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The Man in the Room

The whopper stories of couples he had dealt with made our issues seem almost charming

Sixteen years into our marriage, I told my wife, Leah, that I wanted a divorce.By then, our relationship was practically nonexistent. We could not carry on a normal conversation, since she would explode in rage at practically anything I said. And the only things she ever had to say to me were complaints: “You’re never around. You don’t help me. You don’t appreciate what I do. You work too late. You don’t earn enough money. You snore too loud.”

After 16 years of steadily worsening Gehinnom, I was convinced there was no hope for our marriage. And I was dead serious when I told her I wanted out.

Her reaction shocked me. I had expected her to react with anger, with tears, or possibly with indifference. But instead, her face lit up.

“I have not felt this much respect for you in years,” she said softly.

I had no idea what to make of her statement, but I was determined to follow through on my plan to give a get.

“We’re going to talk to Rav Shultzer,” I said grimly. “And from there to beis din.”

“Bravo!” Leah cheered.

I had long suspected she was losing her mind, and this weird reaction was yet another indication.

Rav Shultzer is the rav of our shul and community. When Leah and I sat down to talk to him, I spared no details in describing the sorry state of our marriage and listing the grievances I had against my wife.

“It’s been 16 years of alternating between fighting and ignoring each other,” I said. “My wife is a horrid housekeeper, and the house is always messy and chaotic. She’s terrible at money management and is constantly overspending. She lies in bed much of the day, practically catatonic, sleeping, reading books, or watching videos. And any time I say anything, she blows up at me in fury. You should hear the yelling that goes on in our house — when my wife starts carrying on, every neighbor on the block can hear it. And I know that, because people have asked me if everything’s okay.

“I’m done with this marriage,” I concluded. “What’s the procedure for giving a get?”

Rav Shultzer leaned back in his chair and raised an eyebrow. “Is that all?” he asked.

“All?” I asked incredulously. “We’ve gone for therapy and marriage counseling for years and years, with nothing to show for it except over a hundred thousand dollars in the garbage. My relatives and hers are urging us to get divorced. Our marriage is dead. Is that not grounds for divorce?”

Rav Shultzer gave a little half-smile. “I can’t say I’m too impressed,” he said. “If you had heard as many bad shalom bayis stories as I have, you wouldn’t take your own situation that seriously, either.”

And he went on to tell us some whopper stories of couples he had dealt with whose issues made ours seem almost charming.

Then he turned to Leah. “And what do you say?” he asked. “Are you also ready to throw in the towel?”

“Not at all,” she responded. “Moshe and I have always had the same values and goals and enjoyed the same things. From the first minute we met until today, we have seen eye to eye on every important issue. I just wish he would communicate his expectations clearly and calmly instead of bottling everything up inside. He’s always unhappy with me, and most of the time I have no idea why. Instead of telling me what he wants, he walks around withdrawn and miserable, and once in a while he’ll bark out an order or mutter a complaint. Then, when I tell him he’s being unreasonable, he launches into a tirade about how I don’t respect him or listen to him, how his needs don’t matter, and how I’m a lousy wife, mother, and homemaker. And then he wonders why I’m angry?”

“Revisionist history!” I protested.

Rav Shultzer put up his hand. “I must tell you,” he began, his formerly bemused tone taking on a somber air, “that shalom bayis problems are unfortunately not uncommon. But yours — well, they’re surmountable, if you’re willing to put in the effort. Honestly, I think you’re an ideal couple. A model couple in the community, in fact. People like you don’t get divorced.”

I could not believe what I was hearing. But Rav Shultzer is no lightweight, and in all the years I had known him, I couldn’t remember him saying anything flippant. He was certainly not given to exaggeration or flattery, and if he was telling us we were an ideal couple, I had no doubt that he meant it.

Well, that kind of put a damper on my divorce plans. But I still had no idea what the alternative was. Leah wasn’t changing, that was clear. So where did that leave me? Stuck for eternity in a miserable, loveless marriage with a witch of a wife?

“Work on it,” Rav Shultzer urged. “Home isn’t built in a day. We’ve swallowed the Hollywood lie that marriage starts on cloud nine and goes downhill from there. The truth is that while a young couple does get an initial injection of excitement — call it Hashem’s wedding gift to them — the real joy of their relationship happens as a result of years and years of hard, messy work, with lots of ups and downs, failures and disappointments. The foundation of a good marriage is built by digging through a lot of mud, but eventually, as the building takes shape, you slowly move out of the grime and start to see what Heaven looks like.

“You’ve just invested 16 years into digging a foundation,” he concluded. “Now go put up your house.”

As we stepped out of Rav Shultzer’s house, my head spinning from the way the conversation had played out, Leah asked me to go out for coffee. Once we were inside the coffee shop, she pulled a pen and paper from her purse.

“I want you to tell me, very clearly, exactly how and where I am not meeting your needs,” she said.

“You want to know?” I declared. “Well, I’ll tell you.”

And I did. She dutifully took notes, while sipping her latte.

“From now on,” I announced, “I am going to be in charge of the money.”

I expected this pronouncement to meet with furious resistance on Leah’s part, as any time I had ever said a word to her about how she managed money, she reacted with anger or tears. But she surprised me by nodding vigorously.

“Fantastic,” she said. “I find money very overwhelming, and I never felt confident taking care of the financial stuff.”

I almost dropped my coffee. “So why didn’t you just ask me to take care of the money? I’ve told you so many times that I wasn’t happy with the way it was being handled!”

“You never offered to take care of it,” she said pointedly. “All you did was yell at me for overspending and grumble about how busy you were and how you could never rely on me for anything.”

I opened my mouth to argue, then thought better of it. Instead, I stated the rest of my expectations, including my need for a reasonably clean home environment, which meant that I would be systematically discarding much of the junk that Leah insisted on holding on to. I also pointed out some basic relationship needs that had been missing for years.

I was positive she’d balk at these requests. But she didn’t.

“That’s reasonable,” she said, when I finished. “I’m in.”

Then, Leah gave me her own list of expectations, stated clearly and calmly for what felt like the first time ever. She wanted me to lose weight. She wanted me to get a steady job and paycheck, instead of working crazy hours as a freelance consultant, with the attendant income fluctuations. Lastly, she asked me for three affirmations every day: that she is beautiful, that I love her, and that everything will be okay.

I thought this final item was loony, but since Leah insisted it was crucial for her, I agreed to it, along with committing to the other, more difficult requests.

That was the first time in years that I felt that my needs actually mattered. And Leah said she couldn’t remember the last time we’d had an open, honest conversation like that. Maybe there’s hope for us, after all, I mused.

That meeting with Rav Shultzer was followed by months and months of work rehabilitating our relationship. I lost weight, found a steady job, and cut back on my work hours so that I could be home at night at a normal time. I also took over the finances. And, as I had promised (or perhaps threatened), I spent days decluttering the house and dumping bag after bag of useless stuff into the garbage. The mess was obliterated, finally, and from then on it became much easier to manage the day-to-day housekeeping. Leah’s initial response to this junk-disposal operation was rage, but with time she accepted what I had done and forgave me for not consulting her about which items to discard.

Leah kept her part of the bargain, making our marriage a priority and ensuring that she was not too tired, busy, or distracted to focus on the relationship. She claimed that my three affirmations, which I faithfully uttered every morning, meant the world to her. (Whatever. There are some things a man will just never understand.)

During those months, while we were thrashing about trying to figure out a way forward, we played backgammon. Every. Single. Day. That helped us spend relaxed time together without being at each other’s throats.

Entrenched patterns of unhealthy interaction are not quickly overturned. But Rav Shultzer’s words echoing in our ears — “I think you’re an ideal couple. A model couple in this community, in fact” — made us believe that our problems were not as severe as we had thought, and that we could actually turn things around.

During this time, when I was searching for ways to improve our marriage, a friend of mine introduced me to some writings of his rosh yeshivah, whose teachings he had adapted into an informal shalom bayis course for men. The rosh yeshivah’s basic premise was that 98% of the responsibility for the state of a marriage is on the husband. That was a hard pill to swallow, but the corollary — that a husband can fix 98% of the problems on his own — made my situation suddenly seem a lot more hopeful.

Leah, for her part, believed that a wife has the power to turn her marriage around. She had once heard a rebbetzin say that there are three partners in a marriage — the husband, the wife, and Hashem — and if one member of the couple is fulfilling their part of the contract but the other is not, Hashem fills the void. So she was convinced that her efforts could fix our shalom bayis.

That may have been true for her, but my truth — and, as far as I was concerned, the only truth — was that I alone was responsible for the state of our relationship. What she did mattered not a whit.

My friend explained to me that every woman, no matter how strong or capable she appears, deep down craves the feeling that her husband can protect her — and that includes protecting her from herself. Because a woman so badly needs to feel protected, she will continually — and often subconsciously — submit her husband to the “fitness test,” goading and challenging him to prove his “fitness” as her protector.

That meant that most of the time when Leah exploded, or otherwise behaved in a manner I deemed insane, she was simply seeking the reassurance that I was the man in the room. And the less reactive I was to her provocations, the sooner each episode would blow over, and the less likely we would be to end up in a shouting match.

In the past, the pattern had always been the same: She would complain, I would blow up, and things would turn ugly from there. Now, I realized that when my wife gets upset and starts to vent, the best — and only — thing to do is to keep my mouth shut and just listen. That takes a lot of confidence and self-control, which I’ve come to believe are the two most important elements in masculinity and what a woman intuitively respects in her husband. Ninety percent of the time, having the confidence to quietly listen, with a totally calm face, and completely resist the urge to respond, explain, or even apologize will completely defuse a tense situation, often within 30 seconds. Once I mastered that skill, I had the luxury of actually answering, when appropriate, with a measured, logical response.

By learning to overcome my fear of my wife’s emotional intensity, I became the rock she could lean on when her emotions overwhelmed her. Instead of allowing her fury and tears to trigger anger — or emotional withdrawal — in me, I willed myself to maintain my equanimity. Be a man, Moshe, I urged myself. Be comfortable in your own skin. She can say whatever she wants, and that doesn’t change who you are.

Leah comes from a difficult background, and much of her anger, I came to realize, had very little to do with me and much more to do with old childhood wounds that were triggered by present-day situations. That’s why, when I responded to Leah’s anger by trying to explain myself, it only served to fuel the flames of her anger, since the issue was not the issue — the issue was that she was in pain and felt unloved and uncared for. And that’s why, no matter how reasonable my explanation, it was never what she wanted to hear. Now, finally, I realized that when she attacked me, what she was really seeking was the reassurance that I was still there for her, that I loved her, and that I wouldn’t abandon her no matter what.

Since she was subconsciously trying to test my mettle and ensure that I was truly her protector, arguing back or defending myself was the worst thing I could do. She wanted to see if I could stand up to the worst she had to offer — and if I could, I would suddenly discover the best she had to offer, because my ability to calmly absorb her frustration made me suddenly appear ten inches taller in her eyes.

One day, I was in a meeting at work with several of my colleagues and superiors, when my phone rang, and Leah’s number came up on the screen. I moved to the back of the room, answered the call, and said quietly, “Leah, I’m in middle of a meeting. Can I call you back?”

“No!” she screamed. “I told you to take the pile of laundry on your bed to the dry cleaners, and you took the wrong pile! The pile you took was clean laundry! And I need my dress cleaned for tomorrow, so now I’m going to have to make a special trip into town myself, but you have the car, so how do you expect me to take care of this? Why didn’t you ask me which pile to take? Do you know what a headache this is for me now? You just don’t care!”

“Leah,” I said calmly, when she finally paused for air, “I’m with five other people. Is there anything more you need to tell me right now?”

At that, she hung up the phone.

By the time I came home, not a hint of her anger remained.

Sometimes, in the past, I would apologize just to appease Leah, even when I felt that I hadn’t done something wrong. For instance, if I didn’t understand what she was trying to say — which happened quite often — she would demand utter contrition from me for not reading her mind and innately grasping what was so crystal clear to her. But instead of satisfying her, those apologies seemed to antagonize her further. She expected me to be abject, to practically beg her for forgiveness, and no matter how hard I tried to mollify her, she would just get more upset.

Now, I realized that these were just “fitness tests.” In demanding contrition when it wasn’t warranted, she was really asking me to show that despite whatever had happened, I was still worthy of her respect. She wanted to see that I wouldn’t react, that I wouldn’t apologize just to mollify her. And when I truly was at fault, it was important that I take responsibility like a man and not be reduced to a doormat or slobbering puppy.

With time, I learned that when an apology is called for, it should be done with confidence: Say it once, matter-of-factly, without dithering, blubbering, or groveling, and then move on. For instance, I have a tendency to interrupt when Leah talks, which really bothers her. If I catch myself doing that, I’ll offer an apology, even unprompted. She is appreciative and notices when I do.

Our relatives were “disappointed” — they told us so — that we didn’t end up getting divorced. But after seeing us together a few months after our meeting with the rav, my brother said, “I don’t understand. I thought you were miserable, but now you look so happy.”

Shortly afterward, Leah bumped into a neighbor of ours whom she hadn’t seen in a while. “I thought you got divorced!” she exclaimed. “Things have been so quiet in your house, I was sure you or your husband moved out.”

“Nope,” Leah said. “We didn’t get divorced. We just learned how to get along.”

“Getting along” is both underrated and overrated. As I discovered the hard way, it’s not something that just happens to a couple — it takes constant thought, effort, and reevaluation. But, as I’ve also discovered, it’s not something that’s out of reach, even for couples whose relationship seems positively toxic, as ours did.

These days, not only do Leah and I get along, but I can honestly say that we have the best shalom bayis of anyone I know. We really are an ideal couple — not because we don’t have issues (we still do) but because we’ve learned to work through our issues so effectively that those very issues bring us closer together and help us achieve greater understanding, empathy, and respect. We’ve learned to flow with each other, to work around our respective shortcomings, and to focus on the good in each other and in our relationship. As Rav Shultzer so wisely noted, building a good marriage is a process. It takes years and years to develop the ability to live in consistent harmony and reach a place of deep mutual love and admiration.

Leah still isn’t a great housekeeper, but I’ve come to realize that having a happy home is more important than having a neat house. Over the years, she has learned to enjoy throwing things away, and I’ve learned to tolerate the mess better.

Leah gratefully defers to me on financial matters and other important issues and pulls her weight in running the house and earning an income to help support the family. When she spends money in ways that I consider wasteful, I say nothing. The money is from Hashem, so I talk to Him about it, not to my wife.

We never fight anymore. When Leah feels the need to express her frustration to me about something I do, which is still extremely often — at least once a day on average — I just keep quiet and listen, after which I’ll simply acknowledge what she has said. If I need to do something different going forward, I’ll briefly state the change I plan to make, and that’s it. I know that her anger has very little to do with me, and it doesn’t scare me anymore.

Today, I understand exactly why Leah gained new respect for me when I told her I wanted to divorce. All along, she was waiting for me to take the lead, to assert my masculinity, to show that I am someone to be reckoned with. And when I declared, “I’m done with this marriage,” she heard that confidence in my voice.

I had passed her fitness test.

And I’m going to continue passing that test no matter what she throws at me.

To have your story retold by C. Saphir, e-mail a brief synopsis to lifelines@mishpacha.com or call +1.718.686.9339 extension 87204 and leave a message. Details will be changed to assure confidentiality.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 799)

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