Q&A : The Torah’s Advice on Marriage – April 2010 – “Jewish Life”
What does the Torah say is the starting point of a good relationship?
A starting practical principle of human relationships and building and maintaining a loving marriage, is giving. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, one of our great rabbis of the 20th century (in his classic work ‘Michtav M’Eliyahu’, Strive for Truth) explains how the more you give to someone the more you will love them. The conventional wisdom is the opposite – the more you love someone the more you will give. But the Jewish view on this principle explains many different relationship dynamics. He says this explains why parents love their children more than children love parents, because parents give so much more. And that bond is built up through the giving. Giving in this context means giving in all forms – giving of love, physical and verbal affection, and helping each other in all ways. Marriage is not a legal contract where two parties come together and both try to get away with the minimum contractual responsibilities. A marriage is based on chesed, the acts of kindness that husband and wife do for each other which will build the love in the relationship. And then children learn the importance of kindness too, because they see parents interacting with each other in this way.
What about being true to each other?
Adam is confronted by G-d after he has eaten the apple, and asks him “What did you do?” Adam responds by saying, “My wife gave the apple to me.” He doesn’t take any responsibility for what he has done. The Sforno, a commentator from the Middle Ages, comments on the fact that Adam tried to blame Eve, and in doing so he showed her no loyalty. But what is worse, says Rashi, is the lack of gratitude Adam showed Eve. He just turns on her. By doing so, he not only shows a lack of gratitude toward G-d, who had given him a wife, but a lack of gratitude for Eve. Gratitude means taking nothing for granted, and is a very important foundation for all relationships. Much goes into making a family and a household function. Bringing money in, organising the affairs of the house, making sure the meals are prepared – the day-to-day functioning that a husband and/or a wife often take for granted. They say yes, he/she is doing that, but that is their job. But every act of kindness has to be acknowledged – not only to say thank you, which is important, but also to be aware all the time that it is being done, and not to take it for granted.
What about trust?
Betrayal can happen in big ways, like G-d forbid, adultery. But it can also happen in seemingly small ways in everyday life, for example, complaining about a spouse to an outsider, especially to parents. This is an easy way to destroy a marriage. When talking to another person in a social context, be it family or friends, never embarrass each other.
And when speaking to each other?
How you speak to your spouse is paramount. We should always be careful of what we say and how it is said. Because words can do damage. Even when said in a fit of anger, they cannot easily be taken back, and there are consequences to what we say. One has to be very careful that communication is constructive, and if this impossible, rather don’t talk at that time. Find another occasion to deal with the issue at hand. But one can only be careful of what one says if one has some kind of self control…
Tell me more about self-control…
One can only control what one says if one builds good middot, character traits. Self-control begins with control over negative emotions such as anger or irritation. This requires a refined personality, and an important principle in Judaism is to work on our character traits all the time. The Rambam derives all the good character traits we should have out of the 613 commandments, ‘To walk in the ways of Hashem’. But many commentators go on to say that this is the premise on which all of the Torah is built. And it is hard work. Rav Yisroel Salanter, who led the Mussar movement that publicised the importance of working on our middot, is famously reported to have said that it is easier to go through the whole Talmud than to change one character trait. To be a well-developed human being is to constantly work on oneself, and realise that it doesn’t necessarily come naturally but takes work, self-awareness, and Torah learning.
How must we bring this home?
The Gemorrah says that all people (particularly men) have to be very careful not to create an atmosphere of fear in the home. Because when people are afraid of the reaction of their spouse (or children of their parent/s), it stifles important discussions and creates an oppressive atmosphere in the home. That is why anger and temper, shouting and screaming is such a problem. Not only because it shows a person to be out of control and damages the relationship, but also that it creates a negative tension all around. The marriage must create a safe space for both husband and wife, a place where problems can be raised and solved in a mature way.
But isn’t behaviour instinctive, rather than conscious?
As human beings, we are creatures of habit, and we look to form patterns of behaviour all the time. This is why it is crucial to form positive patterns rather than negative ones. And we consciously need to construct communication, atmosphere, rhythm, and deeds in the home. A big danger is developing patterns of negative behaviour and communication, verbal or non-verbal (which can sometimes be even more powerful).
Can you give an example of a negative pattern of behaviour?
An otherwise good relationship, marriage, can unravel, when it descends into a negative pattern of harsh communication, and that negativity creates its own negativity. It is important to recognise that sometimes it is necessary to bring in a professional third party to help facilitate the discussion, given the sensitivity of the issues and the problems that may have developed. Marriage counselling can be very important, and when choosing a professional make sure they share the value system of Judaism.
What is the holistic Jewish view on marriage?
The mitzvot interact with each other in a holistic way, which, amongst many other benefits, helps nurture good marriages. We have Shabbos, a pillar that creates a space for family to flourish and connect away from work and modern technologies. We have Taharat Hamisphacha (family purity), designed to strengthen a marriage through maintaining the novelty of physical contact even after many years of marriage. We have the laws prohibiting Lashon Hara (gossip), Ona’at Devarim (insults), and many others. If one is embracing Judaism as a whole, one already has a good framework to build a good marriage inside of that.