Harmony at Home- Chapter 23

Chapter 23

Five Foundations of a Successful Marriage

Beyond a change in outlook, there are practical, specific rules that can be taken to improve your marriage. Following are five rules which are utilized by successful, happy, and fulfilled couples.

Choosing a Candle

If a person cannot afford to buy both a candle for Shabbos and wine for Kiddush, a Shabbos candle takes precedence. Similarly, if a person cannot afford to buy a candle for Shabbos and a candle for Chanukah, a Shabbos candle takes precedence; because of peace in the house, for there is no peace without light (which the Shabbos or Yom tov candle provides.) (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim263:3)

Foundation 1: How to Communicate With Your Spouse

Although disagreements are natural in a marriage, when there is a breakdown in communication, unresolved friction creates ill will , and the marriage begins to disintegrate.

The single biggest marriage killer is resentment. Resentment is frozen anger from the past that continues to rear its head today. If something is distressing you, you have to tell your spouse.[1] Your spouse is not a mind-reader. Often, people expect their spouses to know what to do, without having to be told, but it is this type of flawed thinking that leads us down a tumultuous path.

[1] If we do not speak up when necessary, we may act out where inappropriate. Pent-up anger turns into contempt if not properly vented. “He who conceals his hatred has lying lips” (Mishlei 10:18). Nonetheless, please see Chapter 6 for additional insights and strategies, and remember that direct criticism between husband and wife should be a last resort.

It is important to realize that we do not enter marriage with a deep awareness of what it is that our partner needs. Many issues and particular areas of sensitivity are learned along the way. It is for this reason that openness is crucial. That being said, we need to be careful in how we convey our feelings to our spouse. The following four rules should be followed when we communicate with our spouse.

Before giving criticism of any sort, though, we should be certain that we are not projecting our own faluts unto our spouse. Because our spouse serves as our spiritual mirror, once we have corrected the flaw within ourselves, we will find that our spouse adjusts him or herself accordingly, and automatically. Those who seek to educate, improve, and refine their spouse through criticism, labor under a false and destructive impression.[1]

I. Wait 24 Hours. “Do not rush to begin a quarrel.”[2] If something continues to trouble you, it is advised to communicate your feelings—but let a little time pass first; as we stated before, time gives us greater clarity because our ego is less engaged and we are able to view the situation with greater objectivity.[3] This is why you are more likely to become irritated in the heat of an argument. After a few moments, your anger will generally begin to subside. Then, a few hours later, you are even less angry, and after a few days, you may find yourself wondering why you were even upset in the first place.

II. Pick Your Time. According to research, people who are in a good mood are more likely to purchase a lottery ticket.[4] When we are joyful, we tend to be more optimistic and are open to possibilities.[5] Try not to allow your desire to speak your mind derail your ability to successfully plan your approach.

Wait until you’re both in a positive mood, so you both have the capacity to give. When we’re in a bad mood or constricted state, we are only capable of taking, making it impossible to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. When either one or both of you are hungry, tired, or plainly angry, do not expect that you will have a productive conversation. It’s not going to happen too often, if ever.

[1] The unique emotional and spiritual roles of husbands and wives are quite different, and beyond the scope of this work.

[2] Mishlei 25:8

[3] “He spoke to Korach and to his entire assembly, saying ‘In the morning Hashem will make known the one who is His own . . . ’ ” (Bamidbar 16:5). Rashi comments that by telling Korach and his followers that God would respond in the morning, Moshe sought to give them time to reconsider their thinking.

[4] H. R. Arkes, L.T. Herren, and A. M. Isen, “The Role of Potential Loss in the Influence of Affect on Risk-Taking Behavior,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 41 (1988), pp. 181–193.

[5] While numerous studies confirm that forgiveness reduces anxiety and depression, and increases self-esteem, research also shows that people in a good mood tend to be more forgiving. In one experiment, participants in positive moods reported more forgiveness than participants in negative moods. (See Alyssa Nguyen, M.A., Forgiveness: what’s mood got to do with it? Thesis in Psychology, Humboldt State University, 2008.)

Not all negative states create an inhospitable environment for peace. Let us clarify the difference between two emotional states:  mad and sad. The former is a manifestation of the ego, while the latter is an expression of our soul. Someone feeling sad can be more easily moved to make peace, despite the negativity, because it is not ego-based.

III.  Soften the Start-up. Do not be confrontational when bringing up the problem. Just because the topic is serious doesn’t mean that you have to take a dour tone. When we are upset by a situation, it is easy to blame the other person for our feelings, and then project that attitude in the way we communicate. Some people seem to scream what they want and expect to be heard. The volume of our voice does not have to be commensurate with the anger that we feel. On the contrary, when we shout our point, the message is lost. In order for your spouse to be more receptive, your tone of voice should be soft and kind.[1]

IV. Appreciation and Gratitude First. Begin by letting your spouse know that you appreciate all that he or she does for you. Be specific, and sincere in acknowledging how grateful you are for all of his or her efforts and hard work. Only in this context, should you then communicate the issue at hand.[2]

Torah Counsel for Husbands

“Be careful to honor your wife, for blessing enters the house only because of the wife” (Bava Metzia 59a).

“A man should always take care not to distress his wife, for women’s tears are close to the heart of God” (Bava Metzia 59a).

“A husband is instructed to honor his wife even more than he honors himself” (Yevamos 62b).

[1] Renowned psychologist and relationship expert, Dr. John Gottman reports, “96 percent of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of the fifteen-minute interaction.  A harsh startup dooms you to failure. The rule is, ‘If it starts negative, it stays negative.’ ” (S. Carrere & J. M. Gottman, “Predicting divorce among newlyweds from the first three minutes of a marital conflict discussion,” Family Process 38:3 (1999), pp. 293-301).

[2] If the behavior does not correct itself, your spouse may be thinking, “What’s the big deal?!” Accordingly, he or she doesn’t take your words seriously. In order for your spouse to validate your feelings, which is ultimately what you  are seeking, you may need to gently communicate the degree to which you are affected by what is going on.

Foundation 2: Establish in Advance How to Handle Disagreements

Happy couples know how to gracefully exit a disagreement before it degenerates into a spiteful, vengeful, name-calling discourse. Whatever mechanism you have in place, decide on it ahead of time. Whether it’s agreeing to wait a few hours (though a day or two is better), taking a walk, paying your spouse a compliment, changing the topic, or taking some alone time, something must be done to prevent the conversation from devolving into an argument.[1] If you find you are getting nowhere, stop, or it will cause a needless escalation of unproductive feelings.[2]

Foundation 3: Charity Begins at Home

Gratitude lies at the heart of every relationship: with ourselves, God, and fundamentally, with our spouse. A marriage will fall apart quickly if we do not show our loved one adequate appreciation and respect. Absurdly, sometimes we deliver kindness and appreciation to a stranger but disregard the needs of our own spouse, the person who relies on us the most for emotional support.[3]

Does your spouse have to cook you dinner? Does your spouse have to earn a living?  Does your spouse have to put the children to bed? Maybe yes, maybe no, the argument is academic. We should not take for granted anything our spouse does for us.

A Personal Story

A while ago, my wife and I were driving, and we got a little lost. This led to a “discussion” about directions. Now my wife, knowing the importance of showing gratitude, knew just what to say, “Dovid, I want to thank you.” I said, “For what?” And she said, “For all the opportunities that you give me.” “Like what?” I inquired gleefully. And she said, “The opportunities that you give me to work on mymiddos (character).”

[1] Dr. John Gottman’s research shows that an escalation of emotion, which he calls “Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA)” creates a physiological change, and we can’t think as clearly as we normally do. One of his experiments involved observing couples arguing. When the intensity pushed one of them into a heightened state, Gottman walked into the room and told the couple that his equipment had broken; and asked them to put their discussion on hold for a few minutes until the equipment was repaired. (Nothing was really wrong with the equipment—as researchers they wanted to see what would happen if the couple was given a chance to calm down). As soon as their heart rates dropped closer to normal, Gottman walked back into the room, told them the equipment was fixed, and asked them to pick up their discussion where they left off. The result? “It was as if the couple had a brain transplant,” he said, “the tone of the conversation was different. They were more authentic and less guarded—no longer making it personal or taking it so personally. They were more open, and as a result became rational and level-headed.” (J. M. Gottman, “Rebound from Marital Conflict and Divorce Prediction,” Family Process 38 (1999), pp. 287-292).

[2] Researchers at the University of Utah found that couples who have been taught fair-fighting skills have smaller increases in blood pressure when they argue. The lead author Timothy W. Smith, writes, “They learn not to demean or belittle the other person’s opinions and not to attack their character. They also learn not to attribute malicious intent to their opponent. They are taught to clearly and effectively express their own feelings about something and to make sure to express an understanding of the other person’s point of view before moving on to explaining their own.” (T. W. Smith, P. C. Brown, “Cynical Hostility, Attempts to Exert Social Control and Cardiovascular Reactivity in Married Couples,” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 14 (1991), pp. 581–592

[3] There are principles of precedence that determine to whom one should give one’s tzedakah money first. These principles apply also to doing acts of loving kindness (Cf. Ahavas Chessed 1:6:14). If you perform an act of kindness at the expense of your marriage, or because you’re lacking validation at home, then it is not truly an act of chessed. Instead of being a selfless act, it becomes a selfish one.

Foundation 4: Stop Bringing Up the Past

“When arguing, focus on the issue at hand.”[1] Couples who inject the past into present conversations are not going to move forward in a healthy and constructive fashion. Resolve what can be resolved, and then move on.

Even if you are still bothered by something that your spouse has done in the past, bringing it up only keeps it alive. You have to make a decision to let go of the issue, and once you have made this resolution, you will find that your spouse’s past behavior will trouble you less. When you let go of it, it will let go of you. In particular, research shows that forgiveness actually restores positive thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward the offending party. [2]

Foundation 5: Edit Yourself

As insightful and aware as we are, we need not comment on everything that our spouse does that fails to meet with our exacting standards. Could your spouse have done something a little better, smarter, less expensive, easier, faster? Sure, but leave it alone.

You willl notice a different atmosphere when you no longer critique the daily activities of your spouse. Mainly, your spouse may also begin to censor him or herself. Most people are not aware of how often they criticize their spouse, or anyone else in their lives, for that matter.

Have you ever noticed how nice it is to be around someone who is complimentary and sincerely kind and warm? In contrast, have you ever thought about how trying it is to spend five minutes with the person who’s always finding fault with everything and everyone? These people seem to drain the life right out of you. Being the person who makes your spouse feel good, will go a long way towards fostering a positive relationship.

Torah Counsel for Wives

“A good wife is a crown to her husband, but one who acts shamefully is like rot in his bones” (Mishlei 12:4).

“It is better to live in a corner of the roof than share a large house with a quarrelsome wife” (Mishlei 21:9).

“A bad wife is like a dreary, rainy day” (Yevamos 63b).

[1] Mishlei 25:9.

[2] K. A. Lawler, J. W. Younger, R. L. Piferi, R. L. Jobe, K. A. Edmondson, W. H. Jones, “The Unique Effects of Forgiveness on Health: An Exploration of Pathways,” Journal of Behavioral Medicine(April 2005).

Copyright (C) 2011 by D. Lieberman. Excerpted from Seek Peace and Pursue It (Feldheim Publishers)

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