I’ve worked with countless couples who find themselves fighting constantly and aren’t even sure why. They have the same life goals and ideals, they are both dedicated to their family, and both really want this marriage to work, but by the time they get to me they feel hopeless, ready to throw in the towel. Yet their differences aren’t that great, and things used to be good between them. They once had a solid marriage, and they recall fondly their time together as a young couple in love. Oddly enough, nothing significant changed. He didn’t start drinking. She didn’t start gambling. Nobody went off the derech. The only thing that happened was that they stopped investing in the relationship and they drifted apart.
That’s when things started slipping. She said something. He took it the wrong way. She was hurt, so she replied in kind. One thing led to another. Voices were raised, things were said. Both walked away feeling betrayed and mistreated. This happens even in great marriages. The problem is when there isn’t enough of a connection to mend the damage and get things back on track.
So the downward spiral begins.
Once it’s him. Next it’s her. Misunderstandings are met with sharp words. Retorts and barbs are exchanged, countered with accusations and complaints. Those complaints are refuted with counterclaims and allegations, on and on, until, over time, two people who were the closest of friends find themselves at war.
It should never have gotten to this point. Had their relationship been close, long ago they would have made amends and moved on. But they were distant. The tolerance and acceptance that carried them through the first stages of their marriage were gone. It’s inevitable that in the course of daily life a husband and wife will hurt each other. They won’t intend to, and they may not even realize it, but it’s just too close a relationship, and there are just too many things going on, to always avoid hurt feelings. Being offended, or disappointed, or feeling that your spouse is insensitive to your needs, is just part of marriage—even the best marriages. The key is where you go from there. Are you able to repair the damage? Are you able to get back on track?
When a couple is close and there is respect and love in the marriage, there is tolerance and forgiveness. She knows you love her, and when you honestly explain that you didn’t mean things the way she heard them, she can accept it. For your part, you can get past your hurt at being attacked for no reason, because you feel she really cares. As a couple, you can move on.
But if you are distant, then you don’t trust her enough to be open and admit you were wrong. She feels too vulnerable to let it go, out of fear that it might happen again. So each of you walk around hurt, with open wounds caused by your spouse.
Then, next time something comes up (and there’s always a next time), you are even more distant from each other, and it’s even more difficult to repair the damage. You start saying things like:
“She’s always picking fights.”
“He’s so insensitive.”
“Nothing makes her happy.”
“He couldn’t care less.”
“She’s always looking for things to complain about.”
“He’s distant, cold, and uncaring.”
Each of you has good reason (at least in your own mind) to be judgmental, intolerant, and unforgiving of the other. Soon, the relationship devolves further:
“After what she said to me, how can I ever forgive her?”
“He just proved that he’s heartless. I don’t think I can ever get past this.”
The marriage is in deep trouble.
It didn’t have to be this way. If there was a strong connection and bond between you, your feelings may have been hurt—but you would have been able to move on. Slowly, you’d be able to come together again, and your commitment, connection and love for each other would have been stronger.
I can’t possibly stress this enough: The success or the failure of your marriage is dependent on the love you feel for each other.
If there is a climate of love and affection in your marriage, you are friends who are understanding of each other and willing to overlook mistakes. The minute that climate of love slips, it’s inevitable that each of you will feel wronged and taken advantage of, and it won’t be long until both of you become small-minded, petty, and vindictive. At that point, anything is enough to set the house on fire.
Love in marriage is vital; it’s the grease of the wheels and the glue that keeps everything connected. But it isn’t a constant. If you don’t work on it, it will wither.
Love takes time. Love is the sweet notes and the emails, the texts and little gifts, the cards and the letters—all the things that a couple in love should be doing. You should be having an ongoing love affair with your spouse. It also means getting away—regularly. A couple should do their best to take a mini-vacation regularly. It doesn’t have to be for a week, and it doesn’t have to be an exotic island destination. A simple hotel getaway for a few nights is enough. The idea is to make time for you as a couple. Make it the priority that it’s supposed to be—not just during the first few years, but throughout your marriage. (Once there are kids in the picture you may have to adjust things, but vacations alone as a couple should always be part of your life.)
This is the easy part of working on marriage. It’s enjoyable, it doesn’t cause any emotional pain, and the results are dramatic. The only thing it requires is time and focus. And more than any other single issue, this will likely determine the success of your marriage.
Unfortunately, many otherwise smart couples make this grave mistake: They let the love dwindle. This is the 3rd Really Dumb Mistake That Very Smart Couples Make: they forget that love is the glue of marriage. And real love takes work, commitment, time, and needs constant renewal.
R’ Ben Tzion Shafier is the founder of TheShmuz.com, a life-changing mussar shiur that is available on TorahAnytime, The Shmuz Podcast and The Shmuz App. His newest book release, The Ten Really Dumb Mistakes That Very Smart Couples Make, is available on TheShmuz.com and your local Jewish bookstore.