Sometimes a few sessions of marital therapy can solve problems that were festering for years. The married couple have often locked themselves into such a struggle; they need help to simply untangle the knot. This has a lot to do with the high level of emotion they are feeling – just think of the expression “I am so angry I can’t think straight. The husband and wife often cannot think logically or clearly. Every issue between them is filled with layers of anger, hurt, betrayal and fear that has built up over the years due to miscommunication. Clearly, turning to an objective, trained third party is the way to navigate the troubled couple out of the dangerous waters they have drifted into. It was traditional for yidden to turn to a third party like Aharon HaKohein who was reknown for helping people to live in peaceful co-existence.
Unfortunately, the success of marital therapy in modern day society has not always been so assured. The literature on marriage counseling indicates that it often fails; it takes years of training and hands-on experience for a marital therapist to truly become an objective third party. The therapist learns to see the way into each couple’s core; to zero in on the main issues and finally, the therapist must not be sucked into their way of thinking or be put into a position in which he or she takes sides.
I would like to share a story of two wonderful, kind and loving people. Through a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications they were almost on the verge of divorce, which would have been tragic, since they were perfectly compatible!
From the moment I spoke to Esty I felt her warmth. Her voice had a rich and soft sound that was soothing. I was eager and curious to meet her as she sounded so pleasant on the phone. “I hope you can help us because I don’t know who to turn to. I tried everything, but my marriage is falling apart. Please don’t get me wrong; my husband is really a good, good person. He will buy me anything I want, it’s not about money”. It all came tumbling out in a jumble. “I don’t know if my husband will want to come but I want to. I have to try to save my marriage even though I am almost ready to give up.”
Esty was a well-dressed, attractive, young woman in her late twenties. Despite her pleasant smile, her face bespoke patience and suffering. She told me that she didn’t think anything could help her marriage. She just couldn’t go on living the way she had for the last six years. She remembered her high resolve to be the best wife she could be and to make her husband happy. She was never one to complain or make demands. You see, her parents, both good people, had never gotten along. She wanted to have a special closeness to her husband and for him to be someone who would share her life and someone to talk to. But instead, Yanky, her husband, is withdrawn and rarely talks about what he is feeling. He comes home angry or upset and won’t discuss what is bothering him.
“It’s really so hard for me to talk about him like this, because he is such a good person and constantly does favors. I never have to ask for money; he just gives it to me,” she said tearfully.
Esty felt torn emotionally. She appreciated that Yanky was a good provider and was quite cognizant about the importance of financial security in a marriage. But in every other way, she is living alone with her children. She has no husband. He is almost never home. He comes in for an hour for supper and leaves almost immediately. She never knows when he comes home because she is sleeping by that time. They very rarely get together physically or emotionally. Physical intimacy is often the glue that keeps a marriage together, especially if the couple is having other problems. Missing this ingredient in the marriage can easily destroy it. The weekends were also difficult. On Shabbos, Yanky drank too much in shul. When he came home he was emotionally unavailable. This made the Shabbos seudos unpleasant, the drinking made him belligerent and the children looked at him with frightened eyes. “I would try to smooth over the situation because I like things to be pleasant. I am not someone that can speak up. I hate to complain, so l let everything slide.”
It seemed to me that she was virtually on her own in bringing up her three children. Five year old Ari was getting increasingly more difficult to handle. He worshipped his father who was not around enough to be an effective and loving parent and when he was around, he became livid the minute the kids were mischievous and wanted to slap them.
Esty was sad during the first session. She cried a lot, but she said, ” I try to keep smiling for my children. I don’t want them to see me upset.” After the session, Esty was calmer. She had poured out her heart, but she felt she had betrayed her husband. This was the first time that she told anyone about her sholom bayis problems. I reassured her that she did the right thing and now there was hope that it could be worked through.
Esty called me the next day saying that Yanky was going to call me to make an appointment. He was ready to come in and discuss their problems.
Yanky came in the following week. He was about 30 years old, a tall, well built young man with a trimmed beard, dressed in navy blue slacks and navy sweater with a white shirt. He looked a bit uncomfortable in finding himself in this situation. “No, no I am okay. I don’t mind being here,” he said “I want to do anything to make my wife happy. She is a malach (an angel). She never complains and everything is okay with her. But I really can’t tell her anything. We have nothing to talk about. I don’t blame her, but she is usually too tired to be with me. Anyway, she is not really interested in me, so I leave her alone. She is only interested in the children and too busy to be involved with me. She leaves me alone and I leave her alone; I don’t like to bother her for anything. We go our separate ways. She likes to say Tehillim all the time. I have no patience for that. I work very hard; I am a computer technician and have a store where people bring their computers. It took a lot of hard work to be where I am and to make this kind of money, but I have been working with computers since I am 16 years old and am really good at solving computer problems. Nonetheless, it’s very hard and people drive me crazy sometimes and I feel like telling them off. I have a lot of work related pressures because of this. At night, I go out with my friends a lot because I need to just chill out and I feel restless at home. I have no zits fleish (patience to sit). I have to keep going.”
I felt tremendous empathy for both of them. They were so alone, so isolated from each other. They were trying to reach out to each other but were not equipped with the modalities to do so. I was convinced that with Hashem’s help I could help them find their way back to sharing a life together.
The next session was with the two of them. The first step was that both simultaneously expressed their willingness to work hard at getting closer to each other. Yanky was amazing because he immediately acknowledged that he had to stop coming home so late and that he needed to stop drinking alcohol. Esty began trying to take a nap with the baby during the day so she would not be so tired when Yanky came home. She was to be more awake, alert and attuned to him and not be so preoccupied with the children. Hopefully, he would start feeling less excluded and alone.
I saw Esty and Yanky separately; encouraging and helping them implement their stated goals. It was not easy. Yanky fell back into old patterns and then went back on the wagon. He was embarrassed to say no to his old cronies who couldn’t accept his new behavior at first. Many times Esty had so much to do at home that she didn’t get a chance to nap and was completely exhausted. Slowly the pattern changed as she made a real effort to be there for Yanky. She learned to be more pro-active. In the past, when Yanky called to say he would be late she responded with an angry silence. She learned to request that he be home at a decent time. Strangely enough, this made him feel good, because he felt wanted by her. He had wanted her to need him and to show it! Another important aspect of their life changed when Esty showed him that she was interested in being a wife in every way.
It seemed funny but she really didn’t know his likes and dislikes. He never told her that he hated spaghetti and meatballs. It was something she made once a week and wondered why he never ate it. He had never said, “I don’t like spaghetti; don’t cook that for me.”
After six years of marriage the tragic reality was that they hardly knew each other. My instruction to both of them was get to know each other. In the past she had rejected him or just barely acknowledged him; not even paying any mind to how her icy behavior impacted him. In the past, when he came home in a bad mood, she would ignore him and hope it would blow over. Now, she smiled and said, “Bad day, huh?” and quickly served him supper and sat down with him, while telling the children to go play in the other room and let Tatty eat and relax. Later he would play with them. This was a major change in their marriage.
One day Yanky came in and said, “I have fallen in love with my wife again. I am the luckiest guy in the world. I don’t have to run around. I have found peace in my home.” Esty told me that he had given up alcohol completely and told his old cronies he would not be available to hang out with them. He went so far as to ask them to lose his number! His buddies’ empty chatter, loud laughter and boorish, unrefined behavior were replaced by his glowing beloved wife, Esty. Yanky still worked very hard and often came home 8:00 or even 9:00 o’clock but now the rest of the evening was spent at home; only going out for Maariv. Because the new found time spent with his wife was so meaningful for him, he made an effort to come home earlier so they could eat supper together. The children learned that Mommy and Tatty needed quiet time together and respected it. Shabbos became a day of true menucha. The anger and the shouting were gone. Yanky and Esty began doing things together, like going out to eat once a week and even a game night. They started taking the children to the park or to the zoo on Sundays. Five year old Ari was much calmer because the atmosphere in the home had changed for the better.
In their last session with me there was an incredible glow about them and they were smiling endlessly. “I can’t believe that this happened,” said Esty, “our whole life has changed.” Both Yanky and Esty feel it’s easy to revert back to old and destructive patterns and as such, they work assiduously to maintain this level of giving to each other. It was Yanky who said, “when I give my wife attention or display how much I care about her, I am really giving to myself because she gives me back a hundredfold.” Rabbi Dessler expresses this concept so beautifully. “The best relationship between husband and wife will be obtained when both achieve and practice the virtue of giving. Then their love will never cease and their lives will be filled with happiness and contentment for as long as they live on this earth.
I must say that I did not work hard with this couple. They were incredibly cooperative. They are two normal, well meaning and loving people who had lost their compass and needed to be put back on the right track. I thank Hashem that I was able to be the right shaliach.
Sara Freund, LCSW has been practicing psychotherapy in the frum community for the last 25 years in her private practice. She has been trained in E.M.D.R. and Hypnotherapy. She helps individuals, couples and families with problems such as: Depression, Anxiety, Phobic Fears, Bi-Polar Disorder, and Sholom Bayis problems. She can be reached at 718-692-1650 or you can send a e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.