My husband and I celebrated our 20th anniversary just a few weeks ago. Twenty years! I remember being nervous when we had just started dating because I was one of those people who had never had a best friend for more than 4 or 5 years, and I was terrified that I would get bored of him or we would just drift apart after a little while, like had happened with all my childhood friends. Yet, here we are twenty years later and, Baruch Hashem, there’s no boredom or drifting in sight.
You may well think it’s just peachy that Avi and I have managed to be blessed with a “match made in heaven”, but the truth of the matter is that while a match may be made in heaven, a marriage is made down here on earth. The Gemara in Maseches Sanhedrin כב׃א says, “Kashe Lezivugan K’krias Yam Suf”— “It is as difficult (for Hashem) to make couples as it was to split the Yam Suf.” We see, though, that even with Kriyas Yam Suf, it was Nachshon ben Aminadav who was willing to walk in up to his nostrils and put in the effort which was the catalyst for Hashem’s bracha of the kriyah. I do think that Avi and I are well suited for each other—despite the fact that we are so very different from one another—but we are still together, and happily so, because of the hard work we put into our marriage.
Now, before I go any further, I would like to address the elephant in the room, which is that there are many marriages which end in divorce even though that is never anyone’s intent or hope as they walk down the aisle. My parents are divorced and, in my humble opinion, their divorce was actually the second best part of their marriage (obviously, I was the first). I don’t believe that every marriage which dissolves does so because one—or both—spouse(s) don’t put in the required effort. There are so many reasons and stressors which contribute to divorce—even between two fabulous individuals. I do, on the other hand, believe that there are a few things which a couple can do to give them the best possible chance to enjoy a long and healthy marriage, and I’d like to suggest two of them here. Just as a caveat, I’m not a marriage counselor—I don’t even play one on TV—and all the advice I have to dispense is entirely anecdotal and gleaned from my own experiences and the many experiences I have observed and have had shared with me by friends and, surprisingly, random strangers.
The first of my deeply held beliefs will come as no surprise. I’m sure we’ve all heard this a million times before, but there’s a reason that’s so, and that reason is because it’s so very true: communication is key. I’m not a huge proponent of a regular date night simply because my husband and I never seem to be able to find the time, energy, or disposable income for it, but I am a HUGE proponent of making sure to carve out time for meaningful communication. Trust me, I know how hard it is to find any time to be alone and enjoy the luxury of actually finishing a sentence—let alone a conversation—but making sure the lines of communication are not just open, but flowing between you, is worth getting a babysitter, staying up late after the kids are in bed, or even *gasp* letting the kids watch a video for.
Meaningful communication is not just about passing along information. It’s not about making sure everyone knows the carpool schedule, who has a dentist appointment this week, what Shmuley’s rebbe said when he called this afternoon, or what Rifky has insisted is the only food she will accept packed in her school lunches. Okay, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but what I’m getting at is that this isn’t just about fact swapping. Meaningful communication is discussing your thoughts and feelings on any one of a myriad of topics. It can be hopes and dreams for your future, frustrations at work or in the home (we’ll discuss how to do that a bit later), reflections and contemplations on Yiddishkeit, political and financial queries or concerns, and what happened over the course of your day/week, depending on how often you get to do this. Notice that I didn’t say month because once a month is definitely too infrequent for meaningful communication to be happening.
Unlike many other people, I think it’s okay to discuss your parenting joys and challenges in one of these sessions. Kids are normally the only topic that’s off limits, but I think that if you’re discussing your thoughts and feelings on your kids and your parenting journey, it actually has the potential to bring you closer together and help you work out your parenting strategy on a regular basis. It’s really hard to have non-inflammatory, focused conversation on how being a parent is affecting you and your relationship when one (or more, as is often the case) of the kids is in crisis, but you’ll be so glad you had those conversations and are on the same page—or are at least in the same book—when crisis does hit.
What’s most important about your meaningful communication is that you really share what’s going on in your head and your heart with your spouse; that you stay connected. Imagine, if you will, that you are each a train on your own track and that those tracks run side by side. Every time you have your own individual experiences (which shape your thoughts and worldview, etc.), the tracks diverge a little, which is fine and normal. It’s important, though, that you take the time to bring the tracks back in line with each other through communicating the experiences that shape your thoughts and worldviews (and the ensuing thoughts and worldviews which were shaped) to help prevent drifting apart and becoming strangers under the same roof.
My second deeply-held belief comes from an episode of Dr. Phil I watched many years ago when I was nursing my oldest child. He was counseling a couple who was trying to work through infidelity, and what he said resonated very deeply with me. He said something to the effect of: the answers to the challenges in your marriage are always inside the marriage, never outside. When you turn outside for the answers, you’re already taking a step out. What he meant was not that you can’t seek outside help in the form of a therapist or counselor, but that when you think that the solution to the issues in your marriage lies somewhere—or with someone—else, you are headed down a bumpy road.
While it may be true that having a certain amount of space is good and healthy, when there is an issue in the marriage, you have to turn inward to fix it. This inward turn can be guided or facilitated by a professional but, while it’s okay to vent to close friends or your mother or sister, they don’t have the answers. They have advice, they have their own experiences, sure, but they don’t have anything that can just be topically applied to your relationship. Solutions need to be arrived at together. Much like the ancient Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken pottery was mended with lacquer that was dusted or mixed with powdered gold, a crack in your relationship which you fill together through communicating, learning to hear each other, and finding the places that you can bend for each other (and both parties need to be willing to bend, because one person can only bend so far before he or she breaks) will result in a stronger, more dynamic marriage.
Here is where I stick in the important note about how to communicate when there are issues. My friend and colleague, Ruchi Koval, has the best metaphor for this: imagine that you are a water boiler filled with water, and you are connected to the sinks and showers all over your house. If the water inside of you is cold, then when someone turns on the tap, cold water will come out. It’s no fun to wash your hands or take a shower in cold water (as anyone who is the last to take a shower on Erev Shabbos can attest to). Now, if you warm that water up, when the tap is turned on, the warm water will flow, which will be nice and comfortable for everyone. If you are filled with anger, resentment, jealousy, bitterness, and antagonism, and you open the lines of communication, that’s what’s going to flow out of you, so it’s best to try to get a bit of a grasp on your emotions before you speak.
Of course, it’s normal to feel some of these feelings toward your spouse sometimes (anyone who says they never get angry at their spouse probably just hasn’t been married long enough yet!), but it’s very important to be careful how you communicate the fact that you feel these feelings. I’m not saying that a relationship can never recover from a nasty fight, but is it really worth the hurt caused and the healing needed just so you can say whatever comes to mind in the heat of the moment? Hashem gave us both teeth and lips to act as a double filter for our words—a reminder to think twice before speaking. Before turning on the tap, we need to try to make sure that the water is at least lukewarm, so that others aren’t frozen—or scalded—by our words. It is perfectly fine to say (even through clenched teeth), “I love you very much, and we will work through this, but right now, I am too upset to discuss it rationally. I need some space to think and collect myself, so that we can have a productive and respectful conversation later.” I have said this (definitely through clenched teeth, at least a few times) and so has my husband, and though the time it takes to cool off—or warm up—can be uncomfortable, knowing that you are both committed to working through the issue and doing it in the best way possible is actually reassuring.
These are only two of the many, many things I have learned it takes to have a strong and thoroughly enjoyable marriage. It’s more than just two people who are a good match. It’s two people who are willing to work at staying connected and are committed to turning toward each other, even in the moments when they feel most like turning away. Though there are many other pieces to the puzzle that is marriage—a puzzle that we piece together over a lifetime—these are like the corner pieces—the ones you look for when you’re just getting started and need something to frame the puzzle and help give context to all the other pieces. Remember that putting together a puzzle is both challenging and fun, just like a marriage; keep working at it and make sure to take the time to enjoy it too! My husband and I are 20 years into our puzzle, and while the picture is coming into focus, we still have to figure out where so many pieces go…but we’ll keep trying to figure it out together.