The Steipler Gaon greeted the seasoned shalom bayis expert with the following admonition: “When a couple are brought together under the chuppah, the shidduch is meant to provide joy and benefit to them in THIS world, not the next.”
“Do you understand this? If not, DELVE DEEPER!”, he said with a raised voice. He then repeated, “Do you NOW understand this? If not, DELVE DEEPER!”, he said in an even louder voice.
This rhetorical, rapid-fire question and answer session continued for ten rounds, with the Steipler’s voice getting louder and louder, until the shalom bayis expert’s head was ringing, and he was white as a ghost.
He left the meeting shaken, but also inspired and strengthened.
When you think about your spouse and your marriage, do you sometimes feel as if you are your wit’s end? Do you regret your choice of life-partner? Do you find yourself considering divorce? Are you troubled about your spouse’s dissatisfaction in the marriage?
These are scary thoughts, but you cannot afford to ignore them. The longer you wait to work out problems in a marriage, the deeper the resentment and the harder it is to correct.
Perhaps your situation is different. You and your spouse do get along, for the most part. You are willing to accept a life of limited marital satisfaction instead of fighting and arguing. You have both made peace with your disappointments.
Yet swallowing your resentments does not work well in the long run. To cope with an unsatisfying relationship, we often develop various coping methods that actually lead to more pain and hurt. People in unhappy marriages may do one or all of the following:
- Spend hours away from home to avoid the painful feelings of loneliness and longing.
- Become depressed. The depression can be mild in the form of low energy and initiative, it can involve passively neglecting health such as overeating, or it can result in more seriously destructive behavior.
- Turn to spiritually destructive activities, ranging from lapsing in religious dedication to cyber-relationships, and even physical relationships, outside the marriage.
- See them with resentment and bitterness, leading to a cold war.
- Damage their children's development by presenting a bitter, depressed and defeated view of marriage relationships.
These sad outcomes occur every day. The emotional and financial toll of distressed marriages is staggering. Physical health suffers. Children in these families are affected by the fighting and intense anxiety, leading to poor school and social performance.
What Went Wrong?
Most people get married because they want to spend their lives together, with a common bond and mutual respect. Why is it that staying happily married is one of the supreme challenges of life? Why does love fade – and even turn into hate? Why are so many marriages ending in divorce?
Devorah and Michael
When they came to see us, Devorah and Michael had been married for six months. The fighting began the day after the wedding and never stopped. They told us in our first meeting, “When it's good, it is really good, but when it's bad it is just out of control.”
Michael says that Devorah gets angry at the smallest things and nothing seemed to calm her down. Devorah admits she has a temper, but she complains that Michael is emotionally distant, critical and condescending.
The situation got so bad that both were thinking that their marriage was a big mistake. They came to us after deciding to give it one last chance, to see if counseling could help.
Yossi and Sarah
Yossi and Sarah have been married for nine years. Over time their frustrations and disappointments have multiplied, and they grew further apart.
Yossi complains that the children take up most of Sarah's energy. He recalled nostalgically how Sarah used to look adoringly at him. “Where did that love go?” he asked us in a private session. Now, he says, he feels like an old married man: “My marriage has gone stale.” Feeling old and married does not sit well with Yossi. “Lately, I have been fantasizing about running away and starting a new life.”
Sarah’s main grievance is that Yossi is always focused on his work. She feels that he doesn't care about her anymore. As a result, Sarah feels trapped, with her day endlessly revolving around caring for the kids. “The marriage? It’s just a dead end. I long for a husband who will really cherish me. Yossi just isn't the guy I married. It is as if he has been replaced in the middle of the night by some zombie who has no emotions. I feel so stuck.”
Shmuel and Rivka
Shmuel and Rivka have been married for forty years. They have raised a family and are proud of their children and their accomplishments. Yet, they admit, “As a couple we never really got along well.”
Rivka describes the many ways she finds Shmuel’s habits to be annoying, yet she adds, “I have resigned myself to a husband who can be temperamental and rude. We share a lot of history together and, for the most part, Shmuel has tried to do the right thing. I just feel sad that I was not appreciated for most of my life – Shmuel was too critical and impatient to give me the love I needed.”
Shmuel is at a new stage in life since he retired. With less activity to fill up his day, Shmuel has been feeling depressed. He has time on his hands, but his kids are busy and Rivka does not seem to care much about him anymore. “I offer to take her on a vacation or even just to take a walk, but she's never interested. She seems so irritable and is happier when she is with friends. Is this as good as it gets?”
What is going wrong? And, more important, is there something you can do to ensure that your marriage does not end this way?
Do not feel helpless, because you are far from powerless. There are proven Torah and psychological formulas that will help you develop the best marriage – and keep it that way.
We are here to tell you that no one must be a victim. There is hope. Marriages can be turned around – not just to become sustainable, but even exciting and passionate. It does not have to take years and years, nor does it have to be difficult. We know this is true because we have been able to use the techniques in this book successfully in our own lives, along with the many couples we have counseled.
We are not asking you to do more than just read this book and try its simple techniques. Does that sound unrealistic? Read on and you be the judge.
Why This Approach is Different From All Others
This approach in this book is different because it uses simple, fundamental and moral principles that any logical, caring human being will appreciate and understand. These responses are based on decency, love and kindness, which is the manner in which we all strive to behave – no matter what anyone else does. And that is why these techniques work so well: because they make sense in a basic way. These simple techniques challenge us to change our own responses instead of complaining about the other person.
People respond to others based on how they are treated. If someone is courteous to you, you tend to respond courteously. If someone is cruel or hurtful, you tend to respond in kind. This constantly happens in a close and intimate relationship such as marriage. As the pasuk in Mishlei states, “Like a person looking at his face’s reflection in the water, so are the hearts of men to one another.” (27:19)
These reactions occur on all levels of awareness. We react to how we are treated overtly and unconsciously. Sometimes our thoughts are explicit and we think, “She was so nice to me, I feel I owe her.” Or, “He was so mean, I’ll get even with him!“ Other times it happens completely unconsciously, without our awareness. Either way, you react to how you are treated hundreds of times a day. She smiles at you, you smile back. She ignores you, and you think, “I’ll pick up my socks off the floor later (perhaps never, if I 'forget'). Why should I go out of my way for her?”
How these interactions are managed will predict the downfall or the opportunity for greatness in every marriage.
If a negative and hurtful response produces the same, this leads to a downward spiral of negativity. Indifference causing more indifference, insults causing more insults, and retaliation leading to more retaliation. Couples who have runaway hostility and fights know what we are talking about. Their arguments start small and escalate out of control.
If you adopt these changes instead of responding as you always have, your satisfaction will rise and your marriage will flourish. It won’t take months to see a change – you'll see a difference in just a few weeks. It has worked for us and so many others, so please try it for yourself and see!
Cultivating the Right Frame of Mind
Anyone who has tried to waterproof their basement will tell you how difficult it can be to keep every last drop of water out. A leaky roof is far easier to fix than a leaky basement. Why? Because rainwater hits the roof just once. Assuming there is a solid barrier, it flows down the gutter and walls, and not into the house. But in a basement, water just sits and sits until it seeps to the lowest level, finding nooks and crevices to penetrate deeply into the floors and walls of the house.
The wisdom of the Torah is compared to water (Taanis 7a). It will gently but persistently penetrate deeply into a person’s soul. The Talmud tells us that one who is humble and willing to learn will allow the wisdom to seep down to the depths of his personality. He or she will absorb the teachings like a sponge absorbs water. On the other hand, the Gemara (ibid) warns that an arrogant person who maintains himself above others will miss the wisdom that flows and trickles beneath him.
Though the techniques we will describe are conceptually simple, they require a humble, honest and open frame of mind to accomplish. If you are too busy, too angry, too insistent on being right, you will not comprehend the incredible value of these relationship secrets and how they can bring you to success in your marriage. On the other hand, if you keep an open mind and consider anything as a possibility, we can help you.
Marriage can be experienced as excruciatingly painful or the greatest ecstasy. It takes openness, honesty, as well as a willingness to try new approaches. But you know that already. What you may not know is where to focus your efforts.
Generosity and forgiveness are key elements to a successful marriage. But kindness must be balanced with healthy self-esteem and limit setting. When do you forgive? When do you fight? Even more important, how do you forgive, and how do you fight? Knowing how to deliver your message and how to manage your emotions are as important as knowing what you should do.
There are answers to these questions. Our unique combined experiences as psychotherapists and students of Torah thought have allowed us to intertwine the moral wisdom of Torah ethics and connect them with proven, research-based techniques that will help you achieve satisfaction and harmony in your relationships. In this book we will outline, step-by-step, the behaviors and attitudes that will change you and change your marriage.
Who We Are And Why We Wrote this Book
In our professional capacities as psychotherapists and as a husband and wife team, we have had the privilege of helping couples improve their relationships for nearly 20 years. And, during our own marriage, we spent a lot of time fighting and making up. So you could say that we are experts!
All kidding aside, we mean that seriously. We fought a lot. Sometimes, especially in the early years, these fights were cruel. Dear reader, do not delude yourself into thinking that we don’t know what it is like to be in a troubled marriage.
But we learned from each other too. We learned how to respect each other and we learned from the wisdom of our religious tradition. We also learned from other professionals, and our own careful trial and error techniques, to find what would make our relationship thrive. Eventually we were able to adapt these techniques and help other couples.
We went through plenty of good times and bad. There were days where it was not clear at all if we would make it. We sought help from professionals. Some were helpful. Mostly, however, they kept us company in our misery and discouraged us from engaging in foolish or destructive behaviors. They sat with us long enough that we figured out how to help ourselves and each other.
We survived those dark years and emerged emotionally stronger and more human, and we grew in our wisdom about ourselves and about each other. From our recovery process, we developed ideas and relationship skills that we still use today. We want others to experience the same joy and satisfaction that we have come to experience.
This book is a product of our professional and personal wisdom and our gift to you. We know it works because we live it every day on our own journey through our marriage relationship, and through the journeys of those whom we have had the privilege to counsel and teach these tools and secrets to marriage success.
The secrets we will share with you are based on ideas about how we should treat others. They are not merely our own ideas. They are based on morals that come from the Torah, our tradition of ethical laws and insights that spans thousands of years of human experience and efforts to elevate life in accordance with Hashem’s will.
Don't be scared off by this. This book really does not preach. You do not need to be a saint, scholar or mystic to use these techniques. Even people who are not religious at all will easily understand the logic and moral imperative behind these often neglected mitzvos. To succeed, all you need is the motivation to grow in your relationship and to be open minded about adopting new behavior patterns and attitudes.
Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW-R and Chaya Feuerman, LCSW-R maintiain a psychotherapy practice in Queens and Brooklyn, NY.Simcha specializes in high conflict couples and serves as president of Nefesh International and Director of Operations for OHEL.Chaya specializes in trauma and addiction and is EMDRIA certified in EMDR and IFS level II trained.They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com