Our Sages tell us that no blessing in this world can materialize without shalom (peace). Shalom is the vessel that holds all the kinds of brocha– whether physical or spiritual– that HaShem can bestow upon us, such as health, happiness, a livelihood, children, and peace of mind.
In Judaism one of the most critical types of shalom is shalom bais (peace in the home). When a husband and wife live together “as one,” then their relationship is a source of abundant blessing in their lives and the lives of their children. But, when peace, harmony, and connection are replaced with discord and disconnect, everyone suffers– even those not living under the same roof. In place of brocha, there is physical and spiritual sickness, distress, poverty, and exile.
Whenever a couple is struggling to maintain marital harmony, there are some fundamental qualities that need to be in place before any real movement or change can happen.
The Telltale Signs of a Troubled Marriage
But before we discuss those qualities, first let me explain what I mean by a “troubled marriage,” because most couples in such a situation have some things in common.
Let’s start with what it isn’t.
Every marriage comes with it’s own level of difficulty– including the “easy” ones. Even where the couple may have a lot in common, there will always be differences of opinion, personality, and perspective. Life also may come with its own set of challenges– health issues, debt, the loss of property, and strained family or business relationships.
The couple needs to work through life’s ups and downs, to bridge their differences, handle (and respect) each other’s imperfections, and communicate effectively. Throughout it all, negative emotions may build up at times and arguments may follow. But, the couple is eventually able to diffuse them through a basic level of communication and understanding– whether by themselves or after seeking the assistance of an outside advisor, like a Rav, Rebbe, or counselor. Over all, there may be good days and not-so-good days, but there is a general sense of love, respect and stability in the relationship.
In a troubled marriage, the day-to-day challenges don’t diffuse. They only build up and fester, creating in a chollent of painful memories and negative emotions. Communication starts to break down until even mundane matters devolve into a whirlwind of negative emotional outbursts.
Neither person is happy, and often each blames the other as The Source of their unhappiness. They usually have sought assistance through therapy, often multiple times. Other, well-meaning individuals may have also tried to intervene. But nothing seems to help, and the situation only gets worse with time.
If these conflicts are ongoing the effect on both the husband a wife can be dramatic. The strained relationship takes on a life of its own, compromising their health, sense of well-being and peace of mind. Eventually, one or both give up any hope of change. At that point, they are beyond troubled; they’re dysfunctional.
Where Marriage Counseling Often Fails
In the Torah world, there are several approaches to dealing with a couple in this place.
But, the vast majority of shalom bais education and therapies out there tend to fundamentally focus on one or more of three areas:
- The differences between men and women. This includes what HaShem wants from the husband and wife and how to Torah expects each to act towards the other
- Building constructive behaviors while minimizing destructive ones (i.e. working on middos)
- Learning about the spiritual significance, importance, and goals of the Jewish home
As a result of these therapies, usually one of two things happen:
- Some of the couples that “successfully” go through counseling may technically be more peaceful at home in the sense that the volume has been turned down. But while the tension may have been defused, a closer look reveals that the couple’s relationship remains superficial, forced, or disconnected. Often, each spouse will continue to have issues in other areas of their lives, such as among friends, colleagues, and neighbors. While one relationship seems to be better, others continue to suffer or worsen.
- For other couples, progress is often delayed or prevented outright as negative emotions keep bubbling up even as negative habits are replaced by “positive behaviors.” So, even when the couple is “doing their homework,” there is nevertheless little real movement.
So, the question is why does this happen?
The short answer is that while these approaches and the techniques that come along side them may sometimes provide relief to the couple, they fail to address the issues at their root. If you want real change, then you have to deal with those roots.
Most counselors and educators would agree that in order for there to be the chance for healthy shalom bais, each spouse has to want and be committed to positive change. The problem is that many of these same counselors and educators start and stop with this commitment. In the race to show progress, there is limited focus on the people as individuals.
It is self-evident that those who are not in touch with themselves and their purpose in the world, will not be in touch with anyone else, either.
It’s like clearing a garden of weeds simply by cutting the stems. After a few days, it will all grow right back again.
Lifting Up the Veil
There is a well-known vorte (Torah idea) about the Hebrew words for man and woman, ish and isha. Both words consist of the word for fire (aish), plus one of the letters of HaShem’s Name:
Ish = Man איש Isha = Woman אשה One of HaShem’s Names י–ה Aish = Fire אש
The basic idea is when the husband and wife make a HaShem a partner in their marriage, when they come together and they work on themselves and their relationship with each other to build a home of Torah values, the Shechinah (HaShem’s Presence) dwells with them. In fact, both the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) and the Bais Hamikdash (the Temple), the physical resting place for HaShem’s Presence on earth, were modeled on and embodied in the Jewish home.
But if they fail to bring HaShem into their relationship then there is aish, a destructive fire that consumes them, their children and anyone close to them. As our Sages tell us when a husband and wife are not worthy fire consumes them (Sotah 17a).
This concept is true and can stand on its own, but I want to take it from a slightly different angle… and it’s this angle that I believe makes all the difference between the success or failure of the vast majority of Jewish marriages.
Each of us is put in this world in order to perfect ourselves. This happens when we experience obstacles and adversity that, though they may be painful, confusing or unpleasant, ultimately lead us to a greater awareness of HaShem’s Presence. In the process, we reveal a bit of HaShem’s light in the world for ourselves and others to see and learn from– a light that would otherwise be hidden. This very light is our unique portion in the Torah.
The Baal Shem Tov taught that whatever happens to a person is also a mirror of his or her inner world. If you look upon another person and see a blemish, it is your own imperfection that you are encountering– you are being shown what it is that you must correct within yourself. This applies to everyone, without exception– man and woman a like.
A person’s mate is ordained in Heaven. They are two parts of one soul. Yet, each individual within the couple is a unique entity. Each person comes into this world with his or her own strengths and weaknesses, experiences and perceptions, obstacles and opportunities in life.
More often than not, our spouses (as well as the other close members in our family) will possess qualities that are in direct opposition to our own. But, unlike those outside of our home, it is practically impossible to avoid the people living with us under the same roof.
HaShem runs His world with ultimate precision. When there is conflict between a husband and wife, He is speaking directly to each spouse through his or her partner, telling both of them what they need to work on as individuals.
When each partner just sees the other person, and forgets about HaShem, when they focus on the other’s short-comings while minimizing their own, then they are literally swimming on a choppy sea of emotions without any sense of direction or purpose.
On the other hand, when they choose to make HaShem a partner in their own self-development, when they choose to listen to the messages HaShem is sending their way through their spouse, that’s when miracles happen.
Obviously, reaching such a level in an ultimate sense is far from easy. Many couples forget about HaShem whether or not they are in the midst of a heated argument. And, this can happen whether or not the couple is religious.
And even for those who do know, it’s one thing to know in head, and another entirely to change their behavior as a result of that knowledge.
Real growth and change is a long, slow process— and the couple needs to have patience to give growth a chance to happen. But, those who are at least aware of the fact that everything they experience is from HaShem’s Guiding Hand and that He is trying to bring them somewhere, at least have direction. And, when they fall, they can catch themselves, learn the lesson hidden within, pick themselves back up and start moving again… Because they realize that the fall is a part of a bigger picture; it’s the very thing that will give them the clarity and strength to keep moving forward in the future.
So, there are two fundamental, though related points that have to be in place for any real, positive change and movement to happen:
- The couple needs to possess the basic emunah (faith) that HaShem has put them in this situation, and that these experiences are perfectly suited to them in order that they should find themselves, fix what they need to, and ultimately connect to HaShem through them.
- They have to get in touch with their real potential and then figure out what internal blocks stand in the way of reaching it. They then need to slowly make the effort to break those barriers- all according to their level and abilities.
The Wife’s Role in Maintaining Shalom Bais
All this being said, there is another very important point to consider: how much shalom there is in the home really depends on how well the woman in particular is able to fulfill her role with in it. Her awareness, clarity, and commitment to positively change herself and bring those around her closer to their own potential is the foundation of shalom bais. When this critical foundation is not in place, nothing will move.
Our Sages say that the Jewish wife and mother is the sole source of blessing in the home (Bava Metzia 59a). While every member of the family has their unique role and responsibility to play, it is the Jewish wife and mother who has the power to not only frame what is happening, but write the script. It she who sets the tone in the home. Who her family will become is to a large extent dependent on who she is, what she knows, and where she is going. This is a woman’s strength and the key to shalom bais.
Our Sages tell us that “Everything comes from the woman” (Bereishis Rabbah, Parashas Bereishis). The Midrash records the account of a righteous man and a righteous woman who were married but had no children. They eventually decided to get divorced. The righteous man married a wicked woman, and he became “wicked like her,” whereas the righteous woman married a wicked man, and he became “righteous like her.”
This means that even though it is ideal for both the husband and wife to make a joint effort and accept equal responsibility for improving their relationship, on occasion it is only one partner who takes the initiative and responsibility. If that one partner is the woman, then she alone can still accomplish a complete transformation in the marriage even without her husband’s initial full commitment, effort, or understanding.
The Torah tells us that it simply won’t work the other way around.
In short, where a couple is struggling to maintain harmony in the home, their biggest hope is to let HaShem in, to open their eyes and ears to the messages He’s sending their way. Even the smallest of steps forward now can lead to the biggest transformations later on.