We have now entered the month of Nissan and the festival of Pesach (Passover) is quickly approaching. Jewish homes across the globe are now undergoing a full spring cleaning, purging all signs of leaven in preparation for our upcoming festival. In just a few weeks we will sit around our dining room tables and read the Haggadah, the story of Exodus, when the Jewish people miraculously left Egypt and wandered in the desert for forty years before reaching Israel, our homeland. One of the biggest miracles in the Haggadah is the kriyas yam suf- the splitting of the sea of reeds (performed by Moshe with his wooden staff). Ironically, the Gemara Sanhedrin references this event when speaking of the challenge of making a successful shidduch (love match). The Gemara Sanhedrin states that the act of making a successful shidduch is as difficult as kriyas yam suf. Being an informal shadchan, who tries to match singles on a weekly basis, I can definitely relate to this verse.
But what about the challenge that couples face of making their relationship work once they are already married? Where do we find a discussion about that? In the past week, I have been informed of three friends from seminary getting divorced; all of them with two or three kids. In fact, it seems divorce is rampant these days, affecting over fifty-percent of marriages in North America. I just finished a course in my Master’s program in couples counseling where we learned about the many different reasons why couples get divorced, as well as the different therapies available to help couples from going too far down the wrong road before it is too late. The sad part is, many therapists will tell you that so many of the couples that show up at their practice could have saved their marriages had they made the decision to go to therapy earlier, but by the time they got around to actually going, too much damage had been done, leaving them beyond a point of no return.
Relationship expert, John Gottman, is most famous for his ability to predict divorce in couples. He can tell within the first five minutes of observing a married couple in conversation whether they will still be together in five years, with a 91% accuracy rate. According to Gottman, anger is not one of the causes of divorce. In fact, many couples who argue on a regular basis also report that they have a very satisfying and fulfilling marriage, based on honesty.
In the Haggadah, Moshe comes before Pharoah numerous times and begs him to let the Jewish people go. Each time Pharoah refuses, G-d creates a tortuous plague which he inflicts up the Egyptians. Blood, locusts, lice……. Finally, after ten horrific plagues, Pharoah finally gives in and releases the Jewish people from slavery. To some, a bad marriage can feel like a bad Egypt and eventually there are too many issues “plaguing” the marriage forcing one partner to escape.
Gottman states that divorce is caused by what he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” If a marriage is “plagued” by one the following four attributes, it is in great danger of one of its members heading towards “Exodus.”
Criticism– Complaining about one’s spouse is normal however, it depends upon the nature of the complaint. If the complaints become those of a very personal nature, attacking the person himself instead of the actions he does, turns into criticism.
Example of a complaint: “Samuel, I really find it difficult to pick up your things which you leave lying around the house every day. It is stressful for me taking care of the kids and running the household, perhaps you can help me out a little by being more aware of your belongings and putting them away.”
Example of criticism: “Samuel, every time you come home, you leave your stuff lying around in every room of the house. You are such a messy, careless and immature person with terrible habits. Why don’t you get some help for your problem? If you really cared about me, you wouldn’t make my life so difficult.”
Contempt– Criticism can lead to contemptuous comments directed at one’s partner. Some examples of contempt are when a person uses “sarcasm, name-calling, cynicism, sneering, mockery, eyerolling, and hostile humor.” Contempt is the worst of the four horsemen because it communicates disgust to the person it is directed toward. Contemptuous behavior makes it nearly impossible for a couple to solve a problem in their marriage because there is a message being sent that one partner is disgusted with the other.
Defensiveness- All of us are defensive at times because no one likes to be criticized. However, typically, when one partner uses contempt, the other partner becomes defensive. Becoming defensive is a very common reaction to being treated with contempt or criticism. Many people become defensive when they are being criticized, but the problem is that it never helps solve the issue at hand. “Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, the problem isn’t me, it’s you.” As a result, the problem is not resolved and the conflict escalates further.
Stonewalling- Stonewalling is a way for one member of a couple to avoid the feeling of being flooded that usually occurs when a conflict escalates. The stonewaller tends to ignore his partner and does not give any signs of responsiveness, which makes his spouse even angrier. This behavior tends to enter marriages later, once couples have had a significant period of negative interaction. I think we have all experienced this with friends or family and it can be one of the most frustrating actions. Right?
Now, I must clarify a few points because I don’t want any of you to get the wrong idea here. First of all, some marriages do have one of more of the four horsemen of the apocalypse but are not on their way to divorce. These are, however, major signs to be aware of if a marriage is troubled. Secondly, not every marriage can or should be saved. Although it is tragic that the divorce rate has jumped so high and that many marriages can be saved but aren’t, some marriages must end in divorce for the sake of the sanity and well-being of one or both members of the couple and/or their children. Thirdly, if a marriage is troubled and, indeed plagued by one or more of the four horsemen, this does not mean that divorce is inevitable. Any individual and any couple has the ability to make the effort to work on themselves in order to improve their relationship, with their spouse as well as with the rest of the world. There are also many different kinds of therapy available out there specifically designed to help couples break these old and toxic habits and redirect themselves towards better and more effective methods of communication. With some hard work and maybe a handful of professional help, marriages that feel like Egyptian slavery can become marriages that feel like liberating teamwork.
So, I have given you one Pesach analogy based on marriage and relationships, but there are so many other ways that each of us experience bondage in our everyday lives. Please share with me some of yours and have you discovered your path toward Exodus?