Here’s the bad news: marriage is in a desperate state. People are marrying later. Half of those who marry will wind up divorced. And of the 50% of that lucky group that remain married, what percent do you suppose are enjoying sparkling relationships that fulfill their dreams of intimacy, trust and happiness? Hmmm.
Here’s the good news. We can change the dynamic. But we have to first change our thinking. Without a clear goal of what a healthy marriage is, we have little chance attaining one. It’s a bit like trying to use a GPS without setting a destination.
In our book Not A Partnership: Why We Keep Getting Marriage Wrong & How We Can Get It Right, we devote nearly the first half to defining and redefining the paradigms that lay at the heart of a healthy marriage (Part 2 lays out the practical steps to put them into place using a four-part structure). The wisdom draws from the most ancient Kabbalistic and Talmudic sources and aligns beautifully with research driven insights from the world of Positive Psychology. Let’s summarize them briefly here…
Paradigm #1: Let’s define what a marriage is. The legal/technical definition doesn’t help much. Indeed the question stands before many singles: if I don’t feel bound by any particular religious law, then why exactly should I marry this person as opposed to, say, just having some sort of a physical relationship with the person, or a close emotional involvement, or living together, or occasionally getting together when it feels right?
Jewish mystical sources define marriage as a unique coming together of two people, each of whom has committed to do everything possible that they can to give that other person the life that they want and deserve. Two individuals, who often could not be more different to each other, can come together with a shared set of ideals and commitment to build something together that transcends the two of them. The unity they achieve can, through thick and thin, offer a lifetime of intimacy, comfort, support, friendship and well-being.
This flies in the face of the way a lot of people think about marriage. The more common thought process goes something like thing: at last, I have found my soulmate – now I have someone who can give to me, take care of me, understand and love me. The Torah view of marriage flips that model on its head. Rather than focusing on what I can get (strange coincidence that the Hebrew word for divorce sounds the same!), my marriage will largely be defined by what I can give.
Paradigm #2: Marriages don’t just happen; they have to be built. Personal growth unfolds in two phases. In phase one, we get an explosive and inspiring experience for free. No sooner that it’s given, it’s taken away. What’s the point of that?! Answer: to give us a vision of the goal and to get us involved. But from that point on we have to work to make it real and make it our own. We have to earn that growth.
We see this model everywhere: childhood versus adulthood; first tablets of the 10 commandments followed by the second. Perhaps nowhere is it more salient than in the world of relationships. We know how love starts: inspiration and passion! Just like in the movies: boy meets girl, love at first sight; then conflict, and boy loses girl. Both are lost, searching, regretting. Somehow, in the final scene, they reunite, having overcome whatever odds or challenges came their way – they collapse into each other’s arms as the music swells and the curtain drops… The End!
That’s in Hollywood. In real life, we begin Act 2, Scene 1 as the curtain comes up again the next day. Somehow neither seems quite as perfect by the harsh light of day as they did by moonlight and in the absence of celestial music. Oh no! Another dud! Life has fooled me again! I’ll have to search once again, and again, for Mr. (or Mrs.) Right…
That’s exactly where a choice needs to be made. We were given a glimpse of what a relationship could look like for free. That’s called romance. It’s enough to get us involved. But to build a marriage, we’ll now have to commit to each other and nurture real love through a lifetime of giving and sharing. To be sure, the goal is nothing less than to reclaim that elevated state of love and passion, but this time to make it real and make it our own. Moral of the story: we may fall – passively – into love, but marriages are built.
Paradigm #3: You love where you give. We are used to thinking receiving somebody’s kindness will cause me to love the one who gives to me. If only I had someone to believe in me, take care of me, support me, cook for me, do favors for me, I’d be a loving and happy spouse filled with gratitude toward my giving husband or wife. And now ask yourself the following questions:
Why do parents love their kids more than kids love their parents?
Why is my kid attached more to the simple little Lego truck that she built than to a super-fancy and expensive Lego battleship that we gave her that was already assembled?
Why do I love my plant, or my cat, or the house that I built?
Why do childless couples often struggle financially and emotionally for years to have or adopt children?
More odd still: Why, after all that she has done for me, do I still not really feel love for my wife?
The answer is because we have the algorithm backwards. In reality, our Sages teach us that we love where we give. The more I give, the more of myself I invest into the other, the more I expand myself and find myself there. In that process, my (healthy!) love of self expands to include the other and creates real oneness. It is the complete opposite of taking, demanding, expecting… So if you really want to love your spouse, start giving and giving.
These three paradigms lie at the heart of every robust, inspiring, happy and intimate marriage. Without them, it is nearly impossible to succeed in marriage; with them, it is all but impossible to fail.