A highlight of our summer was when our family gathered together for a “Shabbaton” where we had the privilege of “shepping” nachas from our children and grandchildren. Among the lively conversation and great food, there was, however, one disturbing conversation over a response to a letter submitted by a young wife and mother to a popular columnist in a Jewish Magazine. She was concerned over what she believed to be an essential “missing ingredient” in her relationship with her husband. While she admitted to having an “OK” marriage, the tone of the letter described the “angst” she experienced over the fact that the element of “friendship” was absent from her marriage. To her credit, her letter included a host of virtues her husband did possess, including being a “wonderful father,” and “taking care of everything financial.” Yet the caveats that followed were telling: “But these are practical things,” she wrote, and “while this is all amazing, for some reason it feels wrong.”
Instead of beginning with a show of empathy for the unhappiness the young woman was communicating, the columnist, more or less, advised her to count her blessings; moreover, he trivialized her yearning for “friendship,” and reduced its importance with statements such as “friends enjoy each other’s company, but spouses devote their lives to each other.” He directly stated, “Marriage and friendship are so vastly different from each other that it would be erroneous even to compare the two.” To make matters worse, he denied the reality of her perceptions by claiming that her present dilemma was in her “own mind.” Yet, even after reading the letter several times over, I never got the impression that she was complaining, assigning blame or swayed by unrealistic or irrelevant cultural mores, as the columnist suggested. In fact, she took ownership of her part in the problem, wondering if it stemmed from her own issues, and even credited her husband with “trying.” Still, from her perspective, she felt as if they had “no relationship”…and never seemed to open up or “confide” in one another. To her distress, her craving for a deeper and more meaningful relationship was relegated to the realm of interactions between family members and friends. She summed it up by stating, “We basically live our own lives.”
The columnist’s response to the writer’s request for advice reminded me of a claim made by previous frum patients that shied away from Shiurim on “Shalom Bayis” because they too were left feeling blamed for their feelings of dissatisfaction in their marriage. I, however, believe that she wasn’t asking too much, and her intentions were reasonable when she sought advice based on Torah wisdom from someone she was familiar with and trusted to come through. Yet, I was distressed, along with many other readers, to find that he failed to empathize with her pain; and worse yet, he chose not to reference the wonderful Torah sources, including the Rambam, in order to present both sides of the “friendship coin.” Indeed, these sources could have helped her more clearly recognize the value of the positive qualities her marriage did possess, without “bashing” friendship and denying her request as yet another inappropriate and irrelevant societal myth. Based on these sources, he could also have offered the couple strategies and advice on how they could work together, or enlist the help they needed, in deepening their relationship.
While I agree that many marriages survive without friendship, and some of them are even highly satisfactory, this is because, as Torah wisdom and psychology teach us, we are all gifted with unique and individual temperaments and emotional needs. However, the young woman was very explicit in stating her personal dream for a happy marriage. Moreover, current research by experts in the field reveals findings similar to the sentiments of the Rambam that the “ability of opening one’s heart and soul to one’s spouse” is one of the top facilitators in a successful marriage, as well as in preventing divorce. It is for this reason that in order for marriage counseling to be transformative, it quickly moves from empathy and support to helping couples identify key obstacles in their relationship, and offering strategies to overcome these challenges. For example, when working with couples that seek a greater level of friendship in their marriage, I begin with a very simple, practical, but highly effective, strategy. When they are tempted to react impulsively to a request or a situation by making judgmental, annoyed or disrespectful remarks, I ask them to take a simple litmus test: (1) Take a step back, (2) take a few deep breaths and (3) ask yourself if you would speak or respond in this manner to your best friend.
Finally, as a therapist who clearly enlists and counts on Torah wisdom, not only as a supplement but as an original source for modern day psychological theory and practice, it frightens me when, with all good intent, it is used to support personal opinions and biases, and as a tool for “armchair psychoanalysis.”
To be continued…
Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst, with special training in Imago Relational Therapy. She can be reached at [email protected]