Many of our relationships are at times complicated and difficult. We are born into families that we're supposed to feel close with and yet enmity between siblings and other relatives is well documented (perhaps starting with Cain and Abel?). Neighbors are supposed to act "neighborly" – but feuds are often just as common as friendships. Certainly in marriage, the most intimate of relationships, we are at a loss to explain the discord and frustration. The grief over separation and divorce is widespread and intense, just as that over chronic illness or death.

What can be done when one partner feels alone, misunderstood, and weary of the struggle to maintain some semblance of marital harmony? It is so easy to allow past hurts and fears for the future to shut ourselves off from people in our lives. When difficulties arise, it is only human nature to focus on what's not working, what's not perfect, rather than what could possibly be workable. As time goes on, that focus on imperfection gains in momentum – eclipsing all that is good and positive. Because the pain and darkness are so pervasive – it feels as if "it's all wrong" or "there's nothing good anymore." The walls that are built seem to be impenetrable. We get stuck in the emotional "cement" of "all – or nothing at all" – there is only right and wrong – no grey area.

This is well illustrated by a case I recently dealt with. Mindy and Yosef (not their actual names) came in for counseling. They had been "embattled" for several years and were on the verge of separating. A brief inquiry into their backgrounds revealed that Yosef grew up without a mother. She died shortly after his birth. His father raised him and his two brothers alone. And, although his father is remembered positively, Yosef learned at an early age to survive without a mother's nurturing or the bond with his mother. Today he is a successful professional and a caring father to their two little daughters, but he has difficulty identifying feelings and is overwhelmed by Mindy's "moods" – i.e. her "over-the-top emotions" as he calls them.

Mindy grew up in a home where there was constant bickering. Little attention was paid to the four children. They were always told to figure things out by themselves, and they grew up without much direction or guidance. When she got married, Mindy was looking for emotional support and validation. When Yosef so often distanced himself from her feelings, she felt betrayed and bitter. She was almost at the point of "no return" when she finally sought out counseling.

Both Mindy and Yosef had little education about marriage, problem solving, commitment, or devotion. Their expectations were at polar opposites: he expected to be left alone emotionally. She expected to be able to share her emotional life whenever the need arose. Because of the wounds they had both suffered as children, these expectations, when unmet, grew and festered and caused pain and terrible frustration for both of them. They held onto past hurts and difficulties like huge weights that refused to be let go. For example, among their many "mis-matched" experiences, Mindy recalled – with tears – the sadness and anger she felt at Yosef not being at the birth of her eldest daughter. She felt so afraid and utterly alone. It took some time for Yosef to respond to his wife. He remembers only the terror he felt at that moment. At first he couldn't connect with his feelings, but, as we discussed what had happened, he realized that feeling of terror was related to his own mother's death. As a result of her death, he was so consumed by his own fear that he had procrastinated and distracted himself with something at work, thereby missing the birth. Although he tried to "make up" for it at the next birth, it haunted their relationship. Mindy felt this was an unforgivable act on his part.

As we spoke, it was evident that they were in agreement that there was no abuse or destructive addictions on the part of either spouse. So, rather than launching into what was difficult in the marriage, I asked each of them to list what brought them together – what they appreciated and felt good about their partner's behavior. After some thought, they were able to come up with several positive attributes. They both expressed some surprise about what the other spouse had written.

Using this as a starting point, we discussed what is "normal" in a relationship. They began to understand how their respective upbringings created many of the deficits they both experience. They saw the need for education: for practical "tools" for problem resolution, negotiating and compromise; for learning to emphasize what is working in the marriage (rather than what is not working), for focusing on the present moment and avoiding the pitfalls of past or future thinking. In addition, the "all-or-nothing-at-all" attitude that both had maintained was seen as sabotaging any good in the marriage.

The fact that Yosef was agreeable to continue counseling was an extremely important factor in helping to strengthen this marriage. (Although when one partner is "not available" – it is still possible for the other one to gain in the wisdom and courage to find places within the relationship that are workable). The couple progressed in their willingness to re-frame – to see their relationship in a different context – and "soften" the erroneous beliefs and false expectations that were working against the relationship. They also tried to internalize the concept of "forgiveness" – forgiveness for everyone and everything that had brought them to this point. In Hebrew the word for "forgiveness" is mechila, spelled with the Hebrew letters mem, chet, yud,and hey. The word for illness is machala, spelled with the Hebrew letters mem, chet, and hey. Illnesses are often times the result of built up stresses and negativity weakening the body, thus allowing foreign organisms to take hold and make a person sick. The inability to let go of past wrongs can trap a person in a weakened state. That all important "yud", present in the word mechila, is what makes the difference between being stuck – and moving on. "Yud" – the smallest yet most powerful letter in the aleph bet….also alludes to "Yid" – the essence of a Jew, an essence that is mirrored Above.

After a few sessions, we created a "visual" in which I asked them to be in this present moment – to feel that just now they could concentrate on what is good about their marriage; their daughters, their place in the community, their goodwill to be sitting together at this time. I guided them towards the knowledge that there never was any intent to harm, only the lack of education, which along with life's circumstances had made the wall between them seem too thick. Perhaps, for this moment, it was possible to allow for forgiveness: of each other, of G‑d, of all the situations and circumstances that had contributed to their struggle— and now, for a moment, to put the pain in a raft and send it out to sea.

Initially, there was some resistance to this new way of thinking, but slowly both Mindy and Yosef began to accept more fully the reality of their relationship. Like any couple, they could eventually learn to live with their wounds, without hurting each other.

Will it ever feel perfect? Will the struggle get easier? Perhaps a more realistic question is whether or not each person will be willing to consider their marriage a "working relationship" in which the reality of the moment, combined with sincere effort, can eventually override the hurts of the past and the anxieties about the future.