Rabbi Simcha and Chaya Feuerman
Rabbi Simcha and Chaya FeuermanPR

Allow yourself to have more fun than ever before

An amazing and simple tool that will help you maintain a happy relationship is to do enjoyable activities together.  Cultivating the maximum number of positive experiences will automatically improve the climate of any relationship. These positive experiences can be quick moments, such as a warm smile or a shared joke. They also should include  spending time together regularly, such as a weekly or twice-weekly date.

Common sense tells us that the more pleasant time we spend with a person, the more good feelings and associations we will have in relation to that person. This is a rule of behavioral psychology, known as a conditioned response.  Pavlov discovered that if he rang a bell every time he fed his dogs, then even when there was no food, he could make them salivate just by ringing a bell. 

According to this logic, if you do fun things often enough with your spouse, when you look at him or her the “fun bell” will ring in your head.  On the other side of the coin, if you are often unhappy or fighting with your spouse (even if you are “right”), the “tension bell” and “unhappy bell” will ring when you are around him or her.

The advertising industry has used this technique for decades. This is why the latest model car is shown next to a beautiful woman. In the most primitive parts of our minds, an association is made: “Cool Car = Beautiful Woman.”  The men buy the car because it reminds them of the woman. The woman buys the car because she wants to look as beautiful as the woman in the advertisement. A cigarette ad shows a rugged cowboy looking out over a western plain, implying to the reader that smoking this cigarette is an act of rugged and healthy masculinity. Of course, cigarettes are not healthy or masculine if they are giving people cancer or emphysema. Cigarettes primarily kill people. But this masculine and powerful image is stronger than intellectual reason.  Advertisers would not continuously and consistently use this strategy if it did not work. 

 Why not harness this same strategy by effectively running a positive advertising campaign to improve your feelings and your spouse’s about your marriage? In this chapter we will discuss ways to make this principle work in your marriage to bring happiness and joy into your relationship, despite what other problems you may have. 

Keeping Attractive

Much to the surprise of his pious students, the wife of the holy sage Chilkiya always greeted her husband adorned with jewelry.  He explained her behavior to his disciples, who were somewhat scandalized by her obvious and forthright effort toward appearing attractive: “It is so that I not be tempted to look at other women.”  (Gemara Taanis 23b)

If this pious spiritual giant felt that temptation was around the corner, are any of us holier than he?  The lesson is that feelings of attraction cannot be easily maintained unless both spouses are invested in keeping themselves appealing.

It is a terrible strategic mistake to think that our spouses will automatically and forever be attracted to us.  On the contrary, we must constantly work to woo our spouses. We must take care of our appearance and be diligent in continuously winning our spouse’s hearts.  Rav Avigdor Miller, zt'l, whose hundreds of shiurim have been recorded and listened to the world over, spoke about what he called “The Ten Commandments of Marriage.” One of his commandments is: “Always Maintain Your Appearance and Don’t Be Slovenly.” 

It is a Jewish value that within the bounds of tznius, every woman should strive to maintain her attractiveness to her husband.  Some examples of this include the Mishna Nedarim (66a) where Rabbi Yishmael bemoans how poverty has affected the beauty and radiance of Jewish daughters.  Lest one think this sensibility is limited to young maidens, we find Rav Chisda making a point to his colleagues that even an elderly grandmother is expected to take steps to preserve her beauty (Gemara Moed Kattan 9b).  There are even situations where concerns about possible sin are overriden to prevent a woman from becoming ugly in her husband’s eyes (See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 195:9).

Some might object: “I want my spouse to love me for what I am, not for my looks.” This is unrealistic and naive. Of course love is more than skin deep. Nevertheless, we are wired to appreciate and enjoy aesthetically pleasing experiences. This ranges from beautifully prepared meals and neat clothes to a trim and athletic appearance. Perfection is not the goal, nor is obsessing about one's appearance necessary. However, serious consideration and attentiveness to your looks is the right thing to do and a healthy step to take toward maintaining a happy marriage.

Of course, being attractive is not just about appearance. For a relationship to thrive, each person must continuously work to impress the other and be attractive in every possible quality and character. To whatever degree possible, don't be a failure in your spouse's eyes. If you know your spouse values someone who is prompt, try to be on time. If you know your spouse values someone who is knowledgeable about a certain subject, then learn it.

We are not suggesting that you should be controlled or slavishly follow your spouse's every whim. You are entitled to live your own life according to your preferences. We are advocating that among your other priorities, be serious and realistic in recognizing what your spouse finds attractive. Cultivate as many of these qualities as possible in an appropriately balanced manner.

This is related to  some of the earlier themes in this book. Acting toward your spouse in  a caring, generous manner includes thinking of ways he or she will find you attractive.  What could be a greater kindness than making yourself attractive for your spouse?

Spending Quality Time Together

Shloimie comes home around 8:30pm and finds his wife asleep on their son's bed, along with their son. Apparently, Yehudis was so exhausted that in the process of trying to put her son to sleep, she herself passed out. Shloime quietly warms up the plate of food his wife left him. After eating supper he sits down on the couch and opens a sefer.  Within minutes, he too is fast asleep. Yehudis wakes up around 10pm, finds her husband asleep and takes a blanket from the closet to cover him.  She then goes to bed.  In another few hours, Shloimie's alarm will go off and the next day will begin – most likely ending the same way.

Does this couple remind you of people you know?  Every couple goes through a difficult adjustment in the transition of first being newlyweds, who are fully focused on one another, and then becoming parents. The amount of sleep and time for personal concerns is dramatically curtailed, and often the greatest casualty of this process is intimacy – ranging from physical intimacy to simply spending time talking to each other. Time disappears.  Everyone is exhausted.  The bedroom starts to look like a nursery with diapers, toys and other paraphernalia.

Some couples never really recover from this hurricane of parental demands and responsibilities. If you add the economic realities of working mothers to the mix, is there any time left at all? 

When most people hear the phrase "koveya ittim," they think of the daily moral obligation upon every Jewish male to set aside time to study Torah.  Let’s take a moment to think about a different type of keviyas ittim

If one interviewed most frum couples and asked them to list their priorities of the day and their lives, you would hear responses such as raising good children, earning a living, acquiring knowledge of Torah, and performing acts of chessed.  These are all important and worthy activities, of course, yet it is rare for a couple to consider another crucial activity: spending time together alone. 

Few can live their lives solely in service of others.  Most people who ignore their emotional needs become irritable, bitter or quietly resentful.  Over the long haul, couples are not able to function effectively as parents, breadwinners, or even klei kodesh unless they spend some time focused on emotionally meaningful activities that nurture their relationship.  Even if one spouse of the couple is that rare tzaddik or tzadekes who can forgo this need, the other usually is not. This leads to an imbalance, where one spouse feels constantly deprived but also feels guilty, because the other spouse is too holy to care about so-called mundane emotional needs.

Many couples today are not given the social sanction and encouragement to develop a relationship with their spouses.  Who is out there is telling couples that it is a priority and a moral obligation to tend to your spouse and your relationship? It is just assumed that you get married and live happily ever after. But in fact, that rarely happens without much effort and commitment and spending time growing together

People are very busy and stressed.  They carve out time to daven in a minyan and study Torah because the values of the community are strongly in favor of these activities, and so they make the necessary sacrifices to fulfill these moral obligations. But couples are not told that maintaining their relationship is also a priority and cannot be neglected.

Perhaps couples avoid spending time alone because it feels indulgent or selfish – should they really be spending scarce funds, and scarcer time, to treat their spouses to a special evening? The answer is yes. It is not indulgent or selfish. It is a fulfillment of the mitzvah of v'ahavta l'reacha kamocha – love your neighbor as yourself. 

There are those who believe this refers to doing chessed for others, not our spouses – and indeed, we often treat strangers a whole lot better than we treat our own family members.   In fact, however, halacha points us in the opposite direction. In regard to the mitzvah of tzedaka, the more closely related the person, the greater the mitzvah and the greater the obligation (Shulchan Aruch, Y.D. 251:3). 

There are no more excuses.  Are you koveya ittim?

Combating the Work Environment

The workplace offers either spouse an environment free from the burdens of children. People at work dress well. They feel competent, powerful and in control. Contrast this with how parents feel at home with young children running around and making a mess.  These parents end up tired, overwhelmed and are often poorly dressed. Is it any surprise that some would rather stay at work than go home? 

Perhaps a fellow worker compliments you and gives you some attention. Perhaps you are impressed with the intellect and character of a workmate, while your spouse fares poorly in comparison. For a variety of reasons, there is a significant risk of finding our workmates more attractive than our spouses.

The remedy is to set aside time to be together. The barest minimum is one evening a week for a real date – that is, actually dressing up and getting out of the house. Another evening should be spent with some quiet activity in the house.  It is vital to create a venue where you can each shine as independent, interesting people, not just harried parents.

This is not an area that should be neglected in the slightest. With so many temptations out there in today's social climate, it must be seen as yehareg v’al ya’avor.

Some may find this impractical and expensive. But like most choices, it is really a matter of priority. If spending time together is perceived as, “Nice idea ... but not essential,” then young parents will easily find dozens of more pressing matters to preempt it.  But if they considered it a necessity for their marriage, they will manage to find the time and the money. 

Couples who cannot afford babysitters and do not have parents who are available to help can barter babysitting with siblings or friends. If it that is not possible, you just have to find the money for the babysitter.

On a number of occasions, after working with a couple for some time it becomes clear that they simply did not talk much outside of the therapy session. At that point we tell them, “Consider skipping our meetings and use the money to go out on some dates. It’s cheaper than therapy.”

And it's a whole lot cheaper than divorce.

Research demonstrates the value of shared positive experiences as the most important factor in keeping a relationship alive.  In one study, two randomly chosen groups of couples were given a questionnaire about their marital satisfaction.  In one group, each couple was assigned a bogus brain teaser project that they had to work on together to solve. The brain teaser was rigged so after a few minutes of cooperative effort, the couples would “solve” the problem. 

The couples did not know the puzzle was rigged, and they savored a few moments of pride and victory as they beat the problem together. These couples scored significantly higher on the marital satisfaction survey than the control group, who were not given the task.  This seems to indicate that when a couple shares a positive experience and connection they will feel happier as a couple, even if none of their real problems are actually solved. 

The take home lesson is that if you make an effort to regularly spend time together – and if you make sure that time spent together is pleasant and fun – you will develop more feelings of love and attraction for each other. These feelings remain operative even when there are other problems in the relationship. 

In a study we referred to earlier in this book, Gottman discovered that as long as couples maintained a minimum ratio of five positive experiences to one negative experience, the marriages tended to remain stable. Even regarding couples who fought and had problems, if the ratio was five to one or higher, the couples tended to stay married over the 20-year study period.  On the other hand, even when couples hardly fought, if there was less than a ratio of five to one of positive interactions, these relationships tended to end in divorce.

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 [email protected] or [email protected]