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Three Questions for a Happy Marriage

Three Questions for a Happy Marriage

Hillel’s famous aphorism as a guide to marriage.


Hillel used to say: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14)

Looking for advice on how to have a happy marriage? Hillel’s famous aphorism in Ethics of the Fathers provides us great insight into human relationships and especially marriage.

When you become mindful of these three questions, you will create the balance and perspective needed for a successful relationship.

1) If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

No one else can change your reality but you. You cannot rely on anyone else to help you, especially if you do not help yourself. What can you do to change the situation? Part of emotional maturity in a relationship is taking personal responsibility. While it may be easy to focus on what your spouse is doing wrong, the only person you have the power to change is yourself. Waiting for your spouse to change will only bring you heartache. This victim mentality is paralyzing as it holds us back from seeking a real solution for our situation and it leads to further resentment and ill will.

I am always amazed when I hear stories about successful people who have overcome adversity. How did they get through those challenges in their life? They did not wallow in self-pity. They picked themselves up and did what they could to achieve what they wanted in their life.

In a marriage, it takes two to tango. We both contribute to the situation in which we find ourselves, for good or for bad. If your relationship is strained, what are you doing to bring this rupture about? What can you do differently to change the situation? How can you be the best spouse you can be? When you develop an attitude of personal responsibility, it has a ripple effect in the relationship. It is actually a more effective way of bringing about change in your spouse than blaming them for your woes and expecting them to do the work.

2) And if I am only for myself, what am I?

The trap of personal responsibility is that we can become self-righteous. When our spouse is upset, we may quip, “I have worked on myself. This is your ‘stuff’ and you need to deal with it.” Our personal growth should not come at the expensive of being callous to another in pain.

Being in relationship is the greatest opportunity to develop compassion for another human being. Lend a caring ear, validate their feelings, and provide empathy for their situation. Knowing they can count on you to be there for them in their pain, is often what they may need to heal and move forward.

3) And if not now, when?

There is no better moment to heal your relationship than now. Couples fool themselves by thinking their relationship can coast on auto-pilot and they can work on it later. Life is busy and it may seem like there are more pressing issues to attend to than your relationship.

Big mistake. Don’t wait until your kids get older and leave the house. Don’t wait until you make more money and can afford to get help. We never know how much time we have on this planet. Tragic stories of people who are here today and gone tomorrow wake us up and provide us with a greater appreciation of the present. Now is the time to create your ideal relationship. Now is the time to start being kinder and more appreciative to your spouse. Now is the time to make your marriage a priority. Asking yourself, “If not now, when?” reminds you of your sacred duty to wake up and take action. Don’t look back on the missed opportunity and regret years of your relationship that could have been remarkable.

It is easy for a relationship to live on default mode. Hillel is challenging us to be mindful of three very important questions that allow us to assume responsibility for our role in the relationship, while simultaneously encouraging us to be there for our spouse. And if we have any hesitation, he exhorts us to begin now.

If your marriage requires more immediate assistance, download your free copy of Rabbi Slatkin’s book, Is My Marriage Over: The Five Step Action Plan to Saving Your Marriage

May 18, 2013

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 6

(4) Michelle, December 20, 2013 7:25 AM

I'm not Jewish but I really love, like and respect the way Judaism practices marriage. I'm very in love with my husband but I think I drive him crazy sometimes. I want to go back to basics and be a good wife to him. Any traditional advice I will appreciate. Much Love Michelle

(3) Bobby5000, May 25, 2013 8:04 AM

a friend too

I think one important thing is to be a friend. Imagine a husband has a financial downturn. Things can work two ways.

Or, "I can't believe this, you know Jack's tuition bill is due on the 15th and the school sent a notice about late fees, I just can't believe this is happening now." And she calls 45 friends telling them about their financial problems. And he realizes that whatever the problems were, he only made things worse by telling his wife.

Or his wife can say, honey, sit down, relax, I"I love you and we'll work through this,

(2) Rosen, May 22, 2013 1:45 PM

how could marriage really be for everyone?

If marriage is really for everyone, then why do 1/2-2/3 end up in divorce, esp. in America, both intermarriages and traditional marriages? I know concurs that love doesn't conquer all, but it seems like there's a kind of contradiction that the Torah states in saying "it is not good for man to be alone." Hmmmmm....

Anonymous, May 24, 2013 7:55 PM

No contradiction

There is compatibility which needs to be found out before marriage, which includes life goals, values, respect, attraction, and chemistry. After marriage the road to love is continually working on making it work. If this is met one is a better person for it, with much deeper sayisfaction in life. Where is the contradiction? Love that comes before all that is superficial, very different than the love that comes after.

(1) Anonymous, May 20, 2013 12:02 PM

Do not agree with point 1

After 18 years of a bad marriage my wife suggested we go to therapy as she was hoping it would get me to treat her better. The result of the therapy was that she was way more than 50% of the problem. From day one I was was the fourth fiddle, after her father, mother, and brother. I knew the spouse is #1 but she did not. She could not understand that the spouse is #1 (yes before parents). Now things are much better. Spouse - both male and female need to be taught before the wedding that they are each other's # 1.

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