Usually, when you enter a simchah, the first thing you look for (aside from the hot dishes, of course) is a familiar face. After all, the more friends you find there, the more you will enjoy the event. Other times, however, such as when you are running late and your goal is to get in and out as fast as you can, the last thing you want is to be recognized by anyone who might want to chat for a while.

Recently, when I arrived late for an early chasunah, it was one of those times when I hoped not to meet anyone I knew other than the baal simchah I had come to greet. So when I heard someone excitedly call from over my shoulder, “Oh, Dr. Wikler,” I was not at all excited about it.

A man in his mid-forties approached, a huge smile adorning his slightly familiar face. I could not recall his name, however, or even how I knew him.

“It’s so good to see you, again,” he began. “You know, something you said to me 27 years ago made all the difference in the world and changed my life forever!”

Now, it is not every day that I hear something like that. My curiosity was piqued. I asked him to remind me who he was and what I had said to him that had such a big impact.

“I was dating my wife at the time,” he explained, with obvious relish, after introducing himself, “and I was having difficulty making up my mind. In fact, things had shlepped so long that she actually gave me a deadline to decide one way or the other. I was leaning toward getting engaged. But there still were a few minor things that had bothered me at the time, although they certainly don’t bother me now! You heard me out and then asked me if I have a difficult time making other decisions as well. When I told you I did, you said, ‘Well, then it’s not really about her, is it? It’s really all about you.’

“I came home and thought a lot about what you said, and I realized you were right. My indecision was all about me. I told myself that I had better step up to the plate and take responsibility for my own indecisiveness.

“The next day I called my wife and proposed, and we have been happily married ever since.” He then proceeded to introduce me to his, kein ayin hara, large family.

What really changed his life forever was not what I said, of course, but his courageous assumption of responsibility for his actions, his inactions, and his indecisiveness.

Too often, however, we attempt to shirk personal responsibility by shifting blame to others.

When Adam Harishon was confronted by Hashem after he ate from the Eitz Hadaas, he replied, “The woman You gave me, she gave me [fruit] from the tree and I ate” (Bereishis 3:12). Years later, after Kayin killed Hevel, Adam encountered Kayin and learned how Kayin’s punishment was reduced as a result of Kayin’s acknowledging his own wrongdoing. Adam immediately slapped himself on the face and declared: “Such is the power of teshuvah? I had no idea!” (Bereishis Rabbah 22:28)

Adam’s epiphany underscores the importance of accepting responsibility and the critical role it plays in our relationships bein adam l’Makom. Similarly, accepting personal responsibility is an essential component of bein adam l’chaveiro relationships.

I recall, for example, a couple I was counseling some time ago. The husband was irresponsible about his eating. As a result, he was hovering dangerously close to developing a host of serious, life-altering medical conditions. His exasperated wife felt resentful because of the health risks he was placing himself under.

Within the structured, supervised conditions of my office, this couple eventually negotiated a behavioral contract with each other that both found acceptable. During the initial trial period of the plan, however, the wife reported that her husband was not living up to his end of the bargain. When I turned to the husband to solicit his take on this, he sheepishly replied, “She’s right. It’s true. But it was not because I was being irresponsible.… I just forgot. And, anyway, she could have reminded me, you know!”

After taking a very deep breath, I gently pointed out to the husband that by expecting his wife to remind him to fulfill his responsibilities, he was doing exactly what he claimed he was not doing — namely, abdicating responsibility for his own behavior.

The wife gave an audible krechtz and blurted out, “Someone finally understands what I’ve been putting up with for so many years!”

After a long silence, the husband nodded thoughtfully and mumbled, “I think I get it now.”

It took a bit more work, but he eventually did get it. He made some real changes in his eating and lifestyle, and the couple’s relationship took a sharp turn in the right direction.

Whether in our relationships bein adam l’Makom or those bein adam l’chaveiro, we are all, at times, similar to that husband. Whether we admit it or not, we blame others for our shortcomings, or we blame external factors for our personal failures.

We came to shul late because someone didn’t wake us on time. We can’t learn well because our chavrusas are not “into it.” We don’t act properly because others mistreat us. And the list goes on and on.

If we want to get closer to the Ribbono shel Olam, improve our relationships with family and friends, and/or achieve personal growth, maybe we need to first step up to the plate and take responsibility for ourselves, like the man I met at that simchah, who now has 27 years — and counting — of successful marriage to show for it.

The choice is ours. 

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 672. Dr. Meir Wikler is a psychotherapist and family counselor in full-time private practice with offices in Lakewood, NJ, and Brooklyn, NY. He is also a prolific author and widely sought-after public speaker