I have often dealt with young married couples who are in the throes of almost-separation or almost-divorce. The most unfortunate aspect of this tragedy is that so much suffering could be avoided if there were greater emphasis on acquiring educational tools for marriage before the wedding—or at least soon afterward.

Even in the best of relationships, there are constantly different issues that come up and require resolution: money, in-laws, conflicting life-views, how to handle differences, discipline of children, etc. And then there are all the natural complications introduced by expectations, a sense of "entitlement" and the negative beliefs and "unusable emotional inheritance" that the couple bring with them from their childhood.

Certainly each couple is unique, and therefore there isn't any one easy answer to the secret of a good relationship. But, over the years, I've seen, in practice, that the Torah's recipe for a couple's happiness provides a formula for what really does work.

The Torah speaks about a women being an ezer k'negdo ("a help-mate with/against him"), implying that her behavior is a result of her husband's attitude and actions! Briefly stated, if he is "worthy" she will be his helpmate. If not, she will oppose him. Indeed, a woman, by the very nature of her creation and her place in the home, reflects her husband and, at the same time, looks to her husband to take leadership – as the "man" of the house – to set the tone and direction for lasting marital harmony.

Time and time again, I have heard from women regarding what they need most in the relationship: "If only he would be more patient, if only he would speak carefully with me, if only he wouldn't get so angry all the time." The Sages tells us that women are kal l'fatot, "easily seduced." There are many interpretations of these words, but one which I always tell the men is that women are so easily seduced—willing to come close, to see your point of view, to give in for the sake of peace. What they are waiting for is some empathy, understanding, compromise, patience, negotiation, discussion, problem-solving. When faced with angry dominance, inflexibility and disregard, the distance created begins to gnaw away at the trust in their relationship. Sometimes that break in trust takes years, if ever, to be recovered.

Angry at Her "Defects"

This was especially so in the situation where a man called to tell me all about his wife; how angry and disappointed he was because of her "defects." He used the word "angry" about ten times during the first three minutes of our conversation. And, although he knew he was wrong to have such anger, he continued to focus on her behavior. They've only been married a few years, but for most of their history they were constantly bickering with each other. What prompted his call was that the last time they had an argument, he locked his wife out of the house, and she went home to her parents.

After hearing about her "defects," I learned the rest of the story. He told me that they are expecting their second child. She is working a full time job—not he! He doesn't seem to have any concrete or realistic plans in that area—just lots of "ideas." He often doesn't get up for morning prayers and has no regular Torah class.

I asked him what he wanted at this point. "I know I acted rashly," he said, "but I don't want a divorce. I'll do anything to get her back."

"Easy to say, but not easy to accomplish," I said. "Are you really willing to 'do anything' to get her back? It can be done—but it will require hard work, self-sacrifice and going through an educational process (counseling). Mostly, it will involve you looking inward, not outward; finding your self-leadership, and self-esteem, and rebuilding your marriage from a healthier position." He admitted that he was tired of the "revolving door" of anger and frustration. In fact, for some time, he had felt like a failure, and quite lost in terms of how to deal with the bitterness of his life.

A Wife's Needs

I told him the five things I consider most important to keep a marriage together. None of them involve material things, promises or impossibilities. They are completely attainable by average, growth-oriented people. (The fringe benefit: As he acquires new attitudes towards his wife, his feelings about himself would also become stronger and more secure.)

1) A woman wants to create a home, a nest, a safe place. She wants to bring children into the world and build a family based on Torah, i.e. ethical, moral, eternal values.

2) A woman wants her husband to be willing to solve problems without getting angry, depressed or anxious; without blaming or shaming. She wants to feel his leadership in this area.

3) A woman (and most human beings) responds easily to kindness, not force.

4) A woman wants refinement. She is always striving to look for what will produce wholeness and holiness within the marriage.

5) A happy wife = a happy life. All the effort that a man puts forth to allow himself to become a loving, cooperative, available partner to his spouse will result not only in her happiness, but in his own as well. The test of a man's faith is in the home, with his wife and children. They make demands on his time, his money and his nerves! It is totally different from every other relationship he may have with people outside the home. While a person can avoid friction and confrontation on the outside, it's difficult to escape difficult situations at home.

In this case, I didn't work with the couple, only the husband. He was willing to investigate his life, his ideas about marriage, and where the walls of discontent had come to be so impenetrable. He learned the skills of anger management and healthy communication so that he could find other ways to deal with his frustrations and disappointments. He discovered many of the infectious beliefs that kept him from seeing himself as a hero: "Who is truly strong? One who conquers his unhealthy tendencies" (Ethics of the Fathers—my translation).

We spoke about whether or not he could see his wife's requests in a different light, without the power struggle or the "right/wrong" labels. Taking a few scenarios one by one, he readily acknowledged the sincerity of her efforts to help him, not hurt him. She wanted the best for him and their children. He knows that. And he also knows that his life has improved immeasurably since his marriage.

He could see that when his wife asks him to go to prayer services, to learn, to stay away from the unsafe internet, she's asking for a commitment to a higher, more spiritually oriented level of living. So many husbands will see this as control – "She can't tell me what to do!" – and feel the need to take a stance against "manipulation." When I described this scenario, and asked if it sounded familiar, he laughed and said I was right. He definitely was in a power-struggle with his wife, and he wanted to win.

It took several weeks of sincere effort on his part, before his wife was willing to come back home. Certainly his actions "spoke louder than words." Although he doesn't have a job yet, he agreed to write down every effort he makes to obtain work; making calls, setting up interviews, sending resumes, etc. Meanwhile, in an effort to be more productive he has taken a volunteer job tutoring children in a nearby school. He is committed to daily prayer, and has taken on a daily Torah class. Through these efforts at greater self-discipline, he already has begun to feel that he is achieving a heightened emotional and spiritual awareness. And, most important, he reports a sense of "calm" in his home that he has never experienced before.