Saturday, January 22, 2022

Thank you to Genene Kaye for her letter (“Beware the Language Used in Advice Columns,” August 26, 2021) regarding the August Verbal Assertiveness column on Negative Assertion (“Verbal Assertiveness, Part Three: Accepting Criticism Using the Negative Assertion Skill,” August 12, 2021). I apologize for this tardy response to your letter and I thank H.S. for recently bringing it to my attention.

You are absolutely right that a healthy marriage is based on respectful and loving thoughts, speech and behavior between spouses. Ani L’Dodi, V’Dodi Li, I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me—that is the ideal. The reality is that a lot of people are not perfect when they stand under the chuppah, and need to continue working on their middot during marriage.

Marriage is a process. Most marriages start out rosy and both spouses treat each other well. When stressful, difficult challenges inevitably arise, the strain reveals the areas we need to work on. I can remember thinking I was a patient person until I had children and realized that perhaps I had overestimated this virtue. Had anyone told me, before kids, that I was impatient, I wouldn’t have known what they were talking about, and certainly would not have changed. Oftentimes, one is unable to hear the hard, brutal truth about themselves that only their spouse is privy to.

The Torah tells us that to maintain a marriage, a lie is permitted, even one of omission. We see this when Hashem informs Avraham that Sarah said to herself that she is old. The Almighty omits the rest of her sentence, “and my husband is also old.” In the laws of Sotah, we are commanded to erase the name of Hashem in order to maintain a marriage. It isn’t a virtually perfect marriage, like Avraham and Sarah’s, that the Almighty is willing to erase His name to maintain. This is a marriage where a woman has been warned and despite that, she is still found alone with a man who is not her husband. Human sentiment would demand that the husband divorce his wife because “this is unacceptable behavior!” But the Almighty in effect says, “No! Shalom bayit is so important to Me that you must expend extraordinary effort to achieve it. You must even break the third commandment in a public manner to do so.”

Sadly, the reality is that the cringeworthy dialogue you referenced actually occurs in some marriages but occurs in more terrible ways. Allow me to demonstrate:

Scenario 1: Counter-criticism

Husband: “You didn’t have my suit properly dry cleaned.”

Wife: “You should be more careful to avoid stains. You are a slob.”

(The spouses exchange more verbal barbs, the verbal barbs become more targeted and lethal as the cruelty increases.)

Scenario 2: Defend

Husband: “You didn’t have my suit properly dry cleaned.”

Wife: “It is too difficult to keep track of the stains or know where they are since I didn’t cause them.

(The spouses go around in circles. Distrust, accusations, frustration and lack of responsibility are the standard and the indifference increases.)

Scenario 3: Deny

Husband: “You didn’t have my suit properly dry cleaned.”

Wife: “You are mistaken.”

(The husband’s upset turns into rage … you can fill in the rest.)

These scenarios are far worse and continue in vicious cycles that destroy both spouses further, as well as any children they may have. This is the unfortunate reality for some marriages.

The scenario in the original exaggerated dialogue assumes that, in the past, the wife was easily manipulated into feeling incompetent and would bend over backwards as the husband got what he wanted with his temper tantrum. You are right that it isn’t OK for the husband to speak to his wife in a demeaning way—even if he becomes aware that she purposely didn’t mention the stains as a passive-aggressive way to get back at him. But we need to help people where they are, not where we think they should be.

The wife of the original dialogue in the August 12 article is using new skills she didn’t have before. She is communicating to her husband that she will not be manipulated with criticism and she will be persistent with changes she wants—she chooses a small step of having him put blue tape on stains. It is because she isn’t responding in her usual unassertive manner that the husband ratchets up the criticism and attempts to cower her back into old behaviors. But her persistence doesn’t fail and in the end she gets what she wants. As her
assertiveness grows, the husband will learn that temper tantrums don’t work and if he doesn’t like something, he needs to find a better way to communicate it. This is a realistic way to change the negative dynamics in a relationship if one chooses to maintain the marriage.

I want you to know that it feels uncomfortable creating the “mean dialogue” necessary to demonstrate specific skills. I purposely extend the distasteful criticism beyond the realistic length to emphasize the importance of persistence. The dry cleaner dialogue was the most difficult for me, and I knew it would create discomfort in readers as well. In the end, I decided it was worth it if it helped the person whose reality was being mirrored.

In my free verbal assertiveness sessions, I have had the honor of meeting some Jewish women who, despite the verbal abuse or neglectful care suffered in close relationships, continue to seek help and tools to break through the darkness. They are the ones that bring the brightest Divine light to the world. No one would blame them if they chose to give in or give up, but their difficult, incandescent choice to do neither inspires me to write. If I make myself or others uncomfortable with these truths, that is OK. I am writing to the forgotten, to the downtrodden, to the one needing a helping hand.

Zita Weinstein
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