Don't Cause Pain, Give Pleasure, Part 1

May 9, 2009

22 min read


The ultimate five-word formula for a successful marriage.

An excerpt from "Marriage," by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, Mesorah Publications.

Marriage can be either the source of life's greatest joys or the root of much misery, even tragedy. There is a formula that can be stated in five words that is the key to a joyous marriage. "Don't cause pain, give pleasure." In the original Hebrew verse (Psalms 34:15), this is a four-word formula, "Surmei'ra, va'asei tov" -- "Keep away from evil, and do good." With both words and deeds be careful not to cause your spouse needless pain, and do as much as you can to give your spouse pleasure.



Most of the pain husbands and wives cause each other is not because either of them is mean or vicious. Rather, they want something from their spouse and feel frustrated or upset by not getting it. Husbands and wives need to accept the fact that no one in this world gets everything he or she wishes for. At the same time, both you and your spouse benefit by your becoming proficient at asking for what you want in a way that will result in your spouse feeling good about meeting your needs.

Since we humans don't have telepathy, of course we have to ask for what we want.

Therefore, be willing to ask for what you want in a way that your spouse will find pleasant. Some husbands and wives resent the idea of having to ask for what they want. "I shouldn't have to ask for what I want," they say. "He/she should know on his/her own." Where is the source of this life principle? Since we humans don't have telepathy, of course we have to ask for what we want. And if you find yourself in a situation in which you feel that it is quite obvious that you shouldn't have to ask, actually having to ask is the Divine test of your character traits. It is a test that will enable you to further develop your level of patience and sensitivity.

Avoid giving orders when you ask your spouse to something for you. It is much more preferable to say something like, "Could you please..."; "I am sorry to trouble you, but could I please ask you to..."; "Would you mind if..."; "Please say not if it's too difficult for you. Would you be able to..."; or "I have a problem. Perhaps you could help me..."

When you need undivided attention, ask for it. Don't just be upset that you aren't getting it. Some people might feel hesitant about asking, as if this is demanding too much. Others might feel bad that they need to ask, but it is important to speak up when something bothers you. Failure to do so might build up negative feelings of resentment and frustration and lead to a blow-up that could have been avoided. Express yourself clearly and directly without blaming. For example, if your spouse speaks to you in a way that increases the pressure you experience, you might say, " I work better when I'm not under pressure." In general, make your requests in a simple and straightforward manner. If you have a complaint, be specific and offer a solution.

Most people don't associate negotiations with marriage, but rather with two countries dealing with each other about important issues. Actually, negotiation is a tool we use in many areas of our lives. For example, we are willing to work many hours, doing things that may not interest us, in exchange for the money we earn. The art of making win-win negotiations is highly important in marriage. Couples that don't know how to negotiate will are likely to argue and quarrel in a way that causes both parties pain. If either the husband or wife has a stronger personality and gets his or her way without taking the other's feelings into consideration, resentment will keep building, causing depression or anger, as well as strife and suffering.

Similarly, when you want your spouse to do something for you, that your spouse isn't that interested in doing, think, "What can I do for my spouse so that in return my spouse will be willing to do this for me?" If you make a request and your spouse initially responds with "No," you don't necessarily have to take this as a final position. In many instances a "no" is really a "not yet." If you calmly explain why this is important to you, the other person might change his or her mind. Ask yourself, "How can I negotiate to get a ‘yes'?" At the same time, be prepared to accept a "no." In the long run, your acceptance of a "no" can lead to an ultimate "yes." The person who thinks, "I'm going to get what I want whether my spouse likes it or not," will be creating a lot of trouble for both of them.

When you try to motivate or influence your spouse to do something for you personally, how you ask will make a world of difference. There are ways to make that person happy to comply with your requests, and there are ways to motivate and influence that are highly painful. Take, for example, the practice of yelling at someone until he or she takes action. What are you really doing? You are making noise in a way that is highly distressful. The person being yelled at might then choose to do what you asked rather than suffer from your yelling. Does this work? You may get immediate results, but in the long term the pain you cause creates negative energy in your home, and can lead to the disintegration of a marriage. Even if the marriage lasts, it will be missing love and respect. This will be a short-term tactical victory at the cost of a long-term strategic loss.

For example, fixing things can be a source of contention when the party who is the designated fixer procrastinates or is so busy that things that need to be taken care of don't get done without repeated requests. (The first and most important rule is to ask in a way that makes the person want to take action and consequently feels good about it. Follow this rule the first time you ask for something. Follow it the second time and every other time as well.) If you need to repeat yourself more times than you appreciate, you might want to ask, "I realize that what I'm asking of you might be difficult to fit into your schedule or that you find the task unpleasant. I would greatly appreciate it being taken care of. What would make it easier for you to do it?"

Sometimes, no matter how often you ask for something, negotiate, and try to motivate and influence, you won't get your spouse to agree. Anger and yelling may be effective, but if you end up getting what you want by causing pain, you lose out more than you would by not getting what you originally wanted. Part of not causing pain is the acceptance that even if you don't get your way entirely, you might still get part of what you wanted. If you do, appreciate the agreement you did get, and work on yourself to gain greater mastery over your own emotional states.


The Torah (Vayikra 25:17) prohibits all forms of causing pain with words. The Mishnah and Talmud (Bave Metzia 58b) elaborate on the prohibition against ona'as devarim, and more details are cited in the Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 228. The Talmud (ibid. 59a) states that a man must be especially careful not to cause his wife pain with words, since women tend to be more sensitive than men. Nevertheless, the ona'as devarim of either the husband or the wife can cause much anger, resentment and quarrels. Because husbands and wives know each other so well, one can easily find the other's weak points.

In my book, The Power of Words, I have elaborated on this Torah prohibition. To summarize: It is forbidden to say anything that will needlessly cause pain to another person. The speaker mustn't say, "You shouldn't be so sensitive." If the listener will experience pain, the speaker is forbidden to say it.

Some people who cause pain with their words tell their victim, "It's not what I said that caused you pain; it's your perception. Just change your perception and you will be free from pain."

It is true that one's perception is a key element, but the Torah prohibition is clear. When you speak to someone who will feel hurt by what you said, you are responsible for the pain your words caused. It's like throwing a rock at someone's head and then saying, "If you would have ducked, the rock wouldn't have hit you." The person didn't duck, the rock did hurt him, and you are guilty of causing pain.

So too, with your words. The fact that this person might have worked on mastering the ability to be impervious to all insults doesn't allow you to throw verbal rocks that hurt.

It is forbidden for a husband or wife to speak in a way that would be considered: mocking, belittling, scoffing, derisive, insulting, or a put-down. Sarcasm is often pure ona'as devarim. Jokes at your spouse's expense that cause distress are a cruel way to get pleasure. Reminding a husband or wife of past wrongs is considered ona'as devarim.

If your spouse failed to listen to something that you suggested and then ended up suffering, it will cause distress if you say, "I told you so." This is just ego satisfaction at the expense of your spouse's pain. It's more preferable to say, "I'm sorry that you suffered."

Rushing your spouse by saying, "Come on already. What's taking you so long?" in a loud tone of voice so everyone can hear is highly likely to cause pain. When we are late and are being delayed further, we feel anxiety. The challenge is how to access a more relaxed state and remind your spouse to hurry in a way that will not be distressing. You might find it more helpful to say, "You're worth waiting for. Nevertheless, I would appreciate it if you could hurry."

If your spouse claims that your words caused him or her pain, don't argue that you think they really didn't. Apologize.

Think about any patterns of speech of yours that cause distress to your husband or wife. Be resolved to eliminate these patterns in the future.


"Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Mishlei 18:21). This definitely applies to the life of your marriage. An article for a newspaper or a letter to someone you consider very important requires choosing your words carefully. You might even ask others for suggestions on how to edit what you wrote. It is equally crucial to watch what you say when you speak to your husband or wife.

Your words to your spouse can create feelings of joy, love, closeness, gratitude, and maybe even radiant bliss. Your words to your spouse can console, comfort, inspire, motivate, elevate. But other words can create feelings of pain, distress, and anger.

When you choose the right words, you can say things that would create a quarrel had you said them differently. Every statement you make can be phrased in many ways. Choose positive ways to word things.

Do everything you can not to embarrass your spouse or put him or her on the spot.

Marriage is a great opportunity to learn tact. Tact is when you say your position in a way that is sensitive to the feelings of the person to whom you are talking. Speaking without tact can be a violation of the Torah prohibition against ona'as devarim. Some examples:

  • "That's ridiculous." Compare this with: "I see some difficulties with that."
  • "That's totally stupid." Compare this with: "Let's look at this in another way."
  • "How could anyone in their right mind think that?" Compare this with: "I think that another position has its merits."
  • "You are totally wrong." Compare this with: "This seems to me to be the right way."

If your spouse didn't understand you, it would be tactful to say, "I must not have expressed myself clearly. Let me explain what I mean."

Do everything you can not to embarrass your spouse or put him or her on the spot. There is no need to point out every single error and mistake. If a mistake is likely to be repeated or needs to be corrected, it is important to point it out, but even then do it with finesse. In many situations, the mistake is a one-time error and there is absolutely no need to point it out. If there is a healthy relationship between husband and wife and both have high self-esteem, this is not an issue. But there are many marriages in which pointing out mistakes is the primary focus of communication, and this causes much distress.

Some people claim, "I can't control what I say and how I say it," but the control depends on their motivation. Many people actually believe this about themselves. But the very same people can usually control what they say and how they say it if someone they respect knocks on the door. And most people can do this even if the person at the door is a total stranger whom them will never see again.

* * *

I interviewed a retired American Rabbi who settled in Jerusalem, not far from most of his married children and grandchildren. I asked him about the first thought that comes to mind when he thinks about an important principle for marriage.

"Don't say everything that comes to your mind," he said.

In contrast, someone who got divorced responded to my question about personal qualities or patterns that led to divorce, saying, "I believe strongly in the importance of saying everything I feel. If I don't like something, I consider it dishonest not to express my thoughts frankly and bluntly. We would have had a good marriage except for the fact that my wife was so weak. She couldn't take hearing the truth. She kept telling me to keep my critical remarks to myself. But she's wrong. I was hoping that she would become stronger, but she quit the marriage instead. She's a coward and afraid to face herself."

This anti-Torah attitude towards speech is many people's downfall. Most people are not as extreme as this fellow. But unless one is careful with what one says and how he/she says it, his or her marriage won't be harmonious.


"The Torah ideal is to speak to others in a manner that makes it a pleasurable experience. Your tone of voice should be calm and pleasant when you speak to anyone. Do not speak in anger or raise your voice." (Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, Lev Eliyahu, vol. 1, p. 66).

The tone of voice you use to express something will have an effect on the reaction of the listener. There are tones of voice that are enjoyable to listen to, just like beautiful music. And there are tones of voice that remind one of scraping chalk on a blackboard. Each tone of voice gives off a different energy and conveys a specific message. An angry tone of voice or one that is soft and gentle give very different messages. Everyone sounds totally different in their best tones than when they say things in their worst tones. Your tone of voice reflects your feelings and emotions. Every change in mood will be reflected in your tone of voice. Even if someone is speaking a language you don't understand, you can often comprehend what is being conveyed by listening to the tone of voice with which the words are spoken.

Frustration, irritation, anger, and disappointment can all be detected in the tone of voice. Some people are more sensitive to this and some less sensitive, but almost everyone will be affected. The same message that would be difficult for the listener to listen to if said in the wrong tone of voice, might be acceptable if the wording and tone of voice reflect compassion and respect.

Learn to apologize without sounding too self-effacing; disagree without sounding as if you are condemning, attacking, or blaming; be reasonable without sounding boring or robot-like.

When calling your spouse from a different room, be careful not to sound disrespectful when you raise your tone of voice. If you ever yell, or speak angrily to your spouse to stop him or her from saying or doing something, ask yourself why you do it.

Some husbands and wives begin their requests for help in an angry tone of voice. For example, a husband might say, "What's the matter with you?! You didn't sew my shirt that I left on the sewing machine." Or a wife may say in an angry tone of voice, "Can't you take the plates off the table to help out around here?!"

Three almost simultaneous reactions occur in this type of situation. First, both notice that their spouse didn't do something to help them. Then they say to themselves, "He/she should have known on his/her own to do this. It's not right of him/her to have failed to help me." Then both express their angry feelings via their tone of voice and in the kinds of words they select. This entire process happens with lightning speed.

Awareness of this pattern will enable you to make your requests for help in a friendly, cheerful tone of voice, or at least in a relatively calm one. When your tone of voice conveys cheerfulness, respect, love, or sensitivity, the message you give is more likely to be received with a similar feeling.

If someone has a business and wants to keep his customers, speaking pleasantly is a necessity. Failure to do so will cause him to lose customers. When customers enjoy the way someone who is running a store or business speaks to them, they are likely to increase the monetary profits of that person. This is even more important in a marriage. With a business, if a customer doesn't like the way you speak to him, you will just lose out financially. In a marriage, however, the loss caused by speaking in ways that cause distress is much worse.


There is a general question that you should ask yourself regularly: "What should I stop saying or doing that is causing my spouse distress?" Each person will need to decide on his or her own how often to ask this question. But as you are reading this now, try to think of a few things. If you can't think of anything yourself, you can ask the person to whom you are married.

This can also serve as a treasured gift to your spouse. You can write a gift certificate stating, "The bearer of this certificate can ask me to stop saying or doing one item." Some couples might enjoy bartering, "I will stop saying or doing an item that bothers you, in exchange for a similar action from you."


Since each person is different, we all have habits that the person we are married to finds annoying or upsetting. There are habits that might bother one person but not another. It is very possible that the people you grew up with in your home were not bothered by a habit you have, but your husband or wife finds it extremely irritating. It is almost impossible for a person to suddenly eliminate lifelong habits, but if a habit of yours causes distress, make it a priority to overcome it.

Here it is important to mention that if you want your spouse to stop a habit, mention it politely and tactfully. You will probably have to repeat your request a number of times. Many people are unconscious of their habits. View your efforts to motivate your spouse to stop these habits as your personal effort to build up your level of patience. Gentle reminders that are repeated often will eventually change the habit. Anger and aggressive approaches can create more harm than the habit you are trying to eliminate.


There is a strong human tendency to want to get even when someone wrongs us. If someone refuses to lend us money or any other article, we tend to want to refuse that person in return. If someone causes us pain, we are likely to want that person to suffer in some way. But the Torah (Vayikra 19:18) explicitly prohibits us from taking revenge and bearing a grudge.

What is the pattern of "getting even"? "You spoke to me in a way that I didn't like, so I'll speak to you in a way that you don't like." "You didn't do what I asked you to do, so I won't do what you ask me to do." "You caused me distress, so I'll do things that distress you."

While the wording that is used when taking revenge is "getting even," we really become lowered by letting our hurtful feelings lead us to act in an anti-Torah manner. You become elevated when you transcend personal slights and hurts and act with kindness and compassion towards someone who did not act that way towards you. This applies even to strangers; all the more so it applies to the person to whom we are married. When someone tries to get even, he or she is creating a negative loop that will boomerang and cause more suffering.

The ultimate concept that will enable us to refrain from getting even is the idea expressed by the Sefer Hachinuch (241): "Realize that everything that occurs to us is Hashem's will. If someone causes you pain or anguish, it is God's decree. Awareness of this fact will prevent you from taking revenge."

"If you cut your left hand while slicing meat, would your left hand take revenge on your right hand for cutting it?"

We should also realize that all matters concerning this world are so trivial and inconsequential that it is simply not worthwhile to take revenge for them (Rambam, Hilchos Dei'os 7:9).

Keep in mind the metaphor of the Talmud: "If you cut your left hand while slicing meat, would your left hand take revenge on your right hand for cutting it? For this reason we should not take revenge on others, since we are all one." All the more so, this applies to your spouse, with whom you have an even greater oneness. Let the pleasure of acting in an elevated manner override the potential pleasure of getting even. (Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4)


Just as we have an obligation to ask forgiveness of any person we have hurt, damaged, or caused any pain to, so too we have an obligation to ask our spouse for forgiveness if we have caused him or her any suffering.

"When a person you wronged sees that you sincerely regret having hurt him and that you will not repeat your error, he will forgive you. When your regret is sincere, you will find the proper words to say to him. Some people, however, seem to ask forgiveness but are not sincere and their words are deceitful. Such a way of asking for forgiveness will not be successful" (Vilna Gaon, Mishlei 10:32).

If you ask forgiveness in a tone of voice and manner that does not sound sincere, it's as if you are saying explicitly, "I'm not sorry that I caused you pain." The person being asked for forgiveness might still forgive you, but if the pain and suffering you caused were severe, it is understandable that your spouse will not be open to forgive you unless it is clear that you sincerely regret what you have said or done.

When we are sincerely approached by someone and are asked to forgive him or her, we are required to do. At times this can be routine. For example, before Yom Kippur, husbands and wives will ask each other for forgiveness and both are happy to forgive the other for any minor irritants. But at times, forgiving can be extremely difficult. One party might have hurt the other so deeply or so frequently that the feelings of resentment are too strong in the present to forgive. It can be a heroic act on the part of the forgiver to forgive. Since the Almighty works measure for measure when it comes to forgiveness, let the knowledge that you will be forgiven for the wrongs that you did serve as a motivating factor to make it easier for you to forgive.

Coming Soon: Part 2: Give Pleasure

Rerprinted with permission from Artscroll.

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