Professional response to the Dodelson Aguna case
As we sat back and thought through what Gital Dodelson shared with the world in her New York Post article about her relationship (4th November 2013), we realized that there is clearly much to learn from it other than making subjective judgments or taking sides. Our purpose here is therefore not to attribute blame or criticize but, instead, to share what we have observed through our experience as professional relationship therapists that can help others understand and learn from this story. So we would like to present a different perspective and offer suggestions and tools to help people make better choices about current or future relationships. We also want to share tips on how to handle difficult relationship situations, as with the correct tools, these situations can sometimes be turned around.
Lessons for the individual interested in getting married:
• Listen to your own voice. Do not take your personal intuition for granted. Listen to your gut instincts and trust them. Our personal intuition is one of our most useful tools and one that we often take for granted. If you are having trouble listening to your own voice, find someone to talk to who will listen to you without judgment and help you to hear your own voice. Do as much as you can to practice listening to your own thoughts, opinions and feelings and validate them. One thing you can do is go on a series of “dates” with yourself (Yes, you read that correctly!) You will feel more confident in the dating process when you first take the time to get to know who you are, what you like or dislike, and what your values are. Enjoy this time hearing and listening to your own voice and getting to know yourself. Getting to know who you are will help you build trust in yourself. And when we trust ourselves, we are able to assert ourselves with more confidence, allowing for others to trust us too. Getting to know yourself and what you want and deserve also builds self-respect which will bring more clarity to you about what your personal boundaries are and what you are and are not willing to compromise on. This will lead you to making better choices about who you date or marry and what kind of relationship you want to have and build.
• Take personal responsibility. You will have the most success in getting into and building a healthy and successful marriage when you learn how to stand on their own as an individual. Relationships are successful when each individual in that relationship takes personal responsibility for their own actions and personal feelings. It is up to each of us as individuals to be aware of and know what our own personal needs are and what support we like and require. Furthermore, it is our individual responsibility to let others know how we feel and to express ourselves to others in a way that we could feel supported and understood. Take the time to learn about and explore your feelings. Get to know what triggers you and why. Explore how you like to be supported and express to others how they can best support you.
• Make sense of your family history. When you are clear about how your relationship with your parents worked and what you observed from your parents interaction with each other, you will be in a much better position to choose a healthy and well balanced relationship style. For those of us who come from challenging relationship backgrounds, where parents were overly strict, made all our decisions for us or who didn’t give us a sense of self control, it is advisable to spend more time reflecting upon what we need to do differently so as not to reenact this behavior pattern. Working with an objective person like a relationship therapist or a dating coach to gain a clearer picture about what worked and what didn’t in your relationship with your parents can help you to understand what fueled these behavior patterns and what each person contributed to the relationship dynamic. The more clear you can be about these patterns the more you will be in a position to choose and enter a relationship from a position of power, rather than from a position of passivity.
Tips and tools for parents of children who are of marriageable age:
• Build your child’s self-esteem and belief in who they are and what they are capable of. Help your children learn how to identify and take responsibility for their feelings. As parents, we often feel that we know what is best and that it is often easier to tell our children what it is that we think they should do instead of giving them the space to figure out who they are and what they want. When we tell our children what to do instead of helping them learn how to solve the problem themselves, we leave them feeling insecure and lacking in self-belief. If we want our children to be successful in their future relationships, we have to create a space where our children are able to hear their own voice and express their true wants and needs without fearing that they will be judged, criticized or invalidated. Allow for your children to express their perspective openly and freely (and, of course, respectfully.) Doing this will also open the lines of communication between you and your child and make you someone your child can trust to come and talk to when things do get challenging.
• Look beyond the externals. If offering advice to your child about the subject or even suggesting someone for your child to date, focus on the values and qualities that person and their family has. See if those qualities and values match your child’s qualities and values. Also, think about the needs of your child. Are they especially sensitive? Are they very affectionate and in need of lots of physical nurturing? Are they very social and in need of balancing their family and their friends? Is your child more of a loner and need to be with someone more independent who can give them their space? Take all of this into consideration when thinking of someone for your son or daughter.
• Model respect and honor. Our actions always speak louder than our words. We can talk all we want about how important it is to respect ourselves or to be respected and when it comes down to it, if we ourselves are not showing respect towards ourselves and to others, everything we say about respect is invalid. If we want to teach our sons and daughters how to have self-respect and how to show respect, we must model it. Take the time to reflect on yourself. Ask yourself how you like to be respected. Ask yourself how you show respect to others, including your spouse and your children. Is there anything you want to change or improve? Let others know how you like to be respected. You can also have a conversation with your family about respect and what it means to you and to each individual in that family.
• Focus on your relationship. As we stated above, the best way to teach is by example. Model good communication and good conflict resolution skills. Through your own relationship, show them healthy ways to express personal wants and needs and solve disagreements respectfully. Also model ways for giving and receiving in relationships. This is a win-win for everybody. By focusing on your own relationship, you are not only creating happiness for yourself and your spouse, you are also teaching valuable relationship skills and tools to your children.
Action the community could take to create more successful marriages from the start and prevent marriage break-down:
• Make pre-marriage education accessible to all. Everyone says that the shidduch crisis and the rising divorce rate are destroying our community. Yet few people are prepared to actually foot the bill to solve these issues. There are many research based pre-marriage education programs that people are unaware of, not availing themselves of, or unable to afford. Perhaps we can learn from Gital and Avraham Meir’s experience and choose to take action to prevent more destructive marriages by making these programs accessible to all. In making these programs “the thing to do” we will reduce the shame associated with working on a relationship and encourage people to put in their all into making their marriages successful, rather than just tolerable. In giving the “trufa lifnei hamachala” (cure before the illness) we will create a society that is health and relationship focused from the outset, rather than one that focuses on violence and abuse prevention after the fact. Instead of preventing bad things from happening, we need to focus on how to create great relationships right from the start.
• Have open and honest conversations about what it really means to be married. Many of us have challenges in our own marriages and relationships. We may ourselves be choosing to remain in unhappy marriages and then subconsciously pass this unhappiness on to our children, who then believe that this is how marriage should be. By having more open conversations about the idea of working on a relationship and dealing the challenges most of us will face at some point in our marriage, more of us will feel compelled and inspired to work on our relationships.
• In order to create more sustainable changes in the marriages of people in our community we suggest the following solutions:
1) Listen more openly to concerns people have about marriage in general.
2) Be aware of available relationship resources.
3) Create better access to relationship focused professionals who are available to all and who could give general information to the public, as well as privately.
4) Educate Chattan (bridegroom) and Kallah (bride) teachers about signs to look out for in people who may be at risk of abuse, and to have more awareness about relationships beyond just intimacy and halacha.
5) Just as taharat hamishpacha (family purity) education has become a mainstay in our community, pre-marriage education should become part and parcel of that education, as well.
6) For Chatan and Kallah teachers to have good referral sources, and more strongly encourage therapy when necessary.
Lessons we can learn specifically from the Dodelson Weiss relationship
• Abuse of power is never excusable. There is never an excuse for making a person an Aguna. This is a red line that in today’s day and age can be prevented if every Rabbi gets behind the halachic prenuptual agreement, and refuses to perform a marriage unless the couple signs it. Emotional abuse and control are never acceptable options in a successful relationship. People need to learn how to identify these behavior patterns and ascertain whether a person is inherently abusive or just someone who has poor control over the way they express themselves from time to time, yet shows a willingness to learn and grow beyond this behavior.
• Every relationship is a dynamic. When one part of the couple behaves in a controlling manner, it usually comes about because their partner may also not know how to speak or behave in an assertive manner. Passivity in one side of a relationship may inspire the other side to become aggressive or controlling. People’s defenses rise up very quickly, especially early on in marriage where people feel exceptionally vulnerable because they are just getting used to the new situation. The vicious cycle gains steam when each side becomes trapped in their own perspective and fear looking at their partner’s perspective for fear of losing themselves. We need to learn how to successfully stand in our own skin so that we can safely see our partner’s perspective. This will enable both parts of the couple to feel safe enough to have a conversation that is not laden with fear and anger.
What can you do if you find that your partner is controlling or overly stubborn?
In the event that someone is married to a person who appears to have control issues – this is not to say they are outright abusive – there are things that either partner can do to turn their relationship around, but only if they learn these tools early on in the process. When we communicate difficult feelings in a safe and controlled manner, we invite our partners to listen to and respect what we have to say. Sadly, too many people have not had their feelings attended to appropriately when they were growing up. When our feelings are not attended to properly, we also do not learn how to express our feelings, wants and needs effectively to others. This may lead to frustration and verbal outbursts that unintentionally hurt our partners, leaving them confused and pushed further away from us.
Here are a few tools for how to more effectively handle difficult relationship situations:
• Listen to the other person’s perspective and show empathy from a position of strength.
• Draw red lines and stick to them in a strong yet gentle manner. For example: If your partner speaks to you in a way in which you feel is disrespectful to you, one thing you can say is: “When you speak to me that way, it makes me feel disrespected.” “I can’t allow someone to speak to me in that tone of voice.” Demonstrate how sharing your feelings with your partner from a position of responsibility, invites them to take responsibility too.
• Recognize what you deserve, what your personal boundaries are and how you deserve to be spoken to and convey this to your partner.
• Speak to your partner in the same manner in which you wish to be spoken to.
• Never make a decision in the heat of the moment. Take the time that you require before making a decision. Think through how much time it will take to make a decision and prioritize.
• Don’t get stuck on facts or superficial arguments. Instead share your real feelings, vulnerabilities and concerns. Get to the heart of the matter for both you and your partner.
• If you are feeling triggered by something your partner said or did, acknowledge that feeling and explore why you might be feeling triggered. We usually jump to blame our partners for how they might have “made us” feel. More often, your being triggered has much more to do with you than what your partner said or did.
• Build a good support system around yourself. Find people you feel safe and comfortable with to share, discuss, and explore your feelings or situation and brainstorm ways in which to best handle that.
• Come to an agreement with your partner in advance about an independent person you can both turn to when you feel that you require outside support and guidance.
To ensure success in your relationship, we suggest relationship education or therapy as the approach you start with, rather than as something you turn to only once you have tried to unsuccessfully work things out on your own. Turning to therapy only after things sour can really de-motivate a couple. The feeling of failure can make you feel like there is no longer something to work on. Getting to know and understand yourself, your personal boundaries, and your needs better, working through past relationship experiences, and learning simple and effective communication tools in advance (either on your own, or with a trusted professional) will create a buffer for you and your partner. This preventive as opposed to reactive approach will drastically reduce the emotional costs of unhappy marriages.
By investing in preventative community relationship education programming, we are investing in a healthier community and putting ourselves on the map to really be the Or le’Goyim (light to the nations) in the way that we were meant to be.
Here are a few resources we highly recommend to help you build healthy and successful relationships:
Harville Hendrix: “Getting the Love you want, Keeping the Love you find.”
Dr. David Olsen: “Prepare Enrich Pre-marriage Education Program”
Harriett Lerner: “The Dance of Connection”
Sue Johnson: “Hold Me Tight”
Dr. William Glasser: “Choice Theory”
Dr. Gary Chapman: “The Five Love Languages”
Susan Campbell: “Saying What’s Real”
About the Authors
Micki Lavin-Pell, MS, MA is a qualified Marriage and Family Therapist and Relationship Coach with 10+ years’ experience helping individuals and couples to build and maintain healthy relationships. She is also the Founder and Director of Beineinu, division of IYIM, a program created for the purpose of helping people find and create healthy relationships. To find out more about working with Micki, check out her website: www.relationship-renovation.com.
Jenny Sassoon, MSW, CFC is a professional certified relationship coach with over 10 years of experience working with families and individuals in their 20s and 30s. She specializes in helping young professionals gain confidence and direction in their careers, dating, and relationships. You can find out more about Jenny by visiting her website: www.BuildBetterRelationships.com. You can also download her New Ebook: “5 Essential Steps to Gaining Confidence & Direction in Your 20s (and Beyond)”here: http://www.buildbetterrelationships.com/blog/subscribe