Shalom Bayis (Peaceful Marriage)
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- Thursday, August 9, '01 - Parshas Eikev 5761

The gemora (Bava Metzia 85b) says that a jar with one pebble in it makes big noise when shaken. A jar completely filled with pebbles makes no noise, no matter how hard it is shaken. This is analogous to a person and his measure of chochma [wisdom], particularly a person in a dispute. If he makes noise, it is proof that he is essentially empty, like the jar with one pebble, when it is shaken. If the person has wisdom, he speaks gently, softly and with real content. He is quiet, like the jar that is full - no matter how much he is "shaken." He resolves conflicts or differences without turbulence or harangue. Instead, he always proceeds with calm, wisdom, decency and substance.

I counsel couples to never be afraid of, or agitated by, differences. They are a fact of life, like breathing is. Differences are going to be there. So what? In any MATURE relationship (marriage, friends, neighbors, business, etc.), if the two parties work out differences in a fair, two-sided, mentshlach, thoughtful and substantive manner, THIS MAKES THE RELATIONSHIP STRONGER. Over time, repeated resolution of differences builds TRUST, RESPECT, ADMIRATION AND WARMTH between the parties. Therefore, don't be afraid of having differences. They're going to be there. Be afraid of immature or nasty handling of differences.

I tell couples that there are two words in Hebrew for a rabbinical reply to a question: tshuva and psak. I ask them what the difference is. They never know. I tell them "tshuva" means a reply to a question and "psak" means the termination of a question. If a couple has a question, ASK A RAV. When he replies with a psak, that is THE END OF THE QUESTION. There are no fights, no personality conflicts. The question is answered and IT IS OVER. If a couple gets da'as Torah when they can't alone resolve their differences, there need never be any breach of peace.

It is much harder to be guilty of speaking or behaving badly when one's manner is soft, polite, warm, sincere, humble and patient; and is considerate of other people's feelings and considerate of the impact of his/her speech and actions on others. One exercise that really "opens eyes" when I do marriage counseling is to have each "role play" stepping "into the skin" of the other spouse, explaining the other's feelings or side to a story - FROM THE OTHER'S POINT OF VIEW. The other reacts and says whether the role play was accurate or off target, objective or self-serving, complete or flawed. By both doing this exercise in front of each other, under my guidance and my being "referee," they see how they are "blind" to the other's feelings and to the impact and consequences of their behavior, speech and tone on their spouse. This shows how much spouses sometimes DO NOT KNOW EACH OTHER on a mature or meaningful level. Until they do, and know how the other gender thinks, how to conduct themselves with midos and halacha, what their "husband or wife responsibilities" are, how to relate and communicate, how to resolve differences like a mentsh; they have no idea how to repair troubles or deficiencies in their marriage - never mind how to have a happy, peaceful and successful marriage.

Sometimes gender difference plays a part in communication or problem-resolution difficulties. For example, some women in counseling express substantial emotional pain because their husbands have no grasp of what an issue means to her emotionally. He will typically make judgements or use logic to determine what is valid or allowable. Otherwise, in his mind, things cannot have emotional significance. He is blind to his impact on her, causing her extreme pain and distress, in the process. For her, the feelings are very real and, as a counselor, I see that they are usually valid and are a legitimate part of her female nature. Even if told repeatedly, he doesn't get it when she says she has feelings or that an issue matters to her. Since he doesn't grasp that her feelings about something exist, his shalom bayis will likewise not be allowed to exist! The counseling experience for such a couple includes having both of them ask what the other thinks certain things mean to the one asking. They each compare his/her feelings with what the other thinks (s)he is feeling. They gradually learn what events or their actions mean to the other.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 32b) asks how to establish precedence when two boats, going in opposite directions, meet on a narrow river when the water is too narrow to cross. There are two criteria given for deciding who can force the other to back up: the one with the heavier load or the one closer to its destination.

This is a valuable principle for resolving impasses in human relations. If one is carrying a heavier burden or is involved in a project which is in the process of being achieved, that person is deemed to be in greater objective need and wins precedence. Say, a wife is emotionally drained or hurt, she has a "heavier burden." If a husband is doing work and needs momentum or must meet a deadline, he is "closer to a destination." When differences "rock the boat," give priority to the resolution most consistent with: long-run peace; the least damage, hurt or loss; honesty and the most constructive outcome.

Attribute weight to your partner's feelings and perception. You may not grasp what the issue means to your partner, due to subjectivity, emotions and biases. See beyond yourself - your partner does! Be soft as a reed (Taanis 20b), bendable and adaptive. Make yourself gentle to save yourself from the sin of anger (Taanis 4a) and never respond to insult or provocation (Shabos 88b). Be extra careful to keep peace and calm on erev shabos [Friday] or erev yom tov. It is a tense time, extra prone to fighting (Avodas HaKodesh). Expect that there is more to a story or in the context that you don't know. Don't jump to conclusions. Give benefit of doubt and let the other's honor be as dear to you as your own (Pirkei Avos, chapter one & two). Listen carefully to what your partner says. Be impacted by it and respond substantively to it.

Vayikra Raba (Emor) tells of two friends. One sold a carob tree to the other. The buyer found a fortune of jewels in the trunk. Not wanting to be a thief, he insisted that the seller take the treasure back. The seller said that he sold the tree "as is" and taking the fortune would make him the thief! Both insisted that the other take it, and neither would. They went to the king, who ruled that one's son marry the other's daughter and to give the fortune to the couple.

A "Jewish fight" starts with feeling yourselves to be loving friends, who could not think of hurting or shortchanging the other; and, to do so would be criminal. Each wants the other to win and plays the lawyer for the other's side of the story, and advocate for the other's good. When the two cannot settle the matter themselves, refer to the King - Hashem, His Torah, a known rov who is an expert in the subject of the question.