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.
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