Me, First

Me, First
Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

We often hear from people in troubled marriages that they need to put themselves first. Actually, we agree. All spouses, particularly those in troubled marriages, need to put themselves first. That’s right. You need to change first. Now, you already know us. Unlike a lot of other people in this field, we don’t think it’s unfair or unrealistic to ask your partner to change. We are going to write a lot about how you can motivate that change.  However, and this is a really big however-you need to change first (and, just maybe, you need to change more).  And that may be the biggest motivator for your spouse.  

Why? There are lots of reasons. Marriage is an equation. Change in one partner often results in change by the other. Indeed, that is the theory behind books such as Divorce Busting.[1] If you start being nicer, in time, often your spouse will be nicer too. Sadly, the converse is often true as well. In a book written by a divorce lawyer, If You Are in My Office It’s Already Too Late[2], James Sexton relates stories of spouses who are mystified that their partners became less giving and generous. Yet, upon a little questioning, they admit that they stopped being giving or generous first.     

Of course, the problem with changing for the better is that you may expect an immediate response by your spouse. Sorry, not happening. Time after time, one spouse leaves us, full of resolve to make things better. For an hour, or a day or even a week, they change and yet, that silly goose they are married to doesn’t change. So, the obvious solution is to give up. No, it isn’t. The obvious solution is to keep changing in the hope that your spouse will too. An hour, a day, a week and sometimes even a month, may not enough to get your partner to really appreciate what you are doing.  In any event, what are we really here on earth for? It is to perfect ourselves and be better servants of Hashem. If you are a better spouse, you are serving that goal independent of whether your spouse changes. 

In every relationship, YOU are responsible for YOUR actions (and reactions). In that vein, when you are judged by G-d, part of that judgment will be what kind of spouse you were. Don’t you want to go to your final judgment as great as you can be? Of course, it would be great if our spouses improved too but if they just won’t improve, that is no reason and no excuse for you to be a bad person. There is a moment in the book of Bereshis which is poignant on many levels. You will recall that when Joseph was the viceroy of Egypt, he pretended to be an Egyptian to fool his brothers (see Genesis chapters 42-45). The reasons for his behavior bear study but they are not for now. At any rate, after Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he and his brother Benjamin, Joseph’s only full blood brother, the only brother who had no responsibility for Joseph’s original plight, fell on each other’s necks and wept. It seems and is a tender moment but Rashi sees more. 

Rashi on Bereshis 45:14 explains that Joseph foresaw and cried over the two Temples that were to be destroyed in Benjamin’s territory while Benjamin foresaw and cried over the Tabernacle which was to be in Joseph’s territory at Shiloh and also would be destroyed. The Lubavitcher Rebbe built on Rashi’s idea to teach a powerful lesson.[3] For the Tabernacle that was to be in his territory, Joseph (and his descendants) had to focus on doing everything they could to prevent or forestall its destruction. Crying would have been counterproductive. However, Joseph (and his descendants) were ultimately powerless to stop the destruction of the Temples since those were in Benjamin’s territory. The destructions were predicated on the actions of the descendants of Benjamin. Thus, after Joseph did everything he could for Benjamin and still saw the destruction, Joseph burst into tears. The same was true for Benjamin and the Tabernacle. Preventing that destruction was not up to him (and his descendants). It was up to Joseph (and his descendants).

Explains the Rebbe, when we see that others are failing to sanctify their lives, we must help them by advising them gently and praying on their behalf. But ultimately, they control their own destinies by their freely made choices. At some point, all we can do is cry for them. But as to our lives, we don’t have the luxury of crying. In fact, crying may impede us as we are tempted to feel that we have fulfilled our obligation by the fact that we care.  Crying for yourself and your marriage does not create a solution. Get in there and change yourself, and pray really hard and often, and your spouse may change too. But, at the end of the day, all you can do is to change yourself, try to gently motivate your spouse and pray. The choice to become better is theirs. You, however, have to do whatever it takes to make yourself a great person and a great spouse.[4] 

[1] Weiner-Davis, Michelle, Divorce Busting: A Step By Step Guide To Making Your Marriage Loving Again (Fireside 2013)

[2] Sexton, James, If You’re in My Office, It’s Already Too Late (Henry Holt 2019). We caution our readers that Mr. Sexton uses foul language throughout his book.

[3] Likutei Sichot, volume 10, pp 147-150 summarized in English in Chumash, pp 282-84 (Kehot Publication Society 2015) 

[4] We hasten to add that we are NOT suggesting you stay in a horrible marriage with a spouse who won’t change after you have done everything. But we have found that people are pretty poor judges of whether they should get divorced. We have seen a number of divorces that, in our view, were absolutely unnecessary as a spouse exaggerated all the faults of their spouse and ignored or minimized all the good qualities.  

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