Sunday, January 15, 2012

Wanting Shalom Bayis Vs. Needing Shalom Bayis?

I recently overheard a shiur given by Rabbi Zacharia Wallerstein on this past week's parsha. I say overheard, because ASoG was listening to it across the table from me as I was coincidentally reading this post by Rabbi Harry Maryles over on Emes Ve-Emunah which comments on that very shiur. He decries Rabbi Wallerstein's anti-internet plea stemming from a rather crazy internet-email/chat story which sounded as though it occurred in the mid/late 1990's (which I also heard and found a little strange). For more info about that, see Rabbi Maryles' post.

The point I strongly object to was related to Shalom Bayis (somewhere after the 20 minute mark).

Rabbi Wallerstein went through the concept of "wants" versus "needs." One pair, which I thought was appropriate, was "wanting" versus "needing" to be closer to HaShem. Too many people say that they "really, really want" to have a closer relationship with HaShem, but few people say that they "need" a closer connection to HaShem. Instead of "We want Moshiach now," it should be "We need Moshaich now." Point taken - I like the message.

But, Rabbi Wallerstein then said there is a difference between "wanting" Shalom Bayis and "needing" Shalom Bayis. He remarked that if you "want" Shalom Bayis, then you go to a therapist to tell you what to do, to tell you how to make your spouse happy. But if you say that you "need" Shalom Bayis, then you won't go to a therapist, because you will truly know what makes him/her happy and do that.

With all due respect, that's rubbish. Not only is it incorrect, it could be immensely harmful.

No one really knows what they're doing when they married. This is why pre-marital counseling is important, and groups like Shalom Task Force thankfully exist. Everyone needs to prepare in the best way that they can, with whatever time and resources that they can devote or access, to get ready for marriage before the big transition comes under the chuppah.

Having said that, even with reading every book out there, talking to every Rebbi, teacher, counselor, psychologist, married friend you know, and listening to every shiur you can attend or download, does not make you 100% fool-proof in your approach to marriage. Every individual situation is different, and no matter how well you think you know your fiance/e, there will be plenty of things he/she never told you or did in your presence before that will throw you for a loop. It's not inherently bad, and in many cases the conflict can be harmless or easily resolved, but it's all part of the process of coming together as husband and wife.

However, there are sometimes issues that can come up - whether there were something that was withheld from a spouse prior to the wedding, or some condition/situation/difficulty that arose anew while in the freshly married state - a young couple may not have the tools, knowledge, or experience to handle the problem. If this problem is causing unhappiness, and as a good spouse, you want to make sure your husband/wife is happy in life, then you will do everything you can to resolve the conflict.

But that does not mean that if you realize that peacefully working through the issue is a "need" that you won't need a therapist's help to do so.

One of my rabbeim is very, very encouraging, and appropriately so, when it comes to matters of this nature that the couple should see a professional counselor. He will even suggest that seeing a psychologist, who is clinically trained for his/her work, is better than seeing a Rabbi who is not. The professional has been given an education specifically to work with issues that can arise between couples, whereas a Rabbi may have personal experience and experience as a spiritual advisor, but lacks the breadth and depth that a PHD in psychology or master's in counseling provides.

Every couple must develop the a key to success in marriage: good communication. Without being able to talk openly, respectfully, sensitively, and sincerely with one another, you'll never be able to even broach difficult topics and satisfactorily reach a resolution through discussion. Sometimes this can be hard to do, and if you find yourselves talking in circles, above each other's heads, or past one another - then it is time to seek proper guidance.

All married couples need Shalom Bayis. On that point, Rabbi Wallerstein is correct. But to resolutely proclaim that someone who knows they "need" Shalom Bayis instead of "want" Shalom Bayis will have some greater understanding to successfully keep their spouse happy is utterly wrong.

If, as one should, firmly believe that Shalom Bayis is a true necessity, then he or she will have the courage to openly communicate with their spouse, and seek out professional help as needed to assist them in solving their ongoing difficulty. There is nothing embarrassing or shameful about utilizing the resources that are available, and there are plenty of observant, Jewish couples' counselors/psychologists in our world who are more than happy to offer their guidance and perspective.

There are too many young people out there today who have been damaged or otherwise uneducated by their personal experience, seeing what their parents did, or hearing mistaken notions from educators and rabbeim. When these role models let us down, whether intentionally or for lack of ability (and after all, no one is perfect) it's only proper to look for help in the right places.

May we all know, deep inside, that Shalom Bayis is an absolute necessity in married life, whether married or hopefully soon-to-be married, and may we all have the intestinal fortitude to take the right steps to achieve and maintain healthy Shalom Bayis in our relationships and homes.


  1. "All married couples need Shalom Bayis. On that point, Rabbi Wallerstein is correct. But to resolutely proclaim that someone who knows they "need" Shalom Bayis instead of "want" Shalom Bayis will have some greater understanding to successfully keep their spouse happy is utterly wrong."

    While I agree the way the message is told is harmful and scary, I think your understanding is also flawed.

    If someone 'needs' shalom bayit, then they will do all they can to make sure it happens, including the most important part of giving in to whatever the other spouse tells them to do. They won't need a therapist to tell them how to give in, or how to subjugate their will to the will of the spouse and create shalom bayit.

    So he is not wrong, but also not giving a message you like.

  2. Avi K - are you married? I think you missed my point, and Rabbi Wallerstein's message is still flawed.

    In an ideal world, everyone would have learned enough while single, from their perfect parents, who raised them well and provided a flawless model of what it means to be a spouse. In such a case, they will know how to communicate with their husband or wife, and understand when they should compromise and when they should "sacrifice" a desire or need of their in favor of their spouse - as I learned from Dr. Blumenthal at YU in pastoral psychology.

    However, that is not the case in 99% of homes out there. Humans aren't perfect, and we all have things we can say that we learned NOT to do from our parents. Everyone is going to be stunted in some area of their development, and very often they have not been properly educated how to be the ideal spouse.

    Some people have difficulty talking about their feelings, wants and needs. Others have big issues when it comes to deferring to someone else's wishes. This is blatantly obvious from all the complaints out there from both guys and girls regarding the insensitive people they've encountered on dates. Those very same people they refer to, G-d willing, will get married, and unless they have done some serious cheshbon hanefesh or had individual counseling, they're going to bring those communication and ego problems into marriage.

    Those people aren't going to intuitively know what their spouse wants, and they may have mental blocks that won't even allow them to talk about it or even notice when their spouse wants them to notice something.

    Some people have been emotionally abused, whether by parents, friends, boy/girlfriends into having serious communication issues when it comes to personal, private things. Though something their spouse may be doing somehow offends or hurts them, they may be unable to even bring it up for discussion.

    The point of going to a therapist is not for lack of trying, and just going there to be "told what to do." The purpose is to learn from him/her, role play, discuss matters in a safe environment with someone who can be an effective, unbiased, objective intermediary to help the couple feel comfortable talking to one another. This can even apply to very simple things. Some people just have not been given the proper tools to communicate with a spouse. It's not their fault, nor necessarily that of their parents.

    The fact of the matter is, they need further guidance, in a professional fashion, to work on their marriage.

    Doing all that a person can to achieve Shalom Bayis includes therapy, if they cannot successfully resolve the matter on their own. I agree that someone shouldn't go running to a therapist without giving their best shot first - otherwise why would we ever learn anything about marriage beforehand? But, if they run into a road block, professional help is not wrong, or embarrassing, but a helpful source of guidance.


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