In ten years of marriage, my wife and I were blessed with four beautiful children. But the marriage itself was often difficult and painful. We were divorced for two and a half years. Then we remarried.
This is not a recommended course of events, but Divine Providence took me on this unusual path. Fortunately, my wife and I usually got along pretty well during the time we were divorced and I saw my kids nearly every day. But being divorced was definitely not ideal. There were times that the hate I had for my wife was so intense that I could never repeat those awful thoughts out loud.
I now realize that my marriage was lacking true harmony from the very beginning. At the time of the divorce, I did not know about the concept of Shalom Bayit, the uniquely Jewish approach to peace in the home. I never had a real understanding of how precious the marital relationship is. Our first marriage was filled with periods of calm and periods of tension and discord. I always felt there was something missing. I never had the inner peace that the calm would last. There was always a storm brewing around the corner. We could go a couple weeks or maybe a month or two when things were relatively smooth, but I always knew it wouldn't last. And inevitably, I would blame the ups and downs on my wife.
Inevitably, I would blame the ups and downs on my wife.
Our troubles weren’t dramatic. It was simply the day to day negativity that ate up the marriage. My wife would make a critical comment about my family. I would immediately take the insult to heart and attack her right back for the direct affront to the people who meant the most to me. After all, she knew how deeply I loved my parents and how any attack on them hit me at my weakest spot. How dare she hurt me in that way? Another tender area was the children. She often voiced her displeasure at the way I parented. She would often undermine me and refuse to back me up when I made a decision. I couldn’t understand her passive aggressive behavior, especially when it came to matters dealing with the kids.
Regardless of the trigger I would get extremely defensive and tumble reactively into “win mode,” feeling I simply had to win the argument. That dynamic would spark a cold war of sorts, where we wouldn’t speak for days or even weeks. I found it easier to shut down and just not have anything to do with her when I sensed she was upset with me. I would just escape into endless hours of mind-numbing television and internet surfing. After a while I was usually able to get us back on track with humor, but even my humor eventually stopped working and reconciliation became almost impossible. Before long another silly incident, insult, or miscommunication would present itself to allow us to further tear down our marriage.
My only conclusion was that my wife was an unhappy and unreasonable woman, who couldn't deal with the fact I was basically a good (albeit imperfect) husband and father. It was almost as if her personality just couldn't be content if things were too calm for too long.
After years of the marriage slowly wearing away, we made the mutual decision to divorce. But a person takes themselves with them wherever they go, and divorced life didn’t provide the relief I was hoping for. My wife felt the pain and vulnerability too. After two-and-a half years, we made the radical decision to give the marriage another shot.
A Second Chance
It was a great feeling to get the second chance to be a husband and full-time father. How many divorced people get the opportunity to be together as a family again? Things were very good and we were very considerate of each other. It seemed we both grew and learned a lot about ourselves during the time we were divorced. Unfortunately, after several months we fell back into the same old negative patterns and pitfalls after the "honeymoon" period was over. We had been in counseling but it felt like those sessions were just scheduled times for my wife to blame me for all my faults. She would express why she wasn't happy, but it never made sense to me. She was always overreacting, claiming I just didn't "get her."
Her annoying questions would start and I’d end the conversation.
It frustrated me to no end when I heard the words; “You just don’t get me.” Until recently I didn’t know what this meant or how to react when accused of this. My wife could never understand why I didn’t need the same level of attention that she did. If anything she didn’t “get” me! If, for example, I broke something or cut my finger it would anger me when she asked if I was okay. I would instinctively snap back at her with a sarcastic comment. She didn’t understand that all she had to do was leave me alone and I’d be fine.
I simply did not have a need for her getting involved. When she would ask me how my day was I often had zero interest in sharing because there was usually little to say and it was downright unpleasant to have to talk about it. On rare occasions I did decide to share “just the facts,” but when her annoying, multiple follow up questions would inevitably start, I would become abrupt and rude, and that would effectively end the conversation. I had no problem sharing these things with my father or a closer friend, but for some reason I found my wife to be as annoying as nails to a chalkboard.
More recently our differences in how we felt about and observed Judaism came into play. The more I learned and I observed, the more I became critical of my wife and all the things she wasn’t doing or was doing “wrong.” I was disappointed that she didn’t want to improve and grow and was concerned we were harming our children by not teaching them properly. I often thought I would be much better off if I met an observant woman who would help my spiritual ascent rather than hold me back and keep me in such a distressed place.
I think we both felt deep down that we got back together for financial considerations as well as for the sake of the kids. I was kicking myself for getting back together because no matter what I did or how good a husband I would try to be, I was never going to satisfy her. She just wasn't capable of being satisfied! I felt so foolish. It got to the point where we were both ready to walk away and admit with much embarrassment that we made a terrible mistake - twice! Our second marriage would not even make it to the first anniversary.
I felt cornered and hopeless, thinking how my kids were going to suffer greatly both short-term and long-term. I was in one of the deepest ruts in my life, at which point something happened that changed my inner world and the whole course of my marriage. Two people recommended the same book on marriage, The Garden of Peace by Rabbi Shalom Arush, within a week of one another.
One reading of the book and I felt the rug had been pulled out from under me. Suddenly I was able to see my situation in an entirely different light. All the confusion I was experiencing about my marriage became crystal clear. I realized that underneath all of my blaming, criticizing and finger pointing, there lay a fundamental truth. The true reason for all my marital strife was me.
The true reason for all the marital strife was me.
How could it be all my fault? There must have been things my wife did to contribute to the breakdown of our marriage! What about all of her miserable behavior?
The Ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, clearly states that the husband is ultimately responsible for his wife's happiness and hence the husband is primarily responsible for Shalom Bayis. This was a complete paradigm shift for me. It may not be politically correct, but I believe it is the truth. It is the men that need to initiate the giving, especially when it comes to giving honor. As the Talmud says, "There is no blessing in one's home without the wife's honor." All the blessings a husband receives are in the merit of his wife.
When a husband honors and loves his wife, she feels invigorated and will respond in kind. The complaints and nagging are now almost non-existent, and the frustration and tension with matters related to intimacy are dissolving. We have never felt this close and secure in our marriage, and just about all of it has to do with my wife seeing and feeling consistent, deep rooted changes in me.
Shalom Bayit is one of the most important mitzvahs of our lives; the worth of a man is largely dependent on how he treats his wife; not just in public but also behind closed doors. Perhaps an analogy would be to view the husband as the sun, and the woman to a flower. If the flower isn't blooming (the woman is acting negatively, withdrawing, complaining, nagging, or being passive aggressive), the first place to examine is to see if it’s getting the proper amount of nourishing sunlight.
I realize this is antithetical to much of today's pop psychology on marriage. I know many will raise eyebrows at the teaching that marital harmony is primarily a male responsibility. I also had my doubts not too long ago. But then I saw how everything fell into place once I started to treat my wife properly.
I never cursed or physically abused my wife, but I now see that I was in fact a cruel husband. Every time I was stingy and tight with money, criticizing every penny she spent, that was a form of cruelty. Every time I didn't give her my full attention or was abrupt when she spoke to me or asked for my help, that was cruelty. Perhaps those actions seem like common flaws, yet once I stopped blaming my wife and started looking inwardly, I began to see how responsible I was for the deterioration of our marriage, and how so much of her "misbehavior" and "complaining" was simply a response to my complete misunderstanding of what my wife really wanted from me.
Once I began to look within, I saw a man who was generous with his time, attention, and money with anyone who needed me – except for my wife! Seeking honor and recognition from outside my marriage (sometimes even from strangers) while simultaneously ignoring my wife's needs is indeed cruelty.
In several months I have gone through a remarkable transformation (just ask my wife!). I will never doubt the ability of people to change, no matter how low they have fallen. I truly regret that I caused my wife so much pain. I cringe when I think how I was ready to end my marriage, especially now that I understand the problems stemmed from my flawed thinking and ignorance. I am deeply grateful to the Almighty that I read Garden of Peace before it was too late. It was a tragedy to get divorced the first time, but to ruin a second chance would have been beyond any words.
God gives us the challenges we need. I believe my wife and I were meant for each other. My wife sensed a change unlike any previous attempts I had made in the past. We are in tune with each other on a much deeper level and I am committed to giving her the loving nourishment she deserves on a daily basis. It seems to be working. We have gone a record amount of time without a calamity and our interactions on a daily basis have been warm and positive. Our marital and family dynamic has changed. On a couple of occasions when my wife has expressed hostility towards me I knew exactly where the message was coming from and what to do. It didn’t matter if I thought she was justified or not; I now know what the endgame is about.
I don't want to sugarcoat things and make this transformation sound too easy, but it wasn't nearly as hard as I thought it would be. I did put forth the personal and sincere effort to change, and once I did I felt God guiding me to be the best husband I can be. You don’t have to believe me. If you think your marriage isn’t as great as it could be, read The Garden of Peace, put these insights into practice and see for yourself if it makes a difference.
May the Almighty help all of us to become the husbands and fathers we are meant to be.