I don’t go to shalom bayis classes because with one exception (a frum sex-therapist who had seen the dark side of human behavior and wasn’t afraid to talk about it) the advice has been A. the same; and B. inane. “Don’t complain at your husband as soon as he walks in the door,” “Wear matching pajamas,” and “Wear lipstick” are the typical kinds of advice you get in these classes. I mean, I have two M.A.C. lipsticks that I would rescue in a fire, but even I wouldn’t claim that they could solve marital problems. There are certain things that even a great lipstick can’t do. (Things lipstick can do: Flatter your coloring! Make your face look awake! Draw attention away from your dark under-eye circles! Complete an outfit! Double as a cream blusher! Things lipstick cannot do: Anything other than what I just mentioned!)
If your marriage could use a little spiffing up, I’d like to offer you an alternative to listening to some “proper” lady tell you to “Get a cleaning lady.” (They act like a cleaning lady is the answer to everything. For the record, we manage fine without one.) Would you like to be best-friends with your spouse and actually trust your spouse with anything and everything? Would you like to actually enjoy hanging out with your spouse? Well then keep reading: Auntie Chaya is about to drop some knowledge.
1. Talk nicely to your spouse.
I know it sounds obvious, but you’d be really surprised how many couples I’ve seen who talk rudely to each other. Rule of thumb: If you couldn’t walk up to a stranger in a bar and say it without getting punched in the face, don’t say it to your spouse. (One time, at a Shabbos table, I heard the husband of a couple say to his wife, “Your father is white trash.” Try saying that to a stranger in a bar.)
2. Tone of voice matters.
This was a hard one for me to learn, but I learned it. While I might be used to talking in an excited way, my husband considers that tone of voice to be yelling. Tone of voice matters as much as what you say. If you’re like me and you get vocally over-excited, learn to tone it down.
3. The way you do things is not the only right way.
Ladies, your husband isn’t going to be cooperative about helping you to clean the house if you insist that he do it just the way you do it. Gentlemen, your wife does not carry heavy objects in the same way that you do nor does she drive the same way you do; just stop reacting to the way she does those things. She does it her own way. It doesn’t matter if your spouse’s way of doing various tasks is inefficient or annoying to you. Just let your spouse live and do things in his or her own way. My husband does not squeeze as many dishes into the dishwasher as I do. The world has yet to end.
4. Keep your agreements.
One of the best parts of marriage is having a spouse you can totally trust and depend upon. Considering that most of the world is out for themselves, your spouse is one of the few people who have the potential to totally and completely have your back. The words you say can’t make you or your spouse trustworthy; only the things you do can. If you make an agreement with your spouse, keep it and keep it forever. Agreements can be small things (“I’ll be home at six for dinner”) or big things (“This is how and when we discipline our kids”). I’m not talking about blindly doing what a controlling spouse tells you to do — chas v’Shalom. I’m talking about the agreements that you make together about how you live your lives and run your home.
5. Don’t get wasted.
Getting high and drunk is rarely good for shalom bayis. Sure, many of us enjoy a good glass of wine or a couple beers or those once-a-year bong hits with the cousins, but beyond the occasional and casual buzz, intoxication is bad for marriage. Why: When you’re drunk or high, the boundaries come down (see below) and you are likely to say or do things that do not demonstrate self-respect or respect for other people. Respect is tantamount for shalom bayis.
Also, when you are wasted there is one person and one person only who you can take care of, and that person is yourself. It’s questionable whether you can even really take care of yourself when you are smashed. Nothing says “I’m for me” like spending Shabbos afternoon in shul getting drunk while your wife is at home alone with the kids. If you can’t stop drinking, then get help. Shalom bayis is 100% about sharing with and caring for your spouse — no matter what anybody says or doesn’t say, there is no “we” in the words “drunk” or “stoned”.
6. Have verbal boundaries. Respect verbal boundaries.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone who had weak or non-existent boundaries? I’m talking about the classic over-sharer, or the sex-talker, or the person who gives unsolicited advice (become a blogger to channel that impulse), or the person who tells you so many of their problems that you don’t even know what to do. Did you walk away from that conversation thinking, “Well there is a person I respect,” or did you walk away thinking, “Holy crap. That was weird.”?
Look, most of us have millions of thoughts running through our minds all day and all night. You can’t control your thoughts, but you can control what you do with them. I’m not saying that its advisable to wrap yourself in an enigmatic cloak of mystery (but by all means, if that’s your style), but do edit. You’ll like each other better.
Respect for your spouse’s mental space is key. Your spouse has a right to keep some of his or her thoughts and feelings to him-or-herself. Avoid trying to get into his or her kishkes. If you build a trusting relationship, then your spouse will tell you things when he or she feels its necessary. It is respectful not to pry.
7. Stop being a weenie.
Do you get offended by everything? Do you read into everything your spouse says, assuming that he or she wants to somehow criticize you? Stop being a weenie. Just stop. (In the event that your spouse actually does criticize you all the time, he or she needs to learn to filter that garbage out of his or her mouth, and fast.)
8. Affection is free. Give it freely.
Unexpressed gratitude is toxic. Unexpressed love is toxic. There is NO reason to not express gratitude and love to your spouse. Tell me how many marriages were ever ruined by spouses saying “I love you” to each other too many times a day. My educated guess is zero. If you have love in your heart, let it out. That gentle pat on the shoulder or that little compliment build up into one big, happy, bubbling love soda. (This message has been brought to you by people who drink too much seltzer.)
In the same vein, thanking your spouse for the small things that he or she does builds trust and love. You can even thank your spouse just for being who he or she is. It is a habit very worth cultivating. The opposite of gratitude is resentment. Build a relationship of gratitude for each other, and you will get less annoyed by the small personal inconveniences that even the best marriage presents. You may even stop seeing those ways that you need to go beyond yourself as inconveniences, and just as part of being in a reciprocal and giving relationship.
9. Keep your eyes, hands, and words off of other people’s husbands and wives.
I shouldn’t even have to say this, but even around here this shizz is endemic. BTW, Facebook counts. Making long appreciative toasts to somebody else’s lady-of-the-house at communal meals, chatting for the sake of chatting with someone else’s spouse (versus exchanging information out of necessity), and making suggestive or off-color remarks in the presence of someone who is not your own special man-or-lady-friend (or even your own…see number six above) is a ticket to distrust, resentment, and a lack of respect in the relationship.
10. Health and hygiene, people!
Sometimes you meet a person and her breath is so bad that you think, “How does her husband kiss her?” Pretty much everyone’s breath stinks with its own biotic personal funk, but flossing every day helps. Brushing your teeth after a long day of drinking coffee and eating cheese-and-hummus sandwiches shows your spouse that you want to smell good for him or her. It says, “My coworkers have to smell my stank breath, but you — you are special.”
Those times when it’s like, “I could shower…or not.” Those times are opportunities to show your spouse that you hold him or her in high esteem. Those times when you could eat that third piece of cake but you don’t — those times show your spouse that you respect yourself. Those times when you get a haircut, or trim your mustache so that food doesn’t get in your beard, or when you opt for the grilled chicken instead of the garlic barbecue wings so that your spouse doesn’t have to smell your breath — those times count.
Maintaining health and hygiene are different from the lipstick-and-pajamas thing because they are gender neutral. You both have to floss and brush. We’re talking about keeping yourself from being disgusting to your spouse, not tantalizing one’s husband with a performance of femininity. We’re talking about basic self-respect and respect for others, and you’d be surprised how many people don’t have it.
11. Go to therapy, not to shalom bayis classes.
Wearing pretty pajamas is like putting a band-aid on a stab wound if you don’t respect your husband. Wearing lipstick is a nice way to pull together an outfit, but it won’t do a darn thing to repair broken trust. Getting a cleaning lady is lovely if you have the money, but it sure won’t compensate for being inconsiderate and sloppy and expecting your spouse to clean up after you. Marriage requires knowing exactly who you are, and it demands a high level of emotional capability. Why the high rate of divorce? Because people don’t know how to take responsibility for their own actions, and they don’t know how to functionally live in close proximity to other people. You throw intimacy into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a landmine waiting to be stepped on.
There is nothing better for marriage than working on yourself. I’m open about the hundreds of dollars a month that I spend on therapy because I want other people to do the same. 90% of my discretionary income goes to Cognitive Behavioral therapy. It has payed off in ways that I could never have predicted. It has been totally worth what I have spent on it. I personally would rather have a great marriage than a Bloomingdale’s dress. (People have told me that they cannot afford therapy, but then they go out and buy new clothes and new sporting equipment and they lease nice cars and they do all their food shopping in Crown Heights. That is stupidity.)
When both partners in a marriage work on themselves (and I mean both, because it’s never just one who has the problems), the possibility of growing together opens up. Do you actually know how to work on yourself? I thought I did until I got married, and then all the ways that I habitually compensated for my own perfectionism, anxiety, and self-hatred (those are my package; everybody has his or her own) proved to really not work. It turns out that I had to learn new skills and strategies. It turns out that those new skills and strategies have worked really, really well.
Buy yourself a great Cognitive Behavioral or Dialectical Behavioral therapist (as opposed to the therapists who just hear you talk — you want someone who will challenge you to change the way you think and behave, and who will give you the tools to do so) and skip the shalom bayis classes. If you buy yourself a lipstick (or gentlemen, a new spiffy something or other), it should be just because you love the color.