When I was a child, a wise, older man used to visit my school and decided to look in on the classroom where we were studying. Peeking over one of our shoulders, he noticed that we happened to be learning the idea of self-evaluation.

He was a warm and humorous man, and he said, "You know, when Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, comes around, you have to make an account of yourself, so you do a lot of soul-searching. But what is that? How do you do it?"

He waited, but we were too timid to reply. So he smiled and said, 'Well, I'll tell you what it isn't. Imagine today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It's been ten days since Rosh Hoshana, the Jewish New Year, ten days known as the Days of Repentance. Our thoughts have been getting holier and holier, more serious with each passing day, as we've tried to become better.

"Finally, Yom Kippur has arrived. We put on white garments, we dress like angels, we think like angels, we act like angels. We don't eat, we don't drink, we don't sleep. We don't wear leather shoes. It's Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.

"Everybody gets together in the holiest place in town, in the synagogue. Then, together, as a community, we spend the entire day thinking about sins. We think about what sins we committed last January, what sins we committed last February, last March, and on and on. We do this because we want to make an account, search our souls. We want to ask the Master of the Universe to forgive any sins we might have committed against Him throughout the entire year.

"So we dredge them up. We think hard to remember every sin we committed in the course of this year. Here we are, the entire community, sitting around on the holiest day of the year, in the holiest place in town, wallowing in unholy memories! And by doing this we are supposed to become holy? This is how we are going to become refined? This is how we are supposed to make things better?

"That is certainly not soul-searching. That's degrading. It's not nice any day of the year, and certainly not on the Day of Atonement. What, then, does it mean to regret our sins?

"Not by dredging up sins, not by spending the holiest day of the year thinking about unholy, sinful memories. Proper soul-searching, true soul-searching, has nothing to do with sins, nothing to do with misdeeds, nothing to do with ugly memories. It has to do with a relationship.

"What it means to take stock of yourself and do an account of your soul, to search your soul, is to consider where your relationship stands. It does not mean to consider the sins you have committed. If you have sinned, then the sin is that you have violated your relationship with your G‑d.

"What you should dwell on, what you should contemplate, what you should force yourself to think about, is this: Who is your G‑d, how great He is, and how good He has been to you. Then, how could you mistreat Him? How could you have for-gotten Him in the course of a year?

"Serving G‑d is the purpose for which you were created. How could you have neglected His teachings, how could you have overlooked them, how could you have been careless about them?

"Think about how much you need Him, how much He does for you, how good He's been to you in the past year, how great He is in general, how true He is, and how holy He is.

"When you stop to reflect on this for even a moment—not a full day, but for one moment—you realize it is this G‑d to whom you have been careless and lax in your devotion. It immediately hurts. You feel an intense stab of regret. How could you?

"How could you forget the purpose for which you were created? How could you be that way to such a G‑d, to your G‑d? And that is true repentance. Then you have truly taken an account of yourself, truly searched your soul, in the context of your relationship with G‑d. Then you have begun to make things better."

The lessons of this story also hold true in marriage. Are you trying to be a perfect wife because you are so hung-up on being perfect? Are you a nice husband because you want to think of yourself as a nice person, or because your wife deserves it?

Have you spent time thinking about the person to whom you are married? Do you believe that caring for this one person really is the purpose for which you were created when G‑d planned the world?

If you concentrate on what your spouse means to you, how important and necessary the relationship is, then it becomes easier to be a little better—because your spouse deserves it. The man who's determined to be a good husband "whether his wife likes it or not," who's determined to be a model husband, is not a real husband. Why is he so determined to be a good husband? Because he likes to excel at what he does? Because when he was a child, he was in the habit of getting A's?

This misunderstanding happens all the time in religion. Why should we be good? Because we like being good? Or because we are fulfilling the purpose for which we were created, to serve G‑d? There are people who observe all of G‑d's commandments, even going beyond the letter of the law, with the attitude, "I'm going to do this whether G‑d likes it or not." They're not coming to religion out of acceptance of G‑d, but in response to a need they have, like the husband who is determined to be perfect whether his wife likes it or not.

These people may need to have law and order in their lives, they may need to have a focus in their lives, they may need to have a goal, or a structure, or virtue. They may need to get to heaven. And their attitude is that they are going to get to heaven whether G‑d likes it or not. They believe observing G‑d's commandments is not a matter of doing what G‑d wants; it's doing what they want, which is to keep the commandments. The focus of their life is on the commandments, rather than on responding to the Giver of those commandments.

A rather scholarly young seminary student once said as much to me. He told me, "You know, I don't believe in faith." So I asked him, "How can you call yourself a devoted Jew? To be a devoted Jew means you accept with an absolute faith that G‑d gave us the commandments to live by."

His answer was, "Well, concerning the giving of the commandments, I acknowledge the need to have faith. But other than the actual commandments, I don't believe in faith. I accept on faith that G‑d tells me to observe the commandments as they are recorded in Scripture. But if G‑d were to tell me to do anything else, that I couldn't accept on faith."

So I said to him, "Never mind the question, how can anything G‑d says not be considered a divine commandment? But could you explain to me why you think you need to accept the commandments in the Scripture on faith? Why do you have faith in that situation, but not in any other?"

His response was, "Because it says to in the Bible, and I believe in the Bible." He was saying, in effect, "The Bible says to accept G‑d; therefore I do, because I accept the Bible." His reasoning was completely inverted.

Whose Bible was he accepting? G‑d's Bible. He was saying he believed in G‑d because G‑d's Bible tells him to, but not the other way around, not, "I accept the Bible because G‑d tells me to." The object of his acceptance was the Bible but not the Giver of the Bible.

And, of course, the same can be true in a marriage. The emphasis should be on your spouse, not on yourself. In a relationship, you may forget to think about yourself, but never the other person.

We know this from a prayer recited on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in which we ask forgiveness for those sins we committed with "confusion of the heart." The sins we committed with "confusion of the heart" means the sins we committed in panic. Now why would we have to ask forgiveness for such sins? How can it be a sin to be panicked?

Imagine that you are on a sinking ship. Everyone panics. You flee for your life. If you forget to worry about one of your friends, he might be disappointed but it would be understandable. "Every man for himself" isn't considered a sin.

But if you forget your wife, if you panic and jump into the lifeboat without her, leaving her to fend for herself, nobody will forgive you. That would be considered a sin.

You might say, "I panicked," but panic can only reach so far. Panic is not an excuse if a husband or wife bails out of a sinking ship and forgets the other, because that kind of relationship is too deep for panic.

Some people seem to be generally lax and careless about their relationships, but in a state of emergency they rise to the occasion and become heroes. In spite of the panic they may be feeling, their commitment to their relationships suddenly becomes sharply defined. That's because those things deep within the soul cannot be affected by panic.

In the context of our relationship with G‑d, we are not supposed to panic. We have to ask forgiveness for the very fact that we allowed panic to reach us more deeply than the relationship. Even when we are panicked, we are not supposed to forget who G‑d is.

In the context of your relationship with your spouse, you are not allowed to forget for a moment to whom you are married, to whom you are devoted. If you really want to make things better, you need to stop thinking about yourself. Stop thinking in terms of being a husband or wife; stop thinking about what you are.

People are always looking for ways to "improve their relationships." But the first question to ask is, "What is the morality of this relationship?" Are you in it for yourself, or are you in it for your spouse? Find out first where your heart lies, and where your devotion is. Is it to yourself? If so, that's immoral. Or is it to your spouse?

It could be that the relationship needs to improve. Maybe intimacy is lacking. But ask yourself what your motivation is. Why do you want to improve it? Why do you want to make things better? If your answer is, "Well, I just can't stand that person any longer," or, "I deserve better," then your motivation is not what it ought to be.

Maybe you think that you deserve a better life. After all, when you were younger, you had your first job, and you liked it for a while. Then you began to feel a little bit out of place be-cause you thought you "deserved" better. A better job with better perks. You drove a certain car for a while, until you felt that maybe you "deserved" a bigger car, a better car. Could the same be true of your marriage? All of a sudden, you've decided that you "deserve" better. You are older, wiser, and better, but your spouse hasn't gotten any better. No problem, just trade in the old one for a newer model.

Or maybe you tell yourself, "Look, there are certain things I get from my wife. That's fine. I'm married to her and I want to stay married to her. I don't have any intention of breaking up our family, G‑d forbid! I have no thoughts of a divorce! But you know, you can't get everything from one woman. So for what I don't get from my wife, well, there's always the secretary. But the secretary isn't competing with my wife. My wife is my wife. My wife is my marriage. We're a family. It's just for those things that I can't get from her that I go somewhere else."

Nobody is going to buy that kind of thinking. Why? What's wrong with it?

It's true you can't get everything you want from one person, but then, who says you need everything? Where did you get the idea you deserve everything?

The issue is not what you deserve. The issue is, whom are you here to serve? Yourself, or your spouse? Yourself, or G‑d?

Do you deserve what you already have? The answer is yes. The answer is always yes, because G‑d is just, and G‑d is right. You have exactly what you deserve, exactly what you need. In learning to accept your spouse, to accept your life, to accept the purpose for which you were created, you need to feel grateful and accept graciously what you have. What you need, G‑d provides. What you can't get, or what you don't have, you probably don't need. You may think you do, but you don't.

A woman who thought she needed her husband to be more romantic once spoke to me. She said, "He's responsible, he's kind, he's good, but he has no romance in him. He goes to work, he comes home, and every week he brings home a paycheck. But our life together seems so dry and mechanical. He's making me crazy because he's so unromantic."

Anyone who knew this woman knew she could have been a drill sergeant. So I said to her, "What are you talking about? If your husband suddenly became romantic on you, you'd send him to a psychiatrist."

"Why do you say that?" she asked. I told her, "Because you're not at all the romantic type yourself. You're a very practical, down-to-earth pragmatic person. Everything about you is efficient. It may seem cliche, but what's bothering you is a case of `the grass is greener' way of thinking.

"You're only kidding yourself, because in reality, you'd hate it if he turned `romantic' on you. You'd think he's being foolish, childish, and irresponsible.

"You've been married to him for seven years in spite of the fact that he isn't romantic. But if he weren't reliable and responsible, you wouldn't have stayed married to him for a month. Think about it."

She laughed and agreed with me. She admitted that what she values most in other people is their organization and efficiency, that what she appreciates most is their ability to "get things done."

She was confusing romance with intimacy. As long as her husband was being sensitive to what she really needed, and eventually she realized that he was, her marriage was in good shape.

If you think that you're unhappy or unsatisfied because you "need" something, think again. Having a relationship that lasts forever means trusting that it will provide everything you need, and realizing that the things it can't provide, you probably don't need. The things you do need are there if you look deeply enough.

What you really need is to believe that you are married to the person you are meant to be married to.

G‑d wants His children to be happy. He entrusted this one person to your care because He wants you to make this person happy. That is your purpose in life. It's not a question of how good a wife you can be. It's not a question of what you are.

What you should look for, what should motivate you, why you should want your relationship to become better and more intimate, is, "Because my spouse deserves it. My spouse deserves better."

Why are you in this relationship? Because you were young and restless, so you got married? Because your mother talked you into it? No. Because you were created for it. This was an essential part of G‑d's plan. There is one person whom you're supposed to make happy, there is one G‑d whom you have to serve, there is one Scripture that you have to study, and that's your purpose in life.

It will never get better if your attitude is, "You do for me, then I'll do for you." What matters is, are you devoted to each other? Are you friends? Are you in this together? Do you care about one another? When the answer is "yes," then you can begin to think about making a better life together. Then you are free to think in terms that say you accept this other person as being your purpose in life.

Without this, our sages tell us, "You would be better off not having been born." Because if you're not going to fulfill the purpose for which you were created, then you don't really exist. You were created for a purpose, and that purpose justifies your existence.

So if you want to make a better life together, think about what is right and good and wonderful about the other person. If that becomes your focus, then the thought that you were once not nice or careless or insensitive immediately feels very uncomfortable. You will regret it intensely, and you will become nicer, more careful, and more sensitive.

And your life will be better, together.