The Call to Meaning Part II | Chaim Moshe Steinmetz, LISW

In last week’s article, we discussed the human need for a life filled with meaning and how a distorted perception of רוחנית blocks our ability to live meaningfully, and the resulting mental health challenges (see here) This week, I want to go a bit deeper into another area in which the lack of meaning and its void manifests.

The current rates of divorce in the US are staggering. Among the marriages that survive, many are plagued with rancor and discontent. Although our rates of divorce are much lower than the general population, we should not be fooled into thinking that we are exempt. The divorce rates in the Frum community have been climbing, both for young couples as well as older couples divorcing after marrying off their children. There are also many that suffer in silence. Many couples that look fine are not doing fine at all. As a therapist, the one universal struggle that almost all of my clients have in common is marriage. After speaking to many Rabbanim and colleagues, it’s clear that this is the norm. It behooves us all to understand the causes for this and to begin finding a solution.

Every marriage is unique and so are its challenges. There is no one problem nor one solution that will completely address this issue. However, there are often common themes that are dominant in many struggling marriages. At the foundation of many of these themes is a single principle. There is a quote from Viktor Frankl that helps elucidate this.

“Don’t aim at success- the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue… as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself” (Viktor Frankl)

While there is much to delve into here, one concept is key here. Everyone wants to be happy. We spend our lives pursuing happiness. Many people get married thinking that marriage will bring them happiness. When it doesn’t, they pursue other avenues that they believe will bring them happiness such as money, honor, etc.

The mistake is in thinking that happiness is the goal. The goal is “ones personal dedication to a course greater than oneself”. Paradoxically, we can never be happy if we try to. The only way to be happy is as a side effect of something else. That something else is a dedication to something other than yourself.

To any איד, this is not a חידוש at all. We are not in this world for pleasure. We are here to be עובדי השם. The חידוש here is that this a fact in psychological theory as well.

The majority (not all!) of marital issues can be condensed into one problem. Each side has anger, resentments, hurts, grief, pain and wounds that were inflicted by their spouse. I want to be clear; the pain and suffering is real and is valid. However, in many cases there is a distorted belief about what marriage can offer and that distortion causes untold suffering.

Most young couples get married with dreams about the beautiful home they will build together and the blissful happiness that will ensue. Happiness is the goal. That dream is predicated on the fantasy that each spouse will emotionally satisfy the other 100%. I say this is a fantasy for one reason. How well can any of us satisfy our own emotional needs 100%? If we can’t figure it out for ourselves, how can we do it for someone else?

While the pain in many marriages is real, it’s based on the expectation that the spouse will be able to fill many of the others needs and thereby make the other happy. That approach is doomed to failure. A more realistic approach is for each spouse to assume responsibility for their own emotional needs and wounds. While this is hard work, it’s easier than expecting someone else to fill those needs. When there’s no expectation that the spouse will be able to meet the others emotional needs 100% , all the good traits and qualities of each spouse can be seen and appreciated by the other because there’s no unmet expectation to obscure it.

For this model of marriage to work, a new perspective is needed. We need to enter marriage with the perspective that it’s purpose is our growth, as Viktor Frankl puts it, “personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.” That’s the truth. There is no other way. The difference between the word איש and אשה is the letters י and ה, the שם השם. Without the שם השם the letters spell אש, a fire. That’s what’s happening in the world around us, without growth as the purpose of marriage, it becomes a fire that destroys the family. Marriage will bring out our best but also our worst parts, our wounds, insecurities, hurts and resentments. That’s what השם intended it to do! When confronted with ourselves we can either point the finger at our spouse in a bid to avoid feeling and owning our pain, or, we can rise to the challenge and dedicate ourselves to healing our own wounds, and becoming the best version of ourselves. When our growth is the goal we are free to then be the most loving spouse we can be, because that’s the point of marriage.

This model of marriage is a lifetime of work. There’s up and downs, good days and bad days. It’s hard to love yourself enough to truly love someone else. But even on the hard days, there’s an “unintended side effect:” Happiness. That happiness comes from our “personal dedication to a course greater than oneself”.


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