Save this Marriage

Break the Stereotype

The Couple that Had the Courage to Explore New Frontiers

August 31, 2008

It was supposed to be an easy trail, not more than a half hour's hike up a gently rising hill. But hatless under a mid-afternoon August sun, and in most unsensible shoes, I was hard-pressed to maintain some modicum of composure as my husband and a fellow-hiker discussed the science of trees' roots, and the surprisingly large variety of flora not native to N.Y. State. Being totally untrained in the language of botany, I tuned out as they discussed the likelihood of plant life displaced from its native habitat to foreign soils to take root and even thrive, and its effect on the landscape in which it was newly found. So that evening when I got the call from a former student newly arrived back home from her three years of living abroad with her Israeli husband, I thought about the afternoon's hike.

We arranged to meet the following week.

I walked into the room; they sat next to each other in matching chairs. He, the classic tall, dark and handsome; the darkest, most compelling brown eyes under a heavy unibrow...kippah top and center, with the distinctive Nahal marking, shoulders squared, sitting upright, strong and firm. She, tight curls almost helmet-like around her face, blue-eyed ...eyelids swollen from recent weeping, the redness accentuating the almost albino transparency of her hair and skin. Sitting straight and firm, yet the teary eyes bespoke a feeling of defeat. But the smile on both their faces upon greeting me was real. Something, beneath the heavy appearance of it all, seemed light.Notwithstanding whatever weight they carried, they were prepared to do combat against their sea of troubles, ready to oppose them, and to attain their shared goal...simple joy.

She'd been born and raised in Manhattan and upon finishing high school decided on a year of study in Israel. He'd been born and raised in Morocco; shortly before his bar mitzvah his family had made aliyah to the Holy Land where he'd completed his schooling and the requisite army service. They met in the Tachane Merkazit internet cafe. She, chatting with friends back home; he trying to send non-classified army information to his cousins back home.

Her computer crashed, he helped her to get it working again...she thanked him by paying for his cappuccino and the rest, as they say, is history. Over impassioned protest from both families - each concerned the prospective in-law would never be able to acclimate to its family culture - they married. Not without many, many hours of consultation with friends and rabbis, mentors and counselors and relatives. They didn't do this blindly - young as they were, they had the maturity to recognize the myriad obstacles they would encounter. But when all was said, argued and cried over, they were certain of their soul connection, and decided to marry.

Neither family having the means to provide financial support - even had they chosen to do so - she moved with him into the small complex in the north of Israel where his family, and extended family, lived. A culture very alien to her American upbringing. He made a commitment to additional military training and service, which would further his college degree; she pursued a course in civil mediation. He was intent on establishing and maintaining secure and firm borders. She, trained in civil mediation, worked with underprivileged women to help them better their status, undeterred by stubborn borders of social mores. The women in her family were strong and confident; a mother and two aunts, as well as two elder sisters all trained professionals. The women in his family were strong and confident; his mother, grandmother, aunts, sisters and sisters-in-law were committed to creating comfortable homes.

She grew up to the sounds and sights of women studying, teaching, arguing law and pedagogy; each morning's dawn saw the women in his family preparing the lavish breakfast for their men...the beginning of their day's work of cooking, cleaning, laundry and shopping. She, American sensibilities front and center, was appalled at their apparent submissiveness to their men folk, and was brought to tears when her husband - sensitive and considerate as he was - asked one morning what's for dinner. She tried to 'fit in'...he so wanted her to like and be liked by his family, but the ceaseless conversations about meals and cosmetics and house related concerns were just too much for her. She saw herself as the female knight in shining armor come to this country to rally its underprivileged women to greater empowerment and success. Discussing menus and skin care was just way beneath her.

He sat rigid as she spoke. He did love her, and he most certainly held in high regard her ideals, and her work. But this was his family. And they were who brought him to where he was...he didn't spring full-grown from nowhere. His values, his perspectives, his appreciation of life and his wife...all were nurtured in the bosom of his family. How could she have so little regard for them? She clearly loved him; tears streaming as he spoke gave way occasionally to sobs. No matter, no matter she said. I don't want to live without him, but I can't live with his family. We can't afford to live away from them, he reminded her. At least not yet.

The small thicket of mint we'd found on yesterday's hike now provided the room's fragrance as I poured some liquid comfort from a pot of fresh mint tea. My mother would rub the leaves on my forehead, he said, to chase away bad dreams. And he looked at her. And smiled at her.

I thought about the beautiful bushes we'd passed...about how they were not native to this soil. About how, my husband explained, embedded among the natives, they provided contrast and nourishment...about how the roots would feed off each other, providing each the other's needs. About how their surrounding culture served to both enhance and nurture them; how they provided the brilliant relief on the backdrop of sameness.

You have to be who you are, I told her. You can't be who you're not. And...who you are is someone who creates a comfortable place for herself in foreign environments...witness the way in which you've grown and developed outside of your family and community milieu. Who you are is someone who engages and becomes engaged in the group you're with. Without compromising your core values, you are someone who's not deterred by borders...someone for whom some borders become fluid. That's why the two of you are so powerful together...where he cannot see moving outside a clearly defined parameter, you look past it to the horizon....

We proceeded to discuss how they could create their personal space within the culture of his family, how they, together, could expand some perimeters...They agreed, both, that it wouldn't be easy, that they would seek wise counsel at every turn, but they were determined.

Almost summertime again, and we were organizing the previous summer's slides. And there it was, a beautiful photograph of the patch of mint at the top of the trail. In the mail that same day arrived a letter with a small packet.

I've learned to cook, she writes, and in the sorority of the kitchen as we dice and mince, we talk about how women's rights have come a long way...and have yet a long way to go. We blanch almonds together, and argue the merits of the newly emerging mentors for women's rights. And here, enclosed, are some pomegranate seeds for you. If you're not afraid of learning new ways, they'll do great in your Brooklyn yard.

Talk Less, Listen More

August 24, 2008

Why Do People Scream?

People scream in order to be heard. The thinking seems to go: "He/she isn't listening; I need to say it again and again, louder and louder. That way I will get my message across." Unfortunately the only message we get across that way is, "You are my enemy." If Rachel yells at Eli, she may feel some relief – she's had a chance to release her tension and express her feelings. However, Eli – on the receiving end – has just received a generous dose of verbal abuse. In other words, my anger is your abuse. Being yelled at is always a horrible experience; we feel hurt, bullied, disrespected, rejected and more. We react by withdrawing our affection from those who are willing to hurt us in this way.

Alternative Strategies

Clearly, yelling at a spouse is not going to get us what we want or enhance our marriage in any way. Indeed, our sages teach us, "The words of the wise are heard when spoken softly." Our strength lies in restraint. We must hold back and plan our communication so that it can make a truly positive impact. Instead of rushing to get our point across, knocking down our loved one in the panic to be heard, we need to slow down, listen and learn. Speaking is the last thing we want to do when we're feeling misunderstood.

The person who "doesn't get it" is actually sitting in his or her own world trying to be understood by YOU! Busy trying to express him or herself and be acknowledged, this person cannot even begin to pay attention to your need to be heard. There is only one way through this door: you must give the speaker his or her turn. The speaker's "turn" involves two aspects:

1. having the opportunity to say everything that he or she wants to say, PLUS

2. receiving an acknowledgment of the entire message that was conveyed.

Only after these two tasks have been completed can YOU begin your own communication. This process in which you listen and acknowledge the speaker, allows the speaker to feel finished, relieved and satisfied. The speaker is much more likely then to be in a psychological position to receive your message. It is possible, of course, that the speaker will never want to hear you no matter what you do (some people do have emotional difficulties that interfere with relationship skills and others just lack good communication skills). However, you greatly increase the chances that two-way communication will occur when you do the required listening and acknowledging. Without this step, the chances that no one will feel heard are tremendously increased, making yelling, fighting and struggling much more likely to happen.

Listening is the Most Important Part

Although being a good listener does indeed make it more likely that you will eventually be heard, this is not the most important benefit of this skill. On the contrary – the listening itself, is the therapeutic, healing aspect of the communication. When you make your partner feel received, understood, heard and accepted you will reap the benefits in increased affection, intimacy, love and good-will. This is all before you have a chance to express your own views or concerns! In other words, just by listening, you can improve your relationship a hundred fold. Therefore, it is worth learning a few tips that can improve your listening abilities:

  • Do not interrupt the speaker.
  • Summarize what the speaker is saying in your own words.
  • Refrain from commenting on the speaker's thoughts until the speaker has said everything that he or she wants to say AND you have summarized everything that was said.
  • Think about what the speaker is saying while the speaker is speaking – NOT about what you are planning to say in rebuttal.
  • Remind yourself that the speaker is your life partner – not your lethal enemy.
  • When the speaker is criticizing or otherwise "attacking" you, listen with curiosity; look for the kernel of truth in any accusations so that you can better understand why the speaker is so distressed. Keep in mind that you are a good person and the speaker is a person who is temporarily upset. The speaker is not the ultimate Judge of your worthiness – that job is up to G‑d.

Compassionate listening is a rare skill that can turn you into your own marital therapist – save yourself thousands of dollars and start practicing it now!

Don't Become a Victim

August 17, 2008

I happened to be passing by a neighbor's house when I heard a little girl in the back yard saying, "I won't be your friend." There she was, a little girl, around the age of four or five, with hands on her hips, looking defiantly at the other children. "Okay," said one of the other children, handing her the ball, "You can go first." With a triumphant look, the girl bounced happily away.

This child is using the "aggressor" weapon to gain control over others. These types tell their parents, "If you don't buy me that item, I'll have a tantrum right here in the store." If the parents are too weak to stand up to them, they sulk in a grouchy snit until they give in. Eventually, they become the kind of spouse who says, "If you don't take me on vacation, I won't talk to you." They tell family members, "If you don't come to my celebrations, no matter how inconvenient it is for you, I'll be really angry." They may refuse to talk to their own children if they fail to get top grades or live the lifestyle they want them to live.

It is scary to be around an aggressor type of person, since they have no compunctions about using various forms of emotional blackmail to get others to give in to their demands, such as:

· Ignoring people, making their "victims" feel that they are not even worth being acknowledged or communicated with.

· Spreading lies to alienate the victim, even excommunicating them from the social group.

· Threatening to disinherit children who do not visit often enough or do not give the grandchildren the names that they want.

· Threatening to get sick (or even commit suicide) if their needs are not met

How can you deal with such a type?

1. REFUSE TO FEEL GUILTY: One of the main weapons of this type of person is guilt. They want you to feel guilty for being responsible for their unhappiness, anxiety, serious physical illnesses and heart attacks. According to Rashi (see Vayikra 25:17), unless you have maliciously, with deliberate intent, done something to hurt a person, you are not responsible for their pain. For example, if you are an exhausted working mother, you may not be able to attend everyone's special event, especially if it means neglecting your children and endangering your health due to lack of sleep. Even if the aggressor feels insulted and blames you for their misery, remember: Each adult is responsible for his own level of happiness.

2. ASSESS THE DAMAGE: Consider how much damage they can really do to you. Let's say that you want to spend a holiday or vacation in your own home and they insist that you spend the entire week with them, "Or else I''ll be fuming." If they are paying your rent, you might not be able to refuse, no matter how difficult it is to be with them. After all, these types also tend to be very critical. On the other hand, if you can afford to be honest, tell them that you will come visit for one day during that week.

3. BECOME INDEPENDENT: If you are the child or spouse of an aggressor-type of person, you must become more independent. Get a job. Learn to drive. Be too busy to answer phone calls or be available 24/7. These types often try to keep their victims dependent so that they will have more control.

4. CALMLY SET FIRM LIMITS: Figure out precisely what you really do or do not want to do. Then state it calmly, as one of your personal principles. For example, "I will end the conversation if you yell at me (or criticize me)." "I do not talk after 10 p.m. My sleep is very important." "I know everyone in your class has one, but the answer is, 'No.' We don't spend money on such luxuries."

5. GIVE UP THE DREAM OF HAVING A NORMAL RELATIONSHIP. An aggressor personality is manipulative, paranoid, possessive and punitive. You cannot have a warm, trusting relationship with such a person. Yes, it is terribly lonely, but facing the truth will free you to find your own strengths.

6. KEEP YOUR ANSWERS SHORT: Try to get all answers down to five words or less, without explanations, defenses, excuses or justifications. Use these examples.

Provocation: "You haven't called me for over a week." Healthy Response: "I've noticed that."

Provocation: "Why are you sending the children to that school when I told you that you're making a big mistake?" Healthy Response: "I don't know." (Saying that you don't know makes it harder to attack.)

Provocation: "You should take a second job." Healthy Response: "That's an excellent idea." (You do not have to take their advice; they simply want to be acknowledged!)

Provocation: "You're a fanatic." Healthy Response: "That may be true." (It may be – but it's not their business how you live your life.)

Provocation: "If you don't do what I want, I'll hate you forever." Healthy Response: "I'm sorry."

Be strong! Do not give in to the pressure in the hope that you will have a better relationship. The more you give in, the angrier they will become. Have compassion. These are essentially miserable people who love making everyone else miserable.

Divorce: Facts and Myths

August 10, 2008

When all other options and efforts to remain married have been exhausted, divorce is an act of kindness. However, many couples presume that their lives after divorce will be easier and happier, offering a second chance at love. Unfortunately, statistical evidence clearly demonstrates that divorce is infinitely more complicated and painful than people expect. Even in the rare instances in which divorce is amicable, research indicates that divorce seldom supplies the solutions that the divorcing partners seek.

Marriage brings together two individuals with different histories, perspectives, temperaments and expectations – although often with the same mistaken assumption that each shares the other's notion of what marriage should be. Unforeseen challenges and conflicts arise, forcing couples to re-orient or re-define themselves. Transitions such as parenthood, career change, financial difficulties, loss of employment or health, the departure of grown children, or bereavement may create turmoil and lead one to question basic suppositions/premises. A partner may become so overwhelmed that he or she stops investing effort in the marital relationship, or so desperate that he or she believes that fulfillment can only be attained outside the marriage.

Other reasons for which couples seek divorce include poor communication, heated arguments, perceived character flaws, loneliness and lack of emotional satisfaction. What needs to be made clear to a couple contemplating divorce is that, in the vast majority of cases, the best response to these problems is to renew the marriage, not to terminate it.

Short And Long Term Affects Of Divorce On Children

Children expect and deserve to grow up in a safe world. Their parents' role is to nurture and protect them, and to provide reassurance. The dissolution of the family is the single greatest threat to a child's emotional – and often financial – well-being. Having his parents publicly declare that they cannot love each other enough to stay together causes a child's sense of security and his view of the world to shatter completely.

Although clearly it is preferable that parents resolve their differences, studies have shown that children can thrive even in homes where there is marital conflict. From a child's perspective, divorce only exacerbates the problem rather than resolving it, forcing him to adjust to a new and more difficult situation. He now must travel between two homes, often between parents who are still resentful and fighting with each other even though they no longer are living together. Carted back and forth, and confronted with two distinct sets of house rules and parenting philosophies, one teenager commented, "I feel like I'm being torn apart. I'm in the middle of a tug-of-war between Mom and Dad."

Children often find themselves caught in the middle of arguments between ex-spouses and forced to take sides. Even the most conscientious parents can unintentionally compel a child to decide between Daddy and Mommy. As one nine-year-old child reported, "Holidays are the worst. If I'm with my Mom, then I miss my Dad and know Dad is sad. If I'm with my Dad, then I miss my Mom and know she is home crying."

When there is no viable alternative to divorce, parents must ensure their children's emotional well being by arranging some form of therapy. Divorce does not condemn a child to a lifetime of unhappiness; many children of divorce consciously strive to attain committed, loving relationships.

How Divorce Affects Men and Women

Divorce has long-term repercussions for both men and women. In one study, half the women reported feeling lonely and being diagnosed with depression, despite having divorced up to ten years earlier. Surprisingly, fifty percent of these women had been the partners who initiated the divorce. Similarly, the vast majority of men reported some confusion even twenty years post-divorce; they were no longer sure what they wanted out of life.

The expectation that Mr. or Mrs. Right is waiting in the wings is a fantasy. Forty percent of women over the age of thirty never remarry. The dating process is usually experienced as being difficult and discouraging.

When there are children involved, second marriages become even less likely; many people do not wish to assume responsibility for someone else's children. Their concern is not unfounded, as an almost infinite number of issues regarding the children's future will need to be determined. Visitation rights and schedules, diet, discipline, education, religious holidays and vacations, medical issues, expenses, weddings, and possibly even grandchildren all require discussion; contact and negotiation with your child's other parent may continue for the rest of your life!

Even when a second spouse is found, the divorce rate for second marriages is an astounding sixty percent. The difficulty of managing a "blended family," with its myriad complex interactions with children from a previous marriage, undoubtedly accounts for much of this statistic. Of the forty percent who remain in their second marriages, only twenty percent report marital satisfaction. Men and women in second marriages commonly lament the fact that they delayed addressing their own recurring issues until they had remarried. More painfully, when they honestly look back, they wonder whether they might not have saved their first marriages, had they devoted the same amount of effort they are now expending to make their second marriages work.

Encouragingly, a recent study of 5232 couples who considered divorce but decided to stay married (because of children, finances, or other considerations) said five years later that they were glad they had not divorced. Crises and stressful issues, such as depression or financial troubles, had eased or been resolved with the passage of time, and their marriages had improved.

Where Do We Go From Here?

When husband and wife become mired in negative patterns, not knowing how to forgive and to devise a new scenario, their energy is consumed in perpetuating the status quo while nursing their resentment of their partner's shortcomings. They must relearn the skills necessary to establish a healthy environment and to restore good will, and a spirit of loving acceptance.

Dr. George Pransky, Ph.D, suggests an analogy to illustrate how couples resolve conflict. Imagine a couple spending a romantic evening in front of a fireplace in their old home when, suddenly, they become aware of a chilling draft. They may elect either to search for the cracks allowing cold air to penetrate and then install weatherproofing, or to throw another log on the fire, thereby producing more warmth.

I have found that people considering divorce invest most of their emotional and intellectual resources in "weatherproofing" their marriage or wondering how to do so. Yet, just as weatherproofing will lessen a draft but will not generate warmth, a critical approach to problems may halt unwanted behaviour but will not engender intimacy.

Focusing intently upon their concerns and disappointments, spouses forget to enjoy their marriage and to invest emotionally in this crucial relationship. When one partner is dissatisfied with the marriage, an entirely new strategy is necessary. Spouses must resolve to renounce old anger and presumptions, to stop thinking "If he (or she) would only do what I want." They must assume responsibility for becoming proactive, rather than passive or merely reactionary, in envisioning and realising a productive marriage

Learn how to listen attentively to your spouse's needs and views without superimposing your own "agenda," and to respond appropriately. I have seen many presumably unsalvageable marriages transformed when partners began to feel that their needs were being recognised. This sense of "validation" replaces resentment with respect, understanding, love and hope. When pathology and blame are exchanged for a desire for health and growth, relationships mature and the bond between the spouses strengthens and deepens. Marriage should, and can, be fulfilling and holy.

While I recognize that the sobering divorce statistics cannot found a good marriage, my prayer is that the above information will reach those couples that have given up trying to improve their marital relationships. Adopting a new approach, even to problems that seem intractable, will enable them to embark upon the rewarding process of re-inventing their sacred bonds.

Caught in the Middle

Conflict Between My Wife and My Mother

August 3, 2008

Dear Tzippora,

My wife and my mother don't get along. Both of them complain to me about the other one. I'm caught in the middle. I try not to see them both together, but when I do, I am so tense I feel like I am balancing on a high wire. The thing is I want my kids to have a relationship with my parents, their grandparents, and I don't want the tension between my wife and my mother to take that away from them. What can I do?

Caught in the Middle

Dear Caught in the Middle,

What you are describing is a classic relationship triangle, and your position as "confidant" to two people who don't get along is not a healthy one for you or for them. For a start, you need to explain to both your mother and your wife that you love both of them, and it causes you great pain and heartache to hear complaints about the other one. While you don't expect them to become friends, what you require of them is a basic level of civility in their dealings with one another, and the ability to get along at family gatherings for the sake of you and the children.

However, once you have established this baseline, you need to realize that the mitzvah of Honoring your Parents does not require you to jeopardize your marriage. Jewish Law is sensitive to the realities of real life. In a situation where a mother-in-law is actually cruel or insulting to her daughter-in-law, the husband's priority is to protect his wife and their marital relationship, (see Ramah Yoreh Deah Chapter 240 Paragraph 25 from Maharik 167).

Your wife needs to be assured of your loyalty to her and the family you have created together. If your wife is ever insulted by your mother in front of you, you need to make it immediately clear to your mother, as respectfully as possible, that you cannot allow her to continue to treat your wife in this way. As a very last resort, if your mother continues to demean your wife, be prepared to leave, or to ask her to leave your home, in order to show her that you are serious. While this sounds extreme, once is usually sufficient to demonstrate your commitment to your wife.

While you are no longer prepared to hear a barrage of complaints from either of them, if your wife has something short and specific she needs to tell you, specifically something that can be modified to allow her to feel more comfortable at family gatherings, you should be prepared to listen. Perhaps a gathering in your own home is preferable to a gathering at their home. Or perhaps a restaurant, as neutral ground, is less pressure on her than having them over.

You may have noticed that while you defined the problem as being between your mother and your wife, you are the one who will be changing your own behavior in the suggestions above. This is the nature of triangles. When one member of the system begins to alter his position, the others are forced to modify their own positions as well. Until now, your willingness to "walk the high" wire was maintaining the status quo.

Good luck getting out of the middle. Your family will only be stronger for it. Don't get discouraged if you initially feel yourself slipping back into your old ways. Change always takes time and persistence.

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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