abbi Ben Tzion Shafier was a “mild-mannered, innocent high school rebbi” when his rosh yeshivah, Rav Henoch Leibowitz ztz”l, tapped him to start an outreach program for working guys. Almost overnight, “The Shmuz” was born — a series of lectures on a wide variety of topics in Yiddishkeit, presented with trademark humor, wit, and Torah wisdom, and it quickly took off, reaching a depth and scope that left its creator stunned.
But as his base of listeners grew, the questions they asked started getting thornier and more complex, revolving around shidduchim, marriage, and shalom bayis, and it didn’t take very long for Rabbi Shafier to realize that the nice and easy newlywed challenges were a thing of the past. Now things were more complicated than ever, and the picture was looking precarious.
“I realized that had there been some groundwork set at the beginning, in the early stages of marriage and dating, then a lot of pitfalls would have been avoided later on,” says Rabbi Shafier. He reveals that the burgeoning divorce rate among frum couples was the impetus for his newest free lecture series, “The Marriage Seminar,” which includes 12 hour-long sessions on such germane topics as gender differences, the Torah view of love, changing habits, and why couples fight.
From his vast experience counseling couples during both engagement and marriage, Rabbi Shafier has a unique vantage point on relationships today and the forces that dissolve them. “We’re seeing significantly more divorces today than in previous years, and I attribute it to three reasons. Firstly, people are more fragile today; they lack a certain ‘wholesomeness,’ a sense of being comfortable with who they are and where they fit in the world. There are also many psychological issues that people struggle with today. Generally speaking, when these factors are brought into a marriage, they get magnified. A healthy relationship requires a solid, healthy human being because it requires a lot of give-and-take, flexibility, and reasonable expectations. If you yourself are fighting demons — emotionally, psychologically, or socially — then there’s very little bandwidth left over to let another person in and to give to that person.”
He cites the “age of consumerism” as the second biggest factor in many divorces today, the premise of which is that there’s always a better, newer model out there. “Marriage is a disposable commodity in today’s culture, where we’re all about chewing things up and spitting them out. Twenty years ago, the question was, ‘Can this marriage be saved?’ Today, the question is, ‘Should the marriage be saved?’ I spent two and a half hours with a woman trying to convince her that her marriage could not only be saved, but she could be happily married. And she got back to me and said, ‘Nope. I want out! It’s not worth it.’ That was the first time in recent history that I actually broke down crying. What a tragedy.”
The third and perhaps the most familiar issue Rabbi Shafier identifies is one that may make us squirm a bit uncomfortably — if we can stop texting long enough to pay attention. “Ten years ago, I called us the ‘busy generation.’ Now that label is so outdated that at best I could call us the ‘indescribably distracted generation.’ What happens in a marriage is that by the time the kids are school age, the couple spends no time together at all. Take this challenge: Log how much time you spend as a couple, enjoying each other’s company — without your BlackBerry.
“A marriage, by definition, is a relationship that’s built on love and affection and a common identity. If you don’t work on the marriage, the bond starts to weaken and the couple drifts apart.”
He says the couples who begin bickering as their connections wane are actually in a better position than the couples who simply become married strangers, because at least the former have a wake-up call that may spur them to action. “I just had a couple here, married 30-something years, and they want a divorce because they have no emotional connection. They literally share a house, bills, and kids, and nothing else. That’s what happens when you spend zero special time together.”
His straight-shooter style and practical advice have been instrumental in helping save countless marriages, but Rabbi Shafier cites two particular examples of recent success stories that are just the tip of the iceberg in the amount of work that begs to be done.
“I have a close talmid who I can call on, day or night, and he’ll be available for me at the drop of a hat. Except for Tuesday nights. Because Tuesday nights, he’s on a date with his wife and there’s nothing in the world that comes before that commitment,” Rabbi Shafier notes, with a proud smile. “Another time, a newly married guy called up and he was very distraught. What should he do? His wife wears skirts that barely cover her knees. What should he tell her? I said, ‘She went to 12 years of Bais Yaakov where all they did was talk about skirt length. You think she doesn’t know what’s tzniyus and what’s not? If you say something, she’ll feel awful and you’ll damage your relationship with her. Instead, say not a word and just work on your marriage. As a result, she’ll become secure and confident, she’ll feel strong enough to resist societal pressure, and the skirts will get longer.’
“This is a real success story because undoubtedly, this couple’s marriage will be dramatically different, just from having the right perspective from the beginning.”
CASE 1 >> Combat Zone?
Dovid and Batya are hitting it off and the shidduch is serious, but Dovid senses something subtly wrong. During their fourth date, he gives over a vort with passion and pride. When he glances up at Batya for approval, she smugly replies, “Really? My rav in seminary said exactly the opposite.” Finally, Dovid pinpoints what’s bothering him as he wonders: Is she overly combative? Will I be able to set the tone for halachah in the home or will everything I say be challenged?
Before I answer, let’s put this into perspective. If this is the first time Dovid has seen this type of response, it should be clear that he can’t draw any conclusions yet. To take one incident and create an entire “personality portrait” from it wouldn’t be wise. But let’s assume that this wasn’t the first time Dovid feels that Batya was combative. Let’s say he’s seen this type of reaction quite a number of times and he feels that it actually represents who she really is. In that case the real question Dovid has to ask himself is this: What criteria will I use to determine who I’m marrying?
Unfortunately, most people use the “shopping list” approach. They think through various attributes and traits and come up with a list of what they “need” to be happily married: “This is what I would like, this I can take or leave. But this, under no circumstances, am I willing to accept.” I call this the “Mr. Potato Head Method,” where a person isn’t looking for what Hashem has designated, but rather has a clearly defined list of what he thinks he needs, and he looks for the person who comes closest.
If Dovid is using the Mr. Potato Head Method, he might well decide Batya isn’t what he’s looking for. After all, who wants a woman who is domineering?
If, however, Dovid is dating from a Torah and bitachon perspective, then his only criterion will be to find the girl Hashem has designated as his bashert. In this approach the person is looking to find his bashert, not make his bashert.
There are two components to this Torah-true method: the Paper Test and the Bashert Test. The Paper Test involves looking at the proposed match on paper to see if it looks like a potential marriage partner — that there is enough similarity between the boy and the girl to give it a reasonable try. If a shidduch passes the Paper Test, then the boy and girl go out.
Next comes the Bashert Test. Both parties need to ask themselves a very essential question: Do I instinctively feel that this is the right person for me?
Many times, I heard my rebbi, Rav Alter Henoch Leibowitz ztz”l, say that Hashem has given each person a “supercomputer” — your seichel, your intuitive wisdom that can be trusted to judge if this is the right one for you. You tap into that by asking yourself, Do I feel comfortable with her? Do I enjoy the dates? Do I look forward to seeing her again? If this is not the right shidduch, you’re not going to enjoy this particular person’s company. If, however, you went out a number of times and you are enjoying the dates, and you feel warmer feelings each time you go out, that’s the sign that this is the one Hashem has chosen for you. Even so, it might well be that the girl or boy has qualities that you wouldn’t have chosen, had you been given the task of making your bashert. But you aren’t — that’s Hashem’s job. And part of bitachon is trusting that Hashem knows better than you what is for your best.
In Dovid and Batya’s case, the Paper Test has presumably checked out, which is why they agreed to date in the first place. Now they are at the Bashert Test. When he hits this snag involving Batya’s outspokenness, Dovid can ask himself the essential questions: Do I enjoy Batya’s company? Do I like her? If the answer is, No, I’m not comfortable with her, then it’s clear that she is not the right one for him.
If, however, Dovid’s answer is, Yes, I’m comfortable with Batya. I enjoy her company, it just feels right, then essentially he has his answer — she is the right one for him, even though there is an aspect of her personality that he doesn’t appreciate. The basic premise is that Hashem knows what he needs to be happy in life and both Dovid and Batya, like every other couple, will need to work on certain things in their marriage until 120.
If this perspective is important in dating, it is absolutely vital in marriage. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a husband or wife say anxiously, “How do I know? Maybe I married the wrong one!” And there is only one answer: If you did a normal hishtadlus, including the Paper and the Bashert tests, then you have every right to assume that the person you married is the one Hashem intended for you. Hashem directed you to this person and He designated specific challenges for the two of you. The “right one” may not look like your perfect vision, and there will be adjustments that both of you will have to make. Every marriage has challenges. There is no such thing as a “perfect couple.” And if you a find a couple who say, “We never had any issues” — you have to question whether they are being honest with you. Part and parcel of a good marriage is growth and change. Recognizing that Hashem knows what’s best for you, and has brought you to the right person, is essential to then go through the difficult growth process that a successful marriage requires.
CASE 2 >> Picture Perfect
Shimon likes Chaya and after three dates, he would consider marrying her, but there is something about her appearance that isn’t that perfect look, and this is holding him back. Should Shimon continue with the shidduch?
Being physically attracted to one’s spouse is important, so if Shimon likes Chaya but isn’t attracted to her, it might well be a sign she isn’t the right one for him. But here is where things get complicated. Many times, what holds a person back isn’t the intuitive sense that “she’s not for me,” but his preconceived notion of what he thinks he needs or wants. The way to tell is to ask himself: What’s holding me back here? If, after honest introspection, Shimon determines that he’s secretly hoping to marry a girl whose looks will earn the admiration of his friends and family, then he has to work through this realization and see where he truly wants to be in his dating hashkafos. Is he going to force his will on the Ribono shel Olam? Or will he take a step back and admit that ultimately it isn’t his decision whom to marry, but rather, Hashem chose a woman for him, and all he needs to do is find her?
Chazal tell us that a bas kol goes out 40 days before a person is conceived, saying, “ploni l’plonis” — this boy is designated for that girl. Many people in shidduchim express their sincere wish to hear what that bas kol said. Rav Wolbe ztz”l writes that today, the bas kol is actually the feeling of comfort and “rightness” that two people get when they date each other.
In a case where Shimon is perfectly comfortable with Chaya but he is worried about what his friends and family will say about her appearance, he has to acknowledge a basic truth: If he does not marry Chaya and instead pursues a girl who fits his “dream wife” profile, then ultimately, he may not end up being happy.
In a situation like Shimon’s, if he discovers that Chaya is the right one for him, he can either accept Hashem’s vision of his future, or he can try to concoct his own. The problem is that it’s highly unlikely that any human being can choose better than his Creator.
CASE 3 >> What a Surprise
One day a few months after getting married, Gila is blissfully doing a load of laundry when she suddenly discovers … a pack of cigarettes in her new husband’s shirt. Gila has always had strong feelings against smoking, ingrained in her since she was a young girl. Now she is appalled. How can I tolerate — never mind respect — Shloimy now that I know he smokes?!
The first reality that a couple must come to terms with is that in any marriage, issues will arise. The success or failure of their marriage is often based on how they deal with them.
In this situation there are two distinct issues: the smoking, and the lack of respect.
Let’s deal with the smoking itself first. Shloimy is going to have to deal with Gila’s outrage, and Gila will have to deal with Shloimy’s addiction to cigarettes.
Change is very difficult under the best of circumstances, and in the scenario above, the situation becomes more dicey because Gila came into the marriage thinking Shloimy was not a smoker. Shloimy needs to understand where Gila is coming from and do everything in his power to try to quit smoking. Shloimy is not allowed to be dismissive of Gila’s concerns, or turn the problem onto her, as in, “What’s the matter with you? What’s the big deal?”
For her part, Gila has to understand that smoking is a major problem for Shloimy and the fact that he continues to smoke does not mean that he doesn’t love and respect her. Perhaps Gila can picture being asked to stop speaking lashon hara. Can she do it? Maybe for an hour, but for a whole day? And this is a halachic requirement that encompasses approximately 35 aveiros with each forbidden word uttered! Gila can focus on realizing how difficult change is, even when one knows that a behavior is assur, dangerous to oneself, and harmful to others. She would do well to acknowledge that change is slow and difficult and she needs to learn how to live with Shloimy’s smoking habit until he breaks it. If he doesn’t succeed, then it’s something that both he and Gila will have to deal with in a mature, rational manner.
And it is at this point, when one spouse is unable or unwilling to change, that major shalom bayis problems often develop. It’s clear that the behavior isn’t going to stop and the other spouse is forced to make a decision: Do I want to be happy, or do I want to be miserable? If she wants to be happy, she will need to accept him, nicotine and all. Yes, he really should quit, but chances are he won’t, and what does that mean for them as a couple for the next 60, 70 years? To help her make the right decision, Gila can remind herself that Shloimy probably also has issues with some of her behaviors — no one is perfect, and it is still okay to respect and love someone who is flawed. This will enable her to empathize with Shloimy instead of resent him for his fault. She can reframe her thoughts: It’s so hard to change, especially with a substance as addictive as nicotine. Wow! I can only imagine what a challenge this must be for him.
But even after they solve the smoking, there is still the issue of respect. Interestingly, though, this isn’t Shloimy’s problem — this one belongs to Gila alone.
Any time a spouse says, “How can I respect him if he does such-and-such?” it means that she has the problem of distilling the totality of Shloimy’s essence to a tiny flaw. He is probably a ben Torah, a fine husband, a good person — and he has a problem. When we look at a diamond that has a tiny imperfection, we don’t call the diamond “a flaw” — it’s still a diamond. If Gila no longer respects her husband, then she’s reduced him to a cigarette! To break out of this dangerous tunnel vision, Gila can realize that if anyone were to judge her by her weaknesses, it would be unfair and unflattering. Developing a broader, more mature outlook on people is going to be Gila’s avodah if she is to nurture and develop a healthy, happy marriage.
Now, in case Shloimy’s approach is I have every right to smoke and no one can tell me to stop, here too it really depends on their attitude. Studies show that 70 percent of successful marriages have major irreconcilable differences. If he has a thriving business in New York City, and for medical reasons she needs to live in San Diego, there’s no middle-ground. If she wants to send the children to a chassidishe cheder and he only wants his kids in litvishe yeshivos, you can’t send the kids to school with peyos behind one ear. There is no compromise position.
Nevertheless, these differences don’t destroy a marriage, as long as the two partners come to an understanding that by definition, two different people will have differences of opinions and irreconcilable differences are an inescapable part of marriage. The couple that accepts and understands this from the start won’t find themselves shocked and overwhelmed when these inevitable differences rear their head.
CASE 4 >> No Comparison
Sarah really admired and liked Chaim, but after two dates, Chaim’s mother nixed the shidduch. A few months later, Sarah met Boruch, but there was one thing standing in the way of the relationship — she found herself constantly comparing Boruch to Chaim. Sarah’s mentor told her that the comparison would naturally fade as she grew to appreciate and focus on Boruch, and the two soon became engaged. But now, a few months into her marriage, Sarah still finds herself comparing Boruch to her perception of Chaim — especially when Boruch’s middos or behavior come up short. How does she fight the feeling that she “could have done better”?
Actually, this theme tends to come up in various ways throughout our lives — most of us constantly compare ourselves to others. “If only I could be like her or have a job like him.” So when Sarah asks herself if she could have done better, what’s the answer? There are really two answers: The first is that everyone is on best behavior during a date, and you hardly get to meet the real person, even after ten or twenty dates. So Sarah is basing her assessment of Chaim on the beautiful image he portrayed on their dates together. She has no way of knowing what it would be like to live with Chaim — she is just conjecturing that he would be the perfect mate, compared to Boruch, with all his faults.
But in reality the question is based on a mistaken premise. Sarah assumes that because (at least in her mind) Chaim has beautiful middos, she would be happier had she married him. And that is a fundamental error. I think it would be easier for me to explain this with a mashal.
Imagine you have a wedding coming up. It’s a big affair, and you want to look your best. You go shopping and find the perfect outfit. It’s affordable, it looks great — it’s even tzniyusdig. You buy it. There’s only one thing missing, the right pair of shoes. You start looking, but you just can’t find the right pair. You start to get desperate. Finally, the day before the wedding you stop into Macy’s, and in the clearance section you see the most gorgeous pair of shoes. “Oh, my goodness, they’re perfect. The leather is exquisite. The workmanship is outstanding. And the best part — it’s on clearance. Fifty percent off. Wow!”
There’s only one problem — the shoes are two sizes too small. “But look, I can’t just leave them — they’re so cute.” So you buy them, take them home, and wear them to the wedding. After the wedding (and two hours of dancing) you come home, take them off, and your feet are killing you! Because the leather can be great, the workmanship fantastic, but if the shoe doesn’t fit, it’s going to hurt.
This is analogous to marriage. Before you were born, Hashem chose the perfect counterpart for you — with his strengths balancing against your weaknesses, and your strengths balancing against his.
A marriage is a complex weave of needs, emotions, and temperaments. Some personalities mesh, some class. To find the right match of two individuals who come from different homes, and have vastly different natures and dispositions, requires the wisdom of — well, the wisdom of our Creator. And that’s the point. Hashem chose the right one for you. You fit together hand-in-glove. And while he may not be the best bochur in Lakewood — he is the best one for you. Could you have done better? Maybe — but better doesn’t mean a better marriage, and better doesn’t mean that you would be happy together.
CASE 5 >> Getting the Spark Back
Adina holds a part-time job while finishing her degree in the evenings, in addition to caring for one-year-old Chezky. Her husband Shimmy is learning in two kollelim and also tutors in the evenings, often coming home after 10 p.m. One day Adina comments, a bit ruefully, “We’re like passing ships in the night — a far cry from dating and shanah rishonah. And what happens when our family grows?” Shimmy agrees that they’ve lost a certain spark. With their busy lives, is it even practical for them to recover it, or do they wait till middle age to nurture their relationship again?
If I had to pinpoint probably the biggest problem in young marriages, this scenario would be it. As life gets hectic, very often the relationship falls by the wayside. Many people think this is normal and expected, but they’re wrong. If Adina thinks her relationship can be put on hold until middle age, she’s making a fatal mistake — one that might cost her marriage.
The glue of marriage is love. Humans have such varying temperaments that it takes a major force to keep them together; without that superglue, they could never stay together. If there is a climate of love in the marriage, then whatever life throws at them, they can find a way to get through it. If there isn’t that climate, then in the heavy traffic of life, feathers get ruffled, feelings get hurt, and each one feels like the victim of a raw deal, and inevitably the bickering and bitterness takes over.
But even more pointedly, if there is a bond of love between them and he does something wrong — it’s okay. He’s a good guy with a flaw. But if there isn’t a bond of love active and vibrant between them, then he never did anything good in his life. And even the one thing he does half well he can’t get right.
Therefore, it’s paramount for a marriage to have love, and the only way to achieve it is by spending time together as a couple. At the very minimum, there should be special time allocated once a week, no matter what. This has to be a priority. If the couple doesn’t nurture the spark, it will fizzle out.
We don’t say we’re too busy to sit in a succah, or eat matzah. In the same way, we can’t say we’re too busy to spend time with our spouses. If you think this is an exaggeration, just take one small fight between a husband and wife and analyze how many aveiros occur in that short space: ona’as devarim, lashon hara, not to mention throwing the Shechinah out of the home — and that’s just during a small tiff. A couple has a chiyuv to work on their marriage, even if they are excessively busy. There is no substitute.
But I want to make one thing clear: When a couple spends time together it means that the couple preferably goes out, alone, with no agenda. No discussions about the kids, or finances, or in-law problems. They just go out to have a good time and enjoy each other’s company, recapturing that feeling of when they were chassan and kallah.
In shanah rishonah, there’s lot of talking and connection-building, but it shouldn’t stop afterwards. Marriage is about constant work, and a huge part of it is working on the attachment and the bond between the couple. This is, in fact, the easiest fix for so many marriages. I have personally seen marriages turn around completely just from the couple committing to a fixed date night.
CASE 6 >> Money Counts
If you ask Golda and Shmuel what the worst word in the English language could possibly be, they’ll simultaneously tell you, “Money!” While they see eye-to-eye on most other issues, when it comes to money they are polar opposites. Golda is as thrifty as they come, while Shmuel likes to “live a little.” Living on a tight budget, the tension sometimes stretches so much it threatens to snap altogether. “I never get my needs met,” Shmuel sulks. “Neither do I,” Golda says glaring, pointing to their overdraft.
Most people think that couples fight about issues: money, in-laws, or the setting on the thermostat. But it isn’t true. Couples never fight about issues. All they fight about is one thing only: their feelings behind the issue. The real problem is what Golda feels about Shmuel spending a lot of money — and vice versa. This is a key point, because in truth, reasonable people can find reasonable solutions to any type of problem. So why is it that very often in a marriage, otherwise reasonable people fail to act reasonably? It all goes back to this principle: it is about the feelings, not the issue. And when we’re hurt, we become very unreasonable.
In this case, both Golda and Shmuel are hurting, and not because of the money. Rather, it’s the feelings they harbor: You don’t care about me. You’re not considering my needs.
Of course, the second part of the problem — the actual money — also needs to be dealt with. Any couple that doesn’t budget is making a big mistake, even if they have a million-dollar annual income. A couple that has difficulty in this area should seek guidance from the various organizations available today, or from older, wiser friends or family members who can give them the tools for achieving financial awareness and stability.
But back to the key issue: Once Golda and Shmuel understand that it’s not about the money, but rather about their feelings behind it, each needs to focus on where the other spouse is coming from. Here I introduce the two most important words in a marriage. No, it’s not “Thank you” or “You’re wonderful.” It’s these words: “That’s strange.”
Golda needs to say to herself, “Shmuel spends considerably more than we earn, all the while knowing that we will have an overdraft. That’s strange. He’s a very smart, savvy person in other areas.…” This enables her to open her mind to try to understand Shmuel’s conspicuously erratic behavior. For his part, Shmuel needs to look at his wife and say, “Hmm … she’s usually kind, sweet, and happy, but when it comes to spending she flies off the handle. That’s strange. Why does she react so strongly? I wonder what’s going on with that.…” This will help each of them understand where the other person is coming from. It will also prevent the dismissiveness that causes hurt feelings to fester, prolonging fights and resentment.
When Golda and Shmuel allow each other to speak openly and respectfully about their feelings behind money, they can work toward a mutually beneficial solution. They might not always get their way, but at least they’re working from a place of reasonableness, amicability, and mutual validation, which allows for much more flexibility and compromise.
CHANGING YOUR LIFE
Every wedding begins with the signing of the tena’im, and then the kesubah. There is, however, one more document that has not yet been instituted — a shtar hachlafah, a “document of change.” In Rabbi Shafier’s view, it would go a long way toward helping marriages succeed.
I, the undersigned, do hereby proclaim the following:
- I recognize that the basis for a successful marriage is my ability to change.
- I acknowledge that my spouse will be different from me in temperament, inclinations, attitudes, desires, backgrounds, and interests.
- I accept that for any partnership to exist there must be compromise, and that I must be willing to change in many areas.
By signing, I hereby acknowledge that I am ready, willing, and able to change, grow, and compromise in all areas.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 484)