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Staying in the Calm Zone

May 28, 2010

For the last ten years, when writing the secular date, we have written the number 2 and then added two zeroes. Then came the year 2010. How long has it taken for your fingers to subtract that one zero? It takes time and effort for an old, automatic response to be erased in the brain and for a new response to take hold. This conscious, deliberate effort of incorporating new responses is how we engrave new information in our brains. There is no magic. It takes time and effort. And it doesn't matter if we are talking about not eating sweets after a meal, or not getting angry, depressed or anxious in response to an upset.

In order to stay in the calm zone when dealing with relationship frustrations, we must train ourselves to overcome our negative automatic response patterns. Take a minute to think back to a scene from childhood when you didn't get something you wanted, or made a mistake. How did you, and the people around you, respond? If you grew up with saintly parents, then when you got a poor mark on a test, made a mess, broke a dish or lost an item, someone said something like, "You're far more important than that item." Or, "Everything G‑d does is for our best." When you were in pain, someone responded with compassion and empathy and guided you through it. The reactions of the mature adults in your home taught you how to handle losses.

However, if you did not grow up with people who were so proactively working on their character traits, then you may have learned that the way to deal with stress is to slam doors, scream angrily, eat junk food, or freeze in depressive silence. The result is that now, when you feel helpless, ashamed or angry, you fall back on your old patterns, such as cursing, yelling, eating, sulking in despair, or freezing in anxiety. Get mad, bad, sad, sick or crazy. Many people never outgrow these patterns. They are as deeply ingrained in our psyches as our mother tongue.

However, we can slowly train ourselves to stay in the calm zone when we are frustrated or disappointed. Yes, it will take time and a great deal of effort, but the results will be a sense of personal empowerment and self-respect. Just like putting one zero after the "2" instead of two zeroes, you can train yourself to respond with logic, compassion and faith.

The Training Program:

The next time your spouse does something you don't like, ask yourself the following questions. It will require a huge degree of humility to answer honestly. Focusing on the answers will help you stay in the calm zone when you are disappointed in your spouse.

1. What do I want that I'm not getting?

2. What will be the effect of not getting what I want?

3. Is he or she purposely depriving me of what I want? Can I know with 100% certainty that they are acting this way due to deliberate malice against me? Or, are they doing this out of lack of intelligence, insensitivity or immaturity?

4. If, in the midst of an angry retort, someone were to offer me $10,000 for giving the benefit of the doubt and staying calm, would I be able to control myself?

5. Can I know, with 100% certainty that my spouse could do better and could give me what I want – at this moment?

6. Can I know with 100% certainty what is motivating their behavior, including the effects of their childhood programming or level of emotional/intellectual intelligence?

7. Can I know with 100% certainty that G‑d wants me to get the love, understanding and appreciation which I crave from this person? (This is the hardest one!)

Why doesn't G‑d give us what we want? Is He just being mean? Why so much suffering? Why can't people be more saintly? Why are people so stubborn, insensitive, immature, nasty and apathetic? Relationships are difficult because every person is at a different place in terms of his spiritual growth. And when the gap is great, we feel so alone and frustrated that we think it will be helpful to preach, scold or admonish. In order to maintain dialogue, it is helpful to:

1. Listen in Order to Learn: Find out about your spouse's motivations, what gives them pleasure and why they are making the choices they make.

2. Borrow a Wise Face: Picture a revered rabbi, hero or mentor whose wise, patient, compassionate face can inspire us to remain calm in times of pain. Some of them survived the Holocaust or experienced numerous losses, yet responded to provocations with dignity. Try it the next time your spouse is critical.

3. Have Compassion For Yourself: We're not going to get all we want in life. "No one dies with even half his heart's desires fulfilled" (Ecclesiastes). If you don't get all you want, trust that G‑d gives us everything we truly need – not necessarily all we'd like to get.

4. Have Compassion For Others: We are all imperfect and limited in our grasp of reality and our ability to satisfy others' desires.

5. Thank G‑d for reminding you of your existential aloneness. Let the pain carve out a place which can be filled with Him.

6. Thank G‑d for giving you a chance to work on your character traits. If we were surrounded by saintly people, life would be far too easy! The challenge is to act saintly when those around us make us feel like tearing our hair out!

Our ability to discipline ourselves and stay in the calm zone will arouse the respect and trust of those who are capable of being respectful and trusting. By listening respectfully to your spouse, you demonstrate to him or her how to listen to you. Unless the person is abusive or emotionally disturbed, you will have an effect on your spouse and, hopefully, find a way to resolve conflicts in a mutually respectful manner.

Feeling Shortchanged

May 21, 2010

Dear Tzippora,

My husband is not very emotionally complex. His own emotional needs are limited, and therefore he expects mine to be similar. Whereas I am more giving and expressive than him, I am also more emotionally complicated and demanding. I find that he gives to me in a way that would probably satisfy his emotional needs, but leaves me feeling frustrated. How can I explain to him that my needs for intimacy and closeness are much stronger than his, and that I expect him to give to me on my terms and not his?

Feeling Shortchanged

Dear Feeling Shortchanged,

As far as explaining the difference between your needs and your husband's needs, I feel that you did so very successfully in your letter. However, to address your different needs within the relationship, you need more than just explanations.

To truly address the problem, you need a deep level of mutual respect, and an honest understanding. Each of your different relating styles has both strengths and weaknesses. Your complex emotional nature allows you to give generously, but it also requires you to have a more intense and interdependent style of connection in order to feel satisfied. But your husband is satisfied with less, and as a result, he is also prepared to give less.

The Torah teaches us that the mitzah of chessed (loving kindness) means learning to relate to others according to their requirements rather than our own.

However, to successfully enter another person's mindset in order to tailor our behavior to their needs is not an easy task. It requires concerted effort on our part. And it is only realistic to expect that initially our marriage partner will give to us according to their own nature and internal history. If we are wise, we will use this opportunity to study their behavior in order to learn to understand them better. As a marital connection deepens over time, husbands and wives develop a more nuanced understanding of each other, and their capacity to give to each other increases. Only then does it become possible for people to give in new and different ways, according to the needs of the other.

When a specific occasion arises where you feel that you need something different from your husband, approach him calmly, without implying that he should have known without being asked. Then express your needs in a detailed manner, using specific examples to explain your wishes, e.g., "I would really appreciate both receiving flowers from you and going out to dinner together for my birthday. Having just one doesn't feel as festive to me. That's how we always did it in my family."

It is typical for men and women to have different emotional natures, and both men and women grow by relating to others who are different. Respect your spouse, and recognize that his way of functioning is equally legitimate, and not inferior to your own. Be patient, and trust that your marriage will naturally deepen over time if you respect your spouse and consider yourself his partner in a growing process.

Thanks for writing,

Tzippora Price, M.Sc.

Playing By The Rules

May 14, 2010

For relationships to be successful, there must be rules – and people must follow them. Think about a game of Monopoly. You wouldn't want to play with someone who grabs money that you have won, or puts the card he chose back in the pile because he didn't like it, or turns the board over because he doesn't like how the game is going. Communication rules are very similar. It's more fun when people play by the rules. When people don't play by the rules, the rest of the players experience chaos, confusion, anger, anxiety and depression, which is exactly how we feel around people who refuse to follow the rules. These are basic rules that help people feel loved, loving and safe in their relationships. (Many of these rules are based on the conflict resolution work of Dr. Susan Heitler. Her books, workbooks and DVDs are readily available.)

In Ethics of our Fathers, we are told to "Be like the disciplies of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace..." To love peace does not mean that one must give in all the time or allow oneself to be exploited. Peace requires that we learn certain skills which will lessen the distance and defiance of those we want to be close to.

Thinking we can get along with everyone and have great communication is a myth. It is also a myth that if we just show tons of love and respect for people, they will automatically treat us the same. Rules don't work for people who lie, betray or scorn. They don't respect rules, because they don't respect people. With them, real communication is impossible, as their goal is not to create love and trust, but to exploit or control others. In their presence, you must adopt self-protective tactics, such as being physically or emotionally distant. If you must spend time with them, however, you will inevitably feel tense, threatened and frustrated, if not endangered.

Rule #1: Frequently ask, "What appeals to you about that idea?" To me, these seven words are the key to success. This phrase expresses love, which is based on a desire to understand. This is not easy to do. As a therapist, I love to give advice and help people make good choices. Thus, when someone mentions what I think is an unwise choice, my impulse is to jump in and propose a better idea! I must catch myself and say, "What appeals to you about that choice?" In this way, I discover their underlying concerns. And it is only by helping people uncover and define their underlying concerns that you can hope to open them up to new possibilities or attitudinal changes.

Rule #2: Heitler suggests, "Listen to love. Listen like a sponge." Don't listen in order to defend, argue, scold or even influence. Show with your whole being that you really care to learn more about their reality, thoughts and feelings, and also their fears and insecurities.

Rule #3: Avoid contempt. Do not respond in a way which will make the other person feel inadequate, stupid or rejected. Scorn kills relationships. If you give advice, even the best advice, the other person may think, "I must be stupid to not have thought of that myself." And if you express scorn, such as, "That's ridiculous!" or "You must be crazy!" the other person will become angry or defensive, or surrender and adopt your idea out of fear, while smoldering with resentment inside.

I'll take a common example. A friend called before Passover to say that she wanted to invite all her children and grandchildren to the Passover seder, but that she felt it be too demanding, given that she has back problems. My immediate desire was to protect her and tell her, "Don't invite so many people! You'll suffer terribly." Instead, I asked, "What appeals to you about that choice?"

She said, "I love having my kids and grandchildren all sitting at the same table."

"Anything else?" I asked.

She responded, "And I want to give my kids a break. They work so hard all year."

"Are there any more concerns here?" I probed.

"Well," she admitted, "If I don't invite them all, they'll think I don't really care and I'll feel guilty, as if I'm not a good mother. It's like admitting that I love some and not others and that I'm getting older and can't handle so much. That's hard to accept."

I encouraged her to share more, writing down a list of her concerns. This is an extremely important step in communication. When I read them back to her, she was surprised to realize how many different concerns were riding on this one decision. It was only then that I asked, "Is there any way that you can satisfy these deep needs without jeopardizing your health? Let's take them one by one. We'll discuss a bunch of ideas and try to come up with a win-win solution." For example, we discussed if she could ask her children to make even one dish, or if she could cater some of the meals, etc. She sighed with relief and told me that it was so helpful to express these concerns, some of which had been almost hidden from consciousness. Eventually, she decided to ask everyone to prepare part of the meal and that relieved much of the pressure.

Practice! Practice! Practice! Playing by these rules is not always easy. Start today. When you think someone is locked into a position which you think is unwise or unsafe, practice saying those seven beautiful words: "What is it that attracts you to that idea?" Imagine how you'd respond if your spouse said:

  • "I want to take up sky-diving/go to Alaska/take a cruise."
  • "I want to quit my job and learn full time."
  • "I want to stop learning and go to work."
  • "I want twelve kids."
  • "I'd like to get a dog."

This might prepare you to respond to teens who say things like, "I'd like to dye my hair green" or "I want to quit school."

Life is full of conflicts and decisions. The more willing you are to follow the rules and explore concerns with others, the more receptive they will be to your feelings and needs. G‑d usually gives us lots of opportunities to practice the rules!

Alternative Explanations

May 7, 2010

Spouses are known to behave badly at times. They whine. They nag. They criticize, complain, lecture and rant. They lie. They forget. They neglect their responsibilities. They neglect themselves. They neglect us! In fact, the number of bad things they do is just too large to enumerate. Why do spouses behave this way?

When your spouse behaves badly, how do you explain it to yourself? Do you use any of the following popular explanations?

  • He or she is trying to hurt me.
  • He or she is evil.
  • He or she is incredibly stupid.
  • He or she is an awful person.
  • He or she is mentally ill (although not diagnosable).
  • He or she is just like his or her evil mother/father.
  • He or she is out to get me.
  • He or she gets pleasure out of my pain.
  • He or she is a damaged person.

Think Again.

Toxic explanations for toxic behavior are, to put it simply, toxic. That person you stood under the wedding canopy with is still that person – that precious human being who you joyfully signed on with as life partners. Now that you're living together, you see other sides of this person. You see how s/he functions under pressure and stress, or handles overwhelming responsibilities. You see that he or she sometimes falls to pieces, doesn't cope, disintegrates and otherwise demonstrates human frailty. You see how that person deals with your displeasure and frustration, and how that person handles being hurt or diminished.

There is a commandment in the Torah to judge others favorably. This means we are obligated to look for benign reasons for their misbehavior unless all the evidence repeatedly points to a negative judgment. Even when a particular action must be judged negatively, we are not allowed to condemn the entire person – only that one behavior.

Here are some benign alternative explanations for bad spousal behavior. How often do you use them when your spouse behaves badly?

  • He or she is tired, stressed or under the weather.
  • He or she never learned a better way in his or her family of origin.
  • He or she doesn't really understand how destructive this particular behavior is.
  • He or she is reacting out of hurt.
  • He or she has emotional baggage that accounts for this and it is not as "personal" as it might seem.
  • He or she has been accidentally encouraged or reinforced in this particular negative behavior by my own actions or reactions.
  • He or she can't do any better in this area due to various mental or emotional limitations.

Benefits of Alternative Explanations

Alternative explanations help reduce our rage and disappointment in our spouse's failings and errors. Although we may still feel hurt or frustrated, the intensity of these feelings can be lightened. Spiritually, a more positive spin on things is promised to come back to us on our own day of judgment when G‑d will judge us just as we judged others – most notably our spouse. The Torah teaches us that we are judged according to the very same standards we used with others – either a tendency to be strict, harsh and condemning, or a tendency to be lenient and understanding. Would you be willing to be judged according to your own rules?

It's hard to deal with our imperfect spouses. However, it becomes a bit easier when we look at them with compassionate and forgiving eyes. We can still set boundaries, ask for what we need, go to marital counseling and all the rest. We can still work toward improvement. We don't have to tolerate improper behavior. However, we can certainly interpret it in the most beneficial way possible to help ourselves and our partner. We can look for alternate explanations.

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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