Save this Marriage

The Marriage Mindset

August 30, 2009

Everybody loves a wedding: the love, the excitement, the heartfelt anticipation of a deep and lasting bond.

When we speak about the beauty of marriage, we speak of deep commitment and selfless, unconditional love. But what does that really mean? Commitment to children aside (because children are an extension of ourselves), are we ever really selfless? And "unconditional commitment" to a marriage? Why? What if someone feels betrayed? Is a spouse expected to be above "conditions" like respect and loyalty?

Poetry aside, I believe marriage does have a special quality which lifts it beyond any other committed relationship. That quality is: [here I go again…] G‑d.

Believe in soul mates? The Torah describes husband and wife as two halves of one organic whole. That's not poetry; it's a description of reality. Looking through a Torah lens, I see my marriage as a single spousal unit with a specific destiny; I am but half of that unit and I'm responsible for my part in our life's work. This creates a very important attitude to dealing with marital friction. Instead of feeling tension as a kind of mini- (or major) battle, being pitted against one's spouse, it becomes the feeling of 'how do we make it through this fog?' The "we" is a given; the work is keeping "we" in sync.

My internal commitments can shift. For example: If I'm a vegetarian today, I can change my mind in the future. But when I surrender to a force outside of me—Higher than me—as my guiding compass, it brings an inherent stability. My moods can't affect the compass; it's beyond my reach. Marriage should be guided by a deep mutual commitment to something Higher. Seventeen years ago, when I stood under a chupah (marriage canopy) with my wife, that chupah represented the Divine. It still does; I never want to walk out from under that chupah, because it shelters my relationship until this day.

People sometimes ask why they should get married, if they're already living in a committed relationship? Does it really make a difference?

To me, it makes all the difference in the world. It's the difference between two people creating a relationship, and two halves uncovering the Oneness that's already there.

Can we really compare?

Lonely New Dad

August 23, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

My wife and I just had our first baby, and while it has been the most amazing experience that we have shared as a couple, it has also driven us apart in a way. My wife is totally and madly in love with our new baby, and every conversation revolves around the baby. She can't seem to think or talk about anything else. I feel shut out by the intensity of their relationship. It feels as though she and the baby live in a small world designed for two, and I am an unwelcome guest. I don't want to view my baby as a rival for my wife's attention, but sometimes I can't help it. Will I ever get my wife back?

A lonely new father

Dear Lonely New Father,

Your letter describes the feelings that many men face over the birth of their first child. The unique intimacy that you and your wife shared has now been irreversably altered by the presence of another being. While it is difficult to know the full story without speaking to your wife directly, it sounds as though she is simply infatuated with the heady feelings of new motherhood, and unaware of your pain over being shut out.

The first step for you to take is to realize that the baby she is so madly in love with is a part of you, that her love for the baby is partly an expression of her love for you, and that rather than coming between you in a negative way your baby can be the source of many experiences and feelings that will bring the two of you closer together. The more you develop your own natural bond to your baby the more you will experience the positive affects of the baby on your marriage.

Many fathers take longer to bond with their newborns than mothers do, but there are practical steps that you can take to facilitate this process:

  1. Get involved in the feeding and care of your newborn as much as possible. Even if your wife is nursing, you can still take the baby out on your own with a bottle of pre-pumped milk or formula.
  2. Wear your baby in a sling, or a snuggly as much as possible. The more you invest in creating an independent bond with your infant, the more you will feel part of your wife's new world.
  3. 3. In between feedings, try to soothe your baby on your own, rather than automatically handing the baby over to your wife.

The Torah teaches us that love for another person is a feeling that is generated by giving to them. Consequently, as you take steps to actively nurture your baby, your own love for your infant will increase.

In addition, I would encourage you to use these feelings as an impetus to connect to your own father in a new way, by exploring his memories of his own adjustment to parenthood. Did he initially feel threatened by your arrival, and if so, how long did it take these feelings to subside?

Finally, and most importantly, share your feelings with your wife (you can even share this letter), and let her know that you miss her. If she is agreeable, schedule some baby-free couple time for the two of you. If she is not yet ready to leave the baby even temporarily, try to be patient and don't worry. Her infatuation with the baby will gradually decrease in intensity, and as the baby's extreme dependency on her is lessoned, her ability to focus on your relationship will return.

The Torah has always acknowledged the unique contributions of both parents in their child's upbringing. Reminding yourself of your integral importance in your child's world will help you fight against the feeling of being superfluous.

Thanks for writing!

Don't Ask for What You Want

August 16, 2009

Miriam thought she was being brilliant: "I finally learned that's it's important to ask for what you want. After all, your spouse isn't a mind-reader. I now just speak up and say what's on my mind. I'm not abusive or anything like that – I just say what's troubling me and ask nicely for what I need."

"That sounds great," replied Dr. Cohen, Miriam's marriage counselor. "How's it working for you?"

"Terribly!" admitted Miriam. "It's supposed to work! Why isn't it working? Just yesterday, for example, my husband finally washed the dishes without me asking him to. When I saw they were done I thanked him profusely. But they weren't exactly sparkling clean. Some had food crumbs on them and others had soap suds on them because he hadn't rinsed them properly. So I just said, 'Honey, next time could you please use the hot water and scrubber brush and make sure to give them a good rinse?' And do you know what he said? He blew up! He started yelling at me: 'That will be the last time I do any dishes around here! Do them yourself!!' I don't get it. What did I do wrong? I just asked him for what I want!

Miriam's mistake is a common one. She innocently assumed that making a simple request would be harmless. In reality, requests can be taken as hurtful criticism when they are given at the wrong time or in the wrong way. Indeed, that is just how Miriam's husband took her request.

Let's look at what Miriam actually said to her husband:

"Thank you for doing the dishes without me even asking! That's fantastic! I'm thrilled! Thank you SO MUCH! And Honey, next time could you please use the hot water and scrubber brush and make sure to give them a good rinse?"

Now let's look at the problems with this communication:

  • Miriam combined praise and criticism in one sentence. Whenever we do that, the praise will be drowned out by the "latency effect" – the power of the last words that are heard – the critical, complaining words. It's as if the praise never happened.
  • The "request" is actually a complaint. It's as if Miriam had said, "You didn't do a good job" or "You didn't do it right." This is what her husband heard. The actual words she used were drowned out by the non-verbal communication: "good, but not good enough."
  • While Miriam's husband had been trying to do something nice for his wife and had expected only positive feedback, he got "slapped" with an implicit reprimand. This was really hurtful for him and he lashed out impulsively due to the pain he experienced. Miriam did not consider what he might have been feeling when he did those dishes and what he would feel if she corrected him.

But what is Miriam to do? She wants her husband to do the dishes, but she wants him to do an adequate job. It doesn't really help her much if she has to re-wash everything he touched.

When we want someone to change their behavior or actions, we need to "plan our attack." Asking for change always causes a bit of pain, because it contains the implicit message that what we're doing right now isn't right or good or good enough. Therefore, the Torah advises us to be very careful when admonishing or correcting anyone and to not sin in the act of correcting – that is, as it is written, "do not hurt another person's feelings with words."

Here are some steps that Miriam (and the rest of us) can use to offer more productive criticism:

  • Separate praise from criticism. Don't put them in the same sentence.
  • Choose the best time for criticism. Don't criticize right after someone has done something good.
  • Try to correct WITHOUT using any criticism whatsoever. Always try the CLeaR Method first – Comment, Label, Reward. For instance, Miriam could have picked out one clean dish and said "Look how clean and shiny this is!"(Comment). "You're a great dishwasher!" (Label). "And to show you my appreciation, let me get you a bowl of that new Rocky Road ice cream I just bought" (Reward). All of this positive feedback would help her husband become a better dishwasher than any amount of criticism would ever accomplish.
  • If after using the CLeaR Method more change is required, criticism can be employed carefully. The "sandwich method" is recommended: praise, correction, praise. The correction should be made some time later on, preferably days after the original praise was offered. It might sound like this: "You know how you did those dishes last week? I'm still thinking about how nice that was. Could I just put in a little request? Most of the dishes were great but there was a bit of soap and food on one or two – I think hotter water and that new scrub brush probably would take care of it. And you know, I can't tell you how pleased I was by what you did. You're so sweet!"

There are no guarantees that feelings won't be hurt, because some people are just very sensitive, but using these strategies can help reduce the pain of correction. Try them in your home and see how your spouse reacts.

First Aid For Jewish Marriages

August 9, 2009

The statistics speak for themselves: relationships in America are in trouble and as a society we are experiencing more divorce and dysfunction than ever before.

The good news is that most marriages can work. Often all they need is a little guidance and direction, and when necessary, a bit of emotional first aid.

Take Yossi, 25, and Deborah, 22, a young couple who came to talk with me about their fears of marriage and their inability to build a meaningful relationship. When they first walked into my office I was struck by how well they appeared – at least on the outside. They were in the prime of their lives: well dressed, soft spoken and well educated. Yossi was a systems analyst for a software company, and Deborah was a graduate student who had just started her first year in a master's degree program in psychology.

Yossi, it turned out, was having difficulty deciding whether to get married and when. Deborah was scared that Yossi couldn't make up his mind and that he was unable to commit to a stable relationship.

Yossi had other concerns about marrying Deborah. He was uneasy about the negative vibes he was receiving from what he described as Deborah's "well-to-do" family. He was sensing that they would be unwilling to support the two of them while Deborah was still in graduate school, and he was worried that he couldn't carry the financial burden alone.

Yossi and Deborah were unsure of their future and didn't know if this was going to be a successful marriage. Like other young couples, they wanted to know if there was some kind of "crystal ball" that I could gaze into to tell them if their marriage would work. I told them that I wasn't a magician, but I could offer them some sound advice about relationships. I explained that the key to marriage is something that has been known from time immemorial. In fact, it is so simple and profound that most couples (barring serious emotional illness or domestic abuse) could utilize it to greatly enhance their chances of staying happily married.

No doubt, Yossi and Deborah would be challenged by financial concerns, work-related stress, childrearing, and difficult in-law relationships. Amidst the ups and downs of everything waiting for them — happy or disappointing moments, quality times enjoyed together or stressful late nights at work, watching their children take their first steps or struggling at school— the "secret," that could hold their marriage together and bring them the most happiness and stability in their lives, would be to focus on the primal importance of their relationship.

I call this simple yet revolutionary idea Relationship Theory, which states that for a marriage to work, both husband and wife need to make their relationship the main goal of their lives.

Another way of stating this is:


Where, Happiness (H) is directly proportional to the Quality of Relationship (QR) one develops with one's spouse. The more that a couple works on deepening both the quality and quantity of their relationship, the greater likelihood they have for success.

A quality relationship allows two people to feel that they are appreciated by one another; that someone else exists in the lives who will listen to their pain without being judgmental; that there is someone whom they can rely upon in times of need; that life doesn't have to be lived alone, it can be lived in company with someone who loves and cares about them.

Above all, a good relationship allows a person to bond with another human being and experience the benefits of emotional closeness and companionship.

The idea of focusing on the relationship is based upon timeless Torah principles. In Shir HaShirim, The Song of Songs, King Solomon alludes to relationship-centered love at least seven times. By studying these terms we see how the Torah describes a complete love relationship. The seven terms are:

1. kalosi – my bride

2. achosi - my sister

3. rayosi - my friend

4. yonosi –my dove

5. tomosi - my perfection

6. yafosi - my beauty

7. dodi - my beloved

"My bride" clearly connotes the male/female role aspect of marriage, as well as the romantic and even physical side—all of which are basic to marriage.

"My sister" connotes a close, deep familial bond that is free from the confusion that may arise out of the emotions of the romantic level. The bond is that of your flesh and blood. It provides the unconditional, non-physical and constant element of love-relationship that a romantic-only relationship lacks, which the family relationship has.

"My friend" implies that a spouse should first and foremost be viewed as a friend. We know that with friends we strive to treat them in a kind manner and are always careful to avoid insulting them or belittling them in any way. We also maintain a healthy amount of respect and never overstep boundaries. Of course there are different dimensions of marriage that go far beyond friendship, but friendship enables a deeper and more intimate relationship to emerge.

"My dove" - the dove is a member of the animal kingdom that chooses one mate and remains loyal to that mate for a lifetime. The use of the term "dove" in Shir HaShirim teaches us that our commitment to our spouse should be for a lifetime—with this same person, with each loyal to the other. The Midrash says that the dove turns its head to look back at its nest longingly when it flies away from the nest. This teaches us that the dove knows that its support, its strength and the center of its life is the nest that it shares with its mate. Likewise, one's home and mate are the support, strength and center of one's life.

"My perfection" We know no one who is pure and faultless. Be we can accept our spouse and be satisfied as if the person is pure and perfect—by accepting faults, hang-ups, shortcomings, quirks and habits; and by appreciating wholeheartedly the qualities, attributes and strengths that make your mate special, precious, beautiful and unique. This is as if to say, "With all your faults, I love you no less than if you would be perfect."

"My beauty" One must be attracted to one's mate. Your mate should be one or more of: beautiful, handsome, adorable, pretty, pleasant, cute, appealing, attractive...in your eyes.

"My beloved" There must be endearment for there to be a bond. Your mate should be heartwarming to you. Through endearment, the couple has the love and affection that brings them to true oneness for a lifetime. The essence of building this is through each giving for the good and happiness of the other.

Out of all these levels alluded to in the Torah, I believe that focusing on "rayosi" or friendship is the first line of emotional first aid and healing.

That's why when couples like Yossi and Deborah come to speak with me about their fears of marriage, I begin by asking them if they are willing to make their relationship a priority in their lives. If they don't make it the number one priority, then it's going to be very difficult, if not impossible, for them to succeed.

Time As A Couple

August 2, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

My husband wants to get away without the kids for a few nights. He says we need a break from playing Mommy and Daddy for a few days. I don't understand why he thinks this is so important. Is it so bad to take the kids with us when we go away? When I try to suggest this, he just gets mad and says that I don't value our relationship. Please help. We can't talk about this, because it just leads to a fight.

Mom who loves having her kids around

Dear Mom,

I think it is great that you love being with your kids. It's clear that you don't feel that you need a break from them, yet it sounds like your husband feels differently, and is asking for a chance to reconnect with the person you were before you became Mommy. That's the person he fell in love with; the adult whom he chose as his life-long partner.

Being a Mommy is all encompassing, and often it involves the willing suppression of other non-relevant parts of us. Yet a few days without the kids gives these other aspects a chance to emerge.

Your husband is asking you to make your relationship a priority for a few days, and I suspect that he gets mad when you suggest bringing the kids because he feels rejected, and is uncomfortable expressing that vulnerability to you directly.

Your husband's request sounds reasonable. In general, it is important to honor our spouse's needs whenever possible, even if we don't share that need ourselves. Try to appreciate the fact that your husband is asking to spend time with you.

Healthy kids can withstand a few days of separation from their parents, and will probably even enjoy a few days on their own. If you have a baby under one-and-a-half years old, I would recommend bringing him or her along, since very young pre-verbal children have a much harder time with separation. If you are concerned that your children should also have a vacation, a separate family trip can be planned. If leaving the kids for too long makes you feel anxious, you can start with one night away, and make it longer the next time.

It is important to make your marriage a priority. Many marriages dissolve when the children grow up and leave home because the couple's relationship had been neglected and had become distant during their parenting years.

Furthermore, children benefit from any investment you make in your marital relationship because it strengthens the solid foundation of your home. The integral role of shalom bayit (marital harmony) in establishing a strong family is a common theme in Jewish sources. So consider your getaway an investment that benefits your whole family, and enjoy the opportunity to spend a few days being a couple.

Thanks for writing!

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