Rabbi Shmuel Gluck is the Director of Areivim, an organization that offers counseling, crisis intervention and referral services for teens and their families.
Mutual Respect – Part 1
I am often approached by young men and women who are in the Shidduch scene. After several dates they confide to me that, although they like the other person very much, they don’t respect him/her. I tell them in very strong words that they shouldn’t marry anyone that they don’t respect.
Similarly, when speaking to couples going through difficult periods in their marriages, I find that most of their complaints can be solved by open communication but, to my dismay, they refuse to negotiate and compromise. There are many causes for this impasse. One of the more common ones is the lack of mutual respect. Nothing can be solved if one spouse doesn’t believe that the other deserves to be forgiven, to be given the benefit of the doubt, and to be treated as an equal partner.
Mutual respect is important in every relationship: Between spouses, parents, children, friends, mentors and mentees. The amount of respect required to make a relationship successful is dependent on the type and closeness of the relationship. The thoughts in this article have value for each of the categories mentioned above. Since the marriage relationship is the relationship that effects the lives of couples and their children, it is the most important of these categories. This article focuses on the enormous amount of mutual respect necessary in marriages.
All people have a perception of good and bad. They also have a perception of how their potential spouse (spouse can be replaced with friend, child, etc.) fits into their definition of good and bad. If a man and woman believe that their potential spouse has many of the positive traits and values that they have, they’ll agree to marry. Sharing values, creates mutual respect.
However, with the passing of time, one or both of the spouses may begin to feel that their spouse’s value system has dramatically changed from their own. Although for some this may be true, others may have convinced themselves that their spouse is better than s/he actually is. In still other marriages, one of the spouses may have deliberately fooled the other into believing that s/he is someone who s/he isn’t. When this happens the respect erodes. This often leads first to confusion and then to anger.
There may be other possible causes for this erosion of mutual respect. S/he finds that the other spouse is less talented than s/he first thought. He just isn’t as diligent in Yeshiva as she thought. She isn’t as capable of running a large household as he imagined. In such circumstances there’s no anger, only disappointment.
Anger or disappointment also arises in relationships other than marriage. When it does, people may try to work things out for a few days. If it doesn’t work, they move on with their lives. Having a friend for life is one of the most wonderful experiences that one can have, but when it doesn’t happen, it’s not catastrophic. Marriage, of course, must be “worked on” again and again.
In many cases, spouses settle into an unhappy marriage. It’s sad to listen to people who feel ambivalent about their spouses. They speak of them as if they’re speaking of distant cousins, but between their words one can hear the disappointment and pain. When there’s also anger between the words, the sadness is even greater.
Couples may not be aware that they can be happy even without creating any dramatic change in their spouses. In many cases it’s only the attitudes that require adjustment. Sometimes this adjustment is their own fault, since it’s their attitude that’s wrong. At other times, even though they may be correct in their assessment, nevertheless a change in attitude will allow them to be happier in marriage and in life.
I would like to suggest 4 steps to help couples achieve mutual respect for each other:
1. Before discussing attitudes it’s important to appreciate the fact that many people think unrealistically. I’ve had a wife tell me that because her husband doesn’t learn as much as she thought he would, she’s sure that he must also be weak in other areas of Yiddishkeit. As a result, she doesn’t trust him, and is suspicious that he’s doing terrible things every time he’s away from home for more than a half hour. This “jumping to conclusions” usually has no basis and continues to erode the relationship. When people realize that they’re jumping to conclusion, they should allow their intellectual thought to override their emotional thought. (This subject was recently discussed in a Front Page article.)
This “wife” illustration highlights a part of human nature that causes many unhappy marriages: the racing mind. People let their minds think too much when they’re in a state of emotional frenzy. What may begin as an isolated, disappointing, incident, often in a minor area of family life, undeservingly fuels greater disappointment. Since the one spouse did something wrong, the other concludes that it wasn’t an isolated act, but s/he was bad and had selfish intentions. Once the spouse attributes the action to bad, selfish, intentions, s/he then applies this intention to many other areas.
If a wife doesn’t clean the house as effectively as the husband would like, the husband may feel that his wife doesn’t care. Once he’s decided that she doesn’t care, every incident is used to reinforce this decision. A biased husband will interpret “grey areas” as supporting his pre-conceived thoughts, and therefore his wife can’t do anything right. When she makes mistakes, she doesn’t care. Even when her actions may not have been wrong, but were in a “grey area”, she still doesn’t care. When she does something that he can only interpret as right, he still won’t conclude that she cares. Instead, he concludes that she did it for selfish reasons.
Deciding that one spouse doesn’t care about the other, or any other conclusion that vilifies the spouse, removes any desire to “work” together. Whether people decide to be sensitive, upset, or angry, is usually more dependent on their interpretation of an incident rather than on the incident itself. What s/he did wasn’t enough to draw conclusions. The action itself has no meaning unless s/he knows what s/he meant when s/he did it. The intention is usually decided based on the other spouse’s subjective decision rather than on the action.
(I recently wrote an article about creating change in others. I’ve also written extensively about marriage. These articles are available upon request.)
To be continued…
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