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- April '02/Nisan-Iyar 5762

"An important test for the healthiness of your relationship is: when you have differences, can you resolve them fairly to the reasonable satisfaction of both of you? Do you approach each other respectfully - even when you have differences? Do you consistently speak to each other in a gentle and respectful tone? Do you take time to genuinely understand each other's position or feelings? Are you each responsive to what the other says each time? Can you compromise, sacrifice and extend yourselves to please each other and get along? Do you take difficult questions to a rov whose ruling is mutually accepted as final - with no resentment, lingering negative emotions, power struggles or personality clashes? Do you always have some functional, workable solution; some system for resolution and maintaining constant peace? In short, can you effectively communicate?

Some spouses talk "past" or "at" each other, not with each other. It's destructive enough when one partner does it. The second also might communicate and act as if in his/her own world. When both are so self-absorbed, rigid and unresponsive, there is nothing to work with.

The Talmud (Zevochim 30b) discusses a halachic question which a student asked Rebbi (Rabbi Yehuda HaNosi, the compiler of the Mishna; who expressed himself - in the Mishna and in his private life - with very concise language). The way Rebbi answered could have been interpreted two ways, leaving a serious and practical problem in understanding what Rebbi meant in his brief reply. Do we understanding the more lenient or more strict decision on the law? From the words alone we could not clearly or conclusively determine what the law is. This stood to be a major problem for the Talmud. However, the Talmud continues, we understand which of the two possibilities he meant based on whether he expressed himself with anger or with gentleness, because his tone showed what the basis of his answer to the question was. Therefore, by virtue of the fact that Rebbi's tone was gentle, we learn that his words were indeed sufficient to clearly determine the law and that it is lenient.

We see from this profound lesson in the Talmud that tone is meaningful enough, in communication terms, to determine a legal verdict! Never be fooled into thinking that words may be divorced from the tone, emotions, volume, facial expressions and body gestures which come with those words; so that you don't find yourself divorced from the one with whom you erred. There are numerous elements - besides words themselves - that go into a communication. Every element contributes to what is perceived and understood by the one to whom the communication is delivered. All components of how one expresses himself are very impactful and very significant.

The midrash [Koheless Raba] refers to the stage of youth that precedes marriage as the "horse." Rabbi Yechezkiel Levenstein, late mashgiach [spiritual supervisor] of Ponevich Yeshiva in B'nai Brak, said that this shows that a youth only sees what he wants, like the proverbial "horse with blinders." A person entering marriage has to grow past the "horse stage" of only seeing himself and what (s)he wants to see.

Consider this example. A young newliweded kolel husband told his wife to make steak for supper. Without a word to him, she made chopped meat. On her own, she decided they couldn't afford steak. He was infuriated because she disobeyed. She said that he was in kolel, she was working two jobs to support them, she grew up in a poor family in which they could afford chopped meat and they could not afford steak. Since he slept late, she felt he was lazy and unfit for staying in kolel. She felt resentment that he demanded steak and expected her to earn the money to feed his rich taste. She demanded to know what he was going to do to provide a better paying and more realistic livelihood. He said that his rich grandfather would arrange "something." She demanded to know specifically what that meant. He repeated with delusional indifference that his rich grandfather would arrange something for him. An argument followed. She demanded a divorce. He got "one up" on her by abandoning her and making her an agunah.

Before they were married, both of these people would have been certain that they were ready for marriage. The wife, although she had more grounding in matters of financial practicality and responsibility, was not a communicator. She did not discuss with him what she was going to buy or prepare, or why. She just acted on her own as she saw to be right. She challenged, disrespected and provoked him about money in a way that escalated the tension and confrontation. He was "stuck on steak," to the point at which he would "declare war" on her over it, be unrealistic, infantile and in utter denial about anything beyond his self-serving "blinders." It was as if he viewed her as being in his life as a "steak dispenser," not as a wife or person. He had no sense of responsibility, priorities, propriety nor human relations. He never saw that verse of King Solomon's wisdom [Proverbs 15:17], "Better is a meal of a vegetable and love is there than a luxurious beef meal and hate is with it." What he was doing in kolel is beyond me, because he obviously had no connection to Torah. What he was doing in marriage is equally beyond me, because he obviously had no connection to any stage beyond the self-absorbed horse with blinders who can't see left or right of what he wants. They both had what to learn about relating and communicating to another.

That same midrash about the "horse" says that when one becomes ready for marriage, he has transitioned from "horse" to the stage of "carrying burden." By definition, we see from this midrash, PREREQUISITE TO MARRIAGEABILITY IS THE ABILITY TO CARRY RESPONSIBILITY FOR A SPOUSE AND CHILDREN.

Not that the Torah needs substantiation, a scientific study conducted about twenty years ago found that only 7% of communication was achieved through words, 38% through tonality (e.g. voice and emotion) and 55% through body language and gestures (e.g. facial expression, arm motions). To effectively convey a communication, all three components must be integrative, consistent with and supportive of each other. If you say loving words with a nasty, disinterested or impatient tone; or with a threatening or unkind physical movement or expression; you will drown out the words. The meaning that will be conveyed and understood will be most determined by physiology [body motions and physical "signals"], the next measure by tonality, and the least by the words. Effective communication requires positive and unified presentation of all the elements of communication. If your body gestures or facial expression will be negative, speak on the phone, so they won't be seen and harm the communication. Similarly, if your vocal tone or emotion will be negative, write. If your words will be negative, send an impartial and articulate emissary to deliver the message. In marriage, you are generally forced to relate in person. Obviously, your communication abilities must be consistently good. This may require ongoing practice, development and patience with each other.

In my practical counseling work, I have seen many couples who were not able to communicate or relate. Some were not on speaking terms and, even in some cases, were living separately already. By showing them how to communicate, to be more adaptive and considerate, to be responsive to each other and show good faith in their efforts, they were able to come back together, live as a functional couple, have more children and please each other. If a couple has the will and maturity, they can generally remedy their marriage problems. If they have children, it is imperative - a Torah obligation - to do everything humanly possible to keep their marriage alive, peaceful and healthy. Once married, a person loses the right to be selfish in ways that negatively impact his or her spouse. Once a couple has a child (all the moreso if more than one child), they lose the right to be selfish in ways that negatively impact the child - including not running to separation or divorce, Rachmona litzlon.

I tell couples who have trouble relating and/or communicating that I am more interested in the integrity, authenticity and sincerity of their involvement in the counseling process than in the individual mistakes they make with each other. People cannot un-learn years or decades of behaviors, attitudes, habits, emotions, reactions, defenses or thought processes overnight. It is realistic to expect mistakes and backslides along the way, especially towards the beginning of the counseling process. If they are committed to "the process," their mistakes become milder, becoming more "few and far between." They gradually learn the meaning and seriousness of their mistakes, and of their shortcomings or history which cause the mistakes. They get more grip on themselves. Then, when they make a mistake, they feel worse for wronging the other than the victim feels for being wronged. They apologize and do tshuva more rapidly, fully and sincerely. They learn to determine behavior by what is good for the other and workable for the relationship. What counts most is both spouses having the will to go through the process perseveringly until successfully achieving their goals and needs together.