An excerpt from “Guide for the Romantically Perplexed” by Lisa Aiken, Ph.D. http://www.devorapublishing.com/
Singles need a vision of what they want marriage to be like, with ideas about how to make that happen. By considering what they will contribute, they can work on becoming the “right” kind of spouse and realistically imagine what kind of partner will complement them. It is important for singles to think about what they will bring to a marriage because who we are in marriage is every bit as important as who we choose to marry.
Most people have to work hard to do the right things to make their marriages work.
People often have the erroneous idea that good marriages just happen. They don’t realize that just as academic success is a combination of skills, knowledge and hard work, so is success in relationships. There are a small number of couples for whom relating comes easily, but most people have to work hard to do the right things to make their marriages work. This work begins by adopting the attitude that marriage is about growing and contributing to another person’s growth, not being totally comfortable with the way we are and how we live. It also requires that we be givers and not primarily takers.
Some people with poor self-esteem or who are very self-centered expect to find a mate who will make them happy. They may dream of a mate who is beautiful, wealthy, or who can magically intuit their every want and take away every hurt they ever felt. Such people need to work on themselves, often with the help of psychotherapy, because finding a mate will rarely make them feel better until they first are happy with themselves. They have to leave the childish role of expecting life to provide them with a lifelong caretaker and start giving of themselves to others.
Most people who don’t feel good about themselves want frequent reassurance that they are loveable and worthwhile, and become upset if it is missing. They expect a partner always to be warm, happy, and uncritical. That is hard for most partners, and unrealistic to expect of a mate. Instead, insecure people should do whatever is necessary to feel less dependent on others’ positive feedback. That may require psychotherapy, a job change, or appreciating aspects of themselves that they now denigrate.
Today, people confuse needs with wants. Needy people believe that others must take care of them, and they won’t take care of themselves more than is absolutely necessary. Their partners find this dependency draining and exhausting. It is enjoyable to give love and compliments freely, but who wants to have them constantly demanded or expected?
We should not need marriage to give us worth or be our sole source of meaning.
While a good marriage can make happy people more fulfilled and may take away some loneliness, we should not need marriage to make life meaningful, give us worth, or be our sole source of meaning. We should want to marry so that we can grow emotionally and spiritually and be able to give of ourselves to a spouse and children. If we are basically unhappy and don’t feel that we have much to give, or if we mostly want to take, marriage only compounds our emotional problems and our dissatisfaction with life.
People who are generally unhappy and who expect circumstances or other people to make them feel better are usually disappointed. Nothing external can undo years of emotional deprivation. If we can’t make ourselves happy, no one else will be able to do so. Marriage cannot provide for all of our emotional needs, unless our needs are few. No one should expect another person to devote his or her life to making us happy. Even when people promise that during courtship, it is not realistic. Such promises rarely extend beyond the early weeks of marriage.
Despite what romance novels and movies suggest, marriage doesn’t solve emotional problems, and often adds to them. This is why we should first strive to be the right person before trying to marry the “right” person.
TAKING STOCK OF OURSELVES
While many singles have expectations of a marriage partner, they can be totally oblivious to their own shortcomings. For example, Abe insisted that matchmakers set him up with slim, attractive women, despite his being 5’11” and weighing 270 pounds. Laura continually sought warm, emotionally available men, yet was aloof and cold herself. Diana was attracted to men who were stable, yet she was perpetually disorganized and unable to make a commitment. Dean kept hoping to meet a career woman who earned a lot of money, yet he didn’t realize that such women would not respect him since he barely earned enough to support himself.
The Talmud says that a man may not marry a woman whom he finds unattractive because he will violate the obligation to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet singles should not hold others to higher standards than they hold themselves, especially in terms of character traits or appearance. While people often think that they deserve someone who has every quality on their wish list, that kind of person may not want to compromise his or her standards, either. Their standards may include someone who is more appealing than we are!
When singles create a “shopping list” of a spouse-to-be’s qualities, they should wonder if that person would want them! They should also wonder if some of the qualities they seek might be mutually exclusive. For example, a person seeking an intellectual, socially-concerned, well-dressed, and meticulously groomed mate may find that people who are very concerned about looks are likely to be superficial and self-centered. A woman who wants a stereotypically masculine husband who also writes poetry and likes opera may find that combination hard to find. Those who seek a mate who is very successful in his or her career are likely to find someone with little free time for nurturing a marriage.
Singles who are serious about getting married should make the most of their appearance. They shouldn’t rationalize staying unattractive by saying that their soul mate will accept them for who they are unless they really don’t want to find an appropriate partner.
In our egocentric society, couples often marry because they hope to receive more from a spouse than they did as singles. But unless both partners give instead of take, their love will die of malnutrition.
Children use people as objects. They believe that people and the world exist only to make them happy. As we grow older, we are supposed to become as Godlike as possible. One way we do this is by imitating His qualities of compassion and giving.
After God created the first person, He proclaimed:
“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and cleave unto his wife, and they shall be as one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24)
Since Adam and Eve had no parents, this verse implies that the parent-child relationship is unique insofar as parents give unreservedly, while children take. People have to reverse this mentality before marriage by being givers, not remaining takers. This means learning what others need and trying to provide it. This requires listening with sensitivity and trying to give our partner what he or she needs. This often means delaying our own gratification and compromising what we want.
Some people don’t fulfill a partner’s needs because they assume the partner has the same needs and feelings that they do. Instead of doing only what pleases us, we should learn what a partner wants and try to provide it. Someone whose gifts and efforts are seldom appreciated may not be giving a partner what he or she really wants. Good communication, patience and a willingness to acknowledge someone else’s differences from us is necessary in order to find out what that person’s true desire is.
People with successful marriages realize that no matter how much they have in common with their mates, there will always be differences. Their partner is not like them. It is normal and healthy for two people to have different likes and dislikes, styles of communicating, interests and goals, ways of thinking, and emotional needs. By accepting the validity of their differences, they can focus on what they have in common and appreciate what they love about each other. They can use their differences to enrich their union instead of feeling threatened by the fact that they are not the same.
Everyone wants to be appreciated and to feel unique and special. We make people feel this way by asking them to share memories, experiences, feelings, and ideas with us, then show that we treasure them. We are able to do this most easily when we believe that someone else’s uniqueness enriches the tapestry of our lives and allows us to bond closer with them.
Instead of trying to get someone to fit our image, we can learn about and appreciate a partner for who he or she is.
Instead of trying to get someone to fit our image, we can learn about and appreciate a partner for who he or she is. Many women marry men who they hope to change. Men marry women hoping the women will not change, and will accept the men as they are. They often end up in a tug-of-war where the women try to change men into partners the men never want to be.
It is hard to accept a partner if we don’t feel secure about ourselves because differences symbolize separation and incompatibility to many people. The more insecure people are, the more they feel threatened by differences, and the harder it is to be close to a partner who is dissimilar. A secure woman can love the fact that her husband enjoys reading mathematics, even though she hates it. When he does what makes him happy, she is happy. They can agree to disagree about politics if they have other philosophies and causes on which to agree. Their differences can even lead to interesting conversations as they learn from each other and share opposing points of view.
An insecure woman feels threatened by differences because she wants to share “everything” with a husband. She feels inadequate when others appreciate a part of him that she can’t. She also worries that he will stop loving her if he meets women who can discuss topics with him that she doesn’t understand or appreciate.
Likewise, some men enjoy a wife’s career success because it relieves them of their economic burden. They are glad when their wives find work fulfilling, as this makes the women happier and more interesting to be with. Insecure men are afraid of women who have fulfilling careers, fearing that, if they married, the wife might stop needing them, or might meet men who could become the husband’s rivals. Some men deliberately seek wives who are limited and insular in order to get more attention than their wives do; their wives will always look up to them.
People marry for many different reasons, but mostly because they are “in love” and want to spend the rest of their lives with someone special. Healthy love results from ongoing choices that we make to love a partner who has real, lasting, and admirable qualities. Mature people don’t “fall in love” as helpless victims of their emotions.
Healthy love develops from contributing to a partner’s growth, raising a family together, and sharing meaningful ideas, memories, experiences and goals. The more we give and commit to a relationship, the deeper our love is (Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav M’eliyahu, Strive for Truth, pp. 126-7). For instance, a mother loves her baby despite the fact that he never takes care of her. Quite the opposite! He cries, spits up, dirties his diapers, and doesn’t talk intelligibly. She loves him because of what she does for him, not because of what he gives her. The more she does, the more she loves.
We often decide how we feel about something by looking at what we do. If we invest a lot in a cause, we assume that it must be very important to us. The more we do, the more invested we are, and the more we feel committed to it. This is one reason why Judaism requires us to do so many things to serve God. The more we do for Him, the more we love Him, and the more attached to Him we feel.
Love results from committing ourselves to care for a spouse.
This same idea applies to marriage. Love results from committing ourselves to care for a spouse. When our memories are filled with images of doing for that person, our hearts follow by loving the one to whom we give so much.
We can love others primarily because of what we take from them, or because of what we give. The more partners give to each other, the more it strengthens their relationship. Mature people get pleasure from the “work” and responsibilities of marriage, from sharing and contributing. They don’t expect to be repaid measure for measure and don’t keep score about who did what.
Unfortunately, many people expect a partner to heal old emotional wounds and fill lifelong voids. They give in order to get back, and are rarely satisfied with a partner’s response because no one can take away such ingrained pain and lifelong emptiness.
Healthy love is built from sharing feelings and communicating wants clearly and sensitively, without expecting a partner to mind-read. In a good marriage, people deal maturely with anger and other feelings. They delay gratification instead of letting their emotions rule them. They derive enormous pleasure from making a partner happy, and are willing to put their own wants on hold when necessary for the integrity of the relationship.
Some people complain that this makes marriage sound like work and no play. “What about passion and romance?” they challenge. “Why talk about giving? Couples should just relax, enjoy each other, and have a good time!”
Infatuation, chemistry, romance, and having a good time, are all very well and good, but are much more important during the dating process than in marriage (Clifford Notarius and Howard Markman, We Can Work It Out, p. 21). Married couples need to weather uncomfortable and unpleasant times that sometimes last for weeks or months. They must deal constructively with day-to-day responsibilities, raise children, and resolve tensions and problems. The success or failure of most marriages has little to do with having a good time. In fact, the major reasons for divorce are poor communication and inability to resolve conflicts, especially about money and intimacy (Ibid., p. 56).
Good marriages are accomplished through hard work: they don’t just happen. While excitement and infatuation start with “magic,” romance and love only continue when couples work on their relationship. People who don’t know how to deal with the rough spots of marriage will not be able to keep loving feelings alive.
Since giving helps sustain love, it’s important to marry someone who can receive what we have to give. That way, even when times are rough, we can still create love.
The Biblical story of Jacob and Rachel highlights this. Jacob agreed to work for seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage (Genesis 29:18), and those years seemed like only a few days to him because he loved her so dearly (Ibid. 29:20).
We would expect a couple who is deeply in love to want to marry as soon as possible. Every day apart seems like an eternity of delayed gratification. The time flew by for Jacob because everything he did was for Rachel’s sake, not for his own. He loved her so much that his own needs were of little concern, and he devoted himself to taking care of her. His pleasure came from making her happy, rather than from gratifying himself, so he wasn’t frustrated waiting years for her to be his wife.
When God created the first person, He said:
“It is not good for a person to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18)
The Zohar even says, “A man is not called a man until he unites with a woman in marriage” (on Genesis 5:2).
True giving and fulfillment only come by contributing meaningfully to a partner (and children) in marriage. Someone who refuses to marry lives by himself and for himself. When marriage is a labor of love with mutual giving, a couple’s union is greater than the sum of their parts (Kohelet Rabbah 4).
When we love someone in order to gratify ourselves, we stop needing the person as soon as our wants are satisfied (Mishnah Avot 5:19-20). In addition, we degrade people by seeing them as objects who serve us. The real purpose of marriage is to enable us to exercise our Divine image and help a partner do the same.
Singles should ask what they expect to contribute and receive from a spouse, and should assess how realistic that expectation is. Next, they should work on improving themselves and on becoming the kind of person that their intended partner will want. Finally, they need to prepare themselves in order to contribute what such a partner will expect.
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