To Adam it was perfectly clear that a husband and wife are two parts of one neshamah that Hashem separated into two bodies. Hashem then stood Adam and Chavah under a chuppah in Gan Eden and married them saying ‘Now do it again. Recreate that sense of oneness that you experienced in Gan Eden.’ That’s the goal of married life”
our husband will be your best friend” every kallah hears. “He should come before everything else.” But concepts that seem so obvious during engagement take on levels of complexity in the real world which features confusing overlays of friends family work and OTHER obligations. Experts share how to keep your marriage at the center of your life no matter how full it may get
Avi knew even before he started dating Miriam that she was exceptionally close with her sister Shani. That never bothered him — it was nice for families to be close he thought — and for the first year or two of their marriage he shrugged off the late-night phone calls and incessant barrage of text messages between the two.
But as the years passed his irritation mounted. It bothered him that Shani knew as much about his kids as he did and he was livid when she showed up at the lawyer’s office when they were closing on their new home. The straw that broke the husband’s back was when Miriam met with the caterer for their son’s bar mitzvah with Shani.
“He’s my son not Shani’s!” he protested to Miriam.
She looked at him blankly. “But you don’t care about menus!” she replied confused.
“But you don’t care about me!” he shot back. When Miriam pointed out that he hadn’t had the patience to debate shades of teal when she tried asking him about tablecloths Avi suggested that Shani take his place at the head table. For the next week the couple barely spoke.
When Avi heard Miriam tearfully discussing their fight with her sister he was furious — but he managed to keep his mouth closed. That night he suggested they go speak to their rav together.
The Friendship Factor
It’s natural for people to have confidants or close friends other than their spouses. Many women find their friends to be the most sympathetic ear when it’s time to vent; men often prefer to chow cholent and talk Trump with the guys. And for most marriages that’s vital. Time spent with a good friend can leave a woman invigorated and upbeat — and the husband reaps the benefits.
“If one spouse feels like they’re second in their spouse’s life it’s time to ask: What’s not right in this relationship? Why isn’t the marriage the primary focus for both of us?”
“Back in my day I was given the message that you don’t need anything else after marriage your husband will be everything for you” says Rebbetzin Michal Cohen LCSW rebbetzin at Chicago’s Congregation Adas Yeshurun and a therapist at a family service agency. “Poor guy! Who can live up to all that? Some couples are best friends who like the same things and do everything together but most aren’t — and we all still need our friends.”
Baila had been valedictorian in high school and was a star third-grade teacher; she was used to giving every challenge her all and she planned to tackle marriage with the same commitment she gave her lesson planning. Supper would be on the table the minute her husband walked through the door she resolved and she’d certainly never ignore him to talk on the phone.
Her mornings were spent teaching her afternoons spent ironing and cooking and her evenings were spent with her new husband. After a week of marriage she decided she’d keep her cell phone turned off unless she was out; her friends’ calls were too distracting.
At first she listened to her voice mails and scrolled through the text messages from her close friends with a vague sense of guilt but that feeling soon faded and was replaced by indifference even annoyance. But then the calls and texts stopped. Good Baila thought. She didn’t have time for all that now; she was a married woman. She had a good job and a wonderful husband… so why did she feel so dispirited?
“I don’t expect my husband to sip coffee with me at a café — he hates coffee ” Rebbetzin Cohen notes wryly. “But he’ll tell me ‘When was the last time you went out with so-and-so I know how much you love to do that.’”
Sometimes, though, things get knocked out of balance and an outside interest takes on mammoth proportions that threaten to capsize a marriage, as in the case of Avi and Miriam.
When a relationship reaches a crisis point over a friendship or other outlet, it’s typically not the distraction that’s at fault, says Rabbi Shawlom Francis, LCSW, who maintains a private practice in Lakewood and is a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor at CHEMED Health Center. When one spouse complains that they feel their role has been usurped, it’s usually an indication of a problem that goes deeper than one friendship.
“People often come to me with in-law problems,” he says. “There are very few in-law problems; it’s usually a relationship problem. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t in-laws who are difficult or interfering or who step into territory where they don’t belong. But the problems arise when their child has some emotional weakness or hasn’t put up functional boundaries.
“When the marriage is strong, and the couple relates well to each other, when they recognize the two of them as a primary unit and are on the same page, they may have problematic outsiders, and those people can cause challenges, but it won’t threaten the marriage. So if one spouse feels like they’re second in their spouse’s life, it’s time to ask: What’s not right in this relationship? Why isn’t the marriage the primary focus for both of us?
“Essentially, this is the area where growth takes place in a marriage,” Rabbi Francis says. “The question is, can I look at this as a mirror? What do I have to do to improve myself?”
Eyes on the Goal
Of course, it’s fine for one spouse to seek fulfillment or support outside of marriage, says Rabbi Efraim Stauber, a couples’ therapist, noted lecturer, and rosh kollel of The Torah Center of Yerushalayim. “Asking if a couple needs to find their relationship completely satisfying, or if it’s okay to fill certain companionship needs or wants outside the marriage, is like asking if you should insist on a relationship that exists only in fantasy, or if you should accept the one that exists in reality,” he asserts. “It’s not much of a question. So why then does the notion of going outside the relationship for satisfaction rankle?”
These questions arise when we don’t understand the purpose of marriage, Rabbi Stauber states. “Behind the question lies the secular notion that marriage is about satisfying our companionship and relationship needs,” says Rabbi Stauber. “If the glue of our relationship is relatively superficial, such as choices of entertainment or even companionship, then looking outside the marriage to satisfy ourselves will smack of betrayal. But our goals in marriage can be way beyond that.”
Rebbetzin Rifka Katz, who has been teaching Montreal’s kallos for 40 years and who lectures internationally on marital relationships and intimacy, agrees that it’s necessary to home in on the purpose of marriage.
Marriage, she notes, is more than just a mitzvah — it’s not just for Jews, but it is an intrinsic reality that Hashem built into the natural order of the world. The creation of Adam is our prototype of marriage.
“When Adam was first created, the Torah describes him as ‘zachar u’nekeivah bara osam — a being created as both male and female.’ The Midrash explains that Adam was created with both male and female anatomies, forged back-to-back into one being with two faces. But when Adam questioned this strange makeup, realizing that no other animal was so constructed, Hashem immediately separated the being into two individuals — Adam and Chavah. Adam’s first words to Chavah revealed their strange beginning. ‘You are bone of my bones,’ he told her, ‘flesh of my flesh.’
“Adam was explaining to Chavah, ‘The most important thing you need to know is you are me!’ ” says Rebbetzin Katz. “‘We were created as one entity, and now Hashem has simply put some space between us.’ To Adam it was perfectly clear that a husband and wife are two parts of one neshamah that Hashem separated into two bodies.
“Hashem then stood Adam and Chavah under a chuppah in Gan Eden and married them, saying ‘Now do it again. Recreate that sense of oneness that you experienced in Gan Eden.’ That’s the goal of married life.”
This understanding, Rebbetzin Katz stresses, must define your marriage. Each couple is created exactly as Adam and Chavah were, with one neshamah broken in two and sent down into this world in two different bodies. “Hashem tells each couple, ‘Al kein yaazov — leave all your past relationships behind, glue yourself to your wife, and forge a basar echad. Through your hard work in marriage and building a meaningful relationship, you can unify that neshamah once again to regain that state and feel as Adam did: I am you and you are me. This means knowing — and showing — that your spouse comes first in your life, before anyone or anything else.
Once you’ve internalized that, Rebbetzin Katz says, it’s easier to understand the proper role of other relationships and outlets. “Of course women should go out, socialize, work. What could be wrong with that? When a woman is busy raising her family, a good laugh and a good cry with a friend will energize and revitalize her. Yet she needs to recognize she and her husband are simply two halves of one neshamah, and they’ll be bonded together to earn their Olam Haba together. Marriage, therefore, is the most basic and far-reaching relationship that exists.”
Ideal vs. Real
However, even with a proper foundation in place, couples often grapple with finding the right balance. Chaviva often complained of feeling stifled and unfulfilled in her marriage. A dedicated and hardworking child psychologist, she saw the invitation to join the board of the local Jewish Family Services as a much-deserved confirmation of her success.
But while Dovid was proud of her invitation, he wasn’t really interested in the intricacies of policy updates or the minutes of their meetings, nor did he give the journal article she published more than a passing glance. But on the board, for the first time, Chaviva had colleagues — frum women her age! — who shared her enjoyment in reading psychology journals. Chaviva became especially close with Lea, who worked as a child life specialist at a local hospital. For Chaviva, it was thrilling to have a friend who finally “got” her.
When Chaviva learned that she was to be promoted, she was beyond thrilled. She immediately picked up the phone to text Lea — then put it right back down, jolted. Something’s wrong, she thought. Shouldn’t my first thought be to call Dovid?
“It’s very common for spouses to have different interests and skills,” says Rebbetzin Cohen. “Let’s say Moishe loves music and Tami doesn’t. Moishe probably wanted to marry someone who loved music, but he met Tami, everything else was check, check, check; he’s not stupid — he went ahead with the shidduch, and it was, in fact, perfect.
“Ideally, both spouses would be concert pianists who could make music together all day. But the ideal is not what we usually get, nor even what we need. Some couples are very similar and love doing all sorts of things together, while other couples have very different likes or dislikes. They can both have strong marriages.”
While it’s okay for one spouse to throw herself into an interest the other doesn’t share, it’s a problem if the other spouse belittles that interest, she cautions. But it’s equally problematic for the spouse to ignore that passion. “Each spouse needs to figure out how to fill their specific needs,” she advises, “But with the acknowledgment of the other spouse: ‘I get it, please do this, this is so important to you.’ That’s what marriage is all about.”
But what about when an interest turns into an all-consuming obsession? How can you know when an outlet threatens to engulf your relationship?
“If you have entire areas of your life that your husband is disconnected from, that’s dangerous,” notes Rebbetzin Debbie Greenblatt, a senior lecturer for Gateways and a dating and marriage coach.
Other outlets can also become problematic when they turn into a substitution rather than a supplement. “If you’re looking to substitute a relationship with your husband, if you’re not getting deep emotional needs met, if you’re feeling distant from your husband and looking for another person or outlet to fill a void, that’s cause for concern,” says Rabbi Francis.
Rebbetzin Greenblatt notes that ultimately, it boils down to a question of primacy. “If a person’s a doctor, of course that doesn’t make him less of an oved Hashem,” she says. “But if being a doctor becomes his life and priority over being an oved Hashem, then it will affect his ability to be a Torah Jew. Similarly, in marriage a person can have other interests, but if those take priority over the relationship, they’ll diminish it.”
It’s unrealistic to expect one human being to be everything for you, she notes, but it’s important to remember that marriage is primary. “Everything else, including your children, is second. Your children might take more of your time and energy, but your first obligation is to your husband. When your children see you put on lipstick before Abba comes home, when they realize that you put him first, that creates a happy, secure environment for them.”
When a Piece Is Missing
All this works for couples dealing with a regular dynamic. Those who are dealing with serious limitations or mental health diagnoses will need to develop their own set of coping strategies.
“There are extreme cases where the husband doesn’t have the skills or tools to emotionally connect to people,” Rabbi Francis clarifies. “They can be sweet, responsible people, but emotional connections are not part of their world. That’s a whole different ball game.
“People in those marriages are going to have to accept that they won’t be getting strong connections, and they’re going to need to take care of themselves with other outlets. That needs a lot of acceptance, self-growth, and reflection.
“But that’s rare. If anyone else comes to me and says, ‘I’m not getting what I need,’ I wouldn’t say find another outlet, I’d say work on your marriage.”
Tuning In, Turning Toward
Even if your spouse enjoys playing the trombone or reading psychology journals — and you don’t — it’s important to stay tuned into your spouse’s interests. Rebbetzin Greenblatt cites John Gottman of the Gottman Institute, which promotes a research-based approach to relationships, and his concept of turning toward — the way a spouse physically turns toward the other in a healthy relationship to demonstrate interest in them. The same concept, she says, can be applied to a sharing of interests and meeting of minds.
“In a healthy marriage, you’ll be interested because you’re interested in the person. What makes your husband happy makes you happy; what troubles him makes you supportive. When I first got married, my husband collected stamps. I can’t say I was interested in philately, but if he got an exciting new stamp, I could be excited with him — not with the stamp, with him!”
It’s understandable, then, to feel hurt if your husband doesn’t express interest in a part of your life. How can you get your husband to develop a fascination with needlepoint or crטme brulee? Changing his attitude starts with you, Rebbetzin Greenblatt says. “The first course of remediation is to make sure you’re modeling the behavior you want. Are you interested in his life? Do you want to hear about his day even when it’s the same problem every day?”
The next step, she advises, is to clearly express your emotional needs, making sure your husband knows what you want and need without blaming him. “Rei’us — friendship — is a shifting dynamic,” says Rebbetzin Greenblatt. “If you no longer keep up with your seminary friends ten years post-graduation, that doesn’t mean you weren’t good friends. Friendship comes and goes as the circumstances of our lives change. But the rei’us in marriage can’t end.
“Think about what constitutes a close friend. You’re there for her, you enjoy time together, you get each other. This last point can highlight the differences between men and women. Women often say to me, ‘But my friend can finish my sentence and my husband doesn’t understand even when I do finish the sentence.’ We’re meant to activate our dibbur. One of the reasons that women were given nine out of ten parts of speech is so that they can explain their emotional needs to their husbands — who often don’t understand them organically.
“This doesn’t make him a bad husband. It makes him a man, and the effort you extend to connect is part of the avodah of marriage. Keeping up the rei’us of marriage requires ongoing investment.”
Mind the Gap
Sometimes, frustration with a relationship is caused by unrealistic expectations.
When one spouse feels frustrated that the other can’t fulfill all of their needs, Rabbi Francis explains, they need to recognize that every relationship has an area he dubs “the gap,” meaning that every spouse will lack qualities we wish they had, or have character traits we wish they didn’t. “That’s the area where growth takes place, where the Eibeshter wants us to tap into our strength and grow,” he says. “If everything was perfect, there’d be no opportunity for growth. By definition, marriage is going to foster growth — and growth requires challenge.”
Focusing on and appreciating the good that is in their relationship can help a couple come to terms with this gap. But after that, Rabbi Francis says, they may need to grieve what they’re not getting from this relationship and come to some level of acceptance . As a rule, the more you accept people the way they are, the more likely they’ll become who you want them to be.
The next step is to focus on yourself and ask, “What may be limiting me from allowing myself to become close with my spouse? Am I being vulnerable?” If you can’t share, there will be distance. “How’s my self-esteem?” If you have self-esteem issues, it’s very hard for you to be close to someone else — what if they reject the real you?
A feeling of distance within a relationship should spur you toward honest self-reflection, Rabbi Francis says. It may be uncomfortable, but it presents an important opportunity for introspection and growth.
This idea resonates with Naomi, who admits to struggling with this early in her marriage. Immediately after their wedding, Naomi and Yaakov moved to Israel, where Yaakov learned in kollel. Naomi found the move very difficult.
“I struggled with being so far from my friends,” she recalls. “I needed that very emotional, expressive piece of a relationship. My husband, being a normal male, isn’t very expressive. But due to the time difference, I couldn’t even call my friends, so I didn’t have that emotional outlet.”
Naomi eventually threw herself into her job as a seminary mechaneches, where she played an important and beloved role in her students’ lives. “My students would come over and stay for a few hours at night, but I never said, ‘Okay, this has to end.’ Before I could figure out the boundaries, I had to realize that there was a problem.
“My husband wanted to be supportive of what I was doing, so there was no big blowup, it was more like, ‘Wow, it’s kind of late,’ but I didn’t always pick up on his cues. In general, I struggle with ending conversations with people, especially when I’m helping them.”
Once Naomi realized that her late-night DMCs were hurting her husband’s feelings and harming their relationship, she made a conscious effort to recalibrate.
“I know that everyone says we need regular date nights, but at this stage, with my job, kollel, the kids… they’re just not happening. Instead, we started having Motzaei Shabbos discussions. That open communication has been very helpful. Even on nights when I’m spending time with my students, we know there’s a time when we can discuss anything. Learning to express myself — and my husband learning that he can acknowledge my emotions, even if he doesn’t understand them — has been so helpful.”
“I’ve found it’s not just the time but what you do to build the relationship,” Naomi says. “Our schedules are so busy, we may not be spending hours of time together every day, but I try to focus on what’s meaningful to my husband. I know he appreciates when I walk him out when he leaves. So in the morning, I’ll stop whatever I’m doing — whether I’m with the kids or packing lunches — make my husband a coffee, and walk him to the door.”
It’s important to remember, says Rabbi Stauber, that all the work is worth it. “On a simple level, the purpose of marriage might be the pleasure of a satisfying relationship. Yet on a deeper level, our marriage enables us to fulfill our destiny, which cannot be achieved alone.
“To build a Torah home is to build a place for the Shechinah to reside. When you have two people committed to getting out of their own selves, committed to getting along in a very human way — that’s quite a miracle. And if you can pull that off, Hashem says, this is a place where I want to live. That’s what makes a place for the Shechinah to dwell. So of course a marriage is about an authentic connection, however, the knowledge that this very human connection has Divine ramifications can free a couple to let go of their expectations and create a strong relationship.”
Those Left Behind
While all friendships should be handled with care once one is married, navigating a relationship with a single friend may require more tact, says Rachel Burnham, who was single for 14 years before she married and now runs D8gr8, a dating coaching service.
“Some single women are very sensitive,” she says. “Society looks at them and thinks something must be wrong with them. There’s a lot of judgment. They don’t have the support of a husband, they don’t have kids, yet they are so accomplished and capable in every other area of their life. They have so much to give and do — but they’re not able to fulfill that need like everyone else is.”
Sensitivity goes a long way. Rachel relates the story of a single friend, whose best friend called her the night before her oldest child got engaged. “Her friend is marrying off kids while she’s still going on dates. Obviously, that’s so painful. But her friend was so sensitive and told her about the upcoming engagement before she told her own parents!” That meant a great deal to the friend.
At the same time, Rachel admits, a longstanding relationship between two single friends will need to reframe itself after one friend gets engaged. But most of these adjustments are very doable, as long as both parties are willing to make the effort to maintain a connection.
Chani, a single in her 30s, has also found that relationships don’t need to end when one friend marries. “I can honestly say that when you go through the whole shidduch parshah together, with all the ups and downs and stress and venting involved, there is probably no one happier that you’re getting married than the friend who knows what you went through,” she says.
“I still have tons of close single friends,” Rachel says. “If a relationship can’t sustain the ups and downs of life changes, something’s lacking in the relationship. Healthy people in healthy friendships will understand the need to adjust, and stay close when circumstances change.”
(Originally featured in Family First Issue 571)