What to Do When Things Start Going Wrong/ Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka

Posted on July 25, 2010

0


In the process of reflecting on where and how things have gone wrong, it is also useful to look at when things started to go wrong. Was the marriage always tenuous, or were there times when everything seemed to be going quite smoothly? If the marriage was always shaky, then one should go backwards to the time prior to the marriage. Was everything smooth before, during the engagement period or prior to that, or was this entire relationship one that was forced from the beginning, and should never have been finalized?

Obviously, if this is the case, it will be much more difficult to put things back together. For after all, it is very difficult to put back together what was never really together. Still, this does not necessarily preclude the possibility of putting the marriage on track. The fact that it never was good does not mean that it will never be good. With maximal effort, and with each one of the couple doing the utmost to correct what has gone wrong, such mid-course correction is still achievable.

The couple owes it to each other, because of the investment in time and emotional energy each has placed in the other, to give the marriage a fair chance of working out. Not doing so would be a breach of fundamental Judaic ethics, the ethics that emanate from the obligation we have to love our spouse as our own self, and to do for the marital partner what we would want to do for ourselves, namely to assure togetherness and meaningful love. If after all the effort this cannot be achieved, then there is a process for termination. But that termination process should be entered into only after all serious effort to right all that went wrong has been exhausted.

Exciting or Stable

In looking backwards at the marriage, the other scenario is that the marriage was exciting and thriving at one point in time, but things have not been the same for a while. Here some significant factors need to be taken into account. Realistically, it is impossible to maintain the excitement of the first week, month, and year of marriage. Over the long haul, marriage stabilizes from excitement to a more permanent and meaningful plateau of respect, love that is founded on respect, and devotion. These may not be exciting words, and they may not even bring excitement to the marriage. But a successful marriage is not one that is always exciting; it is one that is caring, giving, and understanding. It is solid, reliable, and secure.

Excitement is a desirable high, but it is a high that is best achieved coming from a plateau rather than coming from a valley. A marriage which oscillates between the valley of despair and the periodic excitement of ecstatic pleasure is a marriage which is in trouble. Eventually the peak pleasure as the saving grace of the marriage will lose its luster, even as it becomes almost a harbinger of the despair that usually follows.

If the problem in the marriage is one that is related to the failure to maintain the relatively high level of excitement, then this may not be a serious impediment to the relationship. It more likely reflects a need to adjust one’s mind-set to the reality of what married life is all about.

When Did It Start

However, it is possible for marriage to take a serious downturn, from once having been a very good marriage, to now being a marriage in trouble. It is in this type of situation that each one of the couple is well advised to reflect backwards, to try to pinpoint as precisely as possible exactly when the marriage started to flounder. It could be a specific episode, an event, or even a non-event that triggered this downturn. Very often it is possible that one can pinpoint the moment of downturn in time, without being able to accurately describe the cause for the downturn. For this, one invariably needs the help of one’s partner, if not an outside intervener.

The downturn could come after a failed pregnancy, after childbirth, following a traumatic event within the family, such as a child being sick, or a parent passing away. It could involve the feeling of one spouse that the other spouse was not sensitive enough to feelings. Or it could be something as trivial as forgetting an anniversary or birthday. What this may trigger is hard to predict, but quite often it changes a positive-flow relationship into a negative-flow relationship.

In a positive flow, everything moves forward smoothly. Everyone is centered and focused on the marital union in an affirmative, optimistic way. When the marriage gets into a negative-flow situation, then negativity feeds on itself. Even a neutral behavior is looked upon with dark glasses. Each of the spouses, or at least the offended spouse, is more critical of the other, and the relationship begins to fall apart.

Take Feelings Seriously

Pinpointing when it went wrong, why it went wrong, and how it went wrong, is therefore crucial to the rebuilding process. Admittedly, one can rebuild by forgetting what happened in the past; letting bygones be bygones and starting again. That can work, but it always invites the danger that whatever precipitated the original crisis might recur. It is better to try to find the cause of the problem, in order to avoid its repetition.

Since a marriage that thrives is based on the shared feelings of the couple and the sensitivity of each of the spouses towards the other, it is unwise and counterproductive to make value judgments about those feelings. A husband, in a typical situation, may feel that his wife’s sensitivity about not saying nice things to her when she was going through a miscarriage is a trivial matter; that he really cared but that he did not think he needed to show it so overtly.

In the matter of feelings, especially feelings between husband and wife, the key to marital thriving is to know precisely what one’s spouse needs, and to provide that need. It may be trivial to the offending party, but it is certainly not trivial to the offended party. This is the crucial concern.

Communal Stake

Although it is best for mature adults to be able to work out their problems on their own, and to address their difficulties with objectivity and seriousness, it is obvious that often the problem may have become too big for the couple to handle on their own. When this occurs, it is time for the couple to swallow their pride, to realize it is a problem for which they need some form of outside help.

It is wrong to be cavalier about the situation, to say if it takes outside help to save the marriage, then maybe it is not worth saving. Although divorce has become more prevalent, this does not make it more desirable. Stable marriages, solid marriages, marriages based on a firm commitment to see things through until and unless living together is impossible, remain the basis for a vibrant community. The marriage is bigger than the couple involved in the marriage. Although they are the main players, it is the community itself which is at stake. This must be a primary concern and focus as the couple approaches the crisis in their relationship.

To illustrate this point about community, the seven days after marriage require an intense closeness between husband and wife, in which neither one can waive that obligation of closeness towards the other. They must be with each other for the entire time.

This is based on the assumption that even though it may not matter to them, the necessity of setting the marriage on a firm footing is so vital to the community interest that neither bride nor groom has the right to waive what is not merely a personal right; it is also a communal concern. That which is totally and solely in one’s personal domain one can forego and forgive. But once it becomes bigger than personal and private, the rules change.

Since it is the community that is also of concern in the marital crisis, the couple is urged to do whatever they can, even seeking outside help, to set the marriage back on its proper course.

Seeking Help

Who should be the outside intervener for the troubled couple? It could be any one of a number of types. It could be a Rabbi whom the couple trusts; one who knows the couple, or who was even involved in their marrying. It could be a Rabbi whom the couple do not know at all, but who has a well-earned reputation for helping couples who are in difficulty. It could be a marriage counselor, or a psychologist with special expertise in marital problems.

When choosing within the realm of professionals, it is important to select someone with a bias, namely a bias towards marriage. It would be wrong to seek out someone who does not have a commitment to seriously exploring whatever can be done to save the marriage. For marital counseling, seeking out a counselor who is not committed to helping the marriage to whatever extent possible is the equivalent of seeking out a medical doctor who is not committed to saving life.

Making Help Work

The entry through the therapeutic door, as humbling as it may be, is well worth it, if it is the remedial step that is necessary to save the marriage and make it thrive. Aside from this endeavor being much less traumatic than divorce, it also offers the possibility that one may regain a relationship and avoid loneliness.

Once having made the commitment to therapy, each one of the couple must do so with the uncompromising intention to give one’s maximum effort to the process, and to be as cooperative, as open to suggestion and to change as possible, in order to effect some positive momentum.

Going into this endeavor with the attitude that I am only doing it to satisfy myself that I made the effort, or going into it with the attitude that it is the other one who has to do the changing and I am only there to facilitate that, is almost a guarantee that the exercise will fail. Each one of the couple must go in ready to do the changing and the adjusting, rather than demanding it of the other. Only then will the real possibility for improvement be a likely prospect.

Talking To Others

During the time that the marriage is going through its transitional phase of confronting difficulties, it is useful to be open to other activities that can help. Aside from the possibilities that are opened up via therapy, much can be gained by speaking to friends who have gone through this same trauma, those who either have had difficulties and overcome them, or had difficulties and failed to overcome them. Not every couple that has gone through divorce is happy in retrospect with that fact. More and more one hears of couples who lament the fact that the marriage ended up in divorce, who complain that they received bad advice from people who really had no stake in the marriage; advice which drove a wedge between the spouses, rather than creating the prospects for any reconciliation.

It is important to avoid the lawyer trap that sometimes creates artificial distance and coldness between husband and wife. One should also avoid getting into a me-first type of therapy, wherein individual happiness is so supreme that any form of struggle toward adjustment is deemed inappropriate, and saving of the marriage unnecessary.

Projecting the Future

Speaking with people who have been through it all can help. It is also beneficial to explore quite seriously the consequences of the decision to divorce, before it is made. These consequences include the emotional and purely practical domains. Although it is quite difficult to project how one will feel after separation, one can at least try to project what life will be like coming home to an empty apartment, or depending on custodial arrangements; what it would be like to be a single parent.

Too often a couple is so ready to divorce because of present frustrations that they do not care about the consequences that await them. They feel, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, that no matter what, the new situation will be better than the present predicament. But this is not always the case. Sober projection of what awaits the separating spouses, individually and collectively, is of vital necessity before jumping towards divorce.

The Financial Crunch

There are many problems associated with divorce, not the least of which is the reality that with divorce comes a financial crunch. For those couples who are independently wealthy and for whom financial matters are of no concern, the issue is not as crucial. However, for any one in the middle class or below, divorce is potentially devastating financially.

If two can live cheaper than one, then one lives much more expensively than two. Additionally, for the supporting spouse, who now must live singly, there is also an obligation to provide support for the other spouse.

It is usually the husband who must supply this support. The wife who is dependent on this support is certainly in a disadvantaged position. The husband who must supply this support, aside from an extra rent and other personal living expenses, will also be hard-pressed to maintain the living standard that had been the previous status quo. It becomes readily apparent that divorce is not a panacea on a financial level, and very often it is not even a panacea on the emotional level. It is therefore absolutely essential, before rushing to divorce, to know exactly what that decision entails and what it implies for the future.

Impact on Children

Needless to say, the impact of divorce on children is also of vital concern. It is unclear whether divorce is better or worse for the children. Much depends on how bad is the marital relationship. Certainly if the marriage is characterized by physical or verbal abuse, physical or verbal violence, this can be devastating for the child. Unfortunately, when the marriage is so characterized, the likelihood is that there will be much continuing verbal abuse following the separation.

In such an immature relationship, the child will often become an emotional football, who will be bandied about by each one of the spouses in order to gain some form of advantage. But where such immature behavior exists during the marriage, it is not likely to change much afterwards. Arguably then, the divorce does not actually improve the welfare of the child in a significant way, but it does sometimes improve the emotional welfare of the victimized spouse.

Additionally, when the marriage is of a reasonably manageable but not thriving nature, at least overtly, the jury is still out as to whether staying in such a marriage actually disadvantages the child. There are some who argue quite vociferously that intact marriages, even though not of the most glorious type, are preferable to the most noble of divorces.

On balance, it is clear that divorce is not a panacea. It therefore behooves both individuals within the relationship to do their utmost to see if the marriage can be placed back on the proper course.

Shifting Focus

It is entirely possible that after having done everything one can to save the marriage, it still does not work. This is usually the case if just one of the couple is willing to cooperate in the effort. Usually, if both are willing to give their best to the effort, the chances of that effort succeeding are much greater. But when the effort is half-hearted, or when it is whole-hearted with only one of the couple, but less than half-hearted with the other, the chances of any intervention saving the marriage are quite remote.

When this happens, when the divorce becomes unavoidable because of the non-cooperation or the non-caring of one or both of the spouses, one has reached the point of no return, and the concerns switch from saving the marriage, toward saving the future.

Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka of Ottowa, Canada is a rabbi, author, and lecturer. He has written “Jewish Divorce Ethics”, a comprehensive guide on Jewish divorce.

Advertisements