My wife has read your articles and books. It sounds so nice to be able to put one’s marriage first. But let’s be real. I have a job, kids, minyanim to catch and daf yomi shiurim to attend. My wife and I are stressed over money. Who isn’t? Don’t you think you’re causing unrealistic expectations for marriages when you say, “put your marriage first?” How much can I work at my marriage when everything else is going on? Shouldn’t the work in my life be what I’m supposed to be doing, namely to make my marriage financially viable? Maybe there are times in a marriage that you shouldn’t expect to be so “in love.” My marriage won’t be happy if I’m broke.
I’m happy that your wife has had the time to read my work. It’s a good thing she has a lighter schedule than you. Hopefully, you’ll have enough time to review my limited answer.
The number one myth of marriage is that after you fall in love, you don’t have to work at it anymore. Countless couples have told me, “If it takes so much energy, we must not be made for each other.” Somewhere, we have been improperly taught that true love is supposed to come easily. Once we’ve committed to each other through marriage, our love will take care of itself while we get on with life. We can now focus on jobs, kids and acquiring things like a house, cars and appropriate furniture. We see our spouse less as an individual and more as an ex tension of ourselves — a team dedicated to keeping the physical plant of our lives hearty. We begin to figure that whatever we’re doing is understood as serving the greater good of both of us. This should be enough to keep us madly in love, sexually attracted to each other and wanting to be together forever.
There isn’t one obvious theory that keeps this unfortunate pattern believable, but I think many desperately want to hold onto it to resist having to work so hard at love. It takes enormous energy to create and maintain a wonderful marriage. Great marriages are about “absorption”, a kind of fully-engaged connection that requires constant attention, a deep, soul-searching understanding of yourself and how it affects your ability to love. Giving it everything you’ve got sounds exhausting and disquieting.
We may say we want that wonderful marriage, but deep down we recognize that being sensitive to another human being is harder than most things we do. If all you are giving to your spouse is the energy left over from balancing work and family, you’re cheating your marriage.
Think back to when you fell in love. Do you remember what you talked about? Do you remember loving conversations you had about whether you had enough money to pay the full balance on your credit cards or if you should carry the debt further, or how you needed to spend less money so that you could pay the bills this month? And can you recall any romantic moments at dinner when you each interrupted your conversation at least six times to answer your cell phones, send off a quick e-mail on your Blackberry and discuss important business? You never had those conversations back then, because if you had, you wouldn’t have fallen in love. In fact, you would have run away from each other as fast as possible. Yet, this is life today, and you’re expecting to be happy and in love.
Putting your marriage first is about a state of mind. It’s believing that everything else that you consider important is dramatically impacted by your marriage. Whether you feel in love or lonely will affect every decision and action you make today. Marriage is a foundation for your world. With love in your heart and a sense of someone who cares deeply for you as your partner, you have greater energy and greater abilities to handle all of life’s tasks. Aren’t you a better parent on the day you feel close to your spouse than when you’ve just had a fight? Aren’t you more focused and energized at work the day after a romantic, loving evening with your spouse? Don’t you want to live more passionately when you feel loved and are able to give love? You should and you can. For every ounce of effort you put into your marriage, you will benefit tenfold; not only from the direct love you feel, but from the energy and focus you’ll have for everything else in your life.Rabbi M. Gary Neuman