The Torah does not dictate a single marriage model

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Based on the past few weeks’ Torah readings, we can see that the the avos [patriarchs] and the immahos [matriarchs] did not all fit into a single marriage mold. Rivka [Rebecca] does not relate to Yitzchak [Issac] in the same way as Sarah relates to Avraham, and the conversations between Rachel and Yaakov [Jacob] follow a third, distinctive relationship pattern.  That is because one size does not fit all for successful marriages, as anyone who has read the work of Dr. John Gottman would know.

Dr. Gottman is well-known for his ability to predict with 95% accuracy whether the couple is fated to divorce or remain married to each other after observing them for as little as 5 minutes. This feat is not a parlor trick but a combination of accurate readings of facial expressions and body language combined with years of research into what triggers the failure or success of a marriage. What we feel about another person is actually clearly conveyed in our interaction with that person, particularly in an emotional discussion.

He identifies “three different styles of problem solving into which healthy marriages tend to settle.” At first blush, we would think that the “validating marriage” in which “couples compromise often and calmly work out their problems to mutual satisfaction as they arise” is the ideal paradigm. One can recall Avraham asking Sarah to say she is her sister, and Sarah telling Avraham to marry Hagar and later to send her and her son away. They speak to each other directly and agree on what to do. But there are other approaches that can work for the couples involved, too. “In a conflict-avoiding marriage couples agree to disagree, rarely confronting their differences head-on.” Think of how Rivka never confronts Yitzchak about their divergent views on their sons. The third model is evocative of the eruption Rachel and Yaakov when she complains to him of her childlessness: “in avolatile marriage conflicts erupt often, resulting in passionate disputes” (28).

Does compatibility assure a good marriage?

While having compatible views – shared interests, values, life goals, etc. – can limit the number of conflicts the couple may run into, Dr. Gottman asserts that compatibility is not the key to success:

“My research shows the much more important than having compatible views is how couples work out their differences. In fact, occasional” clashes, particularly during the couple’s initial phase appears to improve the wellbeing of “the union in the long run” (24-25). He realizes that his view runs counter to many people’s assumption. Many couples tend to equate a low level of conflict with happiness and believe the claim ‘we never fight’ is a sign of marital health. But I believe we grow in our relationships by reconciling our differences.” Anyone who dreams of a conflict free marriage is bound to be disappointed, for differences are bound to crop up “in any relationship.” (28).

The magic formula: a ratio of positivity

The absence of negativity alone is not sufficient to keep up the marriage. There must be a positive presence. In fact, Dr. Gottman has come up with what he calls the “magic ratio” of 5 to 1 in enduring marriages. “In other words, as long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative, we found the marriage was likely to be stable”(57). So if you have set up a “low-key avoidant” type of relationship, your “positivity” requirements are not very high with less negativity to counterbalance On the other hand, couples “in the passionate, high volatility matches” need to express far more positivity in order to counteract “all the negativity in the air” (58).

Does anger have any place in the relationship of a couple who aspire to shalom bayis?

The Torah text shares with us the fact that both Sarah and Rachel expressed their feelings of anger with their husband. In the latter case, Yaakov even responsed with anger of his own. But that doesn’t necessarily signal a problem in the relationship. Dr. Gottman explains what he discovered through his research, “I found that anger only has negative effects in marriage if it is expressed along with criticism or contempt, or if it is defensive” (58). In fact, verbalizing “anger and disagreement” can prove more beneficial than stifling it, for it allows for the opportunity to work through the problem, which can actually reinforce the relationship (73).

The essential two ingredients

What does Dr. Gottman look for when gauging the durability of a marriage? A solid marriage is based on “two basic ingredients: love and respect.” The greatest danger sign is the antithesis of those qualities — contempt (61-62). While contempt is the ultimate evil in a marriage, there are three other forces that contribute to the deterioration of a relatioship: criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. While men and women are equally prone to defensiveness – both in thought and conversation – there is a gendered tendency for the other two forces. Women tend to be more critical than men, and men tend to respond to emotional confrontations by stonewalling.

Would it be better to just remain silent in the face of your partner’s complaints

This non-reaction, called stonewalling, is actually the reaction that is likely to be chosen by husbands: “85 percent of stonewallers are men” (147). But removing oneself emotionally actually exacerbates the conflict. The controlled, cool reaction does make the situation worse, for the stonewalling stance conveys “disapproval, icy distance, and smugness” (94).

What about offering to fix the problem?

That brings us to the phenomenon that always astounds well-meaning men. When a husband offers a solution to a problem his wife complains about, why does she get upset with him? Dr. Gottman explains that the wives are seeking “validation” and so find their husbands’ “hyperrational” reaction to their feelings distancing. “Rather than acknowledge the emotional content of their wife’s words, they try to offer a practical solution to the problem being described.” That doesn’t work because don’t want to be told what they should do  but to be heard and have their feelings acknowledged. 159). Responding with empathy is not humoring someone who is completely unreasonable just to avoid an argument but crossing beyond one’s own emotional boundaries to appreciate the experience of another.

Achieving longevity in a marriage

Happily ever after does not just happen on its own accord. Shidduchim are a result of a Heavenly directive, but good marriages have to be worked on here on earth. It is not enough to marry “the right person” to assure the longevity of the relationship. Both partners must commit to accepting the other, accepting responsibility for their reactions, and sustaining the positives ratio needed to keep the marriage strong.

About the Author
Ariella Brown published Kallah Magazine from 2005-2011. Now, she runs a blog for topics of both general and Jewish interest at KallahMagazine.blogspot.com.
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