Imagine you have a wealthy uncle and on your sixteenth birthday he wishes you a happy birthday and hands you the keys to a brand-new car. There’s just one problem; you’ve never driven before. And to be honest, you never really paid much attention to how to drive. But you think, Listen, it’s not a big deal; everybody drives, it can’t be that complicated. You get behind the wheel and start the car. After crashing around for a while, you learn to steer a bit and you manage to get onto the road. All day long you’re crashing into things because no one taught you how to brake, how to slow down, or really, how to drive. Eventually you conclude that either this car is a lemon, or this whole thing called driving is just not what it’s made out to be.
That’s how most people get married. They get behind the wheel of this car called marriage and everything’s good—for a while. But then you hit some rough spots. Before you know it, things aren’t going so smoothly. No one can figure out what went wrong. They each try whatever comes to mind, but it doesn’t help. So they conclude that either their spouse isn’t who they believed them to be, or this whole thing called marriage isn’t so great after all. But the problem is that they were never taught the basic skills necessary for a successful marriage.
You could be highly intelligent, organized, and a very nice person, but if you don’t understand the mechanics of marriage, you’re going to get into trouble. There will be hurt feelings, bruised egos, and unmet needs. Because while everyone knows that a marriage requires work, not everyone knows what that means.
Pretty soon you and your spouse are in a toxic cycle as you each keep repeating your mistakes, triggering each other over and over again. Eventually, things get so bad that you go for help. But often, the help is anything but helpful. To understand why, let’s go back to our car parable.
Getting unhelpful advice
Imagine that you do finally learn how to drive your car properly. As you’re driving one day, you hear a strange noise coming from the engine. You mention it to your mother, and she says, “Listen, I’ve been driving for thirty-five years. I’ll take it for a drive, and I’ll tell you right away what it needs.”
Hopefully, you’ll very politely change the subject, because the fact that your mother knows how to drive, and maybe even drives well, doesn’t mean that she understands how a car functions. It certainly doesn’t mean that she knows how to repair it when it’s not working properly.
This is another error people make about marriage. Since it’s all straightforward—you just get married and it goes—if you ever have any trouble, all you need to do is ask someone who’s been married for a bit and they can give you all the guidance you need.
But just because someone is married doesn’t mean they know how marriage works—and certainly not what to do when a marriage stops working. To responsibly advise a couple struggling in their relationship, one requires many things. First, a clear understanding of the roles of husband and wife for our generation. Then, great wisdom to discern personality types as they play out against each other. And finally, they need the ability to home in on the core issue and not get caught up in the emotional machinations of the individual parties.
These skills take years of experience to develop, but not many people have that kind of experience. There are also lots of marriage books on the market, but most books don’t offer much wisdom (and some are downright damaging). There are many conflicting approaches about what a marriage really needs, and that itself makes building a strong marriage more complicated than it ever was before.
Where does that leave us?
Guide to life
The Torah encompasses every aspect of life and guides us in every single thing that we do. It directs us in all our dealings, and it also guides our most pivotal relationship: marriage. Hashem gave us a path to create a harmonious marriage and live together in peace and happiness.
Walking that path demands growth. Life is about growth, and growth takes a lot of effort, time, and focus. Marriage demands its own unique work, and that work isn’t always easy or intuitive.
What we need is a roadmap: a clear guide to find the path, and direction on what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. With that in hand, a couple can, with Hashem’s help, create a vibrant, beautiful marriage.
In subsequent article, I hope to present that roadmap to you, explain how to use the tools that bond, and help you avoid the 10 Really Dumb Mistakes That Very Smart Couples Make.
Rabbi Bentzion Shafier is the founder of TheShmuz.com, a life-changing mussar shiur that is available on TorahAnytime, The Shmuz Podcast and The Shmuz App. His newest book release, The Ten Really Dumb Mistakes That Very Smart Couples Make, is available on TheShmuz.com and your local Jewish bookstore.