Mordechai, 36, and Chani, 35, were married for six years and came to me for advice on how to save their relationship. They seemed to have everything going for them. They were working professionals, successful and upwardly mobile; they shared many common factors including similar religious beliefs, intelligence levels, and were both pleasantly extroverted.
Yet, soon after marriage, it was apparent that they didn’t get along very well. Little things like the cleanliness of the house, or who made dinner, became mountain-sized issues that were often blown out of proportion. The quality of their relationship was going downhill and their marriage was in crisis. Only six months had passed since their chuppah and they were beginning to feel that they were unequipped to deal with each other’s emotional needs. Instead, they tended to withdraw from one another and were avoiding taking the obvious step of working together to solve their issues.
On the outside, they seemed to have everything going for them, yet now they had little to show for it.
What was causing their marital stress? Did they share some deeply-rooted negative patterns? Was it a question of personality differences? Did they have trouble managing their anger?
Mordechai and Chani were also scared, because some of their lifetime friends were also experiencing similar difficulties in their marriages, and the prior year, two of them had gotten divorced. They wanted to know if they were heading in the same direction and if there was anything they could do to sustain their marriage.
Before I began to advise them on ways to improve their marriage, I asked them to draw an imaginary circle in the middle of the room, to represent their relationship. I then asked them to take their chairs and sit in the middle of the circle if they were committed to their relationship. If they weren’t able to sit in the circle together, then, I believed, their marriage would have little chance of succeeding.
I also made it clear to them that, statistically, the overwhelming majority of failed marriages (between two emotionally healthy individuals) end because couples are having trouble building and staying committed to their overall relationship. In fact, many of the negative statistics about marriage boil down to the prevalence of couples losing interest in developing the quality of their marriage.
A 1995 statewide survey in Utah, for example, examining why marriages end in divorce, found that the lack of commitment to the relationship was the top reason for the growing phenomenon.
Specifically, the Utah Marriage Survey asked Utahns who had been divorced to answer the following: “There are many reasons why marriages fail. I’m going to read a list of possible reasons. Looking back at your most recent divorce, tell me whether or not each factor was a major contributor to your divorce. You can say, ‘yes,’ or ‘no,’ to each factor.”
The following responses show the percentages of those respondents who answered, “yes,” to each factor that they felt was a major contributor to their divorce:
Lack of commitment: 87%/79%/83%
Too much conflict and arguing: 48%/58%/53%
Infidelity or extramarital affairs: 47%/56%/52%
Getting married too young: 39%/43%/41%
Financial problems or economic hardship: 31%/35%/33%
Lack of support from family members: 21%/20%/21%
Little or no helpful premarital education: 19%/29%/24%
Religious differences between partners: 13%/16%/15%
Domestic violence: 6%/37%/22%
The table clearly reveals what Utahns who have experienced divorce perceive: that the lack of commitment was the number one contributing factor to their divorces. Commitment often involves making one’s partner and relationship a priority, investing in the marriage, and having a long-term view of the relationship.
That’s why the most important issue in marriage needs to be the couple’s focus on the quality of their relationship.
Couples like Mordechai and Chani are a perfect example of a relationship that had migrated onto the back burner. And, as I predicted, after several weeks of counseling, it became apparent that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with this young couple. Neither was particularly high on “control.” Neither of them had a history of serious emotional illness. And both came from parents who were happily married.
Mordechai and Chani needed to learn more about how to negotiate their emotions, how to communicate in a more effective way, and how to begin to recommit to their relationship.
So if you’re concerned about divorce and looking for real growth in your marriage, you’ll need to plant your emotional roots and ask yourselves the following questions:
1. Do I view building the relationship a central principle of my marriage?
2. Do I set aside time each day to nurture my relationship?
3. Do I look for the good qualities in my spouse?
4. Do I appreciate the small, kind acts my spouse does for me on a daily basis?
5. Do I spend time thinking about the good moments, and limit time and energy spent focusing on the bad ones?
Most couples who evaluate their progress find that the biggest hole in their marriage is the fact that they don’t spend time and effort building their relationship. They allowed themselves to become complacent. Complacency in marriage allows emotional weeds to grow out of control. It catching and it spreads, silently and invisibly, and by the time you realize what is happening, much damage has been done.
It is so easy to fall into a daily routine, fueled by responsibilities, so that people forget what relationships are all about. With so much to do each day, and without the need to plan to tune into each other, relationships tend to be pushed to the back, treated as something that doesn’t need to be attended to, and left to just bumble along. Often we fail to make time for our spouses. Or when we do, it’s often merely consists of stolen moments at the end of a long, hard day, when we lack the energy to show how much we truly love and appreciate each other, and we are just too tired to have any fun.
When spouses begin to feel neglected, they often start by making a subtle plea — a gentle reminder that they feel they aren’t important any more, and that they feel unloved and undervalued.
Yet, all it takes is those small gestures — nothing fancy — just small and thoughtful little gestures that show love, respect and affection for each other. Such gestures are an indication that a husband or wife still appreciates their marriage, their relationship, and the life they have together.
If you want to save your marriage, or make a good marriage great, my advice is to make your relationship with your spouse your top priority. Let them see that they are valuable and precious, and that above all, they and their feelings come first. Compliments should be regular: not a thing of the past or of just occasional mention, and not something that you believe is no longer required. Make sure your spouse knows that you appreciate them, respect them, love them and admire then, and above all, make sure that they know that you want to be with them forever.
About the Author: Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, is an expert in marriage, pre-marriage education, and working with teenagers at risk. He is the executive director of Shalom Task Force and maintains a private practice in Brooklyn. For an appointment or to watch his free video series on marriage and parenting, visit www.JewishMarriageSupport.com call 646-428-4723 or email: email@example.com. For more information visit www.shalomtaskforce.org or call the hotline at 1-888-883-2323.
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