A wise and sensitive guide to making any marriage even better.
By Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
CREATE YOUR FUTURE
The rest of your life begins this very moment. And this is true for your marriage also. Regardless of what you have ever said or done in the past, you can presently make new and better choices in every area of your life. Whatever you say or do now is going to be part of the foundation of your future.
Definitely everything that we have done in the past and everything that has already happened to us has an effect on who and what we are. But when tomorrow is today, whatever you say and do today will ultimately become part of the past, creating the person you are now, and in the future.
One of the most inspiring and motivating thoughts for many people is that we can begin again right this moment. You might have made mistakes and errors until now. But from now on you can be totally resolved to act in new and better ways. Just having insight about why you are the way you are isnt sufficient. We need new actions to bring about new results. This moment you can create a new reality for yourself. Regardless of what happened in the past, the past is not the future. When you realize your previously unrecognized abilities to make positive changes, you are a new person.
Reading this book and integrating the ideas presented here is a choice that will affect the rest of your marriage. You can think about ways that you can enhance your marriage and begin to apply them. Even if you have not always spoken to your spouse or acted in the optimal way in the past, from now on you can choose to elevate the way you talk and act.
You have been laying the groundwork for this moment your entire life. As you are reading this, you have in your brain your entire life history, all your knowledge, both the knowledge of the things that you consciously remember and those that are subconscious. You can read this now because you once learned how to read. You need to start learning the alphabet one letter at a time. You needed to build up your vocabulary. What is true about this very moment of your reading is also true of each moment in your marriage. Your entire life history, all of your knowledge, will play a part in what you will say and do in each encounter with your spouse. At each moment it will be true that You have been laying the groundwork for this moment your entire life. Now, whatever you read in this book is part of the groundwork for your future interactions.
When you make a choice in the present to act a certain way, that pattern gets added to your mental library. Every time you repeat a positive behavior the neural pathways in your brain that lead to that behavior become stronger and the likelihood increases that you will continue to act this way. This principle can work for us or against us. When you choose positive ways of talking and positive actions, the principle will be working in your favor.
Before they actually consider getting married, many people visualize the type of person they wish to marry. They have their shopping lists. After you are married, however, your goal is to cope well with the actual situation. Many people add much frustration to their lives by wishing things were different. But wisdom dictates: Make the best of what you have. Live in the present in your marriage.
Our lives are a continually changing process. We are never the exact same in any given day. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin wrote that we never pray the same Shemoneh Esrei twice. The words are the same each of the three times a day that we repeat this prayer, but you are always different. Your life situation keeps changing. Your needs change. Your spiritual level goes up and down. Your emotions will be different either slightly or drastically, depending on what is happening in your life. This applies both to you and to the person to whom you are married. You are never exactly the same as you were the day before. For this reason, what you and your spouse need from each other will keep changing. Live in the present. Focus on making the best choices for what is needed right now.
LEARN FROM THE PAST TO BE
WISER IN THE PRESENT
Every experience you have ever had in the past can serve as your teacher. The wise person is someone who learns from each person (Pirkei Avos 4:1). We can learn from the strengths and good qualities of each person, and we can learn what to avoid from his or her mistakes. We can learn from ourselves and from our past experiences.
Wisdom dictates that we live in the present, learn from the past, and prepare for the future. Positive memories of the past can sustain us in times of difficulty. Talking about the past can illuminate the present. If someone had a painful past, being able to express painful feelings can be cathartic and healing if there is a compassionate listener. Visualizing the past in new ways can free us from its painful effects. But after all is said and done, we live only in the present. And whatever we do and whatever happens to us can be used as a source of wisdom for the future.
Whenever you make a mistake in interacting with your spouse, and you find that you become excessively upset, realize that you are now wiser than you were before. The same is true with everything youve ever said or done that created pain or quarrels. Having had those experiences and having added them to your mental library increases your wisdom as to what to avoid from now on. Every time you acted wisely in the past, you now have that as a valuable resource for the future.
The way my mind works is that as soon as anything happens in the present, I immediately project it to the future. In school, when I received a good mark on a test, I would imagine how my life would be if I would keep this up for years to come. When I didnt do so well on a test, I would visualize my entire future being one big failure.
On the first meeting I had with my spouse, we got along wonderfully. I right away visualized us getting married and raising a family together. I even saw us at our first grandchilds wedding.
During our wedding and sheva berachos, we were both exceedingly happy, and I would see us sustaining this happiness our entire lives; but when we had our first bitter argument, I immediately saw a life of total disaster. I could see us fighting again and again throughout our lives. This put me into a state of panic.
My spouse saw how panicky I became, and was puzzled. True this was a bad argument and we both felt awful about it, but why did it have such a strong effect on you?
Because I am afraid that this means we will continue to argue this way all the time and that would be terrible, I said.
My spouse asked me, Just because we argued this way once doesnt mean we will always do so. I assume that from time to time our disagreements might get out of hand, but we both love each other so much that we will always work things out in a way that is acceptable to both you and me. We will both learn from our mistakes to be more careful in the future.
I explained how my thought patterns worked and we both understood why I felt so bad. From then on it became easier for me to live more in the present. I increased my realization that we end up learning from each situation that we experience, and therefore we improve our ability to handle similar situations better.
KEEP ASKING YOURSELF,
WHAT CAN I DO NOW?
The tool that will help you live in the present is to keep asking yourself, What can I do now? There are two very important words in this question. One is the word I and the other is the word now. At times you might be able to say, What can we do now? You can ask this if you and your spouse are able to discuss an emotionally laden issue peacefully. But as a general rule keep the main focus on what you personally can do now. When you act with sincere love and respect, there is a strong probability that your spouse will also make a positive change.
This question has many variations:
What can I do now to enhance my marriage?
What can I do now to make up for what I have already done?
What can I do now to stop this argument?
What can I do now that will create a joyous and loving environment in our home?
What can I do now to prevent repeating a problematic pattern in the future?
What can I do now? is the opposite of telling your spouse, You should have ... When someone makes a You should have statement, there is blaming. It is blaming ones spouse for the past. At times, this is appropriate. By pointing out a mistake or error, you might prevent it. But in marriage, this form of statement is often just the beginning of a long drawn out quarrel that leads nowhere. Or it creates resentment. So weigh the situation carefully before making statements that point the blame. Often it is worthwhile using the plural we when you talk about past mistakes. We could have done this differently. And hopefully in the future we will.
Instead of asking, Why didnt you ...? which implies blaming, it is preferable to say, I would greatly appreciate it if you would please ...
If you need to repeat yourself, live in the present. Ask the tenth time with the same patience as the first time. This skill takes time to develop. But marriage and child-raising give you many opportunities for practice.
FORGIVE AND LET GO
(DONT HOLD ONTO RESENTMENT)
Living in the present means that you forgive and let go. When you hold onto resentment for past wrongs, you are carrying along the weight of the past into the present. This makes a heavy burden. The present can be difficult enough on its own for us to handle. When someone adds it to the resentments of the past, it can become unbearable. That is why many people who hold onto past resentments suffer from psychosomatic illnesses. The past resentment drains our strength and we dont have the energy we need for the present. Keep your mind off past resentments. Would you keep listening over and over again to a tape that you found unpleasant? If your mind spontaneously keeps going back to the past, tell yourself, Next, and focus on something else.
If someone we have never met before starts speaking to us, we invariably speak politely and respectfully. Since we dont have any negative history with this person, it is relatively easy to speak with respect. But when we feel resentful toward someone for not meeting our requests and needs, and all the more so if we are resentful of things this person said and did that caused us distress, we are likely to become angry easily.
The Vilna Gaon expressed this in his commentary to Mishlei (10:12): When someone feels an inner hostility towards another person, even a minor offense can arouse feelings of animosity. Even though what has actually occurred right now could be trivial, the previous negative feelings create quarrels. However, when someone feels love for another person, he is able to forgive whatever the other person does.
Forgiving and letting go doesnt mean that you are denying that this person has done something wrong, but it does mean that you are releasing the emotional attachment you have towards that wrong.
When we talk about a painful incident of the past, whether it was emotionally painful or physically painful, right now in the present our muscles tighten up. This tightness can easily be measured with biofeedback technology which measures the tightening and loosening of our muscles. When our muscles are tighter, they give off more electricity. When our muscles are relaxed, they give off less electricity. Even slight changes are detected by EMG (electromyograph) machines. When someone thinks about the distress that someone caused him, ones muscles tighten and energy is wasted. If, however, you have totally and sincerely forgiven that person, when you mention that persons name you will feel calm and relaxed. I personally have witnessed this experience with someone who totally forgave another person. This is an important principle to master for a happy marriage. Forgive your spouse for what went wrong, and begin to create a harmonious marriage in the present.
People differ greatly in how easy or difficult it is for them to let go of the past. Some people perceive the past as behind them and spontaneously keep their focus on the present and the future. Others perceive the past as happening right now. They feel the pain and anguish of the past as if it were occurring right now. When others tell them to live in the present, they often dont realize how difficult it is for these people to let go of the past. Nevertheless, this is the task they need to master. They need to reflect on the thought, I will let go of the past and totally forgive. Some people find that by repeating this while breathing slowly and deeply it eventually becomes their reality. It can be very difficult to let go of past resentments. And thats why there is so much spiritual growth in letting go of them.
When I looked at the state of my marriage, I felt depressed. My husband and I have had so many unpleasant interactions that when I thought about the future of our marriage, I saw a dark cloud. I felt a great deal of resentment towards my husband for all the nasty things that he has said to me. I often hate the way he acts towards the children. He has a temper and acts mean if the children misbehave when he is in one of his foul moods. He is very controlling and demands respect although he doesnt always treat me with respect.
One day he was especially cruel towards the children, and I decided that Id had it. I wasnt going to put up with the way he acted any more. I called a few people for support and they told me that if I were smart I would get out of the marriage now instead of ruining the rest of my life -- but I was afraid. My husband had told me a number of times that if I would try to get a divorce, he would hire the best lawyer he could find and he would claim that I was unfit to raise the children. Every time he told this to me, I hated him for it.
Now that I had spoken to a number of people and heard their reactions to the way my children and I were being treated, my resentful feelings increased. I began speaking to my husband in anger and this got him angrier than ever before. I was resolved to get out of the marriage, but after going to the court, I got cold feet. I was even more frightened about getting divorced than I was about staying in the marriage.
I kept thinking the matter over and was in extreme pain about the entire situation. When I actually thought about divorce I saw that there were many positive things about my husband that I did respect. He was always polite and respectful to other people. The problem was that he lost his temper too frequently in our home.
I spoke to someone who told me to weigh the entire situation as objectively as possible. First of all, if I would keep up the resentment about the past, I would end up speaking to my husband in ways that made the situation worse. The only hope for the marriage to work was for me to forgive my husband for the past and let go of the resentment. Then I would need to tell him in a firm but kind voice that I could no longer tolerate his past behavior in the future. If he would agree to go for counseling and treat me with respect and be kinder to the children, I would be happy to continue the marriage. If not, the marriage was over. The choice was his.
I dont know yet how the future will turn out. But I realized that only by letting go of the past resentment was there any hope for a marriage based on mutual respect.
DONT NEEDLESSLY BRING UP THE PAST
It is forbidden to remind a person of his past misdeeds or the misdeeds of his family, for this will cause him distress (Choshen Mishpat 228:4).
When someones spouse has said or done things in the past that caused pain or distress, it is easy to keep talking about it. At times this is necessary in order to work out the issues. The person who suffered doesnt feel that he or she can just let this go without discussing it. For some people this need is very strong. The problem is that the person who said or did something wrong, often dislikes to talk about it. Talking about his or her mistakes and errors are painful, but if the hurt party has a need to discuss the issue, that is the price the perpetrator has to pay. Hopefully the realization of his or her own distress now will make him or her more motivated to refrain from causing pain in the future.
After the subject has been spoken about, however, and you already have forgiven your spouse, dont needlessly bring up the issue. If you are still in deep pain, it is understandable that you have a practical need to keep on discussing the matter. This can be a strong emotional need, but some people like to bring up past hurts even though they dont really need to do so in order to let go of strong pain. They might want to keep on retaliating. You hurt me without provocation, so Im going to keep making you suffer for it. I wont let you forget what youve done. If the person sincerely regrets his or her wrong, it is wrong on your part to keep making him or her suffer.
For most people it isnt easy to refrain from needlessly mentioning past offenses. As stated in the classic mussar work Mesillas Yesharim (ch. 11): It is very difficult to overcome feelings of animosity and revenge when one is wronged. People find revenge sweeter than honey. It takes great strength of character to overcome the natural desire for revenge and not to hate the other person, but to forget the entire matter and remove it from ones heart as if it had never occurred. Such a level is easy only for angels who do not have normal human emotions, but not for ordinary mortals. Nevertheless, it is the decree of the King. The Torah states this obligation explicitly: Do not hate your brother in your heart. Do not take revenge and do not bear a grudge.
When someone has refused to help you or has harmed you in the past, it is considered revenge to fail to do him a favor. It is considered bearing a grudge to remind him of that incident when you are engaged in doing him a favor. The evil inclination works on getting a person angry in order that he should get back at the other person, if not in a major way, at least in a minor way. The evil inclination tries to tell you, If you want to give something to him even though he refused to help you when you were in need, at least dont give it to him with a friendly smile. Dont help him too much. Even if you help him, dont do it in such a way that he will derive the maximum satisfaction. Dont be too close a friend with him; its enough that you forgave him and dont consider him your enemy. Even if you do still want to be his friend, dont show him as much love as previously. These are the ways in which the evil inclination tries to entice people.
Therefore the Torah states a principle that includes everything. Love your neighbor as yourself. As yourself -- without any difference or variation. Literally, as yourself.
These thoughts from Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto are especially important for a marriage. If a couple has already made up after an argument or one of the two has asked forgiveness for a wrong, bringing it up in the present creates needless arguments. Since it is so difficult not to bring it up, appreciate the strength of character you are gaining by exercising your spiritual muscles.
Any time you feel like saying something that would be a product of feelings of animosity and you remain silent, you are fulfilling the Torah commandment of not taking revenge or bearing a grudge. This creates a great light in your soul. This is tremendous growth.
Stay in the present. Its easy to lapse into discussing past history, but that wont solve the present situation. Blaming each other for past mistakes and painful statements and actions will prevent you both from handling the present with wisdom. In a marriage, promoting change in the present should take precedence over clarifying the realities of the past. Finding out about the past is the work of lawyers in a court. It is the work of historians. And in certain instances it can be the work of skillful therapists to help a person gain greater insight. In a marriage, whether it will be helpful or counterproductive depends on the personalities and reactions of both the husband and wife. If you find it beneficial to discuss the past with your spouse, do so. If you find it counterproductive, stay in the present.
An issue in marriage can occur when one party feels a strong need to discuss what went wrong in the past in order to let go of feelings of resentment, and the other party has a strong need to avoid talking about his or her wrongs in the past. It is too painful for him or her. I recommend that both do speak about it if possible. While listening and discussing can be painful to the one who doesnt want to talk about it, it is only through this vehicle that the other one will be able to move on.
If you feel a strong need to talk about something from the past and your spouse keeps on insisting that its wrong to talk about past wrongs, you can point out, To me this is not a matter of the past. I am living with these memories in the present. To me its just as if it happened recently. My goal is to be able to let go of it totally so we can have a loving relationship, but right now I have a strong need to talk about it.
When you do talk about the past with your spouse, dont talk in an attacking manner. This will usually cause your spouse to be defensive. Be respectfully assertive and non-blaming. You want to explain yourself and your feelings. Speak so you will be understood. Let your tone of voice and choice of words be conducive to a peaceful discussion. This way you both gain.
REINFORCE POSITIVE ATTEMPTS
Reinforce improvement. This is a valuable piece of advice. When your spouse does something that he or she might not keep up spontaneously, reinforce it. Express your appreciation in a way that your spouse will appreciate. Some people like direct statements. For example, When you greeted me in a friendly fashion at the door, it made me feel wonderful. Thank you so much. Other people might see this as condescending or controlling. For them a more subtle reinforcement is necessary. It could be a slight smile, or some action that your spouse would like.
Reinforce positive attempts at improvement. If your husband or wife is trying to improve in some area, reinforce the positive attempt even if it is not yet exactly the way you wish it would be. Small changes can lead to large changes. The trend has been reversed. That is the main thing. So even though things are not perfect yet, going in the right direction is what counts. As long as theyre on the right path, express your appreciation for the fact that he or she is trying. For most people this keeps them motivated to continue doing more in the same direction. Some people are afraid that if they reinforce a positive attempt, the person wont keep trying to be better. Perhaps. But the vast majority of people appreciate your appreciation of their efforts. Unless you know for certain otherwise, assume that your spouse would like his or her positive efforts acknowledged.
Live in the present. If you didnt like something that your spouse said previously and now he or she says something that is what you want him or her to say, accept the present statement. Its counterproductive for you to act like a lawyer doing a cross-examination. What will you gain by trying to point out a contradiction? It is normal for people to change their opinions and feelings. Some people readily acknowledge, Yes, I have changed my position. But many just change their position without being open to acknowledge that they have changed their minds. If the present position is a position that you would want your spouse to have, accept it.
Its impossible for things to get better, I would say.
My spouse would act better, and I would say, It wont last.
Now I understand that it would have been wiser for me to have given my spouse encouragement whenever things got better, but I was full of resentment. Moreover, I really believed that it was impossible for things to get better. Therefore, I viewed anything positive that my spouse said or did as either just a temporary try that wouldnt last, or else as just a fake, a superficial ploy to win me back. I considered it insincere and not real.
My spouse, however, believed that things could get better, and also knew with total clarity that the efforts at improvement were totally sincere. I didnt want to go for counseling. Since I felt it was impossible for things to get better, I was certain that counseling would be a waste of time, money, and energy, but my spouse kept insisting that we try anyway. An objective outsider might be able to see things that we both missed and make some helpful suggestions.
During the first session, the counselor listened carefully and objectively to both of our versions of what the reality of our marriage actually was. I said, Ill tell you my side. But it wont make any difference. Its impossible for things to get better.
Excuse me, he said. I can see that the situation is serious and that change might be difficult. But right at the beginning lets differentiate between impossible and difficult.
What does impossible actually mean? he asked us.
That it cant possibly happen, I replied.
Do you believe you can choose what you are going to say?
Yes, I replied.
Do you believe you can choose what actions to take?
Yes, of course, I said.
Changing patterns is often difficult and it can take time, he assured me, but it is possible. Ive seen many situations in which the participants both felt it was impossible for things to get better, but either the husband or wife started speaking and acting differently and this changed the entire nature of the relationship.
I guarantee you one thing. If you keep repeating that its impossible for things to get better, your belief will insure that there wont be a lasting improvement.
I can never guarantee anyone that things will get better. For some people they dont, regardless of how many different professionals they speak to. They have incompatible goals, lifestyles, and personalities. They have so much built up resentment that they find it too hard to let go of it. They continue to get into nasty quarrels. However, Ive seen enough so-called impossible situations improve to make me a strong believer in possibilities. At times, even if only one person is committed to improving the way he or she speaks and acts, a marriage can get better, even much better. When both husband and wife are willing to do whatever it takes, and will consistently work on improving what they say and do for as long as it takes, then they are almost guaranteed success. If one plan or approach does not work, they try something else. They keep trying until they are successful. I have seen couples go from being adversaries and even enemies to becoming close friends who enjoy each others company. Some couples dont get this far, but they do get along peacefully and begin to feel more positive about each other.
I see that your spouse is sincere, he told me. I dont always feel this way, but in your situation I see it as clearly as I see my hand right in front of my eyes.
I ask of you both just one thing, he concluded. Please do it as a personal favor to me. It will also save you a lot of suffering and money.
I looked at my spouse with my peripheral vision and saw that my interest in hearing the one thing was matched.
Whenever either of you likes something that the other one says or does, please say, I appreciate that. Every day look for as many things to appreciate as you can. If you find that you say it too often, you might want to limit it to a specific number of times.
Do you both agree to try this out? he asked us. We will discuss the results of this experiment next week.
Of course, we agreed. We had nothing to lose.
That week was the best week of our marriage since the week of our wedding and sheva berachos. I no longer felt that improvement was impossible. I became a true believer in the power of positive reinforcement.
I travel a lot and am constantly busy when I travel. I am exhausted at the end of the day, and my energy is totally depleted. I know that I dont call my wife often enough. When I do call, this is what I usually hear, How come you didnt call before? Ive been waiting for you to call. Youre very insensitive and uncaring.
Knowing that I will be yelled at when I call caused me to keep procrastinating. I passed up many opportunities to call my wife. If I had only a few minutes before a meeting, I wanted to be in a positive emotional state to be able to do my best. The criticism I heard on the phone was so unpleasant to my ears that it caused me to avoid calling. Didnt my wife realize how counterproductive her approach was?
Then, one day, I was totally unprepared for what my wife said when I called.
How wonderful to hear your voice, she said. Your call means so much to me. Thank you so much for calling. Your voice is music to my ears
Wow!!! I never expected to hear such a beautiful greeting. I dont know if someone told her to do this, whether she read about it, or whether she thought of it on her own. Regardless of how it happened, I appreciated it immensely. I began calling more often, and each time I received a warm and loving response. We both feel great about our telephone calls. And when I come home, the effects carry over to our in-person conversations.