Save this Marriage

Married to Mr. Worried

June 29, 2008

Dear Tzippora,

I love my husband, but now that we are married, I realize that he is a little neurotic. He worries much more than I do, and he worries about things that it would never occur to me to worry about, like contagious diseases, and other types of health conditions. When the baby was sick, he insisted that we go to the hospital, even though I knew that it was just a fever. But we had to go; he practically begged me. I was so embarassed at the hospital when they gave us some paracetamol and sent us home. Please help.

Married to a Worry Wart

Dear Married,

The truth is that we are all a little neurotic. We all have our small areas of irrationality. It sounds like your husband has health-related anxiety. As long as it doesn't interfere with his over-all functioning, that's fine. It's a common form of anxiety to have. This type of anxiety becomes problematic when it limits a person's ability to go to certain places or interact with certain types of people because of fear of contagion, or if it becomes coupled with a compulsive behavior such as repetitive hand washing. In these cases, professional help is needed to learn to manage anxiety appropriately.

However, assuming that his worries are basically under control, the question then becomes how do you deal with it? How do you manage to have peace in your home with a person who worries more than you do?

We say that since the splitting of the Red Sea, G‑d has chiefly been concerned with making matches – helping people find and identify their soul mates. One of the ways He pairs people up is according to their psychological profiles. So this is definitely something you can learn to deal with.

Try to step out of yourself. You say you were embarrassed at the hospital. But hospital emergency rooms deal with this kind of thing all the time. Many people panic when their baby is sick. It's normal. So the hospital staff realized that your husband was really worried about the baby; that makes him a very concerned father.

Try to get in touch with the part of you that is a little neurotic. Is your husband accepting of this less than perfect place in you? Are you? If it's okay for you to be imperfect, you will have less trouble allowing him to be as well.

Before we get married, we wear rose-colored glasses. It is easy to love someone when we only see their positive qualities. Yet the reality of marriage is that it forces us to take these glasses off, and learn to deal with our partner's strengths as well as their weaknesses.

This is a life-time learning process, and couple's therapy can definitely help the process along. However, the goal isn't to fix or perfect your partner. The goal is for us to learn to love someone imperfect.

Flirting--Is it Really so Bad?

June 22, 2008

A lovely couple (let's call them Chana and Ruven) recently came into my office. They were both in their mid 40's, second marriage for both, and are now "empty-nested" – as their children (his and hers) were grown up, married and out of the house.

Chana began speaking and it wasn't long before she started crying softly. With tears streaming down her face, she explained how they had such a good beginning, ten years ago. They shared so much in common. They had gotten through the adjustment years with both her and his children in the home. Everything seemed to be going so well for both of them. They both have satisfying jobs and community activities. Recently, she found that Ruven seemed more distant from her and despite her prodding, he was reluctant to communicate.

One evening, she just happened upon an email on his computer and found he had been "flirting" with a woman in their synagogue. The woman, about to be divorced, was actually a (former) friend of Chana's. When Chana confronted Ruven about this, he was very casual and remarked that it was "no big deal." It was just a "casual flirtation" and nothing more. He didn't see what all the fuss was about. That's when Chana insisted that they see a therapist together – to help her figure out how to handle the situation and the overwhelming flood of fearful emotion that now occupied her every waking moment.

As soon as a third person enters the picture, the nature of the sacred relationship changes.

When Ruven spoke about this episode, he said he was just "bored" and enjoyed excitement. He explained that, even as a kid, he was prone to "acting up" and since he had ADD, he needed a lot of action and stimulation. He never was able to be by himself, without someone or something at hand (electronic games, activities, social events, etc.) He claimed that he really loved Chana and didn't want to break up their marriage. He didn't mean to hurt her. He just was "having some fun." And furthermore, after promising never to do this again, he wondered why she couldn't just "get over it."

Very often it seems that people who come to therapy do not have a psychological problem as much as a philosophical problem. In other words, the lack of direction, purpose and spiritual goals produce great confusion and stress. Without a solid approach to life, the "normal" action of gravity will simply pull one down – and keep him down!

In Ruven's case, as he described his early years, he "got away" with a lot. His ADD became an excuse for all kinds of troubles, and he never got the help he needed to learn to deal with his impulsive behavior. As a result, although he basically is a good person with a good heart, his "boredom" often brings with it tendencies to destroy rather than build.

Furthermore, he never really connected his observance of Judaism with the commitment to refinement. Like many observant people, his daily life/thoughts/action seemed quite separate from a larger spiritual perspective. They have not benefited from a truly integrated understanding of Torah where mind, body, heart and soul are experienced as one entity, Divinely designed and created to bring one to a sense of wholeness. That explains why, whether the breach is physical, emotional or spiritual, the results will be the same – disconnection.

With the celebration of Shavuot this past week, I couldn't help but bring to mind the "ultimate marriage" – that of G‑d and the Jewish people. Many images are evoked by the "marriage" concept—that of G‑d the groom and the Jewish people, the bride. G‑d, the giver and the Jewish people, the receiver. The marriage relationship is based on commitment to the marriage contract. We agreed to the terms of the contract – steadfast trust in the relationship. Not "kosher style" – but truly kosher. Not 612 mitzvot – but all 613. Not doing what "feels right" – but actually learning and observing according to Jewish law. Not "flirting" with other gods, but knowing G‑d and His Will.

What seemed to Ruven as an "innocent flirtation" was actually a violation of his commitment to Chana and their vows of "kiddushin" – being separate from every other couple on this earth. As soon as a third person enters the picture, there is a break in the trust, and the nature of the sacred relationship changes. Thus, "emotional adultery" can be as devastating as physical adultery.

Fortunately, for this couple, there was enough of a foundation and a true liking of each other, to provide stability for the challenging work ahead of them.

What does the "work" consist of? I would say there are 3 basic steps in the process:

1) Understanding the seriousness of the breach of contract. This includes not minimizing the spouse's feelings, and continual communication on what is "safe" for each other.

2) Willingness and determination to stay focused on the uniqueness of the relationship; enhancing and strengthening the connection in mutually agreeable and enjoyable ways.

3) Patience for the process of healing and forgiveness—however long that process takes. Forgiveness can evolve in time—but it cannot be hurried or demanded.

I suggested individual sessions with each spouse as well as joint sessions to check the progress of the relationship and share insights and experiences. Ruven spent time learning to recognize the ADD symptoms and how to deal with them in a more positive manner. He began to channel his energy into production rather than destruction (and the ensuing low self-esteem). And, although frustrated with the slow progress between himself and Chana, he remained committed to rebuilding the relationship.

As for Chana, it became apparent to her that she was actually functioning like a "mother" in this relationship. Even before the "flirtation" incident, she had often felt that Ruven was "like a child" and she had to direct, motivate and guide him. She agreed to step back and allow Ruven the opportunities to develop his strengths.

Whenever trauma is experienced because trust has been broken, it changes the relationship forever.

He began attending more regular Torah lessons and even took on tutoring some younger children. That position helped him gain confidence and self-esteem, and certainly heightened Chana's respect for him. Slowly – ever so slowly – trust began to be rebuilt.

Would the relationship ever be able to return to its former state? The answer is "no" —for whenever trauma is experienced because trust has been broken, it changes the relationship forever – as an element of anxiety has now been introduced. However, that, in itself, is not necessarily a negative outcome! What could realistically be hoped for is that new insights, sensitivities and truthfulness could eventually produce an even stronger relationship.

Happy Forever

June 15, 2008

It's Easier Than You Think

Marriage can be easy if you are willing to follow the 95-5 Rule. It goes like this: give your spouse 9.5 good-feeling communications for every .5 not-so-good feeling communications. Well, let's make that a little easier and say that you can give 9 good-feeling communications for every 1 not-so-good feeling one (just to keep the math simple!). When you do this, you will feel more in love with your spouse and your spouse will feel more in love with you. Easy.

Good-feeling communications consist of words, body language and actions that people LIKE to receive. Here are some examples:

  • Smiles
  • Jokes
  • Compliments
  • Encouragement
  • Listening
  • Sympathy, empathy
  • Gifts
  • Assistance
  • Food & drinks
  • Interesting conversation
  • Greetings
  • Words of affection

A sample morning dialogue involving only these kinds of communications could be as follows: "Good morning Darling. Did you sleep well? It looks like a beautiful day out there! I've got some coffee ready for you. You look so beautiful/handsome this morning."

Words of kindness, support and love are all considered to be acts of kindness in Judaism. Like charity, they are seen as an aspect of correct generosity. However, kind words are viewed as even more powerful than gifts of money in that they strengthen the soul of the recipient, enhancing his or her well-being on every level. There is no more precious gift that you can bestow upon your spouse than positive communication.

Not-so-good feeling communications consist of words, body language and actions that people DON'T LIKE to receive. Here are some examples:

  • A "look"
  • Criticisms
  • Complaints
  • Any sign of anger (raised voice, body language, words)
  • Lack of attention
  • Sarcasm
  • Insults, name-calling, put-downs
  • Negativity & bad mood
  • Instructions and requests

A sample morning dialogue involving only these kinds of communications could be as follows: "Why can I never find a clean towel in here? Is it really so hard to just drop your towel in the laundry basket and put a fresh one on the rack? I've got other things to do in the morning besides look for clean towels! By the way, I need you to stop by the cleaner's on the way home today to pick up some stuff."

The trick to success with the 95-5 Rule is to put YOURSELF in charge of this ratio – not your spouse. Your spouse doesn't have to earn your 95% positive communication; you just give it. Even if your spouse is irritating, nasty, miserable and mean, you just give your 95% positive communications. Keep in mind that all requests ("Can you please move that pile of paper off the table?") count as not-so-good feeling. By keeping to your 95% good-feeling communications, you will almost always witness "miracles." It's hard for others to consistently resist kindness and love. Although this may happen on extremely rare occasions, it is usually because the positive spouse hasn't persisted long enough with his or her strategy. Sometimes just a few hours of kindness and positive attention can turn things around. However, sometimes weeks or months may be required to fully heal a painful marriage cycle. But stick with it no matter how long it seems to be taking because the pay-off is greater than any other earthly reward. A happy marriage feels fantastic, is great for the kids and even protects your physical health! Our sages teach that a happy marriage does even more than all that – it promotes peace and healing on a universal, even cosmic level. Your home makes a difference. Your behavior can elevate yourself, your marriage, the world and beyond! Go for it.

Are You Afraid of Marriage?

June 8, 2008

Most singles say that they want very much to get married. At the same time, they may harbor secret fears which prevent them from doing so. By identifying what it is that you fear, you may be able to change the beliefs which are sabotaging the decision-making process:

1. "I'M SCARED THAT I'LL BE SEEN AS INFERIOR." Children who are constantly criticized, either by parents, older siblings, teachers or peers, learn to believe, "Only those who are brilliant, ebullient and beautiful are deserving of love and honor. Since I'm not, I am unlovable. No one normal would want me." Though they dream of meeting someone who will love them as they are, they also think, "Anyone who could love someone as defective as me would have to be an idiot, and why would I want such a person?" People who develop a belief in their inferiority, even if they seem totally normal and successful on the outside, are terrified that they won't be able to keep up the pretence after marriage and that eventually their partner will find out how incompetent they are and will then abandon them. It seems far safer to be alone and keep others from discovering the awful truth.

2. "I'M SCARED OF THE UNKNOWN." There is much more openness about mental illness in the magazines and newspapers. Even teenagers talk openly about bi-polar, autism and OCD. Almost 25% of the American population is on some form of psychiatric medication. The imagination runs wild in young people with various "what if" scenarios, as in, "What if s/he is violent, addicted, withdrawn, hostile, demanding, domineering, anxiety-ridden, irresponsible or dysfunctional?"

3. "I'M SCARED TO MARRY SOMEONE WHO IS LESS THAN I." Some children are brought up to think, "I am so spectacular that no one is good enough for me." These types think of themselves as part of a royal elite and search obsessively for a true prince/princess." They may go out on hundreds of dates, and after two minutes, already decide, "This person is beneath me." They feel they are retaining their sense of self-worth by holding out for the fantasy.

4. "I FEAR MARRYING SOMEONE WHO IS IMPERFECT." Physical perfectionists want someone who is flawless in terms of appearance, cleanliness and organization. The spouse must possess just the "right" features and have impeccable manners and dress at all times. Emotional perfectionists want someone who can provide perfect understanding and will always say the "right" words. Spiritual perfectionists want a perfectly righteous individual. No one can pass the test of a perfectionist, since every person has physical, emotional and spiritual flaws. It seems safer to stay "married" to the fantasy of perfection than to live with a real human being.

5. "I'M SCARED OF REPEATING MY PARENTS' MARRIAGE." Children who witness strife or mental illness in their homes are terrified of repeating these patterns.

A powerful phenomenon known as "repetition compulsion" is what compels many people to repeat unhealthy childhood patterns even if they know that these behaviors are harmful. For example, a man with a domineering mother may have an extremely hostile reaction to even the most innocent of requests by his wife, fearing that he will again be under the tyrannical rule of a woman. A woman who had a neglectful father may fear that she will be abandoned. Both may react to conflict by withdrawing or attacking, because they never learned how to respect differences or work out mutually acceptable solutions. If you are single, then you do not have to face being hurt.

6. "I'M SCARED OF LOSING MY IDENTITY." Women seem more frightened of identity loss than men. Before marriage, a girl has a degree of freedom as to what to wear, what to study and how to spend her time. After marriage, her identity is often submerged in that of her husband. She takes his last name, follows his customs and adjusts to the needs and demands of her children. After the initial excitement of marriage has faded, some women become depressed and resentful, feeling they have lost all sense of individuality. This may be why the Rambam advises that husbands and wives each have their own individual realms in which they make decisions. The freedom to make one's own decisions strengthens self-esteem.

7. "I'M SCARED OF LOSING MY FREEDOM." A person is a bochur (bachelor) or bachurah (single woman) until marriage. This word is related to the Hebrew verb "to choose." Once people marry, there is a loss of freedom. They can no longer make a purchase, meet with friends or make plans without consulting the other. This loss of choice is very hard to bear for some people. For example, those who like to hang out with friends or pursue a particular career fear, "I have no freedom to do what I want. I must submit to my spouse's demands; if not, I'll be attacked for being uncaring and irresponsible." The loss of freedom makes them feel stifled and imprisoned.

8. "I'M SCARED THAT SOMEONE BETTER WILL COME ALONG." Many people fear that after they marry, they will, at some point, see Mr/Ms Perfect and feel, 'Now I'm stuck forever with the wrong person and will always feel disappointed, deprived and heartbroken."

9. "I'M SCARED THAT I WON'T BE ABLE TO BEAR THE DISCOMFORTS." Again, there are many "What ifs": "What if he leaves his dirty socks under the bed, gets sick, snores or eats noisily, has bad moods, leaves things strewn about, chatters incessantly, withdraws into hostile silences or has other irritating habits? How will I cope?" These fears are especially strong in people who were traumatized in early life by abusive parents or siblings. They find it difficult to bear being in close proximity with other people for more than a short time. It is now known that the brain structure and hormonal chemistry of people who were abused or neglected in early childhood is different from people who grew up in a loving atmosphere. When they come near a person, instead of building trust, their old fears are triggered.

Each of these fears requires that a person adopt a new set of beliefs. This is not simple or quick. They touch on our most primal anxiety of being rejected, hurt and abandoned. Hopefully, I will be able to shed more light on the subject in the future.

Spouse Refuses Therapy

June 1, 2008

There are several reasons why couples are reluctant to seek help in therapy. The fear associated with therapy is a real one. Fear of the unknown makes sense. There are often no direct answers to the many questions one has, i.e. to whom do we turn? How long will this take? How much money will this cost? Will there be lasting results? How do I know this is the right therapist?

These fears are not the only deterrent in the quest for help. Even when a therapist has been chosen, there is often reluctance on the part of one of the spouses to even begin the process. There are several reasons why couples are reluctant to seek help in therapy. "It's not my problem, it's his/hers." "I don't need therapy, I'm fine." "Only crazy people need a therapist." "No stranger could understand our problems."

And lastly, one of the most difficult problems is when a couple has already tried therapy with no tangible results. This simply magnifies the original fears and further blocks the couple's chances for recovery.

How is one to proceed given these difficulties? I often answer this question by asking a question (a very "Jewish" thing to do!) – What would you do if you were faced with a physical illness? Would you not get second opinions, research the field, leave no stone unturned until you found the "right doctor/direction/healing"? Why is it any different when there is an emotional problem affecting the health of the relationship? And, if your partner is unwilling to go with you to therapy, or has given up hope – does that mean you cannot proceed? On the contrary, one must have the courage to find support and direction even more so. It may not be called "marital therapy" with only one spouse present – but it certainly can have an affect on the relationship, just as well.

A recent case comes to mind. A couple (let's call them Leon and Miriam) came to my office. They had previously seen two other therapists, each for a few weeks. Miriam simply could not understand "Leon's problem." Throughout our session, I did not detect the slightest interest on her part to discuss the issues or work on the relationship. She categorically rejected the idea of therapy and said she would not continue. She claimed she was not in pain, and certainly could not understand what her husband was talking about. She said that the only reason she came with him, was to put the "therapy thing" to rest.

Given this reality, Leon had to make a decision: either to continue fighting his wife, which left him totally frustrated and depressed, or to find a way to keep some semblance of peace in the home and within himself. (He had no desire to divorce. His parents had been divorced and he did not want to pass that legacy onto his children.) Being a very sensitive and spiritual person, Leon was willing to come to "martial therapy" alone!

He wanted to make sense of his life, to explore and understand the patterns and the realities that G‑d had presented to him. Indeed, as our work proceeded, and he put the "pieces" of his life together, he began seeing that often we can find precedents for whatever we are experiencing in the present with issues in our early beginnings. In other words—we are often faced with similar frustrations and challenges of childhood – for the purpose of finding a way to repair certain character traits. In Leon's case, his wife's apathy paralleled that of his mother. As a child, he felt rejected and unworthy because of his mother's lack of sympathy and connection with him. These feelings continued throughout his life, where the issues of rejection and low-self-worth were played out in many different situations whenever he experienced frustration in a relationship.

After a few weeks, Leon was learning to separate his wife's disconnection from his own feelings about himself. He could step back from his usual response (directed at his wife), and get in touch with his own loss. Instead of looking for distraction, blame or shame, he now directed his thoughts to a broader perspective; a more G‑dly view. Being a student of Torah- he wanted to find out how he could connect the spiritual world to his physical reality; in order to make sense of his pain.

Torah teaches the value of the individual as a created being whose worth is infinite. G‑d provides us with opportunities to recognize that worth as we gain mastery over our own thought, speech and action. This is where we have choice, and therefore, where we connect to a "higher reality."

The areas where we have no choice are in feelings, body sensations and initial thoughts. Whenever we are faced with disappointments, frustrations, irritations, shocks, there is an automatic response of "fight/freeze/flight." Recognizing that we have no choice at that second –can help us move more quickly to the place where we do have choice. Truly, in a split second – we have the ability to make a decision that can make the difference between defeat or victory.

Practically speaking, Leon outlined the areas where he had the most frustration with Miriam. They seemed to center around her messy housekeeping (laundry and kitchen) and time-related issues (she was often late to functions, airports, sending applications, etc). He accepted the reality of Miriam's behavior, and continued practicing the exercises that would protect him from getting involved in an unhealthy way. We did a lot of "rehearsing" to help him think, speak and act differently when faced with his initial reaction. At first, he didn't imagine he could actually find the resources within, but with some practice, he did, indeed, prove to be a very good student!

He predisposed himself to the probability that "Plan A" might not work, and therefore needed to be flexible with a "plan B" available immediately. Even the most mundane examples needed attention and thought in order to prevent a build-up of stress. For instance, if he couldn't find the cereal in the morning – he recognized his initial reaction (where there was "no choice") and moved quickly to the second response (where there is choice). He didn't stay "stuck" in that frustration – and he also took out malicious "intent" from the equation ("she's trying to drive me crazy" – "she doesn't care for me.").

When he wanted to be on time for an event, he tried to make alternative arrangements that would take into account Miriam's "spontaneity" (aka consistent lateness) which previously angered him. When only one spouse is aware and working on self-improvement, there is a feeling of loneliness. That pain cannot be minimized or ignored.When the camp application for their son had to be sent off, he accepted the responsibility to take care of the matter before it became a battle.

Of course, when only one spouse is aware and working on self-improvement, there is a feeling of loneliness, of lack of partnership, even of "it's not fair." "Why should I have to do all the work?" That pain cannot be minimized or ignored. Broken dreams hurt. The ideal of partnership and cooperation with a spouse needs to be interpreted in terms of the newly recognized realities. Sometimes, we need to lower our expectations of outer environment, and instead find the partnership and cooperation within ourselves and with G‑d (since He personally directs every detail of our lives). When we set our sights towards our own refinement and improvement then at least the pain becomes part of a greater plan and purpose. It is no longer senseless, punishing or random.

Although this case cannot be considered "marital therapy" in the traditional sense, there is no question that even one person's understanding, hard work and self-strengthening, eventually can have a positive effect on the dynamics of the marital relationship.

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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