

· Magical Thinking: He takes loans, thinking the money will be repaid, without any concrete idea as to how this will happen. He often says, "I want to be rich, but without having to put any real effort into making money."

· Narcissism: He wants to be the center of his wife's world, expecting her to be available 24/7 to take care of his needs, including 3-course meals and a spotless house, without having to give anything in return.

· Dependency: If he had a pampering mother, he we wants his wife to continue to "mother" him, to massage his ego, build him up and accept him unconditionally no matter how immature he is. If he had a critical, controlling mother, he may see all women as threatening and trying to dominate and will transfers all his bottled up feelings of rage and helplessness onto his wife, expressing the fury he could not express as a child.

· Selfishness: He does not mind giving—but only if he initiates the act. He may be known in the neighborhood as the good guy who always has time to help others. But if his wife initiates a request, he may become verbally or even physically abusive, seeing her as a demanding nag.

· Irresponsibility: He wants to come and go as he pleases, to stay out all night and sleep half the day if he desires. He has no set schedule. She has no idea where he is, who he spends time with, what he does with the money or where the money comes from and he gets angry if she asks.

· Escapism: He hates stress. Instead of looking for solutions, he runs away into addictions, such as alcohol, drugs or internet or threatens to leave.

· Impatience. When he wants to go, he goes. If he invites her to come along, he resents having to wait for her to get ready, organize a baby sitter or organize the children's food or belongings for the outing. He doesn't seem to understand that a mother cannot simply pick up and go at a moment's notice.

As the wife becomes aware that she has, essentially, married a man who has remained a child, she falls into despair. After all, love means that the other person's happiness is as important as your own. And in this case, there is no real love. Instead of having a partner and a friend, she has an adversary. Feeling resentful, betrayed and lonely, she begins to display the following symptoms:

· Nagging: She nags him to stay home, to talk, to share his life, which makes him even angrier and justifies his spending time away from "the nag."

· Suspiciousness: She starts to go through his pockets and his cell phone, trying to find out about his life and fearful of possible betrayals. Is he drinking? On inappropriate internet sites? Does he have any diseases?

· Anxiety: Anyone who feels trapped will experience anxiety. After trying all the therapists and tactics which were supposed to get him to grow up, she gradually realizes how alone she is.

· Shame: She is too ashamed to tell anyone, knowing that she'll be blamed. She may be ashamed that he does not get up to pray or that he refuses to work on a regular basis, waiting for the "mood" to be right.

· Rage: She waits up all night for him to come home and then rages at him for hours, pouring out her grief, which gives him an excuse to stay away.

· Despair: She drags him to a marital therapist, who tries to help him become more committed to his wife and children. Can he study with a child for five minutes? Take out the garbage once a day? Is there something – anything! – he is willing to do on a consistent and predictable basis? Feeling attacked, he gets angry, because now not only is his wife "on my back" but the therapist is also trying to stifle, restrict and constrict him.

· Failure: The therapist tells her to "respect him more" and build him up, but she is left wondering, "How do I show respect for someone I don't respect?" No one has figured out the answer to this question. She feels that she is a failure for not being able to satisfy her husband's infantile needs or for being such an enraged and resentful witch.

What can be done?

If you are married to a "bachelor" type, you soon learn that you cannot force another person to grow up. No amount of nagging, hounding, threatening and moralizing helps; coercion only make them more distant and violent and makes them feel like the victims. The most important thing a human being can do in any stressful situation is to focus on choices. Here are a few for you:

· Acknowledge Your Grief: You feel like a married widow. The difference is that real widows are given sympathy and understanding, while everyone tells you what a wonderful guy you married.

· Resist Hope Dope: Many therapists and advisors offer you "hope," promising that he will change if you just respect and accept him. The truth is that no one changes unless he feels a sense of shame and a strong desire to change.

· Be Responsible: You, too, might want to be irresponsible, crawl under the covers and drown yourself in self-pity. Instead, you must be a positive role model for the children. An irresponsible and unpredictable father has a very negative effect on children. Therefore, do everything in your power to train them to be responsible, reliable and trustworthy. Although he lives in chaos, you must adopt predictable schedules. Go to sleep and get up at a set time. Have set times to pray, eat, exercise and work to give children a sense of predictability and reliability. You will have to find a job, as you cannot rely on him for money.

· Hide Your Anger: Being angry at him makes children angry with you. They will take his side, especially if he is a laid-back type who pampers and indulges them just as he pampers and indulges himself.

· Accept the Conundrum: This is basically a no-win situation, no matter what you do, you'll be seen as wrong. If you accept the behavior, he's happy, because he wants to be free to come and go as he pleases without restrictions. If you criticize him, he uses your resentment as an excuse to feel like a victim and attack you.

· Pray to be Grateful, Not Bitter: Lack of love can make a person very bitter. It takes hard work hard to overcome this "cancer of the spirit." Most important is to turn G‑d into your source of love and strength.

Diffusing Tense Situations--With Questions

May 17, 2009

Last month's discussion examined the "magic" of questions.

In any relationship – husband/wife, teacher/student, parent/child – one of the best ways to diffuse a tense or difficult situation is simply to think in terms of asking a question rather than preaching, nagging, begging, ordering, threatening, shaming, commanding.

A well-formed question is one that requires respect for the other person's ability to think. It builds connection rather than distance. It elicits conversation, connection, and realistic solutions which can build a relationship through mutual give-and-take. A "GOOD" question is one which cannot be answered with "I don't know – or a "yes" or "no" response. Productive questions open the door to experiencing a different perception that helps you calm down and perhaps lead you to investigate your own fears, beliefs and behaviors.

Recently I counseled a grandmother (of 9 children) whose major complaint was that one of her married daughters did not accept (what she thought was) " constructive" criticism; from how she dressed, cooked, kept house, to how she behaved with other family members, guests, etc. She knew, intellectually, what her negativity was doing to their relationship. But she felt she couldn't stop. After all, she reasoned, who should "teach" her daughter if not her mother? How would her daughter ever learn how to honor and respect her husband properly? Who would be honest in pointing out her shortcomings?

Upon further discussion, it became clear that there was a long history of a difficult relationship long before her daughter got married. And now the mother felt even more "justified" in her behavior since she was so afraid for the daughter's marriage. (When I asked what would happen if she stopped trying to "train" her daughter, the mother responded that she was afraid her son-in-law would divorce his wife because she didn't treat him well.)

Although the daughter resented her mother, she was at her mother's home almost every day and made unreasonable demands financially and emotionally. The mother did not realize that by taking responsibility for her daughter's welfare, she was keeping her immature and irresponsible. When a dependency is created, the more functional one becomes even more functional (and "take charge") and the dysfunctional one becomes more dysfunctional, setting up a cycle of dependency –hostility- and more dysfunction.

In order to help this woman understand where her fear was leading her, I began to ask questions:

  1. What changes in your daughter's behavior has your criticism brought about? (For the last 22 years?)
  2. What indications do you have that her marriage is in trouble?
  3. Why do you feel you are responsible for the choices your daughter makes?
  4. How does your 24/7 agonizing over your daughter affect your life…your productivity…your ability to take care of you own responsibilities to yourself, your family, your job?
  5. Do you view this situation as uncomfortable or dangerous? For whom?

As we examined these questions one by one, it became apparent to this mother that she was involved in a very destructive habit. Although she claimed that of all her children, it was only with THIS daughter she had problems with, she did admit to being a very overprotective and controlling type of parent. "But I only want the best for her!" she cried in desperation. She had no awareness that from the age of Bar or Bas Mitzvah, there is a natural separation process that children go through in order to establish their own identity, competency and self-respect. This process is often so subtle and quietly progressive that it takes a parent by surprise when the child becomes openly rebellious and aggressive or withdrawn and non-communicative. The change that seems so "sudden" is actually no so sudden at all. It has been brewing for some time. Without validation and support for his/her growth and development, the child resorts to any means of survival and the" pretense" of maturity.

I asked about the mother's own experience in her family of origin. She related her own history with her mother, and how choked and guilty she always felt. She was the oldest of 8, and could never meet her mother's perfectionist high standards. She never really had a childhood; but had become a" little mother" at any early age – with overwhelming responsibilities for her younger siblings. It was always " serious business" and constant work, but very little fun, pleasure, or time for herself. At an early age she had learned to take charge of others and assume responsibility for and direct their lives.

We spoke about the possibility of giving up the "slavery of Egypt" (old habit patterns) by investigating beliefs, fears and thoughts that may have hurt her relationships in the past. I cautioned that, along the way, she would need to continually ask HERSELF some very difficult questions:

  1. What's keeping me from doing MY work and taking care of myself?
  2. What will happen if I actually stopped managing other people's lives?
  3. How can I see "not doing" as a chesed?

The "letting go" process is as scary and intimidating as letting go of the side of the pool when you're learning to swim. Your first thought may be one of drowning! It takes many tries and continual practice to finally take the step to independence and self-reliance.

This very well-meaning woman slowly came to terms with how her bossy pattern was creating dysfunction. She understood that the greatest chesed she could do was to help her daughter stand on her own two feet and become more independent. The mother started focusing on encouraging her daughter to make her own dinners, make her own decisions, value her strengths and accomplishments. She was even able to set limits on her daughter's visits, and not be so readily available every time her daughter even "hinted at" a need (which she had learned to do quite often). The confusion and emotional negativity surrounding their relationship gave way to a more balanced and healthy situation.

Nothing in Common

May 10, 2009

So many people feel frustrated because they have "nothing in common" with their spouses. Some of these people knew their spouse for a long time before marriage—a time, presumably, when they felt they had a lot in common. Indeed, they felt that they had so much in common that they wanted to spend a lifetime together sharing all of it. Other people did not know their prospective mate all that well. They hoped that they would create a common ground through living together, raising a family, sharing a vision and so on. Both groups, however, are prone to great disappointment, for after only a short while, it becomes apparent that most men and women have very little in common!

Of course, any two people will have great differences between them. They come from different homes. They have had different experiences. No two people are alike. However, when gender differences are added to the mix, the dissimilarity skyrockets. Men and women think differently, feel differently and approach life differently. They really do seem to have very little in common.

But why should this lack of commonality become a marital problem? Obviously, if G‑d had felt it was beneficial for men and women to be similar, He would have created only one gender or He would have made the two genders much more compatible. In His wisdom, however, G‑d created the gender gap. Obviously, lack of commonality is not an aberration in marriage; rather, it is marriage.

Marriage is a special relationship with a special task. Marriage helps us grow spiritually. By learning to accept, understand and appreciate a truly different person, we burst through our own skins—the materialistic boundary that keeps us feeling separate from all that there is. In fact, all is One. Judaism teaches us that all souls are united and that our perceived separateness is, in fact, illusory. The more we highlight our own unique ego, our own separate, individual way of being – our difference from all others and particularly from our spouse – the less in touch we can be with this great spiritual truth.

Marriage gives us an opportunity to push out of our own limited world to try to truly relate to another human being. Only through our own personal effort will we be able to reach the goal of marriage: attaining oneness. It may take decades of effort but, in the end, we will be wiser, more mature and evolved. When we finally embrace the differences of our spouse and claim them as our own, feeling that our spouse is indeed an extension of our own soul, then we will have accomplished the task of marriage.

So don't despair because you have nothing in common with your spouse. Realize that this challenge has been put there purposely by G‑d to help you reach tremendous spiritual heights.

Why Marital Dos and Don'ts Don't Work

May 3, 2009

A while back I attended a marital enrichment workshop presented by a family service agency. Participants were presented with many lists of how to foster the "perfect relationship." Top Ten Things to Do in a Marriage; Marital Don'ts (fourteen); Marital Do's (fourteen); Predictors of Healthy Marriages (sixteen measurements); Communicating to Be Helpful (eight points); Top Ten Strategies to Improve Communication; Men and Intimacy (ten pointers); and more. All totaled, participants received thirteen formulas for everything from "difficulties when listening" to "how to reveal one's innermost thoughts."

These recipes can be useful as springboards to discussions and self evaluation. However, these "lists," when viewed without proper context, can also create unrealistic expectations and can actually sometimes lead to more relationship problems, not fewer.

Every individual is unique. So, too, two people make for a one-of-a-kind relationship. Relationship success comes first and foremost from finding unique, tailored solutions and strategies to everyday relationship challenges.

Let me share with you an example of one such tailored solution:

I once worked with a couple that was constantly bickering. The wife was very critical of her husband. Whatever he did was not good enough. She felt that she could not accept him as he was. The husband, in turn, would respond by ignoring her and staying away by keeping long hours at work. This further aggravated and irritated his wife who already felt lonely and isolated. They had repeated this vicious cycle for years and it was wearing them both out with despair and making the kids anxious and insecure.

I advised the woman to lower her expectations of her husband and overlook many of the things he did that bothered her. "If they are small things just ignore them," I told her. As for those issues that were important to her, rather than voicing them as complaints, I urged her to express them as positive behavioral requests. For example, if she couldn't stand that he left his dirty clothes on the floor, instead of complaining, she should calmly and respectfully request that he put his dirty clothes in the hamper, and thank him when he did.

She tried this new approach and discovered that it worked. Her husband, not feeling attacked, since her requests were presented politely and with respect rather than as complaints, found it much more agreeable to accommodate her wishes, rather than resist as he did in the past. Like a miraculous medicine, this goodwill and acceptance spread out into many other areas of their relationship.

Even more important than his simply doing what she wanted, she now reached out to his potential and he grew and improved as a person. This new view of him created a home environment that was friendly and upbeat and healthy for the children. This in turn, further encouraged additional positive change and growth in many other areas of the marriage. In the end, both felt more accepted and their differences acknowledged rather than judged. Over time the old wounds healed and they became happy and confident in their marriage.

This was their particular creative and individualized solution to a long standing marital problem. It was a solution created by understanding the unique dynamics of this couple.

In marriage, success comes from working toward creative individualized solutions to relationship problems and challenges. We are not only different on the outside; our face, fingerprints etc., but we are also unique on the inside. If a marriage is to be truly satisfying, it must honor this distinctiveness.

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