Familial relationships are prime factors in determining how individuals view themselves and how they view and interact with the world. The foundational relationship in any family is that of the mother and father; their interactions as husband and wife inform their children as to how meaningful relationships can be cultivated and maintained.
In addition to this crucial modeling function, the couples themselves stand to benefit in numerous ways from investments in their relationships, including improved psychological and physical health.
Creating a healthy and happy relationship requires effort and determination. A good relationship could develop over time, but a great relationship is the result of hard work and dedication. What follows are five crucial guidelines – Communication, Love, Exclusivity, Attention, and Respect (CLEAR) – to help Jewish couples keep their marriages fresh and centered on core values.
Communication is the backbone of human interaction. While one might assume the key to a solid relationship is the mastery of verbal communication, the truth is that non-verbal communication, which comprises 93 percent of the information we intake regularly, is just as important.
It is crucial for couples to know and understand that the words they use to speak with their spouses are only half the equation – the manner in which it is stated will ultimately determine how the information will be received. My Touro University Worldwide coursework and experience in the field lead me to believe that the inability to communicate tactfully and effectively may be the number one barrier to conflict resolution among married couples.
The nature of a relationship is that differences of opinions are bound to arise; two people will rarely share the same opinion or approach. The true measurement of a relationship built to last is not the number of disagreements avoided but rather the number of issues dealt with as a team through effective, positive, and even empowering communication.
Love is a basic need within a marriage. The Talmud (Yevamos 62b) teaches us that one should love his wife as he loves himself. The Rambam (Hilchos Ishus, Chapter 15) understands this as a rabbinic commandment, implying that love is a mainstay of the Jewish marriage relationship. Just as the human body cannot survive without air, a healthy marriage is dependent on the reciprocation of love.
Judaism understands love as an emotional entity that must be nurtured. John Gottman, a leading couples’ therapist, suggests building “love maps,” a model that forces couples to set aside time to focus on their partners’ pasts, concerns, preferences, and current experiences. The idea, of course, is that the better a couple understands one another the more they will be able love each other.
Exclusivity provides a feeling of safety and security in the marriage relationship. For a marriage to work, the couple must know there are certain things they share with one another and no one else. The Torah commands a newly married man to devote his entire first year of marriage to his wife. The Chinuch (Mitzvah 582) clarifies the importance of this commandment, explaining that its purpose is to help the couple create a distinct bond, a relationship that is exclusive and special. When a couple develops this exclusivity early on, it fosters a strong and lasting relationship. That said, the strongest relationships are those in which couples treat every year like their first year of marriage.
Attention is our greatest and most precious commodity. By lavishing a spouse with attention, one shows he cares and is mindful of his spouse’s needs. Obviously, this task is much easier said than done. Aside from the basic cognitive and emotional differences that exist between men and woman, one must also take into account the historical, familial, and experiential differences each individual brings to the table. These differences play a part in how each individual understands and expresses what he or she thinks, feels, and practices.
By paying close attention to each other’s needs, always taking the time to appreciate the sources of these wishes and desires, a couple will develop a strong and loving bond.
Respect from external sources is a key ingredient to a healthy self-image. The Alter of Slobodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l, explains that self-respect is the very force of life. If one were to lose all respect for oneself, one’s life would be meaningless. This basic need for respect is magnified within the framework of marriage.
The only way to maintain a successful relationship is to begin with a baseline of mutual respect. This means developing a relationship in which the couple operates as a team and consideration, honesty, and compassion rule. Most important, both halves of the couple must be prepared to own their mistakes and apologize sincerely for their misconduct. When mutual respect guides the couple, they are virtually unstoppable.
Though there are many factors that can derail a marriage, couples who truly believe in the sanctity of marriage and are dedicated to their spouses have a fighting chance to secure and enhance their relationships. Hopefully, through educating couples and helping them achieve these CLEAR goals, we will minimize negative couple interactions, create healthier, more fulfilling relationships, and ensure the continuity of our very special Jewish heritage.Rabbi Natanel Lauer