by Hanna Perlberger
In this post, Hanna Perlberger, author of A Year of Sacred Moments: The Soul Seeker’s Guide to Inspired Living, blends Torah, ancient Jewish wisdom, positive psychology principles, and the insight of contemporary thought leaders.
“A strong marriage requires loving your spouse even when in those moments when they are not lovable; it means believing in them even when they struggle to believe in themselves.”
With one question, my powerful, competent, and responsible husband can turn into an evasive first-grader. When I just ask my husband if he knows where some missing item might be, his instant, knee-jerk response is always, “I didn’t touch it.”
“I didn’t ask if you touched it,” I respond with icy sarcasm, “I just asked if you knew where it was.” And I think to myself, And, if you would stop automatically assuming I’m accusing you of something, you could do something useful—like try to think where it could be or help me find it. It’s biblical, this proclivity to avoid blame. The defense mechanism goes back to Adam.
And Then This Happened …
I had bungled something as an attorney. A combination of procrastination and overwhelm caused me not to pay attention to something I thought was a minor issue—which turned out to be not so minor, creating a financial loss to a client (which we reimbursed). My husband, a well-known family lawyer, shielded me and took the blame, and was publically censured for a careless act that would cause any first-year associate to get fired.
And the most shameful part of it was that my husband wasn’t mad at me at all. He didn’t yell. He didn’t make me feel incompetent. And while I was sobbing with guilt that I had “ruined his life,” my husband laughed and said, “Don’t you know—you made my life?” But that profession of loving tenderness and unconditional grace somehow made me feel more ashamed than if he had yelled.
And Then This Happened Next …
I noticed a book on top of a pile entitled Sacred Marriage, and I was reminded of the ultimate mindset one should have towards marriage and relationships in general. What my husband was saying, in effect, was that our marriage is sacred and he wouldn’t tarnish it, trample on it, or hurt the relationship on account of something as secular, mundane, and profane as a work-related legal matter. And I cringed thinking of how dismissive I can get over ridiculous minutiae.
When one regards marriage as sacred, a journey of soul mates pledged to each other’s betterment and potential, then shame and blame, harsh criticism and other behaviors that infuse relationships with negativity are intolerable.
The Next-Step Marriage
In his book The All Or Nothing Marriage, Eli Finkel describes the progression of marriage as being driven by utility, function, and necessity to being love-driven—a new “modern” concept of marriage as a means to self-actualization. According to Finkel, this is an almost impossible bar to achieve. How can a spouse make the other feel loved, comfortable, and secure while, at the same time, be the driver of their improvement? How can we finesse being lover and coach, the safe harbor and the push for success? Is it fair, much less realistic, to expect our spouses to be all things?
Actually, this model of marriage isn’t so modern. In fact, it originates with the first couple in recorded history, when God created Eve to be an ezer kenegdo for Adam. When the Old Testament was translated into English, this term ezer kenegdo was mistranslated as a “helpmate,” evoking an eternally submissive Betty Crocker. Granted, the Hebrew term has no direct and easy English equivalent, but in fact, an ezer kenegdo is a “helpmeet,” a “helper in opposition,” a spouse who assists by “being against.” When I first learned that this was my role as a Jewish wife, I completely misunderstood it, thinking I was commanded from on High to discover and fix my husband’s every imperfection. Self-righteously, I justified nagging as a holy mitzvah. An ezer kenegdo, however, is neither a Stepford wife nor a shrew, but a “beautiful enemy.”
In writing about leadership, Tal Ben-Shahar explains that while it is pleasant to be surrounded by those who always say yes to us and confirm and validate our actions, what is truly valuable is to have someone who can say no—albeit with kindness, intellect, and empathy. When critique is presented as an offering and not a demand, and when it comes from the person’s best and highest self, then even criticism can become beautiful.
What Adam Didn’t Understand
Defensiveness, however, is the ego’s method of self-protection, and it blocks us from hearing what the other person is saying. When God asked Adam the famous question, “Where are you?,” for example, Adam’s defensiveness caused him to deflect the existential inquiry and, by blaming Eve, he missed the opportunity to restore his relationship with God.
Accordingly, as Tal notes, an indispensable component of this process is that we must also bring our kindness, intellect, and empathy to the table in understanding criticism; otherwise, our egos will perceive the person (even a loved one or the Almighty) as an enemy. Thus, the process is reciprocal and, ultimately must become mutual. “As we want all our friends spouses and families to grow in all the possible ways we need to become beautiful enemies toward them.”
A beautiful enemy will both challenge and push you to grow, while at the same time love and accept you as you are. And so, yes, we must continuously rise to the occasion and finesse these dual roles—to help our spouses and others actualize themselves, we must also work on ourselves. I call that a win-win. It’s a challenge but so very worth it. It’s what makes marriage sacred, so unbelievably great, and, right from the start of Creation, the way it was meant to be.
Hanna Perlberger, a graduate of CiPP, is an author, attorney, spiritual teacher, and coach. She speaks to people from all walks of life and helps them in their search for greater happiness, meaning. and spiritual engagement. Hanna’s newly released book, “A Year of Sacred Moments: The Soul Seeker’s Guide to Inspired Living,” guides readers through an interactive journey of ancient Jewish wisdom and positive psychology. For more information or to subscribe to her weekly blog, please visit ayearofsacredmoments.com