Save this Marriage

The Chronically Critical Spouse--Strategies to Maintain Peace

July 27, 2008

"Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace…." (Pirkei Avos)

The ideal marriage is one in which there is healthy communication between the two spouses; the mode of working through difficulties includes negotiation, compromise and an ability to recognize and accept "feelings" but rise above them and deal with "facts."

The reality of many marital relationships is that not all people are capable of healthy communication. Instead, they initiate conversations with sarcasm and attacks, which may be subtle or obvious. And any response seems to increase the tension, unresolved difficulties and disappointments. This slow, and often insidious, invisible disintegration sometimes is not felt for years. Then, suddenly, one spouse may wake up to the fact that the distance between them is growing and the "walls" are becoming thicker. They seem to be leading parallel lives, with no real connection.

If such couples can work together to learn communication skills and become more respectful of each other, it is certainly possible to regain some degree of harmony. But, what happens when there is only effort on the part of one spouse and the other is simply not interested? When the hurtful words and behaviors become too painful, the healthier spouse must learn to defuse the damaging tirades that gnaw away at the marriage.

When we feel attacked or criticized, our automatic response is to defend ourselves with one of our three primitive (initial-automatic)) responses: fight, flight or freeze. For example:

(FIGHT) "You're so up-tight and nervous!" Automatic response: "If you'd help more, I wouldn't have to be uptight. You're just like your mother-always finding fault and demanding perfection."

(FREEZE) "Why can't you take an extra job to provide for our family?" Automatic response: withdrawal into silence and shame.

(FLIGHT)"Why is this house always so messy?" Automatic response: run away crying.

What is really needed at the instant of the hurt, are some "ready" responses that help you "switch gears" and think about a response that would be kinder and more productive, both to you and your spouse. The well-known suggestion to "count to ten" is important as it serves as a bridge between the lower, instinctive response and the higher, rational one. If you can reduce the sense of danger, you can reduce the initial "punch" and keep the "war of words" from escalating. (By the way, as an added benefit, this approach can also work wonders with children, who can be so tenacious in their questions and/or demands.)

With chronically critical people, you must learn to stop the urge to defend, explain or counter attack. While the critical person wants to "engage" you with provocative, accusatory statements, you must avoid responding with old "right-wrong," "win-lose," "fair- not fair!" patterns. You must also learn to avoid the thinking that "I can change him/her." You cannot be responsible for someone else's thought, speech or deed, only for your own. The commitment to peace rather than power is a serious step towards your own mental health and the health of your family.

Instead of getting into a power struggle with a person who constantly blames, shames and labels, I suggest a "refreshing" approach called the Pareve Response. Often, this response deflates the unhealthy patterns of fight, flight or freeze. This is not meant to be sarcastic or put anyone down, but simply to provide an alternative to destructive verbal dueling. It allows you to buy time, until the hurt has passed and you have given up the need for the other person's understanding and approval. Following are some major "pareve responses" to various accusations or criticisms.

Pareve responses

1) ACCUSATION: "You never have time for me."

PAREVE RESPONSE: "You may be right." (Do not voice the other part – "you may be wrong.")

2) DEMAND: "My mother insists that we come for Passover."

PAREVE RESPONSE: "I'm not comfortable with that idea right now." (This indicates that you've heard, but are not yet ready to respond.) Or, "I'll think about it." (This shows that you are not just dismissing the idea.)

3) ACCUSATION: "Where did you get that idiotic idea from?"

PAREVE RESPONSE: "I'm not sure. (It's alright not to be sure, or not to know.) At first, you may reject this response because you do not want to appear stupid. However, it makes the other person feel powerful, which is what critical people want. You also avoid giving explanations, which they are likely to attack. In addition, "To know that you don't know" is actually the highest form of knowledge (according to Maimonides)! Humility is a great personality trait to work on.

4) DEMAND: "You have to take a second job."

PAREVE RESPONSE: "That's an interesting idea/suggestion/opinion." (Note that here again we're acknowledging someone else without having to agree with him. You might also say, "Hmmmm" (and nod)……(Sometimes just letting the other person know you're there and not ignoring them helps to keep the options open rather than create impenetrable walls. It also stops you from withdrawing into hostile silence, which is another form of angry escalation.)

5) COMPARISONS (For example, someone compares you, your kids, your looks, your salary, etc. to someone else.)

PAREVE RESPONSE: "I don't 'do' comparisons. I don't find them helpful."

6) DEMAND: "I must talk to you immediately."

PAREVE RESPONSE: "I know you said you need to talk to me right now. But it's not a good time for me right now. How about in an hour?"

7) ACCUSATION: "You don't keep house or cook like my mother."

PAREVE RESPONSE: "I've noticed that too."

Quite often, just putting some distance between the action and the reaction will actually result in the topic being dismissed or tabled for a while, or even forgotten altogether. Remember, the above responses are meant to be temporary – to buy time, to cool you down, until you can re-visit the issue without blame, shame, guilt, judgement or criticism.

Notice that in many of the responses we focus on using what is called an "I" message – as opposed to a "you" message. In other words, instead of "You're crazy!" say "I'm not comfortable with that." Replace "You're so lazy" with, "I'm not sure I can finish this job without help."

It is truly a holy challenge to take responsibility and stay within our own "inner environment." It is much easier to go to the "outer environment" and blame or shame someone else, especially when we feel justified in doing so!

Despite the initial pain, once you learn to stay in tune with your own self-control when it comes to responding to others, you can actually have some fun with this invaluable tool. Following are some examples of questions and statements that could prove to be "provocative" – meaning that they might elicit a negative response. Now look through the 7-point list above, and see if you can find another choice for your response.

"Why did you make the appointment at that time?"

"Why didn't you make the appointment?"

"Where did you hide my keys?"

"If you really cared about me, you would……."

"You shouldn't be tired. Everyone else handles these things."

"Your priorities are all mixed up."

"How come you're never on time?"

"Why didn't you pick up the cleaning? What do you do all day?"

"Your priorities are all mixed up."

"Since when did you get so fussy/religious/etc.?"

"Why can't you keep house like your mother?"

"You've put on a lot of weight."

Like any new habit, learning takes time. At first, this might seem awkward and stiff. Many people say, "But it's not me! I could never do that." It certainly will take time to get used to new verbal patterns, and your spouse may become even more belligerent when he/she doesn't get the old, dramatic response. However, if you will "hold your course" and focus on peace not power, you will eventually experience the powerful blessings and benefits of your new-found self-control.

Back on Track--The Story of a Perfect Marriage that Went All Wrong

July 20, 2008

They walked in drenched to the bone, and apologized for being a half hour late for their appointment. In fact, they were twenty-four-and-a-half hours late; somehow they'd misunderstood or forgotten that our appointment had been scheduled for the day before, a fine, sunny, storm-free day. So here they stood, dripping and breathless from their sprint through the violent thunder storm. And, luckily for all of us, my scheduled appointments for that afternoon had cancelled.

A few minutes to catch their breath, and then they began to talk. Or, rather, she began to speak while he incessantly interrupted to correct her. About everything. They'd married less than a year ago; a meticulously arranged wedding celebration followed seven months of story-book courtship.

Not exactly, he said, the wedding was actually terribly arranged, nothing worked out as planned. OK, she said, that's not the point now.

He'd just landed a very comfortable position with an up-and-coming architectural firm; she was just entering graduate school to pursue a degree in nutrition. Only because he insisted that she continue her schooling, he interjected. Yes, she sighed.

They clicked at their very first meeting at a mutual friend's Shabbat table, and from the first they both knew this would be no casual friendship. Wait one minute, he insisted. From the very beginning I had a feeling there'd be trouble. She looked at him, and continued. They'd discussed everything; disagreed on nothing...it was a match made in Heaven. Hell, I heard him mutter.

At this point I suggested that they toss a coin to determine who gets to speak without being interrupted. No, he said, let her speak since it was her idea that we come to see you. And he retreated. Quite emphatically—he crossed his arms, slid down in his chair, with chin on chest, he closed his eyes. Go on, he said.

The wedding was magnificent, she continued. The week following was pure joy; they were giddy in each other's presence. And then off to work and school. And now her gaze downward, no longer meeting my own, she lowered her voice and described the decline in their happiness. At first he'd called her almost hourly, then gradually his calls decreased to sometimes just once a day until, at some point, he'd not call at all during the day. And while he'd come home straight from work, and they'd enjoy a long and leisurely dinner now he'd often come late, and eat quickly, citing job related obligations. Until, finally, here they were. On the brink of total collapse, this was their last ditch attempt to reclaim what they'd once had. Or so she said.

By now the hour had long passed, but I was reluctant to interrupt the flow, and having been freed by the storm of my other commitments, I encouraged him to continue in his own words.

Bursts of thunder, brilliant streaks of lightening and the lights went out. But it wasn't so dark that I couldn't find the candles, and by the light of my Shabbat candelabra, he talked.

Ok, he allowed, we were great together. For the times it wasn't about her mother, it was great.

Her mother? First I hear about her mother; what has she to do with this? And slowly, painfully, it emerges. Her mother, confined to a psychiatric facility for the last fifteen years, had shown up at the wedding. Each, fearful of the other's rejection, had rejected proactively. And suddenly the bride, so composed and poised and deeply happy was thrown into a panic. For all the planning, this was unexpected...how to react? What role did her mother play? Did the rabbi know? Would her mother now have to be the one to walk her to the chuppah? Through the jumble of emotions, it had all somehow worked out, but something had been shattered. By the time the band was packing up, her mother had disappeared again, leaving the daughter confused and off-balance.

But she recovered, the next few weeks were wonderful, until the phone call from her mother. Let's meet for lunch while he's at work. And so it was, the appearance and disappearance of a woman she'd never known except for some difficult childhood memories. He kept telling her this wasn't healthy; she kept saying, it's my mother. So she'd avoid his phone calls so as not to lie about her afternoon plans with her mother. And he, sensing her withdrawal, battling hard any subtle suspicions, began to withdraw as well. It was a quiet, non-violent retreat of each from the other.

Deep breath for all of us, and then we talked about her need to find some way to define her relationship with her mother. We talked about how this exploration could be painful, and how valuable would be her husband's support, if not understanding. And we talked about her fear of losing him, mirrored by his own fear of losing his beloved wife. Each, fearful of the other's rejection, had rejected proactively.

The lights came back on, diminishing the glow of the candles. By now they looked exhausted, but a heaviness seemed lifted. We agreed to a plan for the next month. Recognizing her mother's precarious mental health, she would meet with her not more than one afternoon a week, for a clearly defined time frame—an hour, or two hours, to be very strictly adhered to. She would, as well, contact her own therapist, someone who'd helped her in the past, for guidance and support during this process. We talked about her need to build very strong boundaries in her relationships, and to recognize that of paramount importance was the home she was newly establishing with her husband. He agreed to be supportive. Although he would have preferred not to have had his life disrupted in this way, he acknowledged it was an important process for his wife. So the plan for meetings was constructed, a schedule set up for both calls during the day, and at least two full evenings devoted exclusively with each other.

His arms uncrossed and sitting straighter but comfortably now in his chair, he asked for a cup of tea.

The pounding of rain on the roof and windows had somewhat abated; together holding the shaft of an umbrella they ran, under its protection, to their car.


July 13, 2008

Marriage is for good. Or for bad. Or, most likely, for a little of both. That is, marriage feels both good and bad but is, according to our tradition, supposed to last a lifetime. Of course, Judaism allows for divorce. In exceptional and intolerable circumstances – for example, if there is violence, sexual repulsion or an inability to support one's family – divorce can provide for healing and renewal. Nonetheless, the Torah tells us that G‑d Himself mourns the death of a marriage. We can think of divorce as a necessary amputation for an infected limb. The severe loss of the limb allows the overall body to survive, but the person is left disfigured and limping. Two souls that have become attached under the chuppah (marital canopy) can be "surgically" separated through the process of a "get" (Jewish divorce ritual), but the souls carry the scar of that surgery.

The Grass is Greener

The vast majority of modern divorces are not caused by the conditions that the Torah describes. Rather, they are caused by various kinds of emotional suffering. Men and women feel neglected, unappreciated, insulted, wounded, hurt, betrayed, disappointed, frustrated, bored, lonely, enraged and otherwise unhappy in marriage. Living with a flawed human being is really hard and causes lots of pain. Influenced by magazines, novels and movies, people today feel that they can avoid this pain by ditching their partner and finding a better one – one who will treat them right.

If this solution were viable, we would not observe that second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages and third marriages have a higher divorce rate than second marriages. First marriages have divorce rates averaging 60% now in larger cities, 50% in smaller ones. In other words, something is seriously wrong!

Some people claim that the emancipation of women is at fault. Now that women can pay their own way, they don't feel trapped in an awful relationship. They can just leave. No need to put up with someone's bad behavior. However, the timeless Torah – our map for all generations – tells us that marriage is meant to be a lifelong partnership. The ability to leave is not the permission to leave. G‑d wants us to work on it.

Moreover, He wants us to work on it with the spouse we have (except in extreme situations as described above). This means that the unpleasant and downright painful experiences of our marriage are there for a reason; they are there specifically to assist us in our spiritual growth. When we work within a committed, lifelong marriage contract, we work hard to stop the pain. We learn new tricks, we seek counseling that helps us break old patterns, we push ourselves to the limit – we GROW. This is exactly what G‑d wants from us. Growth.

On the other hand, the "I'm outa here" mentality prevents growth. "You've got a problem and I don't need to live with it!" – the focus on our spouse's shortcomings gives us no opportunity to improve our own. Looking outward, we feel that our marital problems lie within our partner and changing our partner will be the solution to our marital problems. As stated previously, the statistics say 'not true.' While it is definitely true that our spouses have a problem or many problems – being human this must be the case – in the vast majority of cases it is not true that we can't be happy living with them.

Our happiness may involve seeking professional marital counseling. It may involve seeking personal counseling. It may involve tons of tearful prayer. It may involve learning new skills that can bring out the best in ourselves and our partner. But what is true is that couples who hang in there for the long haul, very often pull through the difficult times and come out happy in the end. Psychological research reports that good marriages can survive many years of pain, betrayal and disappointment. The pain itself prompts partners to work hard to find healing and as a result – they find it.

Take Courage

It's easier to succeed when you know that a positive outcome is possible. G‑d tells us that it is not only possible, but highly likely, that our hard work in marriage will pay off in love and harmony. Moreover, the hard work will help us become better and better, wiser and wiser, more and more spiritually elevated. Take courage; you are not alone in your marital struggles. G‑d is very close to all those who call upon him in sincerity – ask G‑d to strengthen you and to help both you and your spouse overcome all personal limitations in order to find true love and happiness.

Marriage Without Anger

July 6, 2008
Combating Cognitive Distortions

We live in a time of unprecedented marital instability. For example, currently in the United States there are slightly over 2 million marriages a year and slightly over 1 million divorces a year. For the Jews, the bad news is that rates of divorce have also increased dramatically in all segments of the Jewish community. The good news is that overall the Jewish community (and particularly individuals who identify with traditional Jewish values) show higher rates of marital stability.

(In contrast to an overall American divorce rate of 50%, the Jewish community has had a rate of approximately 25%. When one looks at synagogue-affiliated Jews – irrespective of denomination – the rate falls to approximately 13%. Estimates by Orthodox Rabbis are that the rate within their community, though rising, is now between 2 and 5%. A person's "years of Jewish education" significantly predicts the stability of their marriage. Similarly, Jews married to Jews – whether Jews by birth or by conversion – suffer half the divorce rate of Jews married to non-Jews.)

What has maintained that stability over the centuries?

That foundation has been a set of values, originally based on religious law, which infused even secular Jewish culture. One of these values concerns interpersonal conflict. Literally hundreds of Jewish writings over the ages warn us that sustained anger is forbidden, destructive and ultimately irrational. The primary point about anger is "Don't." It is understandable that we feel anger. It is understandable that we feel anger. But before we express it we must process it. However, before we express it in word or action, we are obligated to process that anger so that it is detoxified. We transform the energies of anger to positive purpose. For example: married people may need to express their needs and pain, to negotiate for what they want, to surrender and accept not getting what they want, or even to act unilaterally to protect their needs. Nonetheless they can do so without self-righteousness, contempt, and anger; they can even express sincere regret or understanding for the pain their actions may cause to their spouse.

As a clinical psychologist for nearly 40 years, I have found that the single greatest challenge faced by couples is how they handle their anger. How does one deal with the inevitable disagreements in marriage, without becoming angry? How can one disagree without being disagreeable?

Both modern cognitive psychology and traditional Jewish philosophy offer surprisingly compatible guidelines to neutralizing anger.

Cognitive psychology advises that people can resolve their own anger more easily if they realize that they are the person who creates the anger; typically, anger is not an inevitable response to something that came from the outside. It is not the external event that generated the anger, but rather the particular meaning that they put on that event.

Consider a relationship where a person feels embedded in his anger. Cognitive psychologists would assert that internally the person is making some negative statement about him or herself (perhaps unconsciously); it is that "self-statement" that perpetuates the anger. It might be: "If I put up with this, I'm a fool, a spineless victim, a failure." Frequently, the statement is irrational.

Secular cognitive psychologists assert that the source of people's psychological stress is their lack of an adequate life philosophy to deal with life's inevitable struggles. Where does a person seek out such a philosophy? May I suggest the Torah?

In this brief lesson, I will focus on one concept about anger that flows directly from Jewish tradition, namely, that interpersonal anger is always based on a cognitive distortion. The trigger for anger is an irrational thought. Frequently the thought is unconscious; nonetheless it influences our body and our emotions. For example, a woman may be angry at her husband who ignores her desire to receive flowers in honor of Shabbat. Internally, she may be thinking, "If he can ignore my clear desire for flowers, it means he doesn't love me. How can I love a man who doesn't love me?" In fact, it may well be that the husband loves his wife but is insensitive, or he may believe that it is a foolish waste of money to buy flowers. He would rather spend much more money to modernize her kitchen or to send her to a spa.

If she believes the second set of reasons for her husband's behavior, things can be negotiated calmly. She can accept that she needs to teach her husband. However, if she believes the "cognitive distortion" that he does not love her, there is nothing positive left to talk about.

Where do these cognitive distortions come from? Are they simply an accident, an error?

Torah warns us that we have inside us both a good inclination and an evil inclination. (The existence of such a destructive force inherent in man's nature was recognized by Freud only very late in his career, in Civilization and Its Discontents.) Anger is a very seductive and addictive force. The evil inclination utilizes negative emotions, such as fear and self-doubt, to generate anger. Underneath anger is fear about personal inadequacy. The evil inclination generates distorted thoughts that cause pain and fear. The evil inclination causes people to rationalize holding onto their anger. Therefore people need to scrutinize their angry impulses.

Anger is a very seductive, addictive force that presents itself as one's ally, similar to cocaine or alcohol. (Approximately 800 years ago, Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid warned of the addictive property of anger, in his classic text Sefer Chassidim.) One needs to ask, "What is driving me into anger? Why can't I either accept that I am not getting my way, or calmly negotiate, or take unilateral action, all without anger?" If you cannot discover the answer on your own, turn to a friend or counselor.

The 3rd century codification of the Oral Law (the "Mishnah") concludes with the statement: "G‑d has found that the only vessel that can hold His blessing for Israel is peace." When couples negotiate without anger they create loving solutions. May it be that we follow Torah guidelines to achieve marital harmony and thereby elicit the fulfillment of G‑d's explicit promise and ultimate blessing, the Final Redemption.

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