I often encounter married couples leading parallel lives.
When you do whatever it takes to spend the least time with a spouse, you are leading parallel lives. Often times, you are not conscious of this process, but the impact is very real. When you are involved in your own endeavors, concerns, friends, even wishes and dreams, at the exclusion of your spouse, you are leading a parallel life.
It doesn't have to look or sound nasty. It can be very quiet, subtle, and insidious. But before you know it, you begin to understand you are "going it alone" in what should be a partnership. In a parallel life scenario, there is very little opportunity to give, to appreciate, to join, or to love. Physically you live together under the same roof, but emotionally you are miles apart.
In Genesis, we are given a description as to how Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, came into being. They were created as a single person in an apparently unified state. It is said that Adam and Eve were "back to back" at that point. Then God blesses the "back to back" Adam and Eve: "…be fruitful and multiply because it is not good for man to be alone." In order for them to follow this commandment, they are then separated.
Now Adam and Eve have a choice. They can remain back to back, as now separate entities, or they can turn around and relate "face to face."
We all confront the same choice, as did Adam and Eve, in our relationships. Do we remain back to back, living separate, parallel lives or do we relate to each other face to face – intimately, honestly, consciously, informed?
Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh explains that a "back to back" relationship is one in which each partner is involved in fulfilling their own interests. In contrast, a "face to face relationship" is where each partner acknowledges and respects each others individual needs. (1)
Rabbi Ginsburgh points to the fact that while people's backs are similar to each other, the face is a unique part of each individual. Therefore relating in a "back to back" fashion indicates a lack of interest in the uniqueness of the other, whereas a "face to face" relationship expresses each partner's innermost considerations.
When we are back to back, it is possible to cover the basics in a relationship – the food can be bought, the chores can be delegated, the diapers can be changed. But it does not mean we are connecting emotionally, it does not mean we "see" each other. We can be busy with the daily grind and avoid facing our affective life. This is not the state of oneness that a Jewish marriage aspires to.
How do we create a mature, authentic relationship? Face to face is getting to know your better half – their likes and dislikes, precious moments in their lives, their favorite composer, the most traumatic event to happen in sixth grade, everything about them. It all has meaning for them, and it is very personal. Turn to your spouse when they turn towards you. Listen to your partner's longings and goals, and make them yours. Appreciate them and help them to attain these yearnings. Cultivate gratitude for the unique human being that they are. Nurture your affection and admiration by reminding yourself why you fell in love. The more they feel seen in the relationship, the more you will as well.
Perhaps on some level we all begin like Adam and Eve, back to back in our relationship journeys. It is easy to stay parallel; it is comfortable. But that is not the Jewish way. Forging a thriving marriage involves transitioning and turning towards our partners face. It may be one of the hardest things we have to do, yet one of the most rewarding and profound choices we will ever make.
1. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh. From Back to Back to Face to Face