Save this Marriage

Marriage is Built with Kindness

June 25, 2010

Be kind to your spouse. Not a single person in the entire world would marry if he thought his partner would not treat him with kindness. Kindness is the fertile soil in which affection grows. Kindness is the foundation upon which a strong and healthy family is built.

The Torah teaches that the world was built with kindness, and that kindness is rewarded in this world and the next. Kindness is kindness, whether donating a million dollars to a school or opening your door to a stranger in need. Opportunities for kindness are available 24/7 and the reward is immediate. What a wonderful Mitzvah!

Marriage is a voluntary institution; a married individual must continually choose to stay with his or her partner. This is the reality of relationships whether we agree with it or not. When kindness is abundant within the relationship, the choice to stay together is easy. Kindness ensures peace in the home.

Showing kindness to your spouse is fundamental to marriage. Without kindness, your relationship will sour, G‑d forbid. Fortunately, it's easy to be kind. Here are some examples of everyday opportunities:

  • Say "good morning."
  • Ask how he or she slept.
  • Make something for him or her to eat.
  • Help find something your spouse misplaced.
  • Check with your spouse to make sure they have everything they need for the day (money, food, information, etc.).
  • Call during the day to say hello.
  • Run an errand at the store.
  • Listen and comfort your spouse if he or she is upset.
  • Help your spouse with his or her tasks at home.
  • Speak gently and respectfully.
  • Do favors.
  • Spend time together before going to sleep.

There are many more ways - planned and unplanned - to behave kindly toward your partner and he or she toward you. The more you do, the closer and healthier your family will be.

On the other hand, a kindness deficiency is the source of marital conflicts and the cause of most divorces. Anger, selfish or irresponsible behavior, and criticism, push away kindness and lead to relationship breakdown. The fact that the perpetrator of this hostility feels justified makes no difference. Little by little, lack of kindness chips away at the very foundation of the relationship and everyone in the family suffers.

Think back to the time when you and your spouse were courting. When your husband or wife was only your date, how did he or she treat you? Certainly with kindness. I know this because otherwise you would have run the other way; you would have ended your contact immediately, never wanting to see him or her again.

You only married your partner believing that the kindness you were shown during the dating period, your courtship, would last forever. And for a fortunate few, this actually turns out to be true. Sadly, for far too many people, kindness slips away and the relationship becomes a painful struggle. But it needn't be that way. You can easily be kinder to your partner. Make a decision to be kinder and begin behaving that way.

Being kind is actually very simple. The difficulty is starting and not stopping. But if you do, you will have a wonderful marriage with the benefits far outweighing the effort. When you are kind to your spouse, and he or she to you, both of you will reap many rewards. Kindness will guarantee happiness.

Kindness is remembered. Each act of kindness toward your spouse creates a relationship credit. These credits are saved like dollars in a bank account. When you hurt your partner's feelings—intentionally or unintentionally—these relationship credits can be used to reestablish harmony. They stand as advocates mitigating your partner's hurt feelings, negative judgments, or thoughts to retaliate. The more credits you have, the easier it is to get beyond relationship mistakes.

Research has shown that it takes, on average, five positive interactions to eliminate one negative one. Thus, the more relationship credits you have, the more relationship mistakes you can survive. For example, if you say "good morning" daily, but forget one day, either your spouse won't notice or will casually mention it. However, if you never say "good morning," your spouse will likely conclude you don't care about him or her.

Jerry and Susan were clients of mine (details changed to protect privacy). Once Jerry and Susan had extinguished their anger, they were ready to work in a positive way on their relationship. I instructed: "Make a list of kind behaviors that your partner has done in the past, is currently doing and could do in the future, that would make you feel loved and cared for." When they had finished making their lists, they took turns discussing what they had written. Then I told them to exchange lists. Jerry had Susan's list and Susan had Jerry's. I suggested they pick two acts of kindness from their partner's list each day and do them. I explained that these were gifts, given without any conditions. They went home. The next time I saw Jerry and Susan in my office they were both beaming and happy. They didn't look like the old Jerry and Susan I had met six weeks prior. "What happened?" I asked. "Simple," Susan answered. "I did what was on Jerry's list, and he did what was on mine."

Kindness is contagious. Being kind to your spouse creates goodwill and cooperation. When you are kind, your partner is far more likely to be kind to you. Emotional closeness, appreciation, and love will grow stronger and stronger with each act of kindness you and your partner show each other. You don't need to go to therapy to increase your marital acts of kindness. You know yourself what you can do to make your husband or wife happy.

Kindness is essential to a happy marriage. If you are not prepared to be kind to your spouse, you are writing yourself a prescription for a failed relationship. You cannot replace kindness with money, good looks, a big house, or exotic trips. Kindness is an attitude that manifests itself in all situations. Being "married" means behaving with kindness—it's just that basic. There are no substitutes for kindness. There is a saying, "What goes around, comes around." When you give kindness, you get kindness. Kindness is something you can't give away—it always comes back.

Have a sweet life; behave kindly toward your partner.

Gaining Cooperation

June 18, 2010

Asking for Change

Although we must accept our partners as they are, this doesn't mean that we can't ask them to make changes. In fact, marriage is all about growth, which means that it is all about making changes (for the better). Both husbands and wives can ask each other to change some aspect of their behavior in order to bring about some kind of improvement. This is not the same as trying to control one's partner. When we control our partner, we try to make them do things our way. On the other hand, when we ask our partners to make a change, we want them to do things differently because we feel that an improvement is necessary for the relationship or the situation at hand.

For instance, if a wife asks a husband to wash the dishes in a particular order – starting with the cutlery, then plates, bowls, pots and so on – she's probably being controlling. There are lots of ways to wash the dishes and the husband can find one that works best for him. On the other hand, if she asks him to please wash the dishes when she's finished cleaning up the kitchen, this may be a valid request because having only one person at a time in a small kitchen might make the clean-up routine easier for her.

Communication Strategies

Whether the request is big or small, presenting it requires skill. Presenting a request in an unskilled manner may lead to conflict instead of cooperation. For instance, suppose the woman in the above example gets all upset when she is trying to tidy up and her husband comes in to wash the dishes. In her upset, she uses an unpleasant tone of voice and an unkind choice of words: "Do you ALWAYS have to be in the kitchen just when I'm trying to put things away? Can't you wait until I'm finished?" Hearing this, her husband throws down the dish towel and marches out angrily, "Fine! Do the dishes yourself then!" The woman may be surprised that her husband was so nasty, as it is easier to spot unpleasantness in others than to recognize it in ourselves. Furthermore, she may not realize that his lack of cooperation has more to do with her communication style than his innate disposition.

Getting to "Yes"

Here are some communication strategies that encourage, rather than discourage, spousal cooperation.

  1. Timing: Rather than just asking for changes as they pop into your mind, wait for an appropriate moment. The best moments for making a request occur when both husband and wife are relatively relaxed and friendly toward each other. If such moments are hard to find right now, don't make any unnecessary requests for the time being. Instead, put all efforts into bringing the marriage into better balance. This may include going for professional counseling, a holiday together, raising the amount of positive communications on your end, and any number of other healing strategies.
  2. Focus on the Goal: Instead of talking about what you don't want your spouse to do, phrase the request in terms of what you want him or her to do. For instance, instead of saying, "I can't work with you in the kitchen at the same time as me," say, "Would it be possible for you to do the dishes after I leave the kitchen?" This strategy avoids the unpleasant sound of a complaint. Complaints reduce cooperation.
  3. Keep it Short: Stay away from paragraphs and lectures. Think before you speak so that you can plan your request. In fact, it is best to find a way to ask for what you want in one short question. This makes it easier for your spouse to understand and cooperate with your request.
  4. Keep it Pleasant: Making requests in an upbeat, positive tone of voice increases the chance that your spouse will be happy to comply. Sounding irritated, angry or disappointed provokes negativity in the listener and increases the likelihood that your request will be perceived as an attack. If so, you are more likely to receive a counterattack than compliance. For instance, if the wife says in a terse tone, "I really can't work in here with you here at the same time," chances are high that the husband will respond with a complaint of his own: "Well, if you'd cleaned up earlier we wouldn't be having this problem."

Using these simple strategies to increase cooperation has the added benefit of increasing love and affection, too. All the Torah's paths are peace; slowing down and communicating respectfully not only fulfills the mitzvah of loving our fellow as ourselves, but it also brings a reward of greater marital harmony and happiness.


June 11, 2010

"Judge every person favorably" (Ethics 1:6).

We judge about as effortlessly and unconsciously as we breathe. By the age of six months, babies already show anxiety around people who are not the same color as their usual caretakers. By the age of two or three, children often fear or ridicule the aged, the handicapped or those who are even slightly different. Children are distraught if they are handicapped in any way, even by having frizzy hair or freckles. To the primitive mind, "different is dangerous." Our brains are hardwired to seek people who are similar to us, and to feel untrusting toward those who are not. Sometimes, we have only seconds to determine if a person is safe or threatening, if we should get off the elevator even though we haven't reached our floor, because something about the person who just entered doesn't feel right.

We also tend to feel endangered when we feel deprived in any way. When a baby isn't fed on time, or if he sees his Mommy giving attention to another child, he can feel threatened. If he could put his feelings into words, he would say, "I'm scared. I must get what I want when I want it." Thus, there is a part of our brain which thinks, "Discomfort and deprivation are dangerous." This is why it is so hard to avoid that second piece of cake or avoid snapping at a spouse who has annoyed us.

When people disappoint us, that same primitive part of the brain is triggered. We will want to lash out at them if we think, "They're doing this against me personally, on purpose, to hurt me and deprive me of what I need." The judgments gush forward: "If she had just been a little more careful, she wouldn't have burned the food." "If he was just a little more loving, he would have seen that I'm totally overwhelmed and would have helped instead of running to his computer." "If he had any sense of responsibility, he would have told me about this a week ago instead of springing it on me at the last minute!" So there we are, certain that the other person is being intentionally stupid, insensitive, messy, greedy, mean, irresponsible and annoying.

The only way out of this paranoid trap is to take a moment and humbly ask ourselves, "Can I really be absolutely sure, with 100% certainty, that my spouse could have done better?" If a parent would take the time to humbly think this thought, he wouldn't say to a child who scored 90% on a test, "I know you could have done better!" After all, can a parent ever really know how well a child could have done, given the type of test, his mood that day or any of the other factors which could have impinged on him at that moment?

To judge favorably means having the humility to think, "She or he is innocent." Unless I have proof that my spouse is doing this act deliberately to hurt me, I assume that there is no premeditated malice. Since I cannot know, with 100% certainty, that my spouse could do better at this moment, I assume this is the best he can do right now. Given his present level of emotional intelligence, intellectual intelligence, socialization, childhood experiences, innate personality type and G‑d given talents, he cannot do any better right now.

This does not mean that we deny the fact that people can be incredibly irritating and disappointing. The Torah classifies people into normal, evil and mentally ill categories. And we must treat each category differently. If a person is normal, then it means that we see them as basically good and interpret even negative behavior in a positive light, assuming that the lack of self-control is due to a momentary lapse. If they are mentally ill, we have compassion for them, but lower our expectations and forgive them for lacking self-control. If they are evil, we interpret even their positive behavior negatively. In other words, we do not trust them at all! Giving the benefit of the doubt does not mean that we give up our powers of discrimination or that we like everyone and condone their behavior.

When my children were little, I put up a chart on the refrigerator to help them judge favorably. It said: This Person is Innocent By Virtue of the Fact That He Is….

  • Sick
  • Forgot
  • Has no self-control at this moment
  • In urgent need of a bathroom
  • Learning disabled [e.g., disorganization, clumsiness, ADD, ADHD, etc.]
  • Loving disabled
  • Extremely tired, stressed or overwhelmed
  • Lacking skills, education, awareness or intelligence

It takes a lot of practice to think, "Innocent!" Yes, all people are irritating and disappointing at times. Spouses will fail to return calls, fail to respond when we need them, and be slow, incompetent and moody at times. The only way to avoid being in a constant state of anger and resentment is to first have a change of heart (attitude). Only then can we have a change of feeling.

When you think, "Innocent," you are humbling acknowledging that you do not know, with 100% certainty, if your spouse could be more careful, neater, smarter, more loving or considerate right now. Unless you are living with someone who betrays, lies, scorns and exploit you, calm yourself by thinking, "They're not evil or disturbed. They are innocent, which means that at times, they are clumsy, lazy, stupid, irresponsible, preoccupied and unskilled….just like me."

I remember a woman who felt that her husband didn't listen attentively enough when she spoke to him. Each time he looked away from her eyes, she felt abandoned and angrily accused him of not caring. Thanks to our sessions, she learned to calm herself down by thinking, "He's innocent. It's unrealistic to expect that he should listen, with 100% attention, to everything I say whenever I want to speak. Maybe he's preoccupied. Maybe he's traumatized because I forced him to listen too much in the past." I gave her a three-minute egg timer and told her to tell her husband, "I'd like to talk to you for three minutes. Is that okay with you? If not, that's fine." She could even add, with a bit of humor, "If you can't talk, I promise not to feel abandoned." At the end of three minutes, she could ask, "Tell me honestly if you can handle another three minutes? If not, it's okay." The timer gave him a sense of safety. With the pressure diffused, he was able to listen more attentively. I also taught him to judge her as innocent and think, "She's not trying to stifle me or control me. I don't have to give up my life in order to please her. She is just insecure and needs reassurance that I am not abandoning her. At the same time, I have the right to decide how to utilize my time."

If you are dealing with someone with a serious addiction or emotional disorder, you can still think, "They're innocent and cannot help themselves," while taking protective action. With average, normal people, the only way to help them become more responsible and considerate is to reinforce the behavior you do like by showing a lot of appreciation and acknowledging their "victories." Even if you do not get the immediate results you want, keep thinking, "Innocent." It will bring you inner peace. And don't forget to judge yourself as innocent for not being able to please everyone, and even for not living up to your own impossible standards. All that is required of us is that we do our best. And most people are doing just that.

Taken By Surprise

June 4, 2010

Life is full of surprises. Surprise birthday parties, gifts, and visitors all make life colorful and interesting.

And then there are other kinds of surprises that life tosses our way. A driver that suddenly swerves into your lane, an outrageous utility bill, or an unexpected critical comment from your spouse can cause our blood pressures to climb through the roof and trigger angry responses.

Our sages teach us that the true character of an individual is revealed in three ways: his attitude towards money, when inebriated, and in moments of anger (b'kiso, b'koso, b'kaso). Anger is a human emotion, but learning how to deal with it the right way is vital. Human beings, created in the image of G‑d, have the capacity to choose how to react when their buttons are pressed. Some of us, however, find it more difficult to control our anger than others.

Emotions travel at a faster speed than intellect. Therefore, if we want emotion and intellect to meet, the intellect ought to begin the journey first.

If a person is prepared for a challenge before it arises, he will have the tools to deal with it. But how can one deal with a situation before it happens?

As we go through life, we adopt different patterns of reacting to the discrepancy between our expectations and what we actually get. These reactions can include anger, anxiety, withdrawal, blaming or any number of automatic emotional responses. By becoming more aware of our habitual patterns, we can take control of them and become proactive rather than reactive to these stimuli. If we are aware of a certain recurring pattern of what triggers our emotional response, we can take response-ability by visualizing the situation beforehand and using our intellect to deal with them in a positive way.

The students of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan,– known as the Chofetz Chaim – shared an interesting incident they encountered with the rabbi. These students noticed that the Chofetz Chaim often entered the synagogue, opened the Holy Ark and prayed. One night, they hid under a bench in the synagogue, and waited silently for the Chofetz Chaim to appear, so that they could hear what his prayers were about.

Imagine their surprise when they heard the Chofetz Chaim pleading, "Master of the Universe, help me overcome my anger. Help me, help me."

In his later years, the Chofetz Chaim traveled around Europe selling the holy books he authored. Once, between the afternoon and evening prayers, a young man approached the rabbi an asked him if he could give him four rubles in exchange for a five-ruble note.

"Why?" asked the Chofetz Chaim.

"You see," the man replied. "While you were praying I took one of your books, and now I'd like to pay for it."

"I don't know, I wasn't here," replied the rabbi. "I can't take money on a doubt."

"The truth of the matter is, I never took the book, but since I wanted to gift you with some money, I thought this was a good way."

"I cannot accept gifts. 'Someone who hates gifts will live long,' says the Proverbs. But if you'd like, you can give a donation for the Yeshiva."

"That's fine. But I don't have too much. I have here a five ruble bill; if you can give me four rubles change, I'll give you a ruble."

The Chofetz Chaim removed his strongbox where he kept all his money. Suddenly, the man seized the box and took off with it.

Inside the box was four hundred rubles that the Chofetz Chaim had managed to put together in order to publish the next edition of his magnum opus, the Mishna Berura.

Onlookers began to pursue the thief, but the Chofetz Chaim stopped them. "Leave him be. Maybe he has a daughter he needs to marry off."

The story is poignant because it portrays the rabbi's Ahavat Yisroel, his loving-kindness for another Jew, and how he judged others favorably. But beyond that, consider the level of tranquility the Chofetz Chaim had achieved. The same rabbi, who in his early years beseeched G‑d to help him overcome his natural trait of anger, when faced with the utter surprise of losing his entire lifesavings, didn't lose himself for even a minute!

Five tips for managing anger:

  • Keep a solution oriented outlook. Rabbi Simcha Wasserman used to say: You can get angry or you can solve the problem, but you can't do both.
  • The holy Arizal said that when a person is angry, he should look at a small child and that will calm him down.
  • If you cannot stifle your anger, at least delay its expression. Don't react immediately. The Alter of Kelm used to have a special coat that he called his "garment of anger." Whenever he was angry he went to the closet to put on this garment. By that time he had already calmed down.
  • After the storm blows over, express your feelings in a healthy, non-confrontational manner. Stewing in anger never helps anyone.
  • Take quiet time for yourself at regular intervals. Go swimming, walk, read a book. Quiet is the condition under which the intellect functions best. If our actions and reactions are to be rooted in the intellect, it's important to make quiet moments a part of our daily lives.

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