The couple had barely completed their brief intake papers, which included a small handwriting sample, when, her eyes blazing with fury, the wife pounded on the small table between us and yelled, “He has to grow up! I need a husband who is a real partner, not a lazy good-for-nothing who won’t take responsibility and is totally clueless about my needs!” Her husband sat hunched in his chair, looking like a hapless cat which had somehow survived the spin cycle in a washing machine.
“How exactly do you want him to change?” I replied, knowing she would provide me with the list of demands I’ve heard so many times before.
“He should understand my feelings and know what I want without me having to spell it out to him like a first grader and appreciate what an incredible wife he has.”
“I do appreciate you,” he whimpered.
“No you don’t,” she sneered at him. “You are totally unreliable and unpredictable and you are always running away from me!”
My heart broke for them both. There she was, heavily pregnant with their eighth child, feeling abandoned and alone. “I understand your anger,” I said, to which she responded angrily, “I’m not angry! I’m just fed up and I want him to change!”
“I understand,” I said, “I’d like to help you calm down and help your husband become more reliable. But growth comes from love, not force.”
“That’s not true,” she glared at me. “I have gotten him to be more responsible and that’s because I don’t let up on the pressure!”
“But everyone is paying a big price,” I said.
“How do you think your hostility affects your children?”
“At least they’ll learn how not to act,” she snapped back.
He looked broken, lost in his own world. I sighed as I glanced at his tiny scribbles and her huge, over-powering handwriting. “I’d like to help you both grow from this situation and improve your middos in a way that is safe and respectful to both of you.”
“I don’t have time to wait,” she said tersely, “And, anyway, I’m not the one who needs help. I’m a wonderful person and a fantastic mother.”
After an exhausting hour in which I saw that she was not ready to take responsibility to deal with her loneliness and pain in a more kindly manner, I finally said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I can help.”
“That’s what they all say,” she responded, and went on to list the distinguished rabbis and therapists she had shlepped him to. And then added, “But you’re all wrong! I’m not giving up!”
I ushered them out of my office, refusing payment, for I had certainly failed to deliver the goods, as she had rightfully accused. They had just left when the phone rang. A man, whom I did not know, launched in quickly, “What can I do with a wife who doesn’t act like a wife?” When I asked for an explanation, he said, “She has no enthusiasm for me and hates when I try to be affectionate. I try so hard to please her, helping with the children and the housework and always asking her what more I can do. But she just turns a cold shoulder to me. She gets excited when she talks to her sister, but for me, nothing. This is not the way a wife should be?”
“How should a wife be?” I asked.
“A normal wife is excited to see her husband. She should crave affection and be happy that I try so hard to please her. Instead, she is so cold and distant. What can I do? I need love and communication! I want you to talk to her and get her to change.” My heart broke for him – and for all the couples who live in loneliness and strife, craving what they cannot get.
It is human nature to try to get people to change and be what we want them to be, especially our spouses, parents, children and siblings. And most of us try an endless variety of pressure tactics to make our dreams come true. We nag, demean, denounce, scold, complain, tear our hair out, lecture, scream, talk/refuse to talk, get passive/get aggressive, sigh frequently, cry, beg, bribe, insult, criticize, coerce, accuse, run after/run away from, talk endlessly, try to induce shame and guilt, check up on, threaten to commit suicide, slam doors, deliver ultimatums, stomp around, lie, hint, act more submissive, give oodles of compliments, do anything to please no matter how difficult or disgusting it is, enlist the support of rabbis, call family members to tell them how awful it is, drag them into counseling, drag them out of counseling, hurt them back so they’ll know how it feels, suffer in hostile silence, have more children in the hope that they will change, go to the Wall for 40 days, pay huge amounts for amulets and tikunai hanefesh, go crazy, get thin, get fat, get addicted to the Internet, try endless medications, write letters to them, monitor their reactions, hound them, lock them in, lock them out, try to teach them lessons and shake them up, provoke, peek in wallets, search the cell phone, try to figure out what caused them to be like this, analyze what caused us to marry them, give up and then try even harder and then blame ourselves that we didn’t try hard enough. (If I have forgotten anything, please add to the list.)
From childhood, we are trained to think of men as saintly scholars who love and honor their wives, listen to them with infinite love and patience and maintain their lofty principles despite terror and temptation. And we are trained to think of women as kind-hearted, ever smiling, organized and wise, with boundless energy and compassion, women who are submissive to their husbands yet powerful in their own right. We are told that they never raised their hands or their voices, that they would rather endure the fires of gehenom than be accused of hurting another human being with even a hint of an insult or a word of scorn. We read hundreds of books and articles about how the ideal man, woman and marital relationship “should” be.
Thus, when we are faced with a different reality, we are shocked to find that we cannot mold others to fit our fantasies and make them more loving, spiritual, better looking, communicative or smart. We are determined to get them to fit those saintly images, certain that we have the power to get our needs filled if we just try hard enough. Isn’t that what all the advisors tell us? “Be loving and respectful and you’ll be loved and respected.” When the reality doesn’t fit the fantasy, we get angry with the person or G-d.
The greater the gap between the fantasy and the reality, the greater our pain. Anger fills us with the hope that we can mold others. We fear that if we stop being angry, we will fall into utter despair and unbearable aloneness. We think we have no choice but to be either enraged or depressed. The fantasy of being able to mold others into living up to our expectations – a fantasy often encouraged by therapists and writers – does nothing but create more pain and heartache.
So how do we handle the pain? First, it is important to realize that love, understanding and appreciation are like rain; the amount we get is up to Hashem. When we learn to accept Hashem’s will, we calm down and can think more clearly. Second, we must allow ourselves to feel the normal feelings of frustration and grief which accompany an unfulfilling relationship. Third, we must find where this pain is pushing us. Therapy is certainly an option, but if, after years of discussion, there is no growth, it is best to look at other options. Due to their loneliness, many unhappily married people write books, get degrees, become involved in chesed projects or do community service. We are told, “Hashem is close to the broken-hearted” (Tehillim 34:19). This is because the broken-hearted have nowhere to turn but to Hashem. And that is the ultimate reason for the trials and tribulations we all suffer.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, obm said, “Turn your pain into a project.” I took that as my motto and encourage others to do the same. One of my projects was the creation of 39 “COPING CARDS,” which I used myself to help me accept Hashem’s reality. On these cards, I wrote all my favorite phrases from Pirkei Avos, Chovos HaLevavos and Misilas Yesharim. Like the 39 different works which were necessary to build the Beis HaMikdash, I worked 24/7 to internalize these 39 messages and build a mikdash in my own heart, struggling, one percent at a time, to create faith, joy and love independent of others’ behavior.
There are coping cards for adults as well as children, as it is important to get children used to facing frustrations and disappointments from an early age. They can be ordered at www.miriamadahan.com.
Dr. Adahan can be reached at 011-972-2-5868201 or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org