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Marriage: Addressing the State of Your Union

by Frumma Rosenberg-Gottlieb


It happens every time. Whenever a roomful of women settles in for a workshop or lecture or one of those extraordinary consciousness-raising kaffeeklatches we call farbrengens, there's a pivotal moment when the energy shifts from chaos to clarity. It may or may not become suddenly quiet; but something quickens in the air. Attention is galvanized. Expectations ascend. In that subtly rarefied air, we can see one another, and – most refreshingly – we can be seen.

This is a marriage workshop, and everyone who is here is here because she wants more – more respect, more emotional intimacy, more shalom, or perhaps more space. We've seen how marriages are growing stale or going sour all around us.

Some think there's nothing they can do, because it's his fault. (Maybe it is.) Some feel it's not too terrible, but are just mildly disappointed; he's a nice man, she's a good wife, the kids are basically okay, but when it comes to the real feelings she'd rather just talk to a girlfriend. There's a woman in the front row whose kids are grown and out of the house, and the enthusiasm has been drained out her marriage. There's another woman next to her who's convinced she could have a good relationship if only her husband was willing to change a few small (but oh so irritating!) behavioral quirks. In the back of the room someone is angry, detached – and she can't quite figure out why she's still hanging in there: is it for financial security, or community approval? Or is it fear of the unknown? And then there's the woman who isn't interested in holding on at all any more - she's just trying to figure out how to get out. It's written all over her face: after all these years of silent suffering she's entitled to a life! (We'll talk more about this idea of 'entitlement' in a bit…) But it appears that the majority is simply seeking a small but significant increase in what they imagined marriage was supposed to be… before they discovered that the guy just won't budge!

"What if I told you," I begin, "that you can radically improve the quality of your relationship with your husband without demanding any change from him?" Eyes roll. Here we go again – it's all up to us. But I press on and insist that this is neither unfair nor unreasonable. It is actually an empowering perspective.

"Marriage," the Lubavitcher Rebbe once said, "is not about educating and changing one's spouse. It’s about fostering a relationship based on respect for your spouse’s outlook on life, and for his or her personal opinions.” Okay, fine. Respect. But – easier said than done; and isn't it a two-way street? And is that it? What about love? And what about the impossibly complex dynamic of forging a family out the conflicting perspectives of our disparate backgrounds, in a world that seems hopelessly polarized between the practical and the romantic, between the ideal and the real?

I remember once, during a challenging time when I was feeling very helpless, picking up a book of the Rebbe's writings. It said that a single individual who devotes his heart, mind and soul to studying and teaching the truth of Torah can accomplish wonders, affecting even a large city, influencing all of that city’s affairs. Whoa, I thought; we’re not talking about a whole city here – just one family. And if any guy can accomplish all that, how much more power lies in the hand of a woman, a wife, a mother, who is an akeres habayis – the foundation of her home? It’s possible, very possible.

Let's back up a few steps and have a look at the Biblical history of a woman's relationship with her man.

Though it was the quintessential match made in heaven, the marriage of Adam and Eve ran into trouble pretty early on. All it took was a little forbidden fruit, and the die was cast: from then on, the Al-mighty decreed, a woman will yearn for unity and completion with her husband – and not always will she get what she wants. This established a pattern that has played out in some fascinating ways ever since. First, a few brief highlights; then we'll connect the dots.

It was twenty generations after Adam and Eve that the city of Sodom hit bottom and was turned to rubble and dust. In retrospect it was no great loss, but at the time it seemed so disastrous that the daughters of Lot mistakenly believed they were the last family left on earth. Longing for unity and continuity – what's a girl to do? – They surmised that union with their father was the only way to repopulate the world. They got him so intoxicated that he was unaware of what he was doing, and… well, it was hardly a high point in the history of human genealogy.

Some years later, a stunning beauty named Tamar married not just one, but two sons (in rapid succession) of Lot's distant cousin Yehudah. She was so gorgeous they did not want to make her pregnant and spoil her perfect form. So first Er, then Onan spilled their seed, effectively denying her conjugal rights. Each one died, in turn, leaving Tamar a childless widow. By the logic of local custom she would have then been wed to Yehudah's youngest son Shelah. But Yehudah feared Shelah would suffer the same fate, and so he kept forestalling the union. Tamar, however, recognized the potential of this elusive union. Possessed by a sense of destiny that she must give birth to a child from the house of Yehudah, she disguised herself as a prostitute and waited by a crossroads for the recently widowed and lonely Yehudah to come along. He saw her, and wanted her. Note that Yehudah, unlike Lot, knew what he was doing. He just didn't know whom he was doing it with.

The Moabite proselyte Ruth was yet another example of a woman's longing for relationship. A descendant of that rather suspect union between Lot and his daughter, Ruth too was a childless widow bent on perpetuation. Boaz, her late husband's next of kin, was a descendant of Yehudah and Tamar. When Ruth went to the threshing floor and presented herself to Boaz, she understood precisely what she was doing; and in this case, so did Boaz. Although they only spent one night together before he died, Ruth conceived and gave birth to Oved….

Oved's son Yishai was the father of King David, and this too was a birth that would not have happened if not for a determined woman driven by desire. Yishai had a disturbing vision before David was born that his next child would be unique. He didn’t understand that as a positive quality, and so he separated from his wife. She on the other hand was confident that they should be together and have more children. So she bribed his concubine to let her spend the night with him. Yishai never turned on the light. She became pregnant; he accused her of playing the harlot and sent her and the little “mamzer” to live a life of shame in the servant’s quarters. It wasn’t until the prophet Samuel came to anoint David as King many years later that Yishai realized how David was indeed his son, and that his wife had been righteous.

David of course became the epitome of divinely inspired leadership, and he established the Kingdom of Israel – thanks to the unremitting passion of his mothers and grandmothers. Through the ages, ever since Eden, women with a sense of destiny and an intense yet sometimes unrequited desire for fruitful oneness with their husbands have propelled history forward. And the moral of our little abridged history lesson here is that we will continue to do so until David's scion, Moshiach, redeems us once and for all.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that the women of our generation are in fact reincarnations of the women who left Egypt; and we find that same quality in them as a key component of that archetypal liberation from bondage. The Jewish men in Egypt had lost faith. Broken and dispirited, they saw no reason to bring children into a world of such cruelty and affliction. Their wives, the Midrash tells us, filled with trust in the promise of redemption, made themselves alluring, took their mirrors into the orchards and seduced their men. The children they bore became the generation that entered the Holy Land. Even Moses himself had been born only because his sister Miriam had prevailed upon her father to remarry their mother, from whom he had separated out of despair…

We are those women in another generation. Our situations may not be quite as dramatic as the Egyptian exile, but like them, we long for unity, and we don’t always get it. In our longing for intimacy with our husbands we too are competing with demanding taskmasters. It may be the challenge of earning a living and paying the bills, the false urgency of I-phones and blackberries and high speed internet, the distractions of Monday night football or the clamor of conflicting obligations toward children, synagogue, and community. But whatever the particulars, we are all Eve, whose Hebrew name is Chava – the mother of all living things. We are created according to Divine will to open our hands and hearts and give to every living thing according to its needs. To fulfill that assignment, that destiny, we need to communicate effectively. Thankfully (presumably!) our husbands are not nearly as clueless as some of the characters in our history lesson. This is not about deception, or getting anyone drunk. What we need to do – what we are finally, uniquely capable of doing – is to bring our vitality, our spirit, our potency to the space between us and our partners in life, to close off all those emotional energy leaks and become partners for real.

For partners in a marriage to be independent is dysfunctional. When we marry, we are no longer merely woman and man; we become wife and husband – not just separate entities with individual needs. Neither should we be codependent, toxically entangled in each other’s moods and limitations. We need to become interdepedent. In the words of the holy Baal Shem Tov, “A beam of light emanates from every human being and ascends to the very heavens. When two souls become one, their two light beams intertwine and flow together in oneness. And so a single yet far brighter ray of light is created from the union of two people.”

So much for the motivation. How do we do it? How do we attain and maintain emotional intimacy in the midst of life’s challenges and distractions?

The essential first step is to believe and understand that there is nothing in the world more important than establishing and maintaining an emotionally healthy intimate relationship with the other half of your soul.

And the second step, equally crucial: take full responsibility for the things you can change in your own attitude and behavior, without demanding or expecting change from your spouse.

The tools at our disposal lie in three distinct toolboxes: our thoughts, our speech, and our deeds. We can replace divisive or critical thoughts about our husbands by paying attention to the things we appreciate. We can speak more respectfully and listen more empathically. We can go out of our way to perform acts of kindness, without keeping score or expecting anything in return.

Ironically, the return on this investment – the fulfillment we will experience as a result of such apparent self-sacrifice – will know no bounds. Marriage is the only relationship in which we can achieve and experience oneness in every dimension of our lives – spiritual, intellectual, emotional and physical. With practice and commitment we can cultivate a marital bond that says loud and clear: there is no place where "I" end and "you" begin.

Part two of this article will offer more detailed suggestions about the tools and techniques for making this happen. In the meantime, these principles are all we need…
so let's get going!