If My Spouse Would Only Change
BY RABBI MOSHE BERLINER, MSW
What does a newly-married couple experience as they begin to build their marriage? When things go well, they are filled with a sense of pleasure, well-being, and accomplishment. But what happens when things don’t go smoothly? Usually, each partner tries to deal with the difficulty in the same way they have successfully dealt with similar situations in the past, assuming these solutions will work equally well now. Often they do, and the couple moves ahead, continuing to build their marriage. But if both spouses try what has worked for them in the past and things don’t improve, the relationship begins to falter. Each spouse views the problem differently, and each has a different approach to solving it. There is, though, one perspective they usually share. Both are clear that their partner is to blame for the problem.
“I realize I’m not perfect,” a young wife said, voicing a common refrain. “I know I have faults. But it’s really not that hard to get along with me. This is the way I’ve acted for the past twenty-three years before I married. And if you look around, you’ll see that I’m okay with just about everyone. I’ve got plenty of friends. My husband isn’t bad either. But there’s one thing he does that…”
And, of course, it is that “one thing” that causes all the problems. “If he would just change that one thing,” she says, “our relationship would be fine.”
She sounds convincing. She appears reasonable, and her description of herself and how she acts makes sense. Her description of her husband’s behavior is also reasonable. It seems to make sense that if he would just straighten out and stop doing those things she says he’s doing or start doing those things she says he should do, the relationship would greatly improve and the problems would disappear.
It sounds convincing… until her husband shares how he sees the situation. He starts off identically. “I’m basically okay,” he says sincerely. “Not perfect, but reasonable. If she would only do ___, or stop doing ___, the relationship would be great.”
Since each individual and each marriage is unique, there are many variations to this interaction. However, the paradigm of “if he or she would just change then everything would be fine,” is the way many couples face their distress.
When they seek help, they have a clear request. Since they define the problem as well as the solution in different ways, they want a judge to validate their view of the situation. They are convinced that the judge’s expert opinion will convince their spouse. Once the judge affirms that their position is correct, their spouse will change, and the relationship will flourish. They understand that it will be hard for their spouse to hear that he or she is wrong. They are open to the possibility that it will take time for their spouse to change those awful habits. But when their spouse hears the judge, i.e. the therapist, say they are wrong, they’ll be convinced, he’ll change, and all will be well.
Unfortunately, this approach rarely helps. Since both partners are convinced that the other is responsible for their difficulties and that it is their spouse who needs to change, anyone assigning fault will be relegated to the category of someone who “just doesn’t get it.” His judgment and certainly any subsequent suggestions he may make are simply wrong.
The Torah approach
There is another way to understand how to build a marriage – an approach taught at the very beginning of the Torah.
After his creation, Adam’s first act is to name all the animals. Naming was a process that assigned meaning and significance, because each name expressed the essence of the newly created being. The extraordinary benefit of giving a creature a name is that Adam, and by extension all mankind, can think abstractly about it. When we mention the name, we can consider what the name represents without actually being in the creature’s presence. We are not bound to deal exclusively with the physical phenomenon that our senses bring to our attention. Man’s ability to use his intellect – to think abstractly, to ponder, to judge – defines man as a unique being.
Adam’s second act is to fail. He’s given one commandment: to refrain from eating fruit from the tree of knowledge. The snake convinced Eve to eat the fruit. She, seeking partnership in this act, gave the fruit to her husband to eat. One commandment, one failure.
The ensuing story is remarkable. G-d calls to Adam saying, “Where are you,” metaphorically asking, “What have you done?” G-d’s question is an invitation to a dialogue, to a process of understanding. But Adam does not respond to G-d’s question. Instead, he points to his wife, and in what seems to be a built-in primordial human response, blames her. He tells G-d, “My wife is responsible. Had she not done what she did, I would never have fallen.”
The Midrash points out that Adam adds an additional accusation. “You, G-d, are also responsible for my failure. Had You not created her from my rib and given her to me, I wouldn’t have eaten the fruit” (Sifrei Devarim 1:10). Seeking to escape responsibility for what he has done, Adam blames not himself, but both his wife and G-d for his actions. The urge to avoid culpability, to ascribe blame to someone else, is embedded in the spirit of man. When there is marital discord, this urge invariably finds expression.
Turning to Eve, G-d asks how she understands what she has done. Like Adam, she attempts to escape responsibility by saying, “The snake enticed me and I ate.” The persona is different; the response is the same. Eve blames the snake for her actions. She doesn’t take responsibility for what she did.
G-d’s response to both Adam and Eve is unequivocal: Each of you – and by extension, every human being – is responsible for your own actions. Taking full responsibility for our own actions is the first lesson the Torah teaches, and it forms the basis of a healthy marriage.
Responsibility in marriage
How is this idea central to marriage? A life of religious significance is a purposeful life. It is based on striving to fulfill a larger vision of living life as an expression of G-d’s will in this world. One central way to express G-d’s will is to build strong marriages that serve as the foundation of healthy families.
When a couple marries, they immediately become aware of the many differences that exist between them. Many couples find that these differences make it difficult to build their marriage. And, like Adam and Eve, people often react to their difficulties by blaming their spouse. But that response, as we saw with Adam and Eve, is never helpful.
What should we learn from their experience?
The most basic lesson is that each partner has a responsibility to do what they can to fulfill their part in the marriage. The husband’s obligation is to be the best husband he can be; the wife’s responsibility is to be the best wife she can be.
Often when a couple hears these ideas, one or both will object. “It’s all well and good to talk about these ideas,” a husband will say, “but she literally drives me crazy. How can you expect me to act the way I should when she treats me the way she does?” Maybe his wife does act in ways that make it difficult for him to respond as a loving husband. But it is crucial that he differentiate between his responsibility, which doesn’t change, and how he actually behaves. The responsibility to be a good husband is not conditional on his wife’s actions. She may behave in a way that makes it very hard for him to fulfill his obligations. And all of us, since the time of creation, occasionally fail. But we must never lose the clarity that each spouse bears responsibility for their own actions, including the obligation to interact with their spouse as a responsible, loving husband or wife.
When a soul returns to Heaven, it is required to explain its actions during its lifetime on earth. In noting these questions, the Talmud doesn’t mention any that relate specifically to marriage, but it seems to me that there might very well be a question like this: “How did you act as a husband or a wife?”
“Well,” the soul might say, “you know who my wife was. So while it’s true that I might not have acted as well as I should have, I’m sure you understand it was because she…”
If he says this, I imagine the response might be: “You seem to have misunderstood. You thought your task was to be a good husband to someone else? Your task was to be as good a spouse as you could to your specific partner.”
● Adapted from Rabbi Moshe Berliner, To Build and to Bond: Living Well in a Jewish Marriage (Mizrachi Press, 2019).
Rabbi Moshe Berliner, MSW has worked as a marriage counselor in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He is the founder and director of Machon Netivot for Family Therapy, and the author of the book To Build and to Bond: Living Well in a Jewish Marriage.