An excerpt from the just published Make Yourself at Home.

Marriage is meant to be a permanent, lifelong union. Divorce is to marriage what amputation is to medical treatment: a lifesaving intervention that occurs in exceptional circumstances. Divorce is not akin to a routine course of antibiotics meant to be utilized by the masses.

Second, marriage is meant to be a friendship, a loving companionship. Like all relationships, there will be times of greater and lesser closeness, more and less harmony, periods of greater ease and flow and periods with bumpier roads. It requires – like all friendships – nurturing, attention, and work. The special attribute of marriage is its unique, intimate bond, the joining of body and soul. This, too, is achieved and maintained through conscious effort and will vary in quality and intensity throughout the course of the relationship.

Third, marriage is meant to be a work in progress – a constant challenge. Indeed, it is the very challenge of marriage that produces its growth-enhancing properties. only as a result of negotiating the challenge of marriage with humility, patience, courage, and determination can a person stretch into her greater, even greatest, self. Finally, marriage is meant to be the cornerstone of a partnership that forms an integral part of the extended Jewish soul. It is an enterprise that is both private and communal, and one that provides a stable, holy sanctuary in which to raise the next generation.

What Marriage Isn’t

Marriage isn’t a romance novel. Marriage isn’t a Hollywood movie. Marriage isn’t something that can be observed by outsiders – it is only something that can be experienced by intimate participants.

This last point is particularly important to know, because all too often people think they are looking at other people’s happy marriages. In fact, if they are seeing it, then by definition they are not seeing marriage. Marriage is so private a relationship that only the two people who live it have any idea of what it is really like – and sometimes, only one of those people actually has any idea of what is really going on. As a marriage counselor with over thirty years’ experience, I can tell you as an absolute fact that none of us knows what is going on behind other people’s closed doors.

You in Your Marriage

As you negotiate your marriage relationship, you might find it helpful to keep the following tips in mind on a regular basis:

  • God is always with you.

  • Your mood and behavior affect your spouse. Take care of yourself for everyone’s sake! Do everything possible to achieve a happy, contented state of mind – find interesting work, engage in meaningful activities, build satisfying relationships, exercise regularly, seek personal therapy, and do whatever else contributes to your own well-being. Your well-being affects your marriage.

  • A successful marriage requires constant effort and attention throughout its entirety. There is no time at which it is appropriate to sit back and relax. As therapist Bill O’Hanlon said, “Love is a verb” – an action word. Your action can build the love you want. Never take your spouse for granted. Always aim to have regular periods of private “friendship building” time throughout your day (even if only for a few dedicated minutes) and your week (even if only for an hour once a week). Do this for 120 years.

  • Keep attraction alive by keeping yourself attractive. Yes it does matter, even after years of marriage. It matters a lot.

  • Your personal deficits will have a negative impact on your marriage, so try to improve in your weak areas. Don’t expect your spouse to adjust to you. Check how you are functioning in your anger management techniques, your spending habits, your habits of personal grooming, your organizational habits that impact on household management, your time management habits, the regulation of your moods, your addictions, your communication skills, and in every other area that can possibly affect your partner. Instead of asking your partner to work on his or her deficits, spend your energy working on your own!

  • Positive techniques like praise, encouragement, and rewards work much better than negative techniques like complaints, criticism, and anger. Keeping your relationship upbeat, warm, and loving prevents conflict. It’s okay to “fake it till you make it” – to act more cheerful than you feel. When things are going poorly, you might find it helpful to keep the following tips in mind:

  • Try to address problems as soon as possible. They’re easier to fix when fresh.

  • You make as many mistakes as your spouse does. Sometimes the very same ones and always different ones as well. Since we are always being judged by the progress we make from our starting point, it may well be that your spouse is more successful in spiritual growth than you are even when his behavior is far worse than yours. This can occur when you were at a higher starting point to begin with (for example, your spouse uses bad language, which is something you never do; your biggest communication error is that you are sometimes sarcastic), but your spouse improves more in his weak area than you do in yours (for instance, through tremendous will power, your spouse manages to completely stop using bad language while you only partially succeed in reducing your sarcasm).

  • When things are going badly in your marriage, your spouse is hurting as much as or even more than you are. Remember that anger – both your own and your spouse’s – is often a cover-up for deep hurt.

  • Your spouse wants you to love him but may not know how to earn your affection.

  • In almost all cases, (we are not talking about abusive relationships) your spouse loves you; his hurtful behavior is almost always the result of skill deficits given to him by God (largely through genetic tendencies and childhood experiences). With your own wisdom and patience, you may be able to help your spouse acquire a better skill set. Each person raises his or her spouse in the same way that a person raises his or her children. Your job is to bring out the best in yourself and your spouse. Don’t rely on your own resources to accomplish this enormous task: seek out teachers, spiritual guides, professional counseling, and other sources of support and wisdom. The road has been traveled before, and Hashem provides us with a map and a light; be careful not to follow directions offered by untrustworthy sources. There are those who will be happy to escort you to divorce court.

  • When things are going badly, you may be contributing to the problem through the way you react. You can learn new ways to respond to provocation that may prevent fights and minimize difficult interactions. Read books, attend classes, get counseling, consult with your rabbi, and do whatever else you can to pick up new skills.

  • Some spouses are very difficult people. They are grown-up versions of difficult children – youngsters who were bossy, aggressive, stubborn, inflexible, mean, impulsive, highly anxious, moody, and so on. If you have a spouse with personality challenges or a spouse who is dysfunctional in significant ways, God knows that your marriage challenge is much greater than that of other people. Your task in such a marriage is not the same as the task of your friend who has a sweet, gentle, kind, helpful, responsible spouse. Your task might involve things like not succumbing to depression, rage, lack of faith, bitterness, jealousy, and other negative states. Your task might be managing to keep your home together in the best way possible so that your children will have stability. Your task might be to maintain as much peace as possible, even if deep love and affection may be unreasonable goals in your particular situation.

  • Nobody gets everything they want in life (healthy children, wealth, wonderful spouse, beauty, good friends, safe living conditions, and so on). Try to be grateful for all your blessings, and remember that your challenges are for your spiritual benefit.

  • Divorce harms children, even though it is sometimes the only solution to a terrible situation. It is not true that “if you’re happy, your kids will be happy.” On the contrary, a parent’s happiness may very well be at his or her children’s expense. In many cases of divorce, there is very often only one real choice – the parent’s happiness or the children’s. Research shows that divorce is preferable to a bad marriage for children only when the home is violent or completely dysfunctional. Another option that may be open to someone suffering in marriage is to make the marriage more tolerable by getting all the help that is available, using all the tools that are available, grieving the loss of hope of having one’s ideal marriage, accepting what is (at least for the time being), and pouring one’s heart out to God. God does heed the prayers of the brokenhearted, and miracles do happen, despite what some people may say.

Click here to order a copy of Make Yourself at Home (Menucha Press 2012)