Dear Rebbetzin Twerski,
I am newly married and I am struggling with what my role is as a Jewish wife. What are the main goals I should be focusing on? Daniella
Please consider the following points as a representation of what it takes to build a Jewish home.
For starters, let us define intimacy from a Jewish perspective. "And Adam knew his wife" (Genesis 4:1). This does not refer to carnal knowledge alone, but encompasses the necessity to thoroughly understand each other in a holistic way -- each other's needs, dreams, aspirations and yes, each other's shortcomings and deficiencies. It is only in the context of knowledge that one can lay the foundation for true intimacy which emerges in a feeling called trust.
Intimacy can only occur when each spouse is committed to the well-being of the other, dedicated to bring the other's physical, emotional and spiritual potential to fruition. Hence, the groundwork for intimacy is knowledge, followed by trust and manifested by commitment.
To bring the theoretical into practice, consider the following suggestions:
- Start with a discussion where husband and wife explore and share their goals and ideals. What would they like to see in their home, and how do they envision making it happen? What is negotiable and what is "written in stone"?
- A couple should share and articulate what they need from each other. We always remind couples in counseling that while they are united in marriage under the wedding canopy, conferral of prophecy is not part of the deal. The greatest love does not endow a man or a woman the ability to climb into the other's heart and mind to apprehend their every thought and desire. We need to spell it out clearly and thereby avert the hurt, resentment, frustrations and bad feeling that result from disappointed expectations.
The most ubiquitous and erroneous assertion I've heard is "if he or she truly loved me they would know what I need without my having to say it with so many words." It has been my experience that people (men especially -- a little chauvinistic bias) need very specific and detailed instructions about what a spouse would like. Men and women are different, and it is imperative for every couple to understand that projecting their thinking and feelings on to the other will lead to invalid conclusions and unnecessary grief. In the absence of an appreciation for gender differences, personal affront is perceived where none exists, (i.e. "This isn't what I would have thought, or done -- how could you?!"). Instead of jumping to conclusions or making assumptions, get a clear picture of what their spouse is really thinking.
- One of the most critical building blocks of the Jewish home is that husband and wife have to be each other's first priority. This point needs great emphasis because we live in a "child oriented" generation that is obsessed and confused by focus on their offspring, i.e. endless after school activities, car-pooling to ballet, martial arts, tennis, baseball or soccer practice etc. Clearly, children are a blessing and a responsibility that we don't take lightly. Nonetheless, Torah values exhort us to make husband and wife the centerpiece of the home. Children's needs must defer to that of the parents.
Husband and wife have to be each other's first priority.
My siblings and I grew up with my mother's (of blessed memory) constant refrain of "I'll take care of you as soon as I give Daddy what he needs." We may had to wait for our needs to be met, but we were paradoxically free of resentment and felt our mother's attitude was right. It gave us, as psychologists have confirmed, a great sense of security by living in a safe space with solid custodians who were committed to each other and, by logical extension, we knew who'd be there for us as well.
Maimonides, a 12th century philosopher, physician and noted codifier of Jewish law, outlines the responsibility of husband and wife to each other in the committed Torah life. His exhortations reflect a keen insight into the psyche of both men and women. He notes that the male ego requires first and foremost respect -- to be looked up to and admired. The female, on the other hand, primarily needs -- though not exclusively -- to be loved and cherished.
A most powerful expression of respect towards a husband is to let him know that he comes first no matter what. Manifestations of putting your spouse first would be:
- Cooking his favorite dish (at least on occasion).
- Dropping everything and rallying the troops to the front door to give Daddy an enthusiastic welcome when he comes home from work.
- Mommy and Daddy consulting each other and asking for permission before going somewhere "Is it okay for me to go?"
- Getting off the phone when one or the other walks into the house. "Hey, my spouse just walked in, I have to go. I'll call you later."
- Looking good in the presence of one's spouse. Unfortunately, we have it backwards. When we leave the house to interact with strangers we are dressed to the hilt, whereas with our spouse we take the liberty of being "as is." Looking good is an expression of respect to the most significant person in our life.
- Catch your spouse doing something right. People are inclined, especially with those closest to us, to find fault and to be critical. We are quick to comment on what is not right. Infractions, departures and disappointing behaviors become the primary focus. A paradigm shift is needed. We should maintain a watchful eye dedicated to finding the positive (difficult as it may be at times).
- The intimate relationship between husband and wife must be a non-negotiable priority. To a man, a wife's interest is the supreme expression of respect. To a wife it is a confirmation or her being loved and cherished. Conversely, and in either case, denial of intimacy is the ultimate rejection. The intimate relationship has suffered in our frenzied times.
Mark Twain once commented that a single compliment kept him going for two months. Positive feedback not only supports and boosts the respect and love factor, but is also a great motivator for future behaviors. One is loathe to disappoint a person who notices and appreciates their efforts.
The intimate relationship between husband and wife must be a non-negotiable priority.
The common excuse is exhaustion. This covers the entire spectrum -- from couples who have hectic and demanding schedules in the work world, to mothers of young children who want nothing more than to collapse at the end of the day. They are physically, mentally, and emotionally too drained to invest the time and energy in physical intimacy. This has seriously compromised marriages. As one woman quipped, "My grandmother used to say: if intimacy leaves the marriage it will go somewhere else."
One needs to view intimacy as no less than the long awaited appointment with the president, a dignitary, or CEO of the company. We would never consider postponement or cancellation. It would be on top of our list and we would bend over backwards to make all the necessary adjustments and accommodations.
Having said that, exhaustion is a real issue. One needs to apply ingenuity, creativity and a great deal of planning ahead. Solutions might include a babysitter for mom during the day to give her a respite. Dad might consider curbing his work schedule and community activities etc. The bottom line is that important things in life should not be at the mercy of the lesser things.
Finally, in a book entitled "One Hour to Live One Hour to Love" the wife of Richard Carlson shares her very poignant story. Her husband, a noted writer of many worthwhile books (Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, You Can Feel Good Again), died of an aneurysm while on a lecture tour. He was 45 years old. His wife was understandably shocked and grief stricken to the core. In her wonderful little book, she shares what they meant to each other and concludes by posing a most critical question: If we had one hour to live and one hour to love -- with whom would we want to spend it -- the office -- the peripheral busy work that is so demanding and consumes so much of our time? Unquestionably we all know that our loved ones would take precedence over all else -- and if that is the case, she asks, why wait?
In conclusion, dear reader, conventional wisdom has proven that it is not so much about marrying the right person as being the right person. A corollary to this truism is that we need to model the behavior that we want to see in the other.
May God bless you, give you a long and happy married life and crown your efforts with success.