“A strong marriage requires loving your spouse even when in those moments when they are not lovable; it means believing in them even when they struggle to believe in themselves.” Dave Willis
With one question, my powerful, competent and responsible husband can turn into an evasive first-grader. Often, when I just ask my husband if he knows where some missing item might be, his instant knee-jerk response is always, “I didn’t touch it.” “I didn’t ask if you touched it,” I would respond with icy sarcasm, “I just asked if you knew where it was.” And I would think to myself, and if you would stop automatically assuming I’m accusing you of something, you could do something useful – like try to think where it could be or help me find it. It’s biblical – man’s proclivity to avoid blame. The defense mechanism goes back to Adam, of course; husbands are practically hard-wired for it.
And Then This Happened…
I had bungled something as an attorney. A combination of procrastination and overwhelm caused me not to pay attention to something I thought was a minor issue – which turned out to be not so minor, creating a financial loss to a client – which we reimbursed. My husband, a well-known family lawyer, however, shielded me and took the blame, and was publically censured for a careless act that would cause any first-year associate to get fired.
And the most shameful part of it was that my husband wasn’t mad at me at all. He didn’t yell. He didn’t make me feel incompetent. And while I was sobbing with guilt that I had “ruined his life,” my husband laughed and said, “Don’t you know – you made my life?” But that profession of loving tenderness and unconditional grace somehow made me feel more ashamed than if he had yelled.
And Then This Happened Next…..
I noticed a book on top of a pile entitled, “Sacred Marriage” and I was reminded of the ultimate mindset one should have towards marriage and relationships in general. What my husband was saying, in effect, was that our marriage is sacred and he wouldn’t tarnish it, trample on it or hurt the relationship on account of something as secular, mundane and profane as a work-related legal matter. And I cringed thinking of how dismissive I can get over ridiculous minutia. When one regards marriage as sacred, however, a journey of soul mates pledged to each other’s betterment and potential, then shame and blame, harsh criticism and other behaviors that infuse relationships with negativity are intolerable.
The Next-Step Marriage
In his book, The All Or Nothing Marriage, Eli Finkel describes the progression of marriage as being driven by utility, function, and necessity, to being love-driven, to a new “modern” concept of marriage as a means to self-actualization. According to Finkel, this is almost impossible bar to achieve. How can a spouse make the other feel loved, comfortable and secure while at the same time, be the driver of their improvement? How can we finesse being lover and coach, the safe harbor and the push for success? Is it fair, much less realistic, to expect our spouses to be all things?
Um, Read Your Bible
This model of marriage isn’t so modern. In fact, it originates with the first couple in recorded history, when God created Eve to be an “ezer kenegdo” for Adam. When the Old Testament was translated into English, this term, “ezer kenegdo” was mistranslated as a “helpmate,” evoking an eternally submissive Betty Crocker. Granted, the Hebrew term has no direct and easy English equivalent, but in fact, an “ezer kenegdo” is a “helper in opposition,” a wife who assists by “being against.” When I first learned that this was my true role as a Jewish wife, I completely misunderstood it, thinking I was commanded from on High, to discover and fix my husband’s every imperfection. Self-righteously, I justified nagging as a holy mitzvah. An ezer kenegdo, however, is neither a Stepford wife nor a shrew, but a “beautiful enemy.” Allow me to explain.
In writing about leadership, Tal Ben-Shahar explains that while it is pleasant to be surrounded by those who always say yes to us and confirm and validate our actions, what is truly valuable is to have that rare and special someone who can say “no” – albeit with kindness, intellect and empathy. When critique is presented as an offering and not a demand, and when it comes from the person’s best and highest self, then even criticism can become beautiful.[i]
What Adam Didn’t Understand
Defensiveness, however, is the ego’s method of self-protection and it blocks us from hearing what the other person is saying. When God asked Adam the famous question, “Where are you?” for example, Adam’s defensiveness caused him to deflect the existential inquiry and by blaming Eve, he missed the opportunity to restore his relationship with God.
Accordingly, as Ben-Shahar notes, an indispensable component of this process is that we must also bring our kindness, intellect, and empathy to the table in understanding criticism – otherwise, our egos will perceive the person (even a loved one or the Almighty) as an enemy. Thus, the process is reciprocal and, ultimately must become mutual. “As we want all our friends, spouses and families to grow in all the possible ways we need to become beautiful enemies toward them.”[ii]
A beautiful enemy will both challenge and push you to grow, while at the same time love and accept you as you are. And so yes, we must continuously rise to the occasion and finesse these dual roles; to help our spouses and others actualize themselves, we must also work on ourselves. I call that a win-win. It’s a challenge but so very worth it. It’s what makes marriage sacred, so unbelievably great, and right from the start of Creation, the way it was meant to be.
[i] There is a story in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a), where Rabbi Yochanan mourned the death of Resh Lakish, his brother-in-law/study partner who had consistently argued against his every opinion. When he was paired with a brilliant scholar who supported his every decision, however, Rabbi Yochanan was inconsolable, crying bitterly that he didn’t need Rabbi Elazar to tell him he was right; he needed Resh Lakish to tell him he was wrong. “Bar Lakisha – when I would believe a thing would challenge me with 24 objections, and I would answer him with 24 answers, which led to a fuller understanding of the law.”