Happiness in Marriage



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What Can I Do?

By Yitzchok Finster

I once read a query written by a loyal wife of many years to a question-and-answer column on relationships:

"After I married off my children, I began to spend my time doing volunteer work. As time went on, I started to feel that even successful volunteer work has a limit, and that it was not fulfilling enough for me. Therefore, I took a paying job, which I have been enjoying. My husband, though, is upset. How to proceed?"

The answer given was obvious. A man needs to feel that he is providing for his family and that he is the support of his household. Quite often, this need causes him to feel threatened by the fact that his wife begins to rival his moneymaking. This part of the answer is based on the well-known facts of nature. However, in that particular column, the professional added something along the lines of "Your husband has a serious problem. He is a controlling person with a serious lack of self-esteem. He must get competent counseling to deal with his problem".

While the beginning of his answer is definitely an accurate description of this situation, one may argue that there is an alternative to the conclusion he proposed to the woman. What this concerned wife should have been told is "Your husband's reaction is normal; relax. Understand that his ego is wounded – until now he was the breadwinner and you looked up to him. Now, since you too are contributing to the family purse, he fears, rightly or wrongly, that you will respect him less. This is the reason he is reacting as he is. You must be aware of this point. It may take him time to adjust to the new dynamics of your marital relation. Your words and actions can be a catalyst expediting matters. Try to be understanding of his needs, his vulnerabilities and the basis for his attitude, and think about how you can work with it".

Instead of being given this logical answer, this woman was told that her husband has a problem that needs professional counseling to normalize.

We gain nothing by blaming our spouse. To be sure, unfortunately there are cases of possible abuse, or serious cases of unjustifiable abnormal behavior. But generally speaking, unless there is such an issue, no counselor should tell one spouse that his/her partner is not normal.

In general people should be focusing more on what they can do to make their important relationships work than on what the other party is doing to make it difficult. This is true even if the consulting spouse is 100% correct. All parties involved should be looking to better the relationship – not to be right.

The job of the counselor is to test the advice he gives against his goal. What is his goal? He should clearly have only one – increasing sholom bayis - peace and harmony in the house . In our case, the professional's answer was not going to promote sholom bayis; it was going to cause a further deterioration of harmony in that home. This counselor was focusing on blame. He should have helped this woman understand her husband's perspective rather than judge whether it was perfectly right for him to have such a perspective. Thereby he would be giving her the tools she needed to successfully deal with her relationship.

A recent article printed in a Jewish magazine focused just a bit on the idea that one party to a problem can unilaterally affect a positive turn-around. As mentioned above, this is true even if one is clearly right, and the other – 100% wrong. As illustrated there, the one that is in the right could affect change even if the other party is unaware and uncooperative – as long as the willing party understands the problem and its source. Although in that case, an in-law relationship was the topic, the same holds true for a married couple.

It is known that in a fleeting argument one party can calm things by keeping placid. But even in an ongoing situation – where there is an actual problem that won't disappear on its own, nor can it be solved by means of temporary soothing – a two-way relationship can be changed in a one-sided way.

First, let's try to comprehend what was happening in the above story. The husband should not be considered abnormal. Such a reaction could be expected. G-d says to the first wife, Chava, "V'hu yimshol boch" – "he will direct you". Thereafter, the husband feels a natural need to be the 'captain of the ship'. He was also given the curse of "B'zei'as apecha tochal lechem" - "with the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread" and therefore it is intrinsic in his makeup to want to earn his livelihood by work and accomplishment, bringing to the financial support of himself and his family.

This is nature; and it's difficult to change.

The natural reaction of the majority of men to their wife supporting the family would be to think 'isn't that my job?' There are men who are engaged in learning and therefore require their wife to support the family. In addition, at no time have they been in the 'mode' of 'provider', and don't feel like their position is being threatened. Therefore they never have cause to be bothered by their wife's support of the family, and in fact welcome her contribution. However, this situation is an exception and should not indicate that a man who does have reason to feel bothered is psychotic.

Many men learn to suppress these thought patterns. This doesn't tell us anything derogatory about this bothered husband.

As a limited parallel, many women would be bothered and feel stifled by a husband interfering in the kitchen. Of course, here too, some women are not troubled by a husband who competes with them in the culinary field. This doesn't de-legitimize the woman who is bothered, but rather this example could give a woman just a bit of an inkling of how her husband may feel when his area is infringed upon.

In our case, the wife should have been enlightened to handle the situation in a manner that would make it clear to her husband that he needn't feel threatened. By her mere understanding of the roots of his feelings, the woman would have the tools to proceed differently, making it abundantly clear to him that he is not incompetent, nor is he failing as the breadwinner. She could have tried to clarify that her need to work for profit is nothing but her way of dealing with boredom or her need for fulfillment.

One way she might try to assuage his feelings is by immediately giving him her paycheck. Of course this must be done with great sensitivity to ensure proper results. This sends him the clear message that she recognizes that he is still the 'boss', and may succeed in making him feel like a man. Alternatively, she may purchase him a present with her first paycheck, telling him how she welcomes this opportunity to express her appreciation for his years of supporting her. As each wife is blessed with bina yeseira, extra understanding, to be intimately familiar with her own husband, she will know how to 'one down' now in order to 'one up' in the long run. By ducking under the wave and letting it pass, this intelligent wife will overcome her husband's perception of threat. In a flourishing marriage, each spouse helps the other overcome – tovim hashnayim min ho'echod - two are better than one.

Actually, even if the husband is incorrect and should be given direction to work on to conquere his natural feelings for his wife's sake; for the time being, the wife can improve matters much, as we have illustrated.

Looking at this particular case from a different angle, the woman was doing lots of volunteering, which she seemed to be helpful and successful with – but yet she felt a need for moneymaking in order to feel fulfilled. Maybe that's an issue for her to address. With the children married off, she seemed to have all the money she needed. A requirement for extra funds was not the reason she felt the drive to make money. Then what was the reason? Perhaps she may want to honestly analyze where her perspective is coming from? Has the influence of Teresa Heinz Kerry and her friends affected her?

Especially if both the husband and wife have issues to overcome, they must stay out of the blame-game. Since she was asking, she should be advised to work on understanding her husband and aligning her behavior to working with him.

Once again, even in a case where she has nothing personal within herself that she must correct, she could still improve the relationship. She could minimize the friction by understanding and communicating.

Let's take another example: Husbands and wives think and talk and react differently. Husbands generally don't need – and therefore often do not give – as much open emotional support as their wives do. Women are usually more expressive, and thus express their emotions more than men do. They also need to hear more positive comments. There's a gap to bridge between them.

There are well-known jokes which run along the lines of a man saying 'Of course I love you! I didn't divorce you!' or 'I already told you so 20 years ago. If there's any change, I'll notify you…' The prevalence of such anecdotes suggests that this is a common phenomenon.

A woman felt a lack of expressions of love or appreciation on the part of her husband. She called a marriage counselor, and complained that she needs more compliments and more words of appreciation and love. "Your husband needs therapy to learn to speak", the counselor said.

Actually, though, husbands convey lots of love and appreciation non-verbally, by spending time with their wives, by helping them, and generally by trying to please them in various ways. Although wives do need it to be more verbal, there's room for both of them to move towards each other. She has to learn to read into his comments or gestures to see his love for her. It follows that the wife's counselor may have been smarter had she explained the above to her client. She could have said 'try to learn to appreciate his language'. The husband must be educated to his wife's needs and how to express himself to her satisfaction. But if this change is attempted by trying to force him into his wife's vocabulary and personality, it may backfire. Instead, through her understanding of his makeup she should try to create an atmosphere which is conducive to his ability to grow toward her.

Once again, though, the question and answer should be based on the issue of 'What can I do to enhance our relationship?'

Needless to say, this advice goes both ways. A husband consulting a professional should be asking the same question – and getting the same answer. The professional should first endeavor to explain to him the causes of his wife's behavior, and then give him practical tips for changing the direction of his relationship, thereby moderating his wife's need to behave in an annoying way.

Let's take an example:

    "My wife calls me on my cellphone very often to ask me to leave my studies and come help her at home. When I get home, she doesn't even need me to do very much. Is this normal? How much time should I be giving her? If it's abnormal or wrong, how can I put an end to it?"

Thankfully, in this case, the fellow consulted with a professional with common sense and clarity as to his goal. The counselor, my esteemed colleague, Eliezer Medwed, did acknowledge to the inquiring husband that his wife was asking too much of him. However, as we have opined thus far, he also explained to this husband why his wife was right!

The wife in this story, (who was not exhibiting any signs of psychosis in any area), needed her husband near her for moral support. His presence had a calming effect on her during times of stress when she felt overburdened. She was sending out an SOS. She often felt overwhelmed by her role as a wife and mother. The help he had been offering her, along with housecleaning and babysitting that he had arranged for her, was more than adequate. His wife's 'call' for help was of a different type… Actually, this is something that happens sometimes in most homes. In this woman's case it was more excessive, but was actually nothing more than an extreme manifestation of something quite common. This wife felt a lack of confidence in her husband's love toward her. The counselor therefore advised the husband to make his wife more aware of his feelings toward her – his love, his respect, and his appreciation for all that she'd done for him, such as her efforts and sacrifices which enabled him to continue his learning.

Most importantly, the husband is now aware of what to expect and why his wife responds and reacts as she does. Now he can confidently defuse a potentially explosive situation without feeling that his wife is deficient or abnormal. Armed with a greater understanding of his wife and a better appreciation of her nature, he confidently looks forward to a more harmonious and rewarding marriage.

If we can cultivate a greater understanding of the nature of our relationships, and focus on doing what we can to improve them rather than on the blame, we will be well on our way to a world of greater peace and friendship.

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