Dear Gary, I’m very upset with the younger generation today and the way they treat their marriages. I’ve been married for 56 years and admit that it hasn’t always been easy. If I thought about getting divorced each time my husband upset or annoyed me, we wouldn’t have gotten past the week of sheva brachos. It seems to me that today’s newlyweds don’t want to make any sacrifices and think only of themselves. My grandson, the father of two beautiful young children, is getting divorced. He says its because he didn’t make his wife happy enough and spent too much time working at his new job. This is outrageous. Do you think this younger generation is too selfish?
Answer: First of all, congratulations on 56 years of marriage. As you note, it wasn’t easy – and it’s not supposed to be. It is always inspiring to hear stories of a life long commitment to marriage. I only wish you would share with us some of your secrets to marital longevity. Surely, your primary one was the expectations you had going into your marriage. There’s no doubt that marriages today begin differently than those of yesteryear. Whereas I’m not comfortable calling an entire generation “selfish,” I am comfortable discussing your sage point about sacrificing.
Successful marriages have some commonalities, one of them being the realistic expectation that each spouse will make sacrifices. Taking it a step further, it’s really about contentment. We live in a world where we are often taught not to be content. While we are expected to consistently strive for more, this doesn’t mean we should live in a perpetual state of unrest. The successful couple is one who is looking to expand their devotion for each other into something more, while at the same time, recalling the ongoing love that already exists. You can want to spend more time having fun with your spouse while simultaneously being grateful for the positive relationship you now have and the time you presently spend together.
Contentment lies at the heart of a happy marriage and life. However, some confuse contentment with a lackadaisical attitude; if I’m content, I won’t work hard to change. But contentment is about counting your blessings, knowing things could be worse and not taking for granted the positive in your marriage. The beauty of being content with your spouse is that it inspires you to make those sacrifices for each other and not feel that something has been taken away from you. Rather, you’ve added significantly to the marriage, the family and the love that is being nurtured. You have done this by thinking of each other and putting some of your wants on the back burner.
Naturally, this style of marital behavior works when both spouses are in sync in this concept. It becomes unhealthy if only one spouse is comfortable sacrificing and the other is quite happy being sacrificed for. (That is why no one from outside the marriage relationship can judge, because we can’t know the balance or lack thereof.) Relationships are built on a reciprocal give and take. It’s never an exact quid pro quo, but there has to be a feeling that each one wants to make the other happy and a desire to find that ongoing contentment together. Surely, there are those whose very “needs” are not being met. But again, the definition of “need” versus “want” is in the eyes of the beholder.
Try telling yourself you want to be content. Remove the word sacrifice for a while because it always sounds like something’s being taken away. When your spouse isn’t the way you’d like him or her to be, don’t tell yourself you have to accept it and make the sacrifice. Instead, use that moment to recall some of the wonderful things about your spouse, reminding yourself that no one has it all. Make that sacrifice gracefully, with love and the knowledge that this is part of what marriage is all about. Remember that you want your spouse to overlook some of your less than spectacular traits and find you wonderful. You don’t want him or her always thinking about all the sacrifices he/she needs to make living with you.Rabbi M. Gary Neuman