Couple arguing (illustrative)
Couple arguing (illustrative) Thinkstock

Chapter One: Learn All You Need To Know While Standing On One Foot

The Gemara (Shabbos 31a) tells a story about the legendary patient and wise sage, Hillel: 

Hillel was approached by a heathen who asked to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot.  Instead of scorning him for his impetuous request, Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah – the rest is commentary. Go and study it."

If you want to be loved, you will need to love. This love is not an emotional state of passion, lust or romance. Though very important, that type of love is not strong enough to last for years. There is an old Yiddish proverb, “If you loved fish so much, you wouldn’t eat it!” 

We are referring to a love that is demonstrated by practical, moral and decent behaviors that you need to practice to promote good feelings in your marriage.  If you treat your spouse in a loving and generous fashion, you will receive the same. 

How can you do this in a practical way? There are three fundamental attitudes and behaviors that can revitalize your marriage. To make it even easier, you don't need to take them all on at once. The program can be followed by working on one new attitude and behavior at a time and then adding on a new technique while still maintaining the prior changes. 

These attitudes and behaviors are morally correct, research-based and vital to the success of your relationship. These techniques will keep the ground of your marriage fertile so passion and romance can thrive.

The three principles are deceptively simple:

  • Let Go of Resentments and Let Go of Revenge –  Train yourself to let grudges go.
  • Go on a Listening Tour – Become an empathic and caring listener.
  • Maximize Pleasant Experiences: Have Fun Together –  Find every opportunity for fun and good feelings in your relationship. 

Don't be fooled by the simplicity of these three principles. Simple is not synonymous with easy.  For example, we all know that if we want to stay healthy, we should eat balanced meals, exercise several times a week, and not overeat.  Now, given what is at stake, how hard is this really?  But how many people actually follow this prescription for health?  This simple, healthful advice, which has been proven to keep us healthy and give us longer lives, is often ignored. 

What is the source of the incredible internal resistance people encounter when they try to do what they know is best for them?  Where in the world does it come from? 

You can call it the Yetzer Hara.  Psychologists call it self-destructive impulses.  Whatever you call it, face it: it is real and powerful.  But you can still win.  By being mindful and keeping focused and motivated, you can overcome these detrimental attitudes and behaviors and replace them with love and generosity.

The great Jewish baal mussar and mystic of the seventeenth entury, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, introduced his famous Mesilas Yesharim by informing his readers that he has nothing new to say. “In fact, I have written about the simplest of matters that everyone knows.  Rather,” he told his readers, “the purpose of this book is to remind you of what you already know, and to encourage you to act on it.”

Principle #1 - Letting Go

When you let go of resentments and stop obsessing over what was done wrong to you and how you ought to be treated, you will avoid escalating fights and cycles of “tit for tat” behavior.  If you are generous and kind in big ways and small, your spouse will automatically respond to you in a loving way.  He or she will come to appreciate your graciousness and truly feel blessed to have you as a life partner.  This is a much better outcome than keeping score and retaliating against your spouse.

The legendary family therapist, Murray Bowen, used to say, “Anything that is predictable is controllable.”  He used this principle to teach people how to extricate themselves from negative relationship patterns. When a parent complained to Bowen, “Whenever I ask Johnny to clean up his room, he answers disrespectfully,”  Bowen responded, “There's an easy way to avoid his disrespect – don’t ask him to clean his room!” 

If you know an action will cause something to occur, you can find an alternative action that will bring about a different response. Even if your spouse was hurtful or cruel toward you, if you deliberately choose to respond with kindness, generosity and love instead of revenge, your spouse will likely return the favor. 

It can be hard to let go of resentment, and it can be challenging to be generous and forgiving. Don't worry – we will show you how.  We will teach you how to perform “attitude surgery” so you reprogram your heart and mind.

Of course, you also will need to share your disappointments and let your spouse know how you wish to be treated. You will learn, however, that in order to be heard, you must listen. That brings us to the next principle:

Principle #2 - Empathic Listening

By employing the technique of Empathic Listening, even the most longstanding fights and power struggles will dissolve. You and your spouse will both feel more understood and loved. When your spouse feels you truly understand and care, he or she will be ready to hear what is on your mind.  By being courteous and gracious, by tending to your spouse’s concerns first, doors will open for you to resolve your own complaints. 

There is another benefit that comes from Empathic Listening. If you listen carefully, at times you will discover that your spouse may actually be right. Or perhaps you thought he or she said something that hurt your feelings, and instead you will discover that what was said actually had a different intention.

It never hurts to listen first. You don’t really believe that you are right all the time, do you?  Once in while you could actually misunderstand something. It is certainly prudent to first listen sensitively to understand your spouse’s perspective on matters.

Principle #3 – Have Fun Together

The final key to a successful and vibrant marriage is to make time to have fun.  Enjoying special times together on a regular basis must become a priority. This acts as a healing balm for even the most troubled relationships. 

Many couples underestimate the power of spending pleasurable time together.  People think, “Why should spending fun time together make things better?  Isn’t it like sweeping problems under the rug, or covering up a hole in the wall with a picture frame?” 

This argument may sound logical, but relationships do not operate only from logic.  Watch any couple in action and it quickly becomes apparent that feelings, not logic, is the primary reason people are satisfied or dissatisfied in a marriage.  The secular saying is, “Love is blind,” but we also find a Jewish saying, “Ahava mekalkel es hashurah -- Love makes people think in a less than logical manner.”  (Seforno on Beraishis 29:20)  Love operates from a perspective that sidesteps logical facts and focuses on emotions, which are powerful motivators and regulators of human life.. 

Because the subjective emotional state is what dictates a person’s happiness and satisfaction, it stands to reason that the more good feelings you have around each other and give each other, the happier you will feel. This is supported both in psychological research and relationship values promoted by Torah ethics for thousands of years.

Creating the Foundation - The Fairness Myth

Let's revisit two of the couples we met in the preface of this book.

Shmuel hates being the one who always has to give in. When Rivka needs to take care of her mother, he has to drop everything.  But when Shmuel’s father is in the hospital, Rivka complains that Shmuel’s other siblings don’t visit.

Sarah resents that Yossi never makes time for her.  She is always doting on him –  but does he ever stop work to think about her? It's true that he has a tough job and his boss is a tyrant. But is it fair that she has to lose out?

When Shmuel is flexible in regard to Rivka’s mother, and when Sarah is kind to Yossi, they each keep a mental score card.  Unconsciously or even out loud, they check to see if they will be paid back.  This type of tabulating guarantees resentment, because in real life nothing happens evenly or fairly. One person is smarter, one is taller, one is prettier.  There is no getting around this.

Believe it or not, trying to keep things fair actually promotes unhappiness and discord.  Why? Because most people don’t notice or appreciate when things are fair, but they tend to focus when they aren’t. If you spend time paying attention to whether things are fair, you will notice it more and be less satisfied.

This basic attitude must change. The more you pay attention to whether things are fair, the more unhappy you will be.  Instead, it is time to let go, stop looking at what is on the other person’s plate and pay attention only to yours.

But I'll Be Taken for Granted!

It is understandable if you worry about being too generous and loving. If you constantly give without ensuring that you also get back, how will your spouse learn to treat you well?  Won’t he or she become spoiled and self-centered?

Being generous without keeping score, without worrying about fairness and who is giving to whom, is not the same as being a pushover. Generosity of spirit should come from strength and confidence, not a desperate desire to please or a fear of not being loved. Of course you have needs. And you should go ahead and ask for them to be met.  You may have resentments or hurt feelings – feel free to discuss them as well. It is important to do so in every healthy relationship, and it is even a mitzvah, as we shall learn later on.

Keep one thing in mind, though: your kindness should not be contingent on the person’s behavior. You can discuss your needs and wishes, or even the ways you were hurt, without complaining about how much you give. You should not rant about how unfair it is and how much better you are than your spouse. This provokes defensiveness and arguments, while it distracts from the compelling simplicity of your request. 

Strive to bring up your concerns in a pleasant, confident and upbeat manner that conveys optimism about your spouse’s ability and willingness to give.  Do not indulge in whiny complaining such as, “You owe me. I do such and such for you.”  Sometimes these complaints are implied, and other times they are stated explicitly. This approach is  terribly damaging.

Imagine if each spouse behaved kindly and generously, while telling themselves that they were doing it freely with no strings attached. In relationships, people should provide this as an act of love. Every deed or word can be a beautiful gift.  And here is the surprising part: not only does the receiving spouse feel gratitude and often reciprocate, the giving spouse also feels happier. 

Acting loving makes us feel more in love. Researchers know this about human nature by studying mother-infant bonding. When a mother holds her helpless newborn, her instincts almost always take over.  Feelings of love are activated by the process of the mother giving to the child.  Giving without strings attached, what we call with a “blank check,” makes everyone happier and induces strong feelings of love.

The Research Proves it

The research proves this point completely.  Paying attention to whether you are being treated fairly and in kind decreases your chances of obtaining happiness and satisfaction.

John Gottman, PhD., one of the leading researchers on marriage, discovered a fascinating fact about fairness in relationships that is contrary to instinct and intuition. Gottman studied a group of couples over a 20 year period, videotaping and analyzing their interactions.  His goal was to carefully scrutinize behavior, attitudes and communication patterns in the marriages that succeeded as well as those that failed.  By this reverse-engineering process Gottman was able to identify key qualities that helped marriages succeed, and behaviors and attitudes that destroyed them. 

Gottman discovered that most successful relationships often involved an imbalance of effort.  In a successful relationship, there frequently was one spouse who was more forgiving, more generous, or provided some other stabilizing force.  Amazingly, in those relationships both spouses reported a higher degree of happiness and satisfaction. 

On the other hand, couples who focused on making sure there was fairness and an equal distribution of tasks and responsibilities were unhappy and dissatisfied.  How can this be?  We believe the answer lies in the approach we have been discussing.  Kindness and love tend to reduce resentment and promote overall good feelings.  Bean-counting and obsessing over what is fair breeds more resentment, control and spiteful behavior. 

Keep score and your marriage dies. We see it all the time. It is the cancer of marriages because it causes people to focus on their selfish needs and negative experiences, instead of focusing on pleasant experiences and reasonable requests.

Letting go of the myth of keeping score is a prerequisite for a healthy relationship.   It is an attitude change that will allow you to follow the three principles with a full heart.

Rabbi Simcha Feuerman,LCSW_R and Chaya Feuerman,LCSW-R maintain 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 or

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