Imagine if the Torah commanded you to spend the next consecutive year straight shaking a Lulav and Esrog, the four species, for the majority of the day throughout your waking hours. This would be a very tiring task!
There are different types of mitzvos. Some apply constantly, like love and fear of God, some daily, like wearing tefillin and davening, and some come periodically, like eating matzah on Pesach or redeeming a first born son when applicable (see Derech Hashem IV:1:2). But there are none that just start one day of your adult life and then last for one year straight… well… except one!
If you are reading this essay, you probably know that we are discussing the topic of marriage and that is precisely where this unique mitzvah is found. It is called “shana reishonah, the first year of marriage.” There is a Biblical commandment for a man to spend a year getting to know his wife and learning how to make her happy! The couple thereby develops a deep and loving friendship and bond. Imagine having to shake a Lulav and Esrog for one year straight! Let us try to understand this unique phenomena. But first…
I would like to sincerely thank everyone who took the time to read my first article on Dating Sensitivity. Just the sheer number of readers brought me much joy to see how many people so passionately desire to improve the dating situation. Your feedback to me expressed this even more powerfully.
I never intended to write a second article, but because of all of the emails, questions and comments I received revolving around my first paper, I felt that this second and third part could prove to be beneficial.
The majority of the feedback was positive and many people made me aware of other factors and perspectives. I thus would like to bring up one more theme and incorporate answers to some of the questions you all raised. To answer individual questions such as “how should I date” and “what should I do look for” is too detailed of a task and often cannot be given in general terms. Instead, I wish to offer one clear point that I believe cuts to the heart of the issue and can help immeasurably in many aspects of dating and marriage when properly applied.
My theme is quite simple, but I wish to illustrate it well for those who want to understand and apply it. My thesis is as follows. The most important key to marriage is the mutual dedication to work together to grow and succeed. Everything else is just details! Part of working together entails understanding the other person and respecting their feelings. It means realizing that our outlooks, opinions and modes of operation may differ from one another. We then strive to find the right balance in how to effectively make decisions together. I believe that this effort begins during dating and develops continually throughout married life. Working together with shared respect and understanding is the key to true happiness and achievement. Having an advisor who is wise, experienced and sensitive to others will help us to achieve this ever-important task upon which our entire happiness depends.
Rabbi Shaya Ostrov, LCSW, dedicates much time to this idea in his book “The Inner Circle – Seven Gates to Marriage”. His second and third principle for successful dating are:
- Affirmation: I strive to give over the message to you that I’m ready to seriously explore the possibility of a relationship with you; I take your life seriously and would like to get to know you properly.
- Inner History: One should not judge the other’s actions at first glance. Rather one should seek to understand the other’s noble motives, by asking, listening and learning to trust.
Dr. John Gottman is a renowned expert on marital success. His hands-on experience in the field has proved him to be able, within five minutes of watching a couple’s interaction, to predict with 91% accuracy whether a couple will succeed together. He watches for certain traits that exhibit success and four negative behaviors that connote dysfunction and deep-rooted problems (criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stone-walling). His greatness though is not to predict failure, but rather to show which traits need to be developed in order to have a happy marriage. His books and workshops offer advice on how to do just this.
He states a profound idea which I feel is worthy of contemplation. He says that he could divide the entire process of dating and marriage into three stages and express one key element that determines success at each time.
- Dating: While dating a strong factor that will determine whether the two people will subsequently marry is the good time that they share together. How they enjoy each other’s company and long to be together.
- Early Years: During the early years of marriage, a strong factor for their success is how well they resolve disagreements stemming from their diverse outlooks and approaches. This is called conflict-resolution. This is the most dangerous time. Many will either give up or not seek guidance on how to do this. However, the successful couples will put in all their effort to learn to appreciate each other’s strengths and thereby maximize the decision making ability. This will transform them into a loving and strong couple.
- Later Years: During the older years of marriage, the factor for success is how they enjoy sharing good times together. It is no longer a conflict related issue. They have gotten through the rocky conflict stage and have made most of life’s big decisions already. The factor which now determines their happiness is ironically the exact same one that brought them together in the first place! Will they suffer from “empty nest syndrome” (the condition where after their children have all grown up and moved out, they have nothing left in common and find that they do not care for each other) or will they enjoy spending quality time together.
These are the three stages. While there is room to argue or redefine certain points found here, I wish to focus on the truth and relevance of what he is stating. I believe that what emerges from his assessment is that there are two major points to be considered when choosing a life-partner.
- The first is to ask yourself: can this person be my best friend? Can we laugh and have a good time together?
- The second and more important question is to determine: do I trust that we can work together through the disagreements and trials of marriage? Can we jointly navigate life and all of its challenges? The majority of marriage is about making decisions and working out a proper course together. This is the most important consideration.
I believe that people dating should be made more acutely aware of both these factors. Unfortunately, we have all seen couples who got so caught up in their intellectual connection through life goals, that they failed to see how their personalities were incompatible for having “fun” together. Their marriage was a master business deal, lacking in comradeship! We have also seen, even more tragically and all too common, couples that have gotten so enamored and blinded by the fun time that they were having together, that they never took the time to think about whether things would still be so “fun” if they did not see eye to eye and had to work out life decisions together! They never properly examined whether they indeed shared common goals, values and mutual respect and the desire and willingness to work together. This is terribly sad, as mutual respect and the dedication to work together are the foundation for succeed in the future.
Consider another point that John Gottman brings up in his bestselling “Seven Principals For Making Marriage Work”. He stresses the importance of “letting your partner influence you”. Simple advice, but his research shows that many people don’t understand the magnitude of this mutual respect indicator. So much so that he states that of the many who did not practice this, he found that 81% had a failed marriage.
He also stresses a key factor in marital success which I found quite fascinating. He saw that people who get along productively were all experts in sending repair attempts! This means that sometimes two people disagree, that is normal and expected. Two intelligent people can have two varied opinions. The problem is when the disagreement escalates into an argument and the argument into a fight and the fight into a bitter shouting contest. This sad scenario is the result of people getting carried away. In each person’s heart they have no desire to fight or suffer this sadness. However, because of the typical dynamics of high-tension conversations, one shout is returned with a louder one and viciousness and resentment are unleashed. How is this solved? By having a reality-check. A repair attempt is where one spouse catches the spiral that has just begun and does an act or gesture to remind themselves (and their spouse) that there is love and respect here and that s/he is attempting to calm the raging argument. This could done be cracking a joke so they both laugh together, giving a smile or a kiss, something that brings both to pause and rethink what they are doing. It breaks the tension and prevents a fight from becoming a destructive forest fire. “Please, honey, let us work this out as two mature adults.” Repair attempts and how they save marriages once again prove the vitality of establishing mutual respect and the desire to work with one another.
John Gottman states in “The Marriage Clinic” that his goal is to find empirically based answers to fix a marriage, and not just utilize unproven therapeutic techniques. Considering that marital issues are the largest problem which people seek counseling for, this is a relevant objective. As stated, research has proven that working on mutual respect and understanding are the keys to happy marriages.
John Gottman also records in “What Predicts Divorce?” the responses and feelings of upset spouses. Unhappy women often complain that their husbands are too withdrawn, and not willing to connect with her. Unhappy men often complain that their wives are too conflict–engaging. She is thereby tripping off his ego with her lack of respect. I believe that these responses can be well understood by considering the different emotional needs that a man and women possess. She strives for a deep and vibrant relationship, she wants to be adored and appreciated; he strives for authority and honor, he wants to feel like “he’s the man”. He is withdrawn because he doesn’t understand how to talk to her and offer reassurance. She seems engaging because she doesn’t know how to respect his space. He is acting with her as he wants for himself, but she is a woman and has different needs. She is making the same mistake. If each would learn to understand and respect the other, they would be able to work out their upset feelings.
What emerges clearly is the powerful idea that a strong and content marriage takes effort and patience. When both sides passionately pursue the shared objective to respect and understand the other, then they will be able to live the magic of marriage together. This is the general food for thought which I offer you. The rest of dating and marriage are all details that revolve around this goal.
We can now understand why the Torah strives for us to experience a peaceful and powerful beginning to our marriage. The Torah says that we should love and understand our spouse. Chazal (Yevamos 63a) tell us to respect one’s wife more than one respects himself! This starts from the moment that one gets married and really even before that!
The theory of weight homeostasis dictates that although the body’s weight fluctuates, it hovers at a basic set weight, unless a strong diet and exercise regiment alters it. So too, marriages are set and fluctuate back to a certain level. Where that “comfort level” lies is determined by the couple. This is the importance of “Shana Reishonah”, to begin marriage properly and to get off to a solid and positive start!
One may say that it is too late as they are already married for years and regret missing out on Shanah Reishonah. A great Torah marriage therapist responds that if one feels that they did not have a productive and proper first year, there is a solution, start it now for the next year, and see where it takes you! In fact, it comes as no surprise that the Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatan (285) states that the Biblical obligation to make happy one’s wife is not limited to the first year alone, but is applies always, throughout married life!
When we become sensitive to other’s needs, and dedicate ourselves to the task of loving and respecting our spouse, of being their best friend, the gates of Heaven open up and pour upon us only blessings and happiness. This is true bliss in this world. Mutual love and understanding. A beautiful ideal which we all seek to achieve!