Dear Rabbi, I am happily married for 12 years now, and life is good. I have always looked at married life as the natural way of things, and I thankfully don’t feel challenged. Lately with so much awareness and help about problems that arise in marriages, I began to have my doubts about the complacent attitude I’ve been feeling.
Basically, my question goes like this: Is Shalom Bayis something requires constant work and continued improvement, or -- assuming that things are going well -- is there no need to work on fixing something that doesn’t seem broken? Sometimes we get the impression that it demands a lifetime of consistent work, and I wonder if that’s really the case.
Worried about being happy
Dear Worried about being happy,
I commend you for reaching out. People in situations much worse than yours are still afraid of rocking the boat, so I’d like to praise you for your brave approach.
Let me begin with a story: There was once a happily married couple and all seemed fine. Over time they kept on hearing from friends and neighbors about the wonders of marriage counseling and couples therapy, and about the many solutions and practical guidance that those people were privileged to receive to improve and repair their marriages.
One night over a cup of tea the wife expressed her worries to her husband, and said: “Is there something wrong with us? Everyone else is already getting advice and tools to iron out their problems; we haven’t even identified ours. I think we really need to see someone fast."
And that’s exactly what they did. They found a professional who came highly recommended and scheduled an appointment. The therapist told them that it would take between six and twelve months for them to get the proper benefit from the sessions, and without the slightest hesitation, they signed up for long-term couples therapy.
The good news was that, sure enough, after six months they really did identify problems in their marriage. The sad part was that after a year therapy, they still had not reached a single concrete solution to any of their newly discovered problems, and so they proceeded towards divorce.
While this story sounds almost comical, it’s not as far from reality as we may think. It is very important to differentiate between problem seeking and problem solving. When we say somebody is going for counseling and working on their Shalom Bayis, it’s crucial to understand if they are actually working on the peace and harmony in their home -- as the term would suggest -- or they are really working on their Machlokes Bayis; the disharmony in the home.
What happens when we use the wrong terms for the wrong ideas is that people tend to assume that Shalom Bayis is something that needs work on. We don’t go to doctors for our health; we go for our lack of health, or at least to prevent a lack of health. So while it is of extreme importance for people that struggle to find harmony in their marriage to go for help and learn how to re-create the harmony that they expected to find in their relationship, it is also important for people who are happy and content to not look for problems. It’s not because problems are supposed to be kept under the rug, but rather because when the problems are not there, looking for them can actually be destructive, and cause them to materialize.
Without a doubt, all people can find significant differences between themselves and their spouses, and that's why it’s important to remember that marriage is a bond between two different people, and it is not meant to be a battleground where each difference of opinion must be eliminated with one single opinion always emerging victorious. Differences of opinions and ideas are very often actually ideal, and a good sign of a healthy marriage.
I do think it is important to qualify all of the above, and acknowledge that just because someone says or assumes that their marriage is great, does not necessarily make it so. It is crucial for you to make sure that your spouse thinks just as highly about the wellbeing of your marriage as you do. I am reminded of an all-too-common scenario that I once heard from Dr. Benzion Twersky, about a couple who came to him for counseling. At their session, he turned to the young husband and asked “How long have you been experiencing problems in your marriage?” The young man quickly replied, “Six weeks.” As he began to turn towards the wife, he already noticed her shaking her head vigorously in disagreement. “And what do you say?” he asked her. “Nine years!” was her emphatic answer. Of course, I don't mean to imply that your spouse is not as happy in the marriage as you are, but I also don't want to neglect to mention it.
Marital problems aside, marriage is certainly a relationship that can use constant enhancement. We tend to meet our spouse when we were still fairly young adults, and it goes without saying that it takes time for two people to really bond. It is well-known that the infatuation people feel when they first met their spouse is something that eventually wears off, and as much as people would like for it to live-on forever, that stage is only there during the early phase of a relationship during which we hope it will allow for the development of a more substantial and deeper connection. This is not a "problem," and it shouldn't be misconstrued as if I am suggesting that the marriage usually devolves into challenges and hardship -- I just want to make clear that that original excitement in the relationship is not meant to last. It is therefore safe to assume that a couple happily married for two years is not nearly as bonded and close as the same couple will be after 10 years of marriage. In the same could be said about the marriage of 10 years in comparison to the marriage of 40 years.
It is actually a unique kind of relationship. For example, a mother and child bond almost immediately, and it’s difficult to say that the mother has less feeling or connection for a child of three years then she will for the same child at 13 years. Yet, the dynamics of marriage don’t work that way. As much as we want to bond and have a close connection, it is still a relationship that continues to grow and thrive, hopefully forever.
So while I do not think it’s important for good marriages to be “worked on”, in the sense of getting counseling and therapy, it is important to remember that even the best relationship can be enhanced constantly with nice and thoughtful ideas, as well as added measures of feeling and thoughtfulness. I think it is beautiful if couples who are happily married do come up with new ways to enhance their relationship, and bring it to new levels. Very often this is done in the most natural ways and does not need anything exotic for it to happen.
Let me end off with one more point I think is important to point out. One of the worst mistakes people make in their marriages is that they compare and contrast it with other couples they may know. It’s not within the scope of this article to explain how damaging that can be, and how incorrect it is, but I will suffice with saying that many a good marriage has been turned sour only by comparing it to other marriages -- both when the comparison was to something strictly imaginary and unrealistic, and even when compared to something that was closer to a reality.
May Hashem help you and your spouse to have a continuous harmonious marriage all your life; one that only keeps on getting stronger, happier, and more fulfilling.