Dear Rebbetzin Feige,
My husband is really unhappy with life, his job, everything. He says our marriage is the only good thing in his life, but his negativity is dragging me down. I tell him, “Be happy, you have a job in today’s world, even if you don’t like it.” He says that doesn’t help. How do I stay sane and remain afloat?
One of the major contributing factors to happiness for all human beings is a sense of self-fulfillment – the feeling that one is doing and accomplishing what they were meant to do with their life. Without it, the scenario you described is not uncommon.
It is important, my dear reader, to understand that regarding fulfillment in life, the needs of men and women are, generally speaking, measurably different. Fulfillment and gratification for a man comes in large measure from his outward conquests, from the world beyond the home, his wife and family context. A husband who does not find fulfillment in his work is not a great candidate for being a joyful human being.
Having said that, both of you need to consider that happiness, and any state of being, is a choice. It is not determined by a set of circumstances but by one’s attitude to the given situation. It is we who determine the reality in which we live. It is our perception, the way we choose to interpret the events of our lives, that makes the difference.
It's the way we choose to interpret the events of our lives that makes the difference.
There are days when we wake up in a positive and optimistic mood, prepared to take on the day with hope, vim and vigor. And then there are days when gloom and doom sap our energy and our élan vital is virtually nonexistent. Comparing both instances, there is no appreciable difference in the context in which we find ourselves. What is it, then, that allows us one day to paint the images that appear on the canvas of our day in bright hues and on another day in dark and depressing colors? It's our thinking, the way we are processing the events of our day that dictates our mood and creates the reality of our existence.
Since we are the thinkers, the power is in our hands. Although thousands of thoughts will pass through our minds daily, we need not feel compelled to grant them residence in our mind. We can, at will, let them pass through and not dwell on them. Even when they seem to be insistent, we can deliberately distract ourselves by doing something else, i.e. call a friend, bake a cake, take a walk, etc. This will allow us to “drop” the negative contaminated thinking that is guaranteed to drag us down and take us to all too familiar lows we don’t want to revisit. If we would internalize this truth and reiterate over and over the mantra that “I am the thinker,” it has the potential to be a transformative experience.
It's Not About Me
Consider Rachel, whose most recent son-in-law irked her to no end. She saw him as arrogant, with a high opinion of himself that was totally unearned and unwarranted. His pompous manner offended her to the point that he put a damper on every family gathering. I helped her understand that since she was the thinker, she wasn’t compelled to be consumed by her obsessive negative thinking. She had the wherewithal, if she chose it, to let go, empty her mind and make room for clarity. The session ended with her admitting that her son-in-law did in fact have many redeeming qualities. When she stopped to think about him more objectively, she recognized that he was a devoted husband who seemed to make her daughter happy, and as a father to his young children he was superb. Moreover, she conceded that people at large did seem to like him. None of these good qualities had previously registered in her mind because her head had been full of the persistent negative thinking about his faults and deficiencies.
Her thinking was always about her – what she liked or didn’t like, what irked her. This eclipsed her ability to think of the welfare of her daughter or her grandchildren. The “it’s about me” attitude always creates a distorted picture.
This does not mean that we will not on occasion succumb to our down moments, be it about relationships, finances, or illness God forbid. But we need to understand that these thoughts will come and go, and when we clear out the negativity we will make room for the positive wisdom that resides deep within each one of us that will inform the given situation.
Adopting a “it’s not about me” stance will allow you to focus on him with compassion.
My dear reader, it’s totally understandable that your husband’s attitude is distressing for you and your family and is creating a joyless environment for all of you. If, however, you can shift your focus on his pain rather than yours, you will recognize that it is not that he wants to be where he is, nor is he deliberately looking to cause his beloved family unhappiness. Give him credit for that. Adopting a “it’s not about me” stance will allow you to focus on him with compassion. Hopefully, he will sense that you are with him, an ally and not an adversary, and being a team might perhaps motivate him to seek professional help.
Lastly, fulfillment in work, while it does provide for a sense of worth and self-esteem and is a significant factor, there is another dimension that often goes unrecognized that is even of greater and more basic significance. The unchallenged principle is that one cannot live “on bread alone.” Implicit in this statement is the truism that our physical and material existence must perforce take second place to the Godly soul, the spirit of man, the Divine investiture that defines and distinguishes us as humans. To be sure, this soul has needs and requires nourishment no less than our bodies. When one neglects the spiritual needs, there is what my brother-in-law, Dr. Abraham Twerski, a renowned psychiatrist, refers to as “a spiritual vitamin deficiency.” This is often marked by a lingering dissatisfaction with life – an inability, despite great “success” out there, to find a sense of peace or lasting joy in one’s existence.
The antidote to this spiritual vitamin deficiency would require pursuing a course of Torah study, involvement in a growth-oriented community, charity, work, etc. Enhancing not only one’s knowledge but also one’s observance can generate an effervescence and a sense of being alive, of moving in the right direction, and ultimately, most significantly, of connecting with one’s true eternal essence.
In conclusion, dear reader, I would recommend the following:
A. Adopt an “it’s not about me” approach that will allow you to feel compassion and empathy for your husband, whereby he will feel affirmed and supported.
B. Avail yourself of a person to talk to, a third party who will help keep you grounded, your equilibrium intact and your perspective clear.
C. There are a good many books that can be helpful. One of my favorites is “You Can Feel Good Again” by Richard Carlson.
D. Be sure that you are maintaining and sustaining a positive tone and environment despite the difficulties will ultimately reap great benefits.
E. Don’t underestimate the power of your stick-to-it-iveness. Understand as well that this posture, precisely because of the inherent challenges, will set an example and provide a legacy for your family that, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” It’s a testimony to the mettle of one’s character to persevere when things aren’t the ideal way we would like them to be. I am confident that eventually it will pay off, and your husband will come around.
I wish you all the best and shana tova.