M y wife is a difficult person to respect. I come from a home where I saw tremendous respect between my parents who are very much in sync with each other; they’re both very kind intelligent interesting people which gives people plenty to connect to and respect. My wife on the other hand isn’t a particularly nice person and her tongue and rough manner are far from respectable. She’s also not very intelligent. If I could at least respect her ideas and opinions I’d be happy but she’s more on the simplistic superficial side. If I try to bring up conversations beyond the weather and what the kids did that day she goes blank and becomes disinterested. She can talk about things or people but never ideas.
I long to have a mutually respectful marriage but hard as I try to find things to respect in my wife it’s nearly impossible. Understandably I don’t feel that she respects me as a person either but it doesn’t seem to bother her. As I said she’s not particularly deep and living day after day in a home where there’s little connection but no friction suits her just fine. It doesn’t suit me at all though. I think and feel deeply and long for meaningful emotional connection.
You may advise me to think back to what brought us together to begin with and I’ll tell you that being young and naive the only guidance I got at the time was “If you don’t see problems go for it. Don’t live in a dream world.” I just assumed I was doing the right thing by not looking for problems.
I’m not looking for problems now either and we live in a peaceful home but this lack of real respect and deeper connection bothers me terribly. Is there anything you can suggest?
Rabbi Ilan Feldman is the rav of Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta Georgia. The families who are part of his vibrant dynamic community regularly turn to Rabbi Feldman to receive his wise counsel on both halachic and interpersonal issues.
At first glance, your situation seems hopeless. You want a deep, meaningful, and respectful relationship with your wife. You’ve seen such a marriage by observing your parents, yet not only is your wife uninterested and uninteresting, she’s hard to respect because she’s not nice. You never really chose to marry her; others told you to do so since there was nothing wrong and assured you it would all work out. One senses that being in such a marriage dooms you to loneliness and a cold peace with your wife at best, until the end.
I have good news for you. There is a pathway out of this. You can have a marriage with this person that’s defined by love, sharing, and respect, and it doesn’t require her to change at all.
To have such a marriage, you have to be willing to let go of your certitude in assessing your wife and her traits. Your version of your wife is so fixed that it clouds your ability to see her any other way. Notice how many times you declare that your wife “is” a certain way (I counted five). You have assigned a quality and character to your wife. She just “is” the way you say she is, because your experience of her and your opinion of her “is” what she is. Problem is, once you’ve indicted and convicted her for being a certain way, it’s likely all further interactions with her will reinforce and support that conviction. You’re trapped in a marriage not with your wife, but with your version of your wife. And you hold the keys to getting out of that trap.
A useful tool to help people alienated from each other is to have them put themselves in the other’s place. They are asked to articulate, as powerfully and effectively as possible, the other party’s view of things, as if they were an advocate effectively promoting them and their cause.
Here’s an educated guess as to what we’d hear if we asked your wife to describe the dynamics of your marriage:
My husband has this gold standard against which he measures our marriage. He wants our marriage to be as good as his parents’. To him they are perfect. I began to realize early on in my marriage that I’d never measure up, so I began to shut down. When he’d raise topics for discussion, I just tried to avoid them, because why should I expose myself as dumb and superficial? And, though I’m not proud of it, sometimes I am short with him, because I feel bad that he doesn’t think of me as worthy of relating to because I’m not deep or interesting, by his definition. I raise his children, tend to the house, but somehow I’m not worthy of his respect. The truth is, I just try to survive his nonverbal disapproval of my very being by staying out of his way, doing what is expected, and exposing my “superficial” self as little as possible. If he would only let me be me, respect me for being me, I could be a good friend, even fun to be with. I actually look up to him and used to love hearing how he saw things, but I feel he’s withholding not only approval, but his very self from me until I somehow earn it. It’s terribly lonely.
Often, we become so fixed in our view of an issue that we forget that it’s nothing more than our view, and doesn’t define reality. If we’re open enough to allow for the possibility that our view is just a view, but not the truth, we can begin to let go of the “facts” and allow for other possibilities to emerge in the relationship.
Every husband must realize that with the ring you gave under the chuppah, came promises. No matter that they weren’t verbalized; they’re universally expected, and are part of the basic commitment made in a marriage. You promised to respect your wife, and not to compare her to others. You promised to share your life with her, not to withhold yourself until she deserves you. You promised to give her a chance to address your needs if she didn’t manage to do so successfully at first, not to write her off as hopeless. And you promised to be interested in her world, even if it wasn’t your world.
You have a choice in this marriage, and the power to make the difference in it. You can continue to notice your wife’s inadequacies in righteous loneliness, and judge her unworthy of being respected and confided in, and that’s the marriage you’ll have. (A root cause of sinas chinam is this certitude in defining others: “I know who you are, and you aren’t worth it.”) Or, you can give of yourself to the person you chose to share your life with. You don’t really know her as well you think. Consider initiating time with her, going for walks and asking her about her day, her laundry, her pleasure or frustration with the children.
Find out what’s important to her, and make that important to you. You will surely discover an entire universe that has gone unnoticed, right under your nose.
Rabbi Dr. Ivan Lerner
Rabbi Dr. Ivan Lerner is a well-known clinical and industrial psychologist. He has been a principal a dynamic community rabbi and personal therapist. Currently Dr Lerner is a lecturer and consulting psychologist to schools businesses and Jewish organizations in the United States and Europe.
You were certainly blessed to come from a good home in which you observed respect and kindness. You mention that, now too, you live in a peaceful home with no friction. What an incredible blessing! All too often I am presented with situations where marriages are fraught with friction and tension. When there’s basic shalom bayis there’s much to be grateful for.
When you were a child, you observed your parents’ marriage from the outside, just as your children are observing your marriage now. Although you viewed your parents’ marriage as idyllic, the truth is that you don’t know what things were hidden from you. I’m assuming, based upon what you’ve said, that your children are blessed to be growing up in an environment of shalom bayis. Therefore, despite your personal frustrations, their view of their parents’ home may also be somewhat idyllic — which is fine. Make no mistake: having shalom bayis is a huge blessing and an excellent prescription for raising healthy kids.
I’m not clear about your description of your wife as being “rough” and “far from respectable.” Usually such individuals create friction and tension in a marriage. Therefore, I’m happy but a bit perplexed when you admit that there is, baruch Hashem, shalom bayis. Your wife’s intellectual capacity should not stand in the way of you being able to respect and love her. If you need an intellectual challenge, find a good chavrusa. You assume that she doesn’t respect you. Don’t be so sure. It may be that you’re transferring your feelings onto her.
The core issue is your desire to be loved, understood, and respected. This is normal and natural — just about all of us want the same thing. Is your wife really incapable of giving you these things?
You state that you “don’t have the option of going for help.” Why not? If you had an important medical or dental issue you would seek help. What needs to be established is: 1) Is your wife capable of giving you what you need? 2) Are you willing to invest the time and effort to work together with her to improve your marriage? If not, then you’re choosing to live in the painful reality you describe.
Over the years I’ve worked with husbands and wives who’ve had similar frustrations to yours. Sometimes, through good marriage counseling, significant improvements are made. On the other side of the spectrum, on several occasions, a wife or a husband insisted on getting divorced in the hope that they’d find a better partner. My experience is that divorce seldom solves the problem, especially when children are involved. It usually complicates the situation by creating a slew of bigger problems.
When a couple lives in a home where shalom bayis exists, there’s usually a way to build on the existing goodwill and teach each partner skills for improving their relationship.
Right now you sound lonely, alienated, and misunderstood. That’s a painful place to be. It is up to you whether or not you wish to remain in that space. I hope that you and your wife will see a qualified marriage counselor soon. May you have brachah and hatzlachah.
Dr. Shula Wittenstein
Dr. Shula Wittenstein Psy.D is a psychologist and an expert in CBT and EMDR. She specializes in couples therapy and also treats trauma survivors anxiety and depression. She has a private practice in Jerusalem.
It seems that what’s hurting you most is loneliness and lack of connection — you want a richer relationship with your wife, and feel she can’t provide it. You mention how in sync your parents are, and how you and your wife aren’t. It’s therefore hard to respect her.
Bear in mind that it’s easier for two people who are very similar to get along well. The people who are your role models for marriage had similar intelligence and hashkafos and they made marriage look effortless. Realize that even a marriage such as theirs no doubt required much work. You may have assumed spouses just click, when in reality it takes commitment and selflessness to bridge the gap between any two people.
As you mentioned, many therapists would recommend going back to a baseline time when you two felt positive about each other as a way of rekindling connection. But you feel that won’t work for you because you never connected deeply. What’s striking about your question is your overall approach to relationships. Though you want to relate deeply, it seems you might have been passive, and let the chips fall where they may. You said you were told “not to look for problems,” and you followed that advice. You took a neutral stance in your approach to shidduchim — there were no demands of depth or strong connection; you were looking for “no problems.” And that’s what you got. This often happens , as people get married young, at times with undeveloped awareness of their emotional needs. Or perhaps, as life challenges emerge, one’s needs simply change.
At this point in your marriage, you’re feeling frustrated. You want more. One of the best ways to effect change is to ask oneself: “Where am I in this picture? What am I doing to try to bridge the gap and create the connection I desire?” If this isn’t your starting point, then you’ll find yourself with the same results that led you here in the first place: no problems, but an unquenched thirst for understanding and relationship.
Let’s start by looking at things you might be taking for granted, taking inventory of what you do have. You feel that it’s impossible to find anything to respect in your wife. Realize that having a peaceful home with no friction is no small feat. There’s inevitably differences that arise when living with someone and raising a family together. If you’ve been living peaceably all the years you’re married, it says a great deal about both of you. Your wife must be putting in a great deal of effort to keep the house running smoothly and the peace intact. And you must be putting in considerable work as well. That’s the raw material you are working with: a woman who’s essentially committed to peace and contributing to this joint venture of marriage and family.
The psychological literature talks about marriages that are conflicted and those that are neutral/dead — completely passionless, with the two partners living parallel lives. The latter is worse than the former since there’s no emotion involved — the spouses don’t care enough to fight for their marriage. But that doesn’t sound like what’s going on in your marriage. You don’t describe frostiness or apathy, just a lack of depth.
That lack is painful and you want to remedy it. You say it doesn’t bother your wife that she doesn’t respect you. It sounds to me that you feel unappreciated. You feel that your wife hasn’t thought about what makes you unique and special. Every husband wants his wife to respect him, and underscore his unique qualities.
Here’s the bottom line — and it’s nothing new: We can only change ourselves. And really, that’s the good news. This realization prevents us from feeling powerless, and helps us take ownership of our lives.
If you want your marriage to change, you have to find ways to endear yourself to your wife. Instead of finding a topic of conversation that interests you, and then being disappointed that she can’t follow or appreciate the thread, find a topic that interests her. Become a listener. Explore her world even if it’s a very concrete, non-intellectual world. Instead of shutting down and withdrawing, stay engaged and be present. If what excites her is a good sale, look out for the circulars, and let her know when Macy’s has their one-day sales. The more you give to your wife, the more you’ll connect.
In addition, once your wife feels like you’re interested in her, k’mayim hapanim el panim, she’ll probably reach out and take more of an interest in your world. You’d be surprised how touched she may be when you get into her head space — she might be waiting to be acknowledged by you.
A wife is only as valuable to you as you make her. If you only look at her as superficial and rough and unintelligent, that’s what you’ll see yourself as — a guy who’s married to a superficial, unintelligent woman. Realize that your respect for her connects to your respect for yourself as well. If you can see the part of your wife that’s hardworking and loyal and devoted, than you’ll be a man who’s married to a devoted wife. You’ll respect her — and yourself — more.
Yes, there’s still a part of you that wants to be respected for your intelligence and sensitivity. She may or may not be able to fill that void completely. Often spouses can’t. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a rewarding, deep relationship.
It’s important to find chavrusas, mentors, and friends who can connect with those facets of your personality. No one person can meet all of another’s needs. We all have many facets to our selves and need a variety of people in our lives to meet those different needs. Find people who can connect with other aspects of your self — and appreciate your wife for the peaceful home she gives you.
(Originally featured in Family First Issue 526)