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The Soul of Marriage

July 21, 2010 | by Emuna Braverman

What can I do today to give my spouse pleasure?

There is frequently a lot of time spent preparing for weddings – choosing the appropriate invitation, sampling menus, visiting halls, listening to bands…and finding “the” dress. Everything has to be just right – the flowers at the height necessary for the perfectly posed picture. Less time is spent preparing for marriage which we hope will last a lot longer than that fantasy day.

In fact it’s even possible that externally beautiful weddings may impede the possibility of internally beautiful marriages. As a bride (or groom) prepares for the wedding she is told by everyone she meets that this is her special day. We try to ensure that she will have the guests, photographer, cake (and dress!) that she wants. If there are bridesmaids (or groomsmen) they completely accede to her wishes, wearing expensive dresses that they won’t be caught dead in on any other occasion. The message is that the world revolves around her (or him – this is an equal opportunity piece).

But if there is one key to a successful marriage, it is the complete opposite perspective. It is to make the world revolve around your spouse. It is to put his or her needs first, not equal.

This requires a big adjustment for everyone, especially after the heady self-centeredness of the engagement period.

And yet without this paradigm change, your marriage can not possibly work. This is a challenge for couples of all ages. It may be even harder the later you marry because habits become ingrained and the more years you have spent attending to your own needs first, the harder it is to switch gears.

Let’s assume all the good will in the world. Let’s assume you recognize the necessity of putting your mate’s needs ahead of your own. Let’s even assume that is something you want to do. How do we go about making and internalizing this sea change in perspective?

As with all serious attempts at change, thoughts are not enough. We need action. If we keep behaving “as if,” the new thoughts and focus will eventually take hold.

Begin by asking. Neither men nor women are mind readers. You can’t know or intuit what your spouse needs without being told. “How can I help you today?” “How can I make your day easier?” “Is there some errand I could take off your plate?” “What would you like to do for dinner?” “Would you like to go out tonight; where would you enjoy?”

Get in the habit of asking these questions and responding accordingly. Maybe you’ll have to see a movie you wouldn’t have chosen. Maybe you’ll have to watch a sport you’re not a fan of. Maybe you’ll need to eat a dinner that doesn’t consist or your favorite dishes or stop off for milk and orange juice after a long tiring day. That’s how relationships are built. That’s how we deepen our caring and connection. That’s how we subjugate our egos.

When you give, you care.

There are two profound insights available here. One of the fundamentals of Jewish thought is that “when you give, you care” (as opposed to when you get!) This is at its most obvious in the parent-child relationship but plays out in almost every interaction we have. It takes a very small amount of giving to become invested (from a smile, to holding open the door, to having someone over for a meal) and the psychological import of this is far-reaching. So what better laboratory for experimenting with this concept than marriage? The more you do for your spouse (and NOT the more he or she does for you!), the more you’ll care.

Putting the needs of another first, while downplaying our own desires, also teaches us about our ideal relationship with the Almighty. We need to subjugate our will to His to have a true relationship with God. Marriage teaches us to do this where we can easily experience the benefits.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. We don’t go from selfish to selfless with the signing of the ketubah or the breaking of the glass. Even a really good band won’t get us there. Or the best videographer…

But if every morning when we wake up we ask ourselves “What can I do today to give my wife or husband pleasure?” and then actually do it, not only will we have successful marriages, we will become deeper human beings as well. Whatever color flowers you had at your chupah!


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