Dear Emuna

My wife recently came forward to me as an agnostic and told me that she no longer wants to live a life of religious observance. She has always been on the liberal side of religion but I did not predict or suspect that she doesn't have an interest in religion.

I love my wife very much and I don't want to lose her. I am hesitant to approach a Rabbi about this issue because I’m afraid that most will encourage such couples to opt for a divorce. I won't deny that my wife's lack of religious beliefs has put a major strain on our marriage. She is not looking for spiritual inspiration. She is under the impression that couples can maintain a harmonious relationship while having different beliefs and opinions. She will still keep Kashrut and observe Shabbat at home but lives the way she wants outside. I don't know what to do.

Loving Husband

Dear Loving Husband,

What a complicated and challenging situation this is for you – and your wife.

It is not the crucial point but I would like to begin by addressing your hesitancy to approach a Rabbi based on the assumption that most would encourage couples like the two of you to divorce. There is a wide variety of approaches to your situation and I don’t think we can know ahead of time what anyone will say. If you have a Rabbi who knows you and your wife and whom you trust, it is definitely worth getting their advice. They may surprise you! And, if your worst fears are realized, it is ultimately up to you do decide whether or not to follow their advice. You have nothing to lose and much to gain by taking your Rabbi’s perspective into account.

However the deeper point here is what you can live with. I know many couples in this situation who have managed to maintain a harmonious and loving relationship. They have found the spiritual nourishment they need, not from their spouses but from friends and teachers. Their relationships have flourished.

There are, I believe, two major challenges to a relationship such as yours. The first is the tendency to be judgmental – from either side. If you are constantly conveying to your wife that you think she is wrong and you dream of the day when she returns to the fold, she will find that unbearable and you will end up pushing her away. The same is true if she tries to draw you away from your religious beliefs or expresses scorn instead of respect. Mutual tolerance, understanding and respect are the only way this marriage can work.

You don’t mention if you have children. Children definitely complicate the situation but here too I think the prescription above applies. More important than shared religious perspective is shared respect. Your children need to see that your commitment to each other is unconditional. Any suggestion that your love has strings attached will make your children very anxious, not just about the future of your marriage, but about their own future in your home. They also need to believe that your love for them is unconditional and that if they rebel in any way, large or small, they are still welcome in your home.

I think a stable marriage is a great gift for children and if they believe, in any way, that your religious beliefs have caused a rift between the two of you (or worse) that will not enhance their connection to Judaism and to the Almighty.

Every marriage has challenges. Every day my husband and I counsel couples who are trying to work their way through them. Some are certainly more difficult than others but, in general, those couples who manage to commit themselves to the marriage and to working together come out better at the end – with greater unity, love, commitment and a sense of togetherness. The same can happen to you and your wife. A lot depends on your attitude. May the Almighty help you achieve shalom bayit.

All the best,

Emuna

Husband’s Lack of Appreciation

Dear Emuna,

I love my husband and he is a good man and great father. I am confused though. My husband rarely does anything to make me feel special. It needs to be a reminder to celebrate special occasions and I always initiate and plan. I feel like I do enough – cook, clean, pay the bills. I am the primary bread winner at home, so I want some appreciation in return. I see my friends' husbands planning surprise birthday parties, bringing flowers on Shabbat or Passover and wonder don't I deserve something like that as well?

If I say it he does it, but shouldn't it come from him? Shouldn't he want to do it? It's very easy for him to hurt me and he knows how to do it well, but I can't say the same thing about making me feel special. He never plans anything on anniversaries and I am always the one to plan vacations, take pictures, plan date nights. Am I expecting too much? I stopped speaking to him in hopes he'll understand where I am coming from and takes it seriously, but I have no idea if that is the correct approach. I am hurt and feel unappreciated and really out of ideas. Your help is much appreciated.

Confused

Dear Confused,

I can understand your frustration but I think you need a new approach. Everyone wants appreciation; it’s a natural instinct and desire. You are certainly not alone in this. The first mistake you are making is in assuming that your husband should figure out what you want on his own. I can’t tell you how many times in how many marriage classes, women need to be reminded that men are not mind readers. It is not a flaw in your husband that he can’t anticipate what you want. It is appropriate that you tell him.

You said that if you let him know, then he does it. That’s pretty good and something to be grateful for!

The second mistake you are making is comparing him to other husbands. You have no idea what goes on in someone else’s home – whether the wife hinted that she would like a party, whether the flowers are to make up for a fight they had – and it’s irrelevant. You need to make the most of your situation and ignore someone else’s. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses; just appreciate your husband’s strengths – and let him know you do!

That brings me to my third point. When he does listen to you and do what you like, do you praise him for it? Do you thank him for his efforts? Praise and thanks go a long way in encouraging repeat behavior.

And finally, let me say very clearly that not speaking to him will definitely NOT get him to change his behavior. If you don’t speak to him, he probably doesn’t even know what behavior you want him to change! The silent treatment is never a good option. It is not healthy communication and diminishes the two of you. If your husband does something that bothers you or doesn’t do something you would like, the only solution is to tell him – lovingly and patiently.

Hopefully if you change your attitude you will see a corresponding change in his. But don’t expect miracles – tell your husband what you want. It’s the mature way to go.