(March 30, 2016 / JNS)
By Rabbi Natanel Lauer/JNS.org
Familial relationships are prime factors in determining how individuals view themselves and how they view and interact with the world. The foundational relationship in any family is that of the mother and father, in that their interactions as husband and wife inform their children as to how meaningful relationships can be cultivated and maintained. In addition to this crucial modeling function, the couples themselves stand to benefit in numerous ways from investments in their relationships, including improved psychological and physical health.
Creating a healthy and happy relationship requires effort and determination. A good relationship could develop over time, but a great relationship is the result of hard work and dedication. This article presents five crucial guidelines—Communication, Love, Exclusivity, Attention, and Respect (CLEAR)—to help Jewish couples keep their marriages fresh and centered on core values. While each point deserves its own article, we will simply consider this piece an introduction to a lifetime of relationship development.
(1) Communication is the backbone of human interaction. While one might assume that the key to a solid relationship is the mastery of verbal communication, the truth is that non-verbal communication, which comprises 93 percent of the information we intake regularly, is just as important. It is crucial for couples to know and understand that the words they use to speak with their spouses are only half of the equation—the manner in which it is stated will ultimately determine how the information will be received. My Touro University Worldwide coursework and experience in the field lead me to believe that the inability to communicate tactfully and effectively may be the number-one barrier to conflict resolution among married couples. The nature of a relationship is that differences of opinions are bound to arise; two people will rarely share the same opinion or approach. The true measurement of a relationship that is built to last is not the number of disagreements avoided, but rather the number of issues that were dealt with as a team through effective, positive, and even empowering communication.
(2) Love is a basic need within a marriage. The Talmud (Yevamos 62b) teaches us that one should love his wife as much as he loves himself. The Rambam (Hilchos Ishus, Chapter 15) understands this as a rabbinic commandment, implying that love is a mainstay of the Jewish marriage relationship. Just as the human body cannot survive without air, a healthy marriage is dependent upon the reciprocation of love. Though popular culture believes that love is something that could just happen (like “love at first sight”), Jewish thought understands love as an emotional entity that must be nurtured. Johnathan Gottman, a leading couples’ therapist, suggests building “love maps,” a model that forces couples to set aside time to focus on their partners’ pasts, concerns, preferences, and current experiences. The idea, of course, is that the better a couple understands one another, the more they will be able love each other.
(3) Exclusivity provides a feeling of safety and security in the marriage relationship. For a marriage to work, the couple must know that there are certain things that they share with one another and no one else. The Torah commands a newly married man to devote his entire first year of marriage to his wife. The Chinuch (Mitzva 582) clarifies the importance of this commandment, explaining that its purpose is to help the couple create a distinct bond, a relationship that is exclusive and special. During that first year, they are tasked with hyper-focusing on one another in an effort to learn what makes each other tick. This allows the couple to find even more reasons to love and respect one another and prevents them from comparing each other to individuals and couples outside their relationship. When a couple develops this exclusivity early on, it fosters a strong and lasting relationship. That said, the strongest relationships are those in which couples treat every year like their first year of marriage.
(4) Attention is our greatest and most precious commodity. By lavishing a spouse with attention, one shows that he cares and is mindfulness of his spouse’s needs. In his pre-marriage classes, Rabbi Shlomo Volbe explained that both halves of a couple are required to understand, recognize, and fulfill their spouse’s emotional, psychological, and physical needs. Obviously, this task is much easier said than done. Aside from the basic cognitive and emotional differences that exist between men and woman, one must also take into account the historical, familial, and experiential differences that each individual brings to the table. These differences play a part in how each individual understands and expresses what they think, feel, and practice. By paying close attention to their spouse’s needs, always taking the time to appreciate the sources of these wishes and desires, a couple will develop a strong, fulfilling, and loving bond.
(5) Respect from external sources is a key ingredient to a healthy self-image. The Alter from Slobodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel of blessed memory, explains that self-respect and self-worth is the very force of life. If one were to lose all respect for himself, his life would be meaningless. This basic need for respect is magnified within the framework of a marriage. The only way to maintain a successful relationship is to begin with a baseline of mutual respect. This means developing a relationship in which the couple operates as a team and consideration, honesty, and compassion rule. Most importantly, both halves of the couple must be prepared to own their mistakes and apologize sincerely for their misconduct. When mutual respect guides the couple, they are virtually unstoppable.
Though there are many factors that can derail a marriage in our modern society, couples who truly believe in the sanctity of marriage and are dedicated to their spouses have a fighting chance to secure and enhance their relationships. Hopefully, through educating couples and helping them achieve these CLEAR goals, we will minimize negative couple interactions, create healthier and more fulfilling relationships, and ensure the continuity of our very special Jewish heritage.
Rabbi Natanel Lauer is a Jewish educator and marriage counselor living in Israel. A double alumnus of the Touro University System (Touro College, BS Business Management & Touro University Worldwide, Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy) and a recipient of rabbinic ordination from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Lauer recently published “Basi Legani,” a two-volume Hebrew-language guide to Jewish marriage and family purity.