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Marriage is a Verb

September 29, 2009

In my psychology practice, I see many types of people and treat all sorts of issues. There are, however, some common trends. For example, I've noticed that we humans often feel like helpless victims, while, in fact, we may have an active role in creating our own dilemmas. This is particularly true in the case of marriage. To illustrate this notion, let's look at the case of a gentleman who came to my office the other day. He told me about his marriage problems and his plan to solve them. "My wife and I have no relationship," the man said. "I want a divorce."

"We don't talk," he explained. "We don't spend any time together. We go our separate ways."

I acknowledged how lonely that must be and asked how things got so bad. "I don't know. Everything was fine at first," he admitted. "But then she got busy with the kids, I got busy at work. We didn't have time for each other. And now, to be perfectly honest, we have nothing in common. If I met her today, I would definitely not marry her. We've grown apart."

The course of this man's marriage is the course of all too many marriages. When marriage is neglected, it dies – just like a plant that isn't watered. Yet people blame "the marriage" for falling apart or blame their partner for being inattentive. Very few ever ask themselves: "what have I done to create this mess? And what have I done to prevent it?"

Marriage is a verb, something that we do. We can do it poorly or well – that is up to us.

Difficult Spouses

Obviously, it is easier to "do" marriage when we're married to a pleasant, easy-going, appreciative spouse. Many of us, however, are married to difficult partners and the task is more difficult. Either way, we still have to work on our marriages, just the way a parent raises a child, despite the child's difficult or easy nature. The Talmud states: "Good things are brought about through the agency of a good person" (Shabbos 32a). In other words, even a good person must do something in order to bring down the blessing of good results.

Marriages fall apart due to neglect, but they can be brought back to life by careful nurturing and rehabilitation. The cure for "not spending time together" is… to spend time together. Start with a few minutes a day. Go out for an hour or two at least once a week. If there is "nothing to talk about," read something before going out so you'll have some interesting topics prepared for discussion. If the "romance is gone," get it back by doing something spontaneously romantic. If you no longer have anything in common, create something in common by inviting your spouse to do an activity with you (learn something new, play something together, get into a hobby, do a project around the house together). If there are too many arguments, stop arguing. If your spouse is cold, warm things up with friendliness. Be cheery. Joke. Buy treats. Be nice. And be patient. It can take time to turn things around.

Marriage can start with a bang and end with a fizzle if you don't continuously invest in it. It doesn't disappear by itself. So keep your marriage healthy by consciously working on it. Prevent problems, maintain happiness and lay a solid foundation for the future by nurturing your marriage daily.

The #1 Secret to Marriage

September 21, 2009

You want a great marriage. We all do. How does it happen? Is it just luck, hard work, or both? I understand trying to make a marriage work can be confusing. When I first married, I, too, understood very little. However, after talking with thousands of couples over the past twenty years, it has become clear: There is a way to make a great marriage.

When I was studying Family Therapy in graduate school, I learned techniques. I learned specialized terminology to describe everyday behavior between people. I learned how to behave professionally. But I didn't learn what makes a marriage successful. Why? Because universities do not teach people how they should behave. They only teach techniques, not values. Torah teaches people (you, me, and everyone else) how to behave. And if we want to know how to make a great marriage, we need to look inside.

Love for a fellow Jew is the essence of Torah. The reason? It emphasizes the soul over the body1, and that is the essence of—"the secret" to—a great marriage. Let me explain…

When you decided to marry your partner, how did you expect him or her to treat you? Before continuing to read, take a moment to remember: What was the one thing that was absolutely necessary for you to agree to marriage? Answer: You wanted to be loved by by the person you were going to marry. And if you thought he or she would treat you that way, you said "yes"—yes to marriage. To break it down into components: You wanted to be cherished, respected, treated kindly, understood, and valued. And your partner expected the same from you! If you each thought you would get this, you then went on to the chuppah, the marital canopy. If not, no matter how many common interests you had or how attracted you were to each other, you would not have agreed to marry one another.

Your job and your partner's job, after the wedding, was to make your partner feel loved and thereby fulfill the expectations that existed prior to marriage. You do this by making your spouse feel cherished, respected, well-treated, understood, and valued. You achieve this by making your partner the #1 person in your life—even before yourself. This is easy when you focus on their soul. Why? Because no husband or wife will get everything that they want and expect from his or her spouse and no one is perfect. When you prioritize the spiritual, you allow yourself to focus on what really matters; you are not disappointed and you can give to your partner with a generous and loving heart.

This does not mean you have to agree to or comply with everything your partner wants. It means what they want is more important than what you want. From your point of view, your spouse's needs are spiritual compared to your own material self-focused desires. Living according to Torah means valuing the spiritual (using the material so it becomes spiritual) over the physical (selfish, base desires). A great marriage between a man and a woman means actualizing this value within the relationship—always. When you make your spouse the #1 person in your life, this is the very act of loving a fellow Jew. Their needs and wellbeing come first, before your own.

What you don't want to do to your spouse:

  • Dismiss what he or she wants.
  • Make him or her feel devalued, as though his or her feelings are unimportant.
  • Get angry/criticize/argue. This is the ultimate expression of selfishness. It's all about me, me, and me. When you get angry, it's because your partner is not doing what you want. You are saying loud and clear: "I, not you, come first." This is why the Talmud compares anger to idol worship—worship of self and not G‑d.
  • Reject or neglect. Your partner married you to be in a relationship. When you deny this to him or her, you are abandoning your commitment. This is especially true when the husband does this. The ketubah, marriage contract, obligates him to be close with his wife.

What you want to do:

  • Behave kindly.
  • Behave respectfully.
  • Try to understand your partner, especially his or her feelings (this is separate from agreeing or disagreeing).
  • Communicate how you value having your partner in your life.
  • Give your partner as much as you can. When you become aware that he or she wants something, carefully evaluate if it's appropriate and possible. If yes, do it. If not, seek a kind way to say "no."

Each person needs something different. For one person, feeling valued (typically men) is most important, and for another it is feeling cherished (typically women). A detailed list of what you and your partner need would likely be very long. Being aware of what your partner needs and helping him or her find fulfillment establishes marital peace and harmony. To say it another way: This is why your husband or wife married you. He or she was certain you would make him or her feel good, that you would add value to his or her life

A conflicted marriage is one of the saddest things in the world. The disappointment and heartbreak is great. The belief, the hope, the prayers one had when standing under the canopy are crushed. The promised kindness has turned to hostility. However, it need not be that way. If this applies to you, start treating your husband or wife as the #1 person in your life and gradually watch peace and love establish itself.

When Sarah expressed to Alex her unhappiness, he was, at first, very defensive. He wanted his wife to be happy and couldn't handle hearing her describe her loneliness and sadness. A close friend got him to confide his dejection. He told Alex to be strong and go back to his wife and ask her what she wanted. What was missing in their relationship that was making her unhappy? Alex went to his wife and asked. She explained she wanted to spend more time talking to him. She wanted him to show more interest in her. Alex decided to make changes. When he came home at night, instead of immediately going to do "his things," he spent time with Sarah. He asked her how her day was, how she was feeling, what he could do to make her feel cared for. Sarah felt a huge weight had been lifted off her shoulders. Not only was Alex spending more time with her, which is what she had asked for, but he also proved he cared by being sensitive to her needs. Alex demonstrated to his wife that she is the #1 person in his life. He had a little less time for "his things," but knowing his wife was happy was of far greater importance. And in return, Alex felt valued. This made him feel good…. very good.

Now it's your turn (and mine). Make your partner feel he or she is the most important person in your life.


Tanya, Chapter 32

Is Therapy Hurting Our Marriage?

September 13, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

My wife had some anxieties and fears that were causing her a lot of stress. She decided to see a psychologist to get some help with them, and I supported her decision. I never complained about the cost, even though our insurance only covered part of it. Yet now that she has been seeing her therapist for a few months, my wife has a lot of complaints about our marriage that she never seemed to have before. My question is — is the therapy causing her complaints? I want her to be happy, but her therapy seems to be ruining our relationship.

Not the bad guy

Dear Not the bad guy,

We are social beings who are constantly acting on, and being acted upon by, those around us. When someone goes to therapy and begins to practice new ways of relating to world, their own personal growth creates changes in the way they relate to others. Therefore it is normal for your wife's personal changes to make themselves felt as a new pattern of interaction in your relationship as well.

It is possible that in order for your wife to confront and overcome her fears, she needs to become more assertive in general and that includes challenging the status quo within your marital relationship.

Try to hear her complaints as pertaining to the future, and not the past. In a sense, she is asking your permission to be different, and by accepting her complaints with sensitivity and a willingness to make changes, you are granting her that permission. This is far more demanding than just paying lip service to the idea that you support her personal growth.

Her changes are bound to raise some corresponding anxiety in you and if possible, try to see if you can join her in therapy for some couple's sessions to discuss the new changes in your relationship.

The Torah compares a human being to a tree. Trees have tremendous potential for growth. Trees grow externally by expanding their branches and their foliage, and they grow internally by developing their roots. Human beings also share this capacity for growth, and your wife is inviting you to make this journey together.

Explain to her that you are interested in, and committed to, growing with her but complaining is a very off-putting invitation for change. See if you can brainstorm together about a new language for change that will work for both of you, and won't make you feel like the bad guy.

Just like you were both partners in creating your old relationship, you are both partners in creating the new relationship that will allow her to live with less stress and anxiety.

Thanks for writing!

Ten Commandments of Communication

September 6, 2009

Some people are natural communicators. They know how to get across their point of view without damaging a relationship. Others (probably most of us) need some guidance on where to focus and of what to steer clear. If you are looking to learn communication skills that make a positive difference in your marriage, the Ten Commandments of Communication offer timeless principles that can help.

The reason I call them "commandments," is to stress the idea that most people would never think of transgressing the basic principles of our faith like killing or stealing. Yet how many couples find it difficult to avoid criticizing each other and stay focused on building and nurturing their relationship? Just as the original Ten Commandments are based upon (1) creating and maintaining a positive connection with G‑d, and (2) avoiding damaging that relationship, the Ten Commandments of Communication, teach us to (1) focus on positive and nurturing words, and (2) avoid the damaging effects of critical language.

Here is how these commandments work. On one tablet are five "Thou Shalt Nots," including Thou Shalt Not: Insulate, Judge, Blame, Insinuate, or Criticize. On the other tables are five "Thou Shalts," which are Thou Shalt: Compliment, Be Compassionate, Empathize, Validate, Nurture and Listen.

Couples who insult, judge or blame one another damage their relationship and cause unneeded stress to their marriage. Those who insinuate, or who embarrass each other will deplete their emotional savings accounts and cause lasting damage to their relationship. No one likes being criticized, blamed, or belittled for their behavior, especially in marriage, where close daily contact necessitates a high level of sensitivity and understanding.

Equally important is fulfilling as many positive commandments as possible. Make sure that your words are accepting, friendly, compassionate, and understanding. If you are using affirmative and encouraging statements such as "I care about you" and "I hear what you are saying" and "How can I help you?" then you are fulfilling the positive emotional "mitzvot" for one another, and growing closer together each day.

Beginning your conversations with the right attitude is one way to fulfill the "commandments." In the same way that we meditate about the greatness of G‑d and our love for Him before we pray, couples should also arouse a love for one another and think about the importance of their relationship before they speak. The inner message is, "I love you and care about you, and I want to enhance the closeness in our marriage." When you begin with the right intention, you'll have a greater chance of using words that build happiness in your marriage.

The following principles can also be helpful:

1. Soften your approach to the argument. Be less confrontational in your responses. Instead, make your tone with your spouse soft and tender so your spouse will feel secure. Avoid criticism at all costs! Spouses cannot connect when they tear each other down.

2. Validate what your spouse is feeling, instead of criticizing.

3. Listen sincerely to your spouse. Hear what he or she is really saying.

4. Show an understanding of the heart. Put yourself in your spouse's shoes while listening intently to what he or she says. Then communicate that you see the problem from his/her perspective. Put the argument on common ground by agreeing, "This is our problem."

5. Be willing to compromise. The relationship is far more important than the issue.

6. Give your spouse attention and affection. Try to communicate statements like, "I'm here and I'm not leaving." Point out the positive changes your spouse has made in your life.

7. Don't be afraid to laugh!

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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