It is very easy for spouses to become critical of each other. You might be thinking, “When will my spouse start to improve?” but he may be wondering the same thing about you. You might both be waiting for the other to make the first move toward self-improvement and a better relationship—and you may find yourself still waiting fifty years later, G-d forbid.
Yet, there are some simple steps you can take to get your relationship back onto a positive track (and some exercises to keep it there).
In the Chabad siddur, the sentence “I hereby take upon myself the mitzvah of loving my fellow as myself,” is recited every morning at the start of the daily prayers. It is followed by the verse (Numbers 24:5), “How goodly are your tents, O’ Jacob.”
That verse was originally uttered by the evil prophet Bilaam, who intended to curse the Israelites as he had been hired to do by Balak, the Moabite king. Instead, Bilaam blessed them, at G-d’s command. Our sages teach that the word “goodly” refers to the fact that the Israelites in the desert arranged their tents so that the entrances would not face each other, and no one would be able to see into his neighbor’s home. According to the Baal Shem Tov, this means that the Jews did not scrutinize their neighbors’ faults.
These two statements are juxtaposed in the siddur to remind us that we can attain a true love of our fellow Jew by overlooking his flaws and focusing instead on fixing ourselves. The Talmud teaches (Bava Basra 60b) that the repetition in the verse (Leviticus 19:17) “Rebuke, you shall rebuke” indicates that one must correct one’s own faults before correcting those faults in someone else.
It is common for us to note the flaws of others. Sometimes we ignore them, sometimes we address them directly, sometimes we approach the topic with caution and tact. Each reaction may be appropriate at some specific time, but the last is usually the wisest course.
Once upon a time, a competition was held for the best portrait of the king. Unfortunately, the king was ugly: short and hunchbacked, with bulging eyes, a clubfoot, and a blemish on his cheek.
The first contestant, who hoped to flatter the king, depicted him as tall and handsome. The king exclaimed, “Are you mocking me?” and he banished the hapless subject.
The next contestant, who prided himself on his honesty, painted the king exactly as he appeared. The king exclaimed, “You have insulted me!” and this unfortunate artist was also banished.
The third contestant portrayed the king realistically, but in such a way that no one could detect any deformities. He painted the king seated on his horse, leaning over with a rifle in his hand, as if at a hunt. Because he was bent over, one could not see that he had a hunchback. Because he was squinting at his target, one could not see that his eyes bulged. And since the portrait displayed only one side of the king, one could not see his clubfoot or the blemish on his face.
Beauty is indeed in the eyes of the beholder. We have the ability to perceive any person and any situation in a positive way, if we choose to do so. Similarly, you can train yourself to perceive your own and your spouse’s attributes realistically, yet positively.
Both husband and wife should strive to accept the other’s imperfections. The first step toward achieving this goal is to maintain a high level of self-awareness. If you notice any deficiency in your spouse, remind yourself that a negative quality you find in another person is a reflection of something in oneself that requires rectification. If you happen to peek into someone else’s “tent” and see a flaw, look into your own “tent” and examine your own faults.
Then, accept that this apparently negative character trait is actually a misdirection of the soul’s great potential for holiness. Work on drawing that flaw back to its source of holiness. Doing so will help you see the good within yourself or another person, even if it is buried deep. When we elevate ourselves, we influence others to make positive changes of their own.
You can more readily discern the potential good in yourself and your spouse when you realize that every negative attribute is simply an unrectified positive attribute. For example, a person who has a fiery temperament can channel that fire toward a passion for davening, a passion for learning, a passion for helping people, for loving his fellow Jews and loving Hashem. A person whose earthy temperament inclines her toward depression can channel her introspection to a thorough investigation of a difficult decision.
It is imperative to realize that no person is always 100% okay—and that is okay. Only angels are perfect. G-d sees each individual as a sublimely beautiful soul. Despite your failings, G-d focuses on the beauty of your holy soul and loves you unconditionally. Just as a parent loves his child—even when the child misbehaves—so too G-d always loves you. You may not feel that love for yourself. You may not consider yourself as measuring up to the accepted societal standards of how a person should behave, much less G-d’s standards. Nonetheless, we must accept and love ourselves. Our setbacks do not define us; growth is a life-long process. It is up to us to follow G-d’s lead, and see beyond our own, and others’, present shortcomings to the beauty of their inner soul.
Instead of focusing on each other’s faults, a couple should try to perceive and draw out the good in each other. They should emulate Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev, who was legendary for always finding the merit within every Jew and petitioning G-d for mercy on their behalf, even when it was apparent to all that they had sinned.
Beyond all the pragmatic benefits of improved relationships, shalom bayis is a mitzvah for the purpose of perfecting the soul. The reason that the Jewish people gave the korbon shlamim (peace offering) right after matan Torah (receiving the Torah) was because they had reached a spiritual state of elevation. G-d was symbolically preparing His people in the desert for their future involvement in a more mundane life. In this way, they would become accustomed to sacrifice perfectionism and learn to be at peace with the process of attaining completion.
Shalom is, essentially, making peace with our own and others’ inadequacies. As we mentioned, first look to correct the inadequacies in your own tent—or in your own pockets, as in the following story, told often by Reb Mendel Futerfas, famed chassid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe:
I had been imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp for teaching Torah. In the barracks, the hardened criminals regularly played cards, although the possession of such an amenity was strictly forbidden. On occasion, a guard would drop by in an effort to confiscate the deck of cards, but incredibly, he was never able to find it.
One day, I asked one of the card players how they always managed to hide the deck. The inmate responded: “We are experienced thieves and we have quick hands. When a guard comes in, we slip the cards into his pocket. That is the one place he would never think of looking. And when he leaves, we slip the cards out again.”
Just as the guard never thought to look inside his own pockets, we tend not to search our own “pockets” of imperfection but instead look into the “pockets” of those around us. Were we to look in our own pockets, at our own flaws, we would realize that change is not easy. And once we accepted that, we would be more patient with others and less eager to criticize them.
Replacing criticism with words of praise and admiration tends to reinforce the behavior that elicited the praise. Consistently praising your spouse’s and your own positive attributes develops and strengthens those qualities.
It is important to stay confident and hopeful about your own and your spouse’s ability to achieve positive change. This will give you the clarity, equanimity, and energy to go on. Continually finding fault with someone usually discourages them from trying to change. Denigrating yourself for every misstep may lead you to give up on the idea of self-improvement. Instead, treat your spouse and yourself with unconditional kindness and love—even if you have to force yourself to do so. The more loving you act, the more love you feel and the more you will receive.
The Tzemach Tzedek, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, taught that since the soul of every Jew is connected to all other Jews, if you harbor negativity towards yourself or towards someone else, your heart is not whole. Ahavas Yisrael, love for your fellow Jew (including yourself!), is a key that will open the gate to G-d’s mercy. The more you develop this love, the happier your home will be, and the stronger your connection to G-d.
Exercises and Meditations to Practice:
Recognize the positive in yourself: Write down three positive qualities you have. Recall the positive effect utilizing those qualities has on those around you. Then write down three positive qualities you wish you had. Visualize yourself possessing those qualities. Visualize yourself acting in a manner consistent with those positive traits. Visualize the positive effect mastering those qualities can have on your life.
Consider that your spouse possesses positive qualities that complement your own. Acknowledge the positive qualities your spouse possesses, and the beneficial effects that accompany them. Write them down. Then write down three positive qualities you wish your spouse possessed. Visualize him mastering those qualities and acting in a manner consistent with those positive traits. Visualize the positive effect that could have on your life together.
Strive to accept imperfections in yourself and your spouse. Identify a negative character trait that you possess and one that your spouse possesses. Envision yourself applying this trait in a positive way. Map out the steps you think would be necessary for you to make that happen.