I once heard a story about a single man struggling to find a spouse. His main challenge was his insistence that a potential mate permanently welcome his widowed mother into their marital home. A friend suggested that he speak with the great authority, Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt’l. The man shared with the Rav his delicate predicament. The Rav validated the man’s approach as acceptable. Sometime later, the man met his bashert, the special woman willing to live with his mom. They returned to Rav Shlomo Zalman for his blessing. Surprisingly, the Rav called the man aside and told him that they cannot live with his mother anymore. The young man was shocked. After all, on the previous visit, the Rav had supported his desire to find a woman who would accept their living with his mother. Rav Shlomo Zalman explained that he supported the young man’s exceptional requirement as a test of sorts, to ensure that the young lady he would marry would be a woman of valor, a woman of kindness. But once he had in fact found such a woman, it was imperative, for the sake of the marriage, to exclude the mother from a permanent place in the home.
Most newly married couples don’t permanently invite parents into their private dwelling in a literal sense, but figuratively, they may bring their parents along for the ride. In the national bestseller The Good Marriage, Judith Wallerstein & Sandra Blakeslee report that many marriage counselors tell their clients “there are at least six people in every marriage – the couple and both sets of parents.” A delicate balance must be struck between maintaining positive and meaningful connection with family of origin, while at the same time, not alienating the new spouse and the fledgling marital union. In his renowned work, The Art of Loving, Eric Fromm discusses object relations theory and the process of individuation from parents. He explains that ideally we physically separate from our parents while concurrently bringing them with us in our minds and hearts. In this way, our parents are a support and a significant and influential backdrop throughout our lives. This concept is highlighted in the episode in Parshas Vayeshev when Yosef is saved from eishet Potifar’s advances with the help of the image of his father Yaakov, “dmus dyukno shel aviv.” He is far away from his home, but yet able to marshal Yaakov’s values and spiritual strength when it was most needed.
I recall many years ago counseling a young couple immediately after their marriage. It seemed that the husband was looking forward to a honeymoon with his new bride. His wife wasn’t adverse to the honeymoon, but her family had planned their yearly family vacation and the young lady didn’t want to give up on this special time. I empathized with both the young man’s disappointment in potentially having his new in-laws intrude on his honeymoon time, and the young women’s deep desire to remain attached to her parents and siblings. These tensions and conflicts are rampant in many marriages and don’t always have easy solutions. Sometimes a young couple is placed in the unenviable position of having to erect boundaries, as the more “mature” parents are oblivious to these considerations and are grasping to hold onto a child. It’s a complex dance with competing interests and my purpose in this brief article is to try to articulate some foundational principles to protect the marriage and the formation and development of the couple.
Jewish couples stand under a chuppah or canopy during the marriage ceremony. This canopy has no walls just a roof. The chuppah symbolizes the home and the husband bringing the wife into his material and spiritual domain. The task of erecting walls for this edifice is left to the couple. They must, over the course of their lives together, fill-in those walls and thereby fortify their relationship. Wallerstein and Blakesley alluded to above, bring an anecdote about a mother sitting down with her future daughter-in-law and attempting to intimidate her. She tells the poor girl that her upcoming marriage is doomed to failure. The young girl is mortified and immediately calls her future husband. The husband says, “don’t worry about it. I’m going to call my mother right now and tell her she’s not invited to our wedding.” This is a beautiful illustration of communicating to a spouse that they are the absolute priority. They report that this uncomfortable episode ultimately helped launch the marriage.
When there is a failure to individuate, there may be resistance to transitioning fully into adulthood by one or both members of the couple. In our religious communities, where couples often marry young, this is a most serious predicament. It is exacerbated when couples rely on parents for financial support. As I once heard it not so comically expressed, “yesh meah, yesh deah” or not as subtly, “the one who pays, says.” Despite these challenges, the couple must understand that their goal is to move toward adulthood and independence – both emotionally and financially. Another challenge for the newly married couple is building trust. Young women in particular often confide in their mothers, sometimes numerous times a day. The husband must feel that his confidences are being preserved and that his mother-in-law doesn’t know every detail of his married life. The same is true vis-à-vis the young man with his parents.
Even as a couple establishes their independence from their families of origin, they still must come together and form a dynamic “dyad.” There are two components to this process. I would posit that it echoes the maxim “sur mayrah vaseh tov,” avoid evil and attempt good. I don’t mean that the family of origin is “bad,” rather that the former child, now adult, must ensure that there is nothing, not even family, intruding on the new relationship.
Removing possible impediments is necessary, but not sufficient. The next step involves breaking selfish patterns of behavior and the exclusive focus on self. Rav Yosef Soloveitchik zt’l introduced a beautiful formulation for the concept of parallel constructs in prayer. There is the individual model as well as the communal model. His formulation is “Tefilla B’tzibbur” and “Tefilat Hatzibbur.” We pray individually within the framework and context of community and we then repeat the prayer as a communal offering, one representative on behalf of the whole. Similarly, a newly married couple must have individual space for themselves, while at the same time bringing that nurtured self into the couple to create something bigger. Each marital decision must reflect this model of balancing personal needs and what is good for the marriage. One spouse may prefer to spend a holiday with family, but the marriage would be better served spending it at home or with the other’s family. That’s why marital therapy is more complex than individual work. The client is the marriage as a whole, rather than the two individuals. This tension sheds light on an idea I heard many years back in the name of Rav Shlomo Volbe zt’l. The first year of marriage, which is of great legal and philosophical religious significance, is not a distinct quantitative period, but rather a conceptual qualitative experience that may take many years to complete. This reflects the dual nature and challenge of marriage; letting go of the past and reconstructing it to coincide and overlap with one’s future as a married couple.
I will end with a word of advice for parents. Not every parent treats a child-in-law like an actual child. It isn’t uncommon for in-law children to be confounded by what to call their new parents. Ideally we should try to make a child’s spouse feel as comfortable as possible. This includes showering the same love and kindness one would provide to one’s own child. Parents need to be sensitive to the critical role they play in the formative stages of their children’s marriages. They have the ability to lend support and to give space or to be intrusive and domineering. There is no doubt that parents may have mixed emotions about their child transitioning to this new stage in life, but they need to be cognizant and self-aware. I would humbly suggest that parents as a whole need to have more confidence in their parenting skills. They must trust they have done an adequate job instilling within their child good sound judgment. If their beloved child has made this selection, it is most likely a reflection of insights gleaned from the family of origin during many years of profound influence, sensitivity and exceptional caring, preparing them for the transition to adulthood.
Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen, Esq. has served as the Rav of the Young Israel of the West Side in Manhattan for the last 5 years. In this capacity, he uses his master’s degree in counseling to help many newly married couples. He is also the Director of the Honors Program at the Lander College for Women in Manhattan. His lectures can be found at www.yiws.org and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen, Esq. has served as the Rav of the Young Israel of the West Side in Manhattan for the last 5 years. In this capacity, he uses his master’s degree in counseling to help many newly married couples. He is also the Director of the Honors Program at the Lander College for Women in Manhattan. His lectures can be found at www.yiws.org and he can be reached at email@example.com.
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