Zelda woke up with a start, the silence eerie and disorienting. She has been waking up this way for almost a year – since shortly after Ruchy and her husband left for Eretz Yisroel. “I can go back to sleep,” thought Zelda. But she lay in bed, straining to hear the sounds which for so many years began her day. The banging of bathroom doors, the shouting for lost and then found shoes, tights and seforim, the noise of phones and doorbells ringing, the house filled to the brim with comings and goings.
Now only she and her husband occupied the space that had once been filled with all that is associated with a balabateshe home. Her day stretched endlessly, without any noticeable change from yesterday or tomorrow. The silence was deafening. Suddenly, with a sense of relief, she remembered that this was the day she picked up her mother from the Y and took her out to lunch. Once upon a time, it was hard to fit in the time for lunch with her mother.
Life had changed so drastically. The hectic, driven mother, who didn’t have a minute to spare, now had the weight of empty hours pressing in on her. Zelda confided in me that the only sparkle she has left in her life is when her daughter arrives from Israel to give birth in the U.S. She is busy 24/7, but then when they go, she is devastated.
Till now Zelda was instrumental in helping her spouse and their children reach their goals, often at personal sacrifice. Women at this stage of life have accomplished a lot. They see the fruits of their labor; children and grandchildren blossoming, but at the same time the feeling of triumph on a day-to-day basis is lost. It is not surprising that they feel adrift. This sharp loneliness is often referred to as the “empty nest syndrome.”
In this article, I would like to explore how women can achieve great personal growth and true simchas hachaim at a time when many feel they are “all washed up.” One can face the challenge of reorienting to the new realities of life and reach deep and soul-stirring moments. Focus can now shift from seeing oneself primarily as a mother of children to a woman in relation to a man. The new task is to reinvent the marriage – to spruce up the relationship between husband and self. This is the next stage of our lives: establishing a revitalized and meaningful relationship with our husbands.
A cherished mentor, Mrs. Gross, who lived to the ripe old age of 90 used to say, “I had at least 4 husbands in my life: the young ardent husband/kollel man who rushed home eagerly to eat dinner with his young bride; the hard working father who rushed home from work to spend quality time with our children; the less haggard, but more serious grandfather, who loved taking the grandkids to the park; and more recently, the wise, settled gentleman who accepts what life has to offer with gratitude and grace. Mrs. Gross was a smart woman who went with the flow and enjoyed each different phase of life. She was a very wise woman because she knew how to appreciate her husband in every stage of their lives.
Not all women are so blessed with this insight. Many couples lose their awareness of each other as the needs of maintaining a home take center stage. They forget how to relate to each other in that truly personal way. If relationships are of paramount importance to women, it is especially true of the relationship of marriage. The success or failure of a marriage lies at the core of our being; it defines our feelings of success.
At this stage of life, enhancing and reinvigorating the marriage must become our priority. It is my fervent belief that women can use their innate power to learn new skills and create positive energy between themselves and their spouse. These skills have been lying dormant inside every woman, but have not always been accessed.
Yossi, Zelda’s husband, comes home. He opens the door, mumbles hello and picks up his mail without a glance at his wife. Zelda is on the phone. She waves at him absentmindedly, continuing her phone conversation. What is going on? An aura of indifference has set in with no real connection or awareness between them. They are like two ships passing in the night. This couple is not getting anything from each other emotionally. They are merely occupying space together. There is no flow of positive energy passing between them.
This couple has moved away from the ideal of what a marriage is meant to be. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler writes on the roots of love, “We are givers. This is hidden deeply in our human soul. We think it is love which causes giving, because a person showers gifts on those that he loves. But it may be the other way around. Giving brings about love, because by giving you invest something of yourself in the other person.”
The first step in the reconnection process is to look at your husband and really see him; his emotional state of being. Look at his body language, listen to his tone of voice, hear his verbal and mental message. Had Zelda taken note, she would have seen a different picture. Did her husband come home with drooping shoulders; sadness etched on his tired face or was he joyful, eager to share his day?
What about you, a typical middle-aged woman? Can you be empathic and understanding? Can you pay attention to his stories and jokes? Can you show interest in the things he enjoys; can you make him feel that he is important to you? If you answer yes to these questions, then you are creating an atmosphere of emotional safety.
Here is an illustration of how a typical situation can turn into a disaster when couples are not tuned into one another.
Mendy came home very late one night – much later than usual. He hadn’t called. It was a snowy night and Shony was frantic. By the time he arrived she was an emotional wreck. She lashed out at him the minute he stepped through the door. Angry recriminations ensued, finally giving way to hurtful silence. Years before when Mendy came home late, Shony hardly noticed because she was busy with supper and bedtime for the kids. In fact, she was even relieved as it gave her a chance to put the house in order. Today it was very different. Her hours were empty and she was looking forward to some companionship. She had expected to spend a pleasant evening. Shony felt not only scared and disappointed, but rejected as well.
In my practice, I am currently using the pioneering work of Dr. Stephen Gilligan Ph.D., who has developed the therapeutic theory of “Self Relations”. He teaches that we have the ability to leave behind the old patterns of frustration and turn these patterns into an opportunity for positive new growth. A person can reinvent and transform himself to meet the changes in his life, instead of reacting to the changes with suspicion and despair.
In the aforementioned example, when Shony was in that frustrated place, she could have used it as a stepping-stone to regenerate her mind to a new pattern of responses.
Shony might have remembered that Mendy’s past experience was similar to her own: He understood that Shony would not notice if he was late and might even be relieved. Or she might have been in touch with her own feelings of disappointment. If so, she could have used this opportunity to get closer to her husband. She could have altered the outcome by rephrasing her worry, “I am so relieved you are home. I was worried sick. Tonight more than ever, I realized how important you are in my life. You must be exhausted being out there on this awful night.” The episode would have brought them closer together instead of further apart.
Another component of “Self Relations” therapy is employing the “technique” of tenderness. Dr. Gilligen advocates sprinkling tenderness into the spousal relationship in small ways. Within a Torah context, a husband and wife who treat each other with tenderness and kindness are fulfilling an unbelievable level of chessed bein odom l’chavero. In this positive state we move through life with a sparkle and zest that is euphoric.
After years of living together, many couples develop a kind of “taking for granted” attitude towards each other. Here is where little tender acts can change this cycle of indifference. One woman recalled, “For years my husband told me he loves a certain bean soup, called shipkele/bundele, that his mother used to cook for the family. I was not always attentive to that longing because I was so preoccupied with the children, but now I make sure to serve him the soup that brings those good memories back for him. This small gesture makes him feel that I care and I do.”
Another woman recalls shyly, “a little thing like having my coffee freshly brewed and ready for me makes my day start in a happier frame of mind.” Tenderness also means not taking anything for granted and saying thank you; showing hakoras hatov. Tenderness means speaking softly. When you ask for something in an angry, impatient manner, the message often does not get heard, but the tone does.
Dr. Gilligan adds a third piece to the “Self-Relations” theory which encourages creating an atmosphere of playfulness and fun. Make time for joy and laughter. Go on a date with your husband. Clink glasses during a romantic dinner. Play games such as Scrabble or Rummy on quiet nights. Go for walks; travel if you can and learn together. These small and simple activities build relationships and enhance companionship.
Have a sense of humor, allow yourself to play and be a child again. Create fun situations where you can have the freedom to relax and feel the comfort of someone who is accepting of you. Don’t let little things annoy you or upset you. Know how to let go. Laughter is really a great medicine; a sustained belly laugh releases endorphins into the brain, creating a sense of well-being.
When we receive blessings for a binyan adei ad at the time of our wedding, it doesn’t stop when the last child leaves the house; it is meant to last till 120. With a fresh and different perception, the “empty nest syndrome” can be turned into a time of rejuvenation and renewal. Adopting the philosophy of tenderness/playfulness and reinventing ourselves can transform our marriages to a new, unprecedented level of sharing and connection. Bein Adam l’chavaro, v’ish l’ishto; there is no better way to embrace Hashem than by bringing tranquility and joy into our home.
Sara Freund, LCSW has been practicing psychotherapy in the frum community for the last 25 years in her private practice. She has been trained in E.M.D.R. and Hypnotherapy. She helps individuals, couples and families with problems such as: Depression, Anxiety, Phobic Fears, Bi-Polar Disorder, and Sholom Bayis problems. She can be reached at 718-692-1650 or you can send a e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.Sara Freund