Marriage: Not to be Taken for Granted
Rachel Ginsberg’s feature “Frayed Beyond Repair” in last week’s Mishpacha about the rise of middle-age divorce among couples married two decades or more — many of whom appeared to have had perfectly stable, functional marriages — probably shocked many readers, especially those, like my wife and I, who do not count any divorced couples among their close friends.
The question I asked myself was: Does “Frayed Beyond Repair” also have anything to teach those for whom the word “divorce” has never crossed their lips, or even entered their thoughts? Can those who attribute everything good that has ever happened to them as adults to one good decision made long ago and can no longer imagine what course their life might have taken without their life partner still learn anything from Mrs. Ginsberg’s account?
I think we probably can. If I took away one lesson from the feature it was: Marriages need nurturing. Just as HaKadosh Baruch Hu is mechadesh the world every moment by infusing it with new energy, as it were, so do we need to continually think about how to mechadesh the partnership upon which everything depends by infusing it with new energy. It’s never a good idea to rely on momentum.
That observation sounds obvious, even clichéd. But the very ease and comfort that are the hallmark of a good marriage can easily slip into taking one’s spouse or marriage for granted. Well over 30 years ago, I heard a series of classes for new chassanim from Rabbi Aharon Feldman, author of the classic book on marriage, The River the Kettle and the Bird (Feldheim). Rabbi Feldman invited us to make a list of everything about our spouses that ever irritated us — not that I could think of any in those early months of marital bliss. Because no matter how long the list, he said, it pales beside one crucial fact: She puts up with you.
Our spouse is the one person in the world from whom we cannot hide our faults, and who loves us nevertheless. That bedrock of our existence allows us to function productively in other areas.
Marriage, then, is the exact opposite of the first shidduch meeting when the pressure is on to impress. But just because we no longer feel the need to impress — and probably could not if we wanted to — doesn’t mean that we don’t have to strive to remain worthy of our spouse’s love and respect (not the same thing). Compliments, expressions of gratitude, and shows of respect do not grow less necessary or less appreciated with time.
Even the most happily matched couple can forget to focus sufficiently on their marriage. As the family grows, many wives devote themselves to their children, and men to their work or learning. We tend to take for granted those nearest and dearest to us. Two of my closest friends made aliyah within the last decade or so. And, ironically, I see both less frequently than when they lived in the States. Just knowing that they are readily accessible seems to have lessened the impetus to see one another or even talk. And I suspect the same dynamic is often at play in marriage.
I was fortunate to learn most of what I know on building a strong marital bond from the observation of a wonderful marriage. Over a period of 20 years, I spent most of my time on trips to the United States in the home of a couple now well past their golden anniversary (who will remain nameless to preserve our friendship). The husband is something between a second father and older brother to me. Over that period, I was probably in their home for a total of a year or more, and I never once heard a voice raised or detected even the trace of irritation. Talk about comfort with one another — I always described their marriage as like an old glove that slips effortlessly onto the hand and moves with complete flexibility. Husband and wife each had the routine down pat, and seemed to know what the other was thinking at every moment.
Yet neither took the other for granted. He would call to let her know when he was leaving the office, and if something came up, call again to update her. In numerous ways, each day they would do little things that made clear they were both thinking about the other’s needs.
Expressions in word and deed conveying “I love you; I’m concerned for you; I admire you” never become tired. But marriages where they are absent just might.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha.