Rabbi Ben Zion Shafier never planned on giving marriage advice. The founder of “The Shmuz” – under whose umbrella he publishes books and delivers hundreds of lectures on the fundamentals of Jewish thought – he was happy teaching Torah and mentoring young men. But these men grew older and suddenly Rabbi Shafier found himself answering shalom bayis questions.
By his own admission, he made mistakes at first. But now, with many years of experience, Rabbi Shafier believes he has gained useful insight and will soon be publishing The 10 Really Dumb Mistakes That Very Smart Couples Make: A Torah Based Guide to a Successful Marriage. Pre-publication copies are available on Amazon.
The Jewish Press: Many people think that if a husband and wife have good middos, their marriage will succeed. In The 10 Really Dumb Mistakes That Very Smart Couples Make, you write that’s not necessarily the case. Why is that?
Rabbi Shafier: Because each human being is distinct in nature, temperament, mannerisms, and perspective, and if you don’t understand the differences between you and your spouse, invariably many things will make no sense to you and, because they make no sense, you’re going to paint a mental picture of your spouse that has no connection to reality.
I can’t tell you how many times I speak to couples and half the time my focus is on getting them to understand where the other one is coming from. So I think an understanding of both the complexity of marriage as well as the fundamental differences between men and women is essential for a successful marriage.
Previous generations had successful marriages, though, without reading books like yours. For that matter, you write in the book that you, thank G-d, are happily married, yet you didn’t read your book before getting married.
I wish I had a book like this before I got married. It would have saved a lot of heartache and hurt feelings. The idea of having a marriage without feelings being hurt is fantasy – it doesn’t exist – but the more you understand your spouse and the mechanics of marriage, the less likely [it will occur].
In terms of previous generations: Gender roles were far more defined in previous generations and people had much simpler expectations and thus were able to tolerate things to a much greater extent. We’ve become extremely pampered, extremely selfish, and extremely immature, so to expect a young couple today to weather the years that it takes to learn and understand your spouse without being taught [about it in advance is not wise].
The Rambam writes that a man must honor and love his wife. You believe that the Rambam intentionally mentions honor (or respect) before love. Explain. Why, in your opinion, must respect come before love?
For two reasons:
1) If I don’t respect my spouse, I’m not going to treat him or her with respect and that’s going to cause a lot of strife. It’s very hard for husbands or wives to feel good in their relationship if they don’t feel respected or if they feel their opinions don’t matter.
2) It’s difficult to really love a person whom you don’t fundamentally respect.
In the book, you write about Shaunti Feldhan, a female novelist who wanted her books to be as realistic as possible, so she asked men how they would react to various scenarios. Many of their answers surprised her, so she started conducting scientific polls and learned, among other things, that 74 percent of men would rather live without love than live without respect. Why is this fact significant in your opinion?
The Rambam explains that a woman needs to be cherished. She needs to know that her husband loves her. She needs affection and warm regard. If she has that, she’s happy. If not, she’s not happy.
Men, though, typically have a different sort of need and that’s a need for respect. Often women treat their husband as they wish to be treated, so they’ll buy their husbands love cards and flowers – which is fine – but oftentimes they’ll miss out on their husband’s more fundamental need which is the need for respect.
You write that the two most important words in a marriage are “That’s strange.” Please explain.
The cause of any fight – certainly in a marriage – is misunderstanding. “I assumed you know this.” “I thought you meant that.” And therefore, if you acted this way [despite this knowledge], you must be mean, callous, indifferent, etc.
The narrative begins spinning out of control, and before you know it, you’ve demonized and created an entire persona that has no connection to reality. So when your spouse does something that’s hurtful, the first question you have to ask yourself is: Is my spouse a nice guy? Now, if he is, why would he do that?
To ask those questions, though, you need a certain scientific curiosity, so that’s why I say the most important words in a marriage are “That’s strange.” When your spouse does something that’s clearly hurtful – maybe even bordering on obnoxious – instead of assuming that you know why he or she did that, say to yourself, “That’s strange, he’s really typically a very nice guy. Why would he do that?”
When you say the words “That’s strange,” you begin to open yourself up to the possibility that maybe he didn’t have the full perspective and maybe he didn’t mean it the way you think he meant it.
“When I married your grandma, I said to her. ‘Dear, I’m telling you now that I love you. If I ever change my mind, I’ll let you know.’” You share this joke in your book. Why?
Because invariably guys have that attitude about five years into marriage.
Without understanding the fundamental deep needs of a woman, you’re not going to be able to meet them. At the core of her essence, a woman needs to know that she’s loved and cherished. And she needs to know that not just when you first get married. It’s a constant need.
At the beginning of their marriage, women typically go through a stage where they’re not sure if their husband loves them or not – and by “the beginning of their marriage,” I mean the first 30 or 40 years.
So if a husband doesn’t constantly assure his wife [that he loves her], she’s going to feel empty. The Steipler writes in a letter that a woman at the core of her essence needs to know that her husband loves her, and if that’s lacking, it’s close – he says – to pikuach nefesh.
You stress in the book that a woman needs to talk and it’s important for a man to understand that. Can you elaborate?
That’s another gender difference: Guys usually talk about things – whether it’s cars, money, or learning. Women, though, typically speak to share emotions and connect. The Gemara says women were given nine measures of talk while men were given one. That’s not a pejorative statement. It’s just reality.
Guys typically connect by doing things together. They’ll learn together b’chavrusa, play basketball together, etc. With women, it’s speaking and sharing that creates the connection. So the Chazon Ish writes that a man has to come home and tell his wife about the small things in his life because that’s a catalyst of connection for her and it’s something she craves in her essence.
You also write that it’s important for men to listen to their wives and not constantly interject with suggestions. Why?
Typically, when a guy goes to another guy with a problem, he’s looking for a solution. So when a newly-married wife tells her husband about a problem at work, he assumes, “She must be telling me that because she wants a solution,” so naturally he’ll put on his mechanics hat to fix the problem.
But she’s not looking for a solution. She’s looking for connection, she’s looking for empathy. And if he doesn’t understand that, he’s not going to respond properly. His job there is to emphasize, to feel her pain, to be with her in her world.
Women often try to improve their husbands, yet you write that it’s absolutely vital that they not do so. Why?
Because it doesn’t work, it damages the relationship, and it’s a lack of respect.
Now, generally a woman tries to change her husband out of love and concern. Women are by nature caregivers and nurturers. She married her husband, she sees that he’s a good guy, but even a good guy can be better.
But what she doesn’t recognize is that a guy receives [her desire to change him] as a lack of respect because what it says in a guy’s world is “You’re not competent, you’re not good enough, you need me to help you become whole.”
In a woman’s world, [helping is common]. If a woman sees her friend cooking and knows a better way of doing it, it’s considered polite for her to share her ideas. If I know a better way to cook, why wouldn’t I share it with her?
Yet, it’s not that way in a guy’s world. Try telling a guy changing a tire, “Hey, if you hold the wrench this way, it would be much easier.” You’re asking for a fistfight because guys don’t typically offer unsolicited advice.
So when you try to change your husband, what you’re doing is sending a very clear message – not a message of acceptance and respect, but a message of you need to be something different. So without realizing it, you damage the relationship.
And it doesn’t even work because typically what you’re trying to change is his nature. So all it does is cause a lot of damage.
You write that trying to change your husband can be a marriage killer.
Yes. And the truth is that men do it as well, but it’s not typically as damaging. In marriage, you need to learn to make room for your spouse. Just because I have one way of doing things doesn’t mean that’s the only way of doing things. I have one approach; that doesn’t mean it’s the only approach.
Marriage is the most demanding relationship in existence. Any other relationship, you share only a part of your life with that person. When you get married, you share your entire life. And to mold two lives together requires understanding that my way of doing things is not the only way. It requires being able to make space for another person.
Last topic: You write that “children are the single greatest obstruction to shalom bayis.” How so?
Children are the biggest beracha, but they’re also the greatest obstacle to romance, to shared time together, and to connecting in a way that a husband and wife have to.
A husband and wife have to remember that their marriage is a priority, and it requires time. That means time alone, and time alone in a way that’s romantic and connecting.
Children are the biggest time demanders and demand emotional space and attention. So if you don’t learn to put up very firm boundaries, very soon you’ll find that there’s no time for each other, no time for the marriage, and before you know it, you’re in this rut of just going through life without really connecting any longer. So it requires taking back your marriage from your kids.
What does that mean practically?
It means understanding that your marriage comes first – before your parents and before your children. And it means setting time for going out, setting time alone, and setting time for vacations.