Books, tapes, seminars. Everyone seems to have something to say about creating a successful marriage. In my seminar, "The Happy Wife: How to Make a Good Marriage Great," here's how I summarize the key to a great marriage:
The husband has to constantly make his wife feel that she is the most important thing in his life.
Allow me to explain. Men tend to compartmentalize their lives. Whatever they are involved in at that moment becomes the most important thing. This is a great trait because it induces excellence in whatever he is trying to accomplish. If he's lucky, he'll also love what he is involved in.
But in a marriage, a problem begins to unfold when the wife feels that whatever her husband "loves" takes priority over her. She is happy for him to be passionate about his outside interests. She wants him to have independent success and external accolades. His success is her pleasure. But the moment a wife feels that she is not as important to her husband as those outside interests, she feels she needs to reestablish the relationship bond that has appeared to weaken.
Seven Plus Seven
A story in the Torah illustrates this idea. Jacob went to his uncle Lavan's house to find a wife. He met Lavan's daughter Rachel and they both knew that they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. So Jacob made a deal with Lavan, to work for seven years to earn the right to marry Rachel. Lavan agreed.
Seven years came and went. The wedding day approached and Jacob was very excited. They had a wonderful wedding and all seemed well. The next morning, Jacob woke up to find that he was deceived by Lavan, who had switched his older daughter Leah in place of Rachel. Jacob had married the wrong girl! He was livid. He ran to his father-in law and exclaimed that he wanted to marry Rachel, not Leah. Lavan explained that in this community, no one ever married a younger daughter off before an older daughter. No one!
Jacob was stuck: If he wanted to marry Rachel, he had to remain married to Leah, and if he annulled his marriage to Leah, he could not marry Rachel. He decided to remain married to Leah so that he could marry Rachel, his true love. Lavan said this would not be a problem if Jacob committed to work an additional seven years. Lavan's business had become very successful under the guidance of Jacob, and he did not want to lose his "cash cow." Jacob agreed to the deal. After one week he married Rachel, and worked seven more years for his conniving father-in-law.
Which is it: loved or hated?
Right after Jacob and Rachel were married, the Torah states that "[Jacob] also loved Rachel" (Genesis 29:30). If Jacob "also" loved Rachel, that means he loved Leah as well.
The next verse, however, shocks our love story: "God saw that Leah was hated." Leah was hated?? We just read that Leah was loved by her husband. Which is it: loved or hated?
The Torah is sharing with us a very deep marriage insight. Leah felt "also loved." When a woman feels "also loved" by her husband, she feels hated. A wife need to constantly feel that she is the single most important thing in her husband's life. She needs to feel that she is THE love in his life that everything else is measured by.
Paying the Bills
Sometimes a wife will ask, "Do you love me?" That's a big warning sign, because it means that she's not getting the reassurance that she is the most important thing in your life -- THE love of your life."
Why do women seem to need that constant reassurance?
As we said, men tend to compartmentalize their relationship. When they are focused on being loving and affectionate, they will be loving and affectionate. But when they are focused on another task, like meeting a deadline, paying the bills, or socializing with friends, this becomes their primary focus, and not the marital relationship! When this happens, a wife feels she is taking a back seat to this new task.
By contrast, no matter what a woman is engaged in with her husband, she never loses sight that they are still relating.
I have seen a husband switch into a business tone of voice with his wife when paying the household bills. "It just has to get done. Tough questions have to be asked. Nothing personal!" He has no idea that he is making his wife unloved, criticized and distant from him. He thinks he's just paying the bills!
A wife, however, feels that although the task has to be completed, the relationship is still the primary focus. She finds it unacceptable for him to distance himself from her, and act as if he's talking to a colleague at work.
Making your spouse feel that they are the most important aspect of your life can be extended to another area as well. It is very important for a husband and wife to constantly be on each others' side in public. One should never take another person's position against your spouse; this includes your children, friends, strangers, and of course, in-laws. This is the surest way to make your spouse feel "also loved." It drives a wedge between the two of you, and causes some trust to be lost.
They have to feel that you are always covering their back.
It makes no difference if your spouse is right or wrong. You need to back them. They have to feel that you are always covering their back, watching out for them, and that you will catch them if they fall.
I've seen a husband take a waiter's side against his wife when she was taking too long to order in a restaurant. Empathizing with a stranger's frustration at the expense of your wife's feelings is not the recipe for marital harmony!
I've seen a wife roll her eyes and declare, "Not this story again!" at a crowded dinner table, when her husband was about to tell over one of his favorite episodes. She is embarrassing her husband -- and for what gain?
When we make our spouses feel that our universes are shared space and that "what happens to you is also happening to me," then we begin to make them feel that they are the most special part of our lives.
And this is the greatest way to say, "I love you."