Title: The Dos and Don’ts of Staying Happily Married
by Rabbi Chaim A. Morgenstern
“It is as difficult to match a couple together as splitting the Red Sea” (Sotah 2a). Even once Hashem has matched couples up, shalom bayis is still challenging. While I was reading this book, Daf Yomi Nedarim 66b came up, full of fighting couples and Rabbis trying to do whatever it takes to help smooth things over, including being spit on and tasting terribly cooked food.
During The Dos and Don’ts of Staying Happily Married, I thought frequently of the valiant Rebbeim who counsel our couples and do what they can to foster shalom bayis. It is clear that Rabbi Morgenstern has decades of experience with this.
This book comprehensively tackles many areas of strife and many, many, hashkafic points. With numerous stories and quotes, it is divided into sensible areas to focus on. You can see just from the topics that R’ Morgenstern covers how complex, vast, and multifaceted a lifelong loving partnership with another human being is. And how much effort and wisdom and discipline it takes to keep it functioning well.
As I was evaluating the advice in this book, I read Rebbetzin Rivka Press-Schwartz’s piece on 18forty.org with this thought-provoking counterpoint:
“Do we think that every marriage can be saved, that every marriage should have been saved?… The default assumption… is that marriages, all marriages, should stay together. But what if a marriage is not meeting a spouse’s needs in some significant way? What if it is a source of unhappiness; or marked by unbridgeable religious differences; or one partner changing more than the other can adapt to, no longer who they were when they were 25; or, or, or?
“People getting divorced, or people in marital difficulty, are not fools… We are not upending a long marriage, incurring the enormous costs (financial, emotional, familial) of divorce because we couldn’t think of anything better to do on a Tuesday morning. We are doing it because we see no alternative. The assumption that you can show up uninvited and “talk to” one or both of the parties and “fix it” is (a) wrong, (b) insulting in the extreme, and (c) guaranteed not to be helpful and overwhelmingly likely to do harm.”
At the same time, there are undoubtedly patterns and errors that contribute to marital stress and maybe we can learn about them and thus increase our marital harmony. As Jews, we especially hope that Torah is a Tree of Life for those who cling to her, and that her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace. Will following the wisdom of Torah bring us more happiness and a better life in general, and will it do so in the area of marriage? Are there Torah principles that guide us to shalom bayis? He quotes Rav Hirsch: “Jewish marriages are contracted not on the basis of passion, but on the strength of reason and judgment.”
Some of the inspiring Torah ideals discussed in this book are: being able to cope with challenges. Patience. Cultivating middos of bein adam l’chaveiro. The prohibition of onaas devarim (saying a hurtful remark, “causing pain or anguish to another with words, in writing, or even with a nonverbal gesture”). Chesed – not to people outside our home, but to our spouse. Mutual responsibilities. Loyalty. Gratitude. Being dan l’laf zchus (judging favorably). Viewing marriage as just another stage in life on the road toward self-improvement, which is only attained by facing and overcoming challenges. Compromising, conceding, and ignoring minor issues. Avoiding ka’as (anger). Not being makpid (exacting) and instead being mevater (giving in). (He gives all sorts of little tips and tricks and tidbits to uplift and encourage us.)
The idea that men are logical and women are emotional is a chapter with sweeping generalizations that some couples might find extremely helpful and many individuals will find baffling or insulting.
The stance on confidentiality – not sharing personal issues with others for advice – is a great example of how he can be absolutely right and this can damage the relationship OR speaking up is actually really important and a great way to get the name of a great therapist or access to help.
The approach to onaas devarim (avoiding hurtful speech) is so extreme that I personally often felt that direct, kind communication would be healthier. We had many voracious debates in my family about this, reading aloud different stories and arguing which way the health of the marriage would be better served long term. It is definitely a line that each couple needs to work out for getting their needs met, being mevater (kind and letting things go) vs. asking for things we want.
I did not appreciate the footnote about halachic prenup (p. 9) where he opines (despite stating that it helps some agunot) that the prenup “serves as an easy way out for quarreling couples – they can avoid seeking professional counseling because divorce is an option.” Frankly, I don’t know anyone who gets divorced without tremendous agmas nefesh (mental agony) and cheshbon hanefesh (introspection) so this strikes me as ludicrous and I’m sorry that the yeshivish world is hesitating to sign halachic prenups with this as an excuse.
It’s nice to read a marriage book that is specific to halachic Jews. It discusses spiritual enthusiasm differences, or when one spouse is more scrupulous about halacha, or when one is more knowledgeable about halacha, and explores when to make compromises of strictness and when that’s a terrible idea.
I appreciated the housekeeping/neatness discussion, which is a ubiquitous conflict a couple may not anticipate. The list of communication skills is a beautiful list. He also talks about feeling like you are doing all the compromising or taking all the responsibility, and the tendency to overlook our own faults and hyperfocus on our partner’s. Probably my favorite chapter was 8: Avoiding Middos Ra’os, which is a great combination of practical and hashkafic advice.
May we all be zoche to increase peace in our homes.