Save this Marriage

Me Versus We

September 21, 2008

Dear Tzippora,

I have been struggling with this issue for quite some time, and I am hoping you can help me gain some perspective. My husband works, while I stay home with the kids. By the time he comes home, and the kids have gone to bed, I am just exhausted, and looking forward to time on my own. After being with the kids all day, I don't want to talk to anyone by that point. I like to just relax with a book. But my husband, who has been working all day, wants us to spend time as a couple. He thinks it is better for our relationship if we spend the evening together, and is insulted by my desire to just chill out on my own. What's your opinion? Is it healthier for husbands and wives to spend the evening together, or can they just do their own thing?

All talked out

Dear All talked out,

Husbands and wives everywhere will relate to your question, which touches on one of the essential balancing acts of married life. Sometimes a husband comes home from work craving solitude while his wife hungers for connection. Sometimes, as in your case, a wife is drained from a day spent taking care of her children's needs and now requires some time on her own. Every person has his own internal scales for balancing personal space versus togetherness, and therefore the exact balance of individual needs versus couple needs is unique to each married couple. The question is how can you take the space you need for yourself without causing your husband to feel rejected?

It is important to explain to your husband that your desire to chill out with a book is not about not wanting to be with him; it is about you, and your need to replenish yourself before the next day. Mothering small children can be an emotionally draining experience as well as a physically exhausting one.

Yet it seems like your husband comes home expecting and craving contact. Especially if his job does not provide much camaraderie or personal interactions, this may be his only chance to connect with another human being all day. I would encourage you therefore to move away from the question of who is right to focus on the issue of how to make sure you both get your needs met during the time you share together.

For starters, when he comes home, welcome him warmly. Perhaps you can serve him some food or a drink, and sit with him while he eats even if you have already eaten with the kids. Take some time to discuss his day and yours. Then after a reasonable amount of time, announce that you will be going into the lounge to read, and invite him to join you in the lounge with a book or newspaper of his own. Letting him know that you want him in the room with you even if you won't be talking together will transform a solitary activity into a shared one.

Assure your husband that he is free to pursue his own interests in the evening. Perhaps he would be interested to join a study group in the synagogue, or to go to the gym. The more fulfilled he feels, the more readily he will accept your need to be alone. Encourage him to explore different options for himself.

Make it clear to him that your relationship is a priority to you. Once a week, take a night off from solitary pursuits and make it a date night. Find an activity outside the house that you both enjoy. Take a walk, go out to dinner, or go bowling. Whatever you do, use this time to connect as a couple. Keep the focus on you, and away from the kids, and the household responsibilities.

And as for the other nights, enjoy your reading.

The Communication Trap

Use caution when sharing your feelings

September 14, 2008

Many psychologists and advisors are prone to overly optimistic promises about the power of communication to solve all problems. They urge people to, "Share your feelings," and "Talk it out until the problem is resolved." However, this advice can be disastrous! Not everyone values emotional honesty. Not everyone has time to listen. And a lot of people will use your personal information against you!

The reality is that not everyone is capable of "hearing" and empathizing. In fact, empathy is a rare quality, which depends on one's personality type (See my book, Awareness for more on defining personality types).

According to the Myers-Briggs personality system (see Please Understand Me, by Keirsey) people are either dominant Thinkers or dominant Feelers. Thinking types (60% of men and of 40% women) have little interest in the world of feelings. They feel no urge to share personal feelings and are irritated and bored by those who do. They often do not even know what they feel and may not care. They are focused on functioning, not feeling. In fact, they feel more powerful and in control when they do not expose their feelings. In contrast, Feeling types (60% women, 40% men) are concerned with their feelings and distressed if they cannot share them. When these two types get together, there is likely to be a lot of mutual frustration, because each has demands which the other cannot meet.

In addition, those suffering from various disorders, such as autism, find it very difficult to understand or value others' feelings. They may think a sad person is angry or that an angry person is happy. Then there are those who are so wrapped up in their own intense feelings that there is no room for anyone else's emotions. Others may be suffering from OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), anxiety, depression or rage disorders types. Sharing feelings with any of these types is also likely to end in frustration.

Without feelings, there would be no love, no music, art, poetry or meaningful prayer. But to allow our feelings to rule is like giving the car keys to a three-year-old. Learn not to "emote" and when emotional modesty is needed. It is best to inhibit the expression of feelings in the following situations:

  • When sharing will overwhelm others. It is "immodest" to share strong feelings of grief, fear or rage, especially around children, who need to see adults as a source of security and strength. To expose these feelings is just as immodest as exposing parts of the body which should be kept covered if the other person is incapable of receiving your pain with empathy and compassion.

  • When sharing will exacerbate self-pity and despair. Griping about problems may help people feel better, for about fifteen minutes. After that, "co-rumination," in which both sides complain, will actually lower the mood, especially if the problem has no solution. Unless there is a real crisis, which demands a truly empathetic friend, it is best to limit yourself to fifteen minutes so that you do not sink in bitterness. Then segue into comforting words of faith and trust in G‑d.

  • When you over do the sharing and go on for too long. This often happens with people who suffer from Borderline Personality Disorder. Once they have your ear, they can go and on, raging at you for hours for real or imagined sins against them.

  • When sharing will lead others to think you are immature, stupid, unstable or histrionic. This is how most Thinking types view Feelings types. Thus, they will say, "You're too sensitive. You're just feeling sorry for yourself. Get over it. Toughen up!" In their presence, act self-confident and full of faith, even if it is just an act.

  • When sharing involves humiliation and shaming of others. According to the laws of rebuke, you can share your opinions only if it is done: calmly, lovingly, in a quiet voice, in private and concerning a trait which the other person is capable of changing. It is no use telling someone that they are disorganized, unfriendly, passive, too sensitive, loud, etc. if the person is not capable of – or has no interest in – changing these traits!

  • When sharing will cause others to use the information against you. Many people are fired from jobs because they shared their personal woes, either physical or psychological. If you talk to certain people about how irritated you are by their behavior, they will do whatever is distressing to you even more.

So, when you are dealing with a well-intentioned advisor, who keeps urging you to share, take that advice with a grain of salt! Some personality types have great faith in the power of communication. Be wary of these peace-maker types. They will not take your feelings seriously. They believe that all problems can be solved with enough good will and with negotiations. They will urge you to, "Forgive and forget," as if past pain can be quickly wiped out with a bouquet of flowers or a meal in a fancy restaurant. Because they lack psychological depth, their grasp of the problem is superficial. On the positive side, this allows them to be great mediators, as they stay calm and optimistic no matter how upset others are. They will willingly engage in marathon "peace talks," urging opposing sides to make resolutions, contracts and promises. If the sides have integrity and good-will, then this will bring true peace. However, if there is an emotional disturbance or lack of integrity, all promises will soon be broken as soon as there is the slightest irritation. On the negative side, these "peace maker" personality types simply do not believe that evil exists; instead, they assume that meanness or cruelty are temporary anomalies which should be ignored and forgotten as quickly as possible. In fact, they often take the side of the aggressor and blame the victim for not "forgiving and making peace" quickly enough.


It can be very painful to be in the presence of someone with whom you cannot communicate, especially if the person is demanding, hostile or indifferent – and even more so if you are living with such a person. You can bang your head against the wall and pull your hair out in frustration. You can scream, threaten and engage in acts of vengeance and violence, but this will not change their brain patterns or level of sensitivity. As with all difficulties, use this for your spiritual growth. I suggest doing the following "spiritual games."

1. PLAY FISH: Practice being a quiet fish, not talking, merely swimming in the waters of faith and trust in G‑d, and repeat words of prayers. Be proud of your self-discipline.

2. BE PROUD OF YOUR EMOTIONAL MODESTY: Be proud of your ability to realize that it is not always appropriate to expose your feelings.

3. COUNT FINGERS: With non-communicative people, keep your answers down to five words or less – the fingers of one hand, as in, "That's not comfortable for me." "I cannot multi-task right now."

4. TURN IT AROUND: Give yourself whatever it is that you want from the other person that you will never get, such as unconditional love, understanding, appreciation, praise and time.

Growing Through Our Children

Overcoming Unhealthy Generational Patterns

September 7, 2008

When things with our children get tough, there is an expression that is used to describe that experience: "Tza'ar gidul banim." It translates roughly as, "The pain of raising children." However, there is another way to translate this expression; that is "the pain of (our own) growth (gidul) - is through the children (banim)."

One of the most common obstacles to marital harmony is disagreement and disparity in attitudes towards raising children. When two people marry, they assume that they are going to somehow "blend" their differences and become one unit. Certainly the search for and the feeling of having found "the other half of one's soul" is the ideal Torah-oriented goal. However, once the children enter the picture, often people resort, quite automatically, to the patterns of their own childhood origins. Try as we may to overcome this tendency, it is a known and documented fact that we follow the examples of our own parents, even though we understand that these patterns are sometimes not productive, and even harmful.

Indeed, we often marry someone who, subconsciously, presents us with the same challenges we faced as children. We then have an opportunity to try and effect some type of "tikkun" (repair work) in that relationship. In order for that work to be successful, we need both education and awareness in order to stop the "repetition compulsion," the repeating of old negative behavior patterns.

A couple (let's call them Sara and Shlomo) that I recently dealt with provide a perfect example of this phenomenon. Their "presenting problem" (that is, the initial reason for seeking therapy), according to both spouses, was that the wife was always angry about the way that Shlomo dealt with the children. Shlomo was a rather laid-back type, content with things "kind-of rolling along." His wife did the disciplining of the children, and took most of the initiative in making decisions. He was happy to go about his daily routine and keep up with his career. When he returned in the evening, he just wanted to relax and be free of responsibility. But at that time, Sara wanted Shlomo's involvement with the children, help with homework, bedtime, etc. When that was not forthcoming, tensions mounted between mom and dad, and the children were beginning to reflect and express that stress both physically and emotionally.

As we explored the generational history of both spouses, we discovered that Shlomo assumed the same attitude as his father, an easy-going man who made few demands on himself as well as his family. Sara, however, was very much like her mother, quite dynamic, outspoken, and definitely more comfortable in the "driver's seat." She saw how frustrated her mother was with her father's quiet, more passive way. And she was now reliving that anger in her own marriage.

In fact, her husband pointed out with a smile, that he spent a lot of time fixing the door jams in the house! When I asked Sara about this she said, "Yes, when my mother got angry, she'd slam the doors really hard, loosening the door jams!" Sara hadn't realized how her attitude towards her husband began to assume the same patterns of her own father and mother.

In examining the relationship in this generational way, we began to isolate behaviors and beliefs that were simply negative "echoes of the past." When viewed from a more rational and realistic viewpoint, both Sara and Shlomo expressed agreement and willingness to work towards creating healthier patterns in their home.

I felt that, in their case, we could accomplish this by not only dealing with the dynamics of the couple, but with the children, as well. I proposed that this couple set up "family meetings" with their children. At these meetings, best held at least once a week for half an hour, the parents would establish new ways to deal with troublesome situations.

We developed a few major rules for these meetings:

1) Problems are meant to be solved, not emotionalized. Instead of getting stuck in emotions, they would move towards solutions as quickly as possible.

2) No more blame/shame/judgment/or fear. The atmosphere had to be one of safety and security. Everyone could make suggestions or comments (as long as they were constructive) without being put-down or hurt by anyone else.

3) The children were helped to understand that there are three types of decisions: those made by parents, those made by children, and joint decisions. In this way, there were be limits and clear boundaries, and a lot of confusion and struggle could be avoided. When arguments and/or differences of opinions persisted, they agreed to check with an outside authority, i.e. a rabbi, doctor, teacher, etc. In this way, the children could also be trained to seek outside help when all other possibilities have been exhausted.

At the meeting itself, mom would be more of a "recording secretary," basically keeping notes and gently encouraging participation, while dad would take more of a leadership role, teaching and discussing the issues, and bringing the family towards resolution. Meetings were to be kept "short and sweet," one or two items would be discussed, with the goal of peaceful problem solving. (Children would be taught the skills of compromising, negotiating, taking turns, "replaying," communicating, etc.) Each subsequent meeting would start with a summary of what was achieved previously, and what actually worked in practice during the week. (Note that whenever you take the time to write it down, kids take you more seriously. In Hebrew the word for writing down is "lirshome" and the word for impression is "roshem." It certainly makes an impression when you write it down!)

I worked with Shlomo and Sara to come up with an agenda – as well as the household rules they felt comfortable with. We rehearsed the possibilities of the children's reactions as well as potential difficulties, until they felt confident and "armed" with both the knowledge and techniques of how to handle things. It was a huge commitment on the part of each of them to overcome their "natural" tendencies, and, instead, move in the direction of change.

Shlomo admitted to being quite fearful of failure. And Sara was aware of her impulse to move in and take over as soon as she thought things weren't going as she wanted them to. I pointed out that even the willingness to recognize and talk openly and truthfully about their feelings, was already a sign of success; one which the children could now emulate.

At our next session, they both reported with enthusiasm about the success of their first family meeting. The children were apparently quite creative in finding solutions, and were actually eager for the next meeting. (They wanted another one the next day!) Shlomo surprised himself in being able to take leadership and become more involved in the family's emotional health. He was beginning to understand what Sara had been so upset about for so many years. And Sara, in turn, spoke about her great sense of relief, knowing that she could feel hopeful about Shlomo's ability to help shoulder the burden of parental responsibility. As the sessions progressed, and the couple was able to fine-tune the family program, they found that they were actually fine-tuning their own relationship. In their own words, "We feel like we're becoming a team; we're on the same page."

Truly a case of Tza'ar Gidul, Banim – the pain of growth – is through the children.

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