SHALOM BAYIS Achieving harmony and avoiding discord


Rabbi Shlomo Cohen

Little girls daydream about the prince charming they will marry someday. Little boys don’t give it much thought at all…girls, yechh! Neither grows up with much of a handle on reality. The only marriage children get to see close up is their parents’. Too often, they pay little attention or, all too often the role model is a poor one. In any event, no two people are going to be able to spend any amount of time together without disagreement. Handled properly, this can add an exciting dimension to a relationship. Imagine two people who agree on everything. Somehow this merely conjures up a very boring picture.

Only two or three generations ago the world was a completely different place. Each person had a place and a role. There was little, if any, crossing the established lines. Father worked, often long hours. Mother was at home caring for husband and hearth for even longer hours.  For the most part, their relationship was much more formal and polite. Father was king in his home, a figure of respect even if he was a menial worker. Today, this has all changed. Women are working out of the house. Men and women’s roles have blurred. With a five-day workweek, an eight-hour day and all sorts of vacations a husband and wife will spend a huge amount of time together. To do so amicably requires that your spouse be your best friend. It also requires that each partner recognize their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of their partner in life. It also means understanding all the different aspects of the relationship, and there are many.

Marriage is not a convenience. A spouse is not there to simply meet your whims. It is a full partnership. There are financial aspects, social implications, family responsibilities, intimate components and a level of sharing which occurs in no other relationship. People usually enter marriage with many expectations. At least some of these expectations will not be met. There will be other surprises in store. Some pleasant, others disappointing  (or worse). These issues, or, more to the point, how they are handled, will be the determining factor in whether the relationship endures. Poorly handled, communication is the first thing to disappear. Once that happens, the marriage begins a long, slow slide downhill. The two major causes of divorce are given as financial or sexual. I would add a third – immature, self-centered, selfishness.

A story that most beautifully illustrates the level of sharing to strive for is told about Reb Aryeh Levin (“A Tzadik In Our Time”). He is said to have accompanied his wife to the doctor for some problem with her foot. When the doctor asked what they had come for, Reb Aryeh answered “Our foot hurts.”  The pain was as much his as hers. If she was suffering so was he. No egocentricity here.

Read “All For the Boss” for another view of the relationship between a husband and wife in a previous generation. Note the deep level of respect and commitment that permeates the marriage.

Someone once asked Rebbitzen Salanter what it was like to be married to Reb Yisroel Salanter. She quipped that it was an equitable relationship. When they were first married, Reb Yisroel told her that he would be in charge of all Ruchnious (spiritual things) and she would take care of all Gashmious (temporal things). The only problem, she sighed, is that by Reb Yisroel, everything is Ruchnious.

Most people enter marriage assuming that life is going to be a bowl of cherries. Few can see ahead to the rocky times that are sure to occur. Every relationship has stress. How well this stress is handled by both partners will determine matrimonial happiness or misery. There are going to be areas, issues and moments of disagreement. Accept that as an axiomatic guarantee. Stated bluntly, there are going to be fights! The choice of rules for fighting is the determining factor in Shalom Bayis. The two of you can opt for the Marquis of Queensbury {no holds barred}, Marquis d’Sade {how much can you torture your spouse}, Marquee d’Movie theater {accept the media’s skewed view of marriage}, all destructive, or you may opt for rational, sensible, realistic rules through which the fight becomes the mortar that strengthens the relationship.

What are these rules?

The don’ts are:

1- No name-calling. Putting down your partner erodes the relationship. Don’t be patronizing, it is worse than calling names. Either is also hurtful. Watch your language, swearing is a no-no.

2- Never bring up the past unless it is germane [and it rarely is].

3- Throwing things, kicking and hitting are forbidden. Don’t even think of taking out your frustrations by hitting the wall let alone your spouse.

4- Raising your voice will only cause the other person to raise theirs. It is no more convincing.

5- Try hard not to put the other person on the defensive. It will work against you. Accusations are counterproductive.

6- The “d” word (divorce) can never be uttered. Once voiced, it will remain an open festering sore for years.

7- Keep your fingers off the hot buttons. After living together even for a short while, those hot buttons are easy to identify. View them as lethal weapons. They can kill your marriage.

8- You really don’t have to have the last word. Know when to ‘drop it’.

9- One upsmanship is not a good idea. “Oh, you think you had a bad day? Wait ‘til you hear….”

10- Negative attitudes are detrimental. Bad moods are catchy.

11- Absolutely avoid making a joke of your spouse’s problems or even making light of them.

12- No fighting in public, in front of parents, company or the children. It’s denigrating and embarrassing. Chazal tell us that embarrassing someone is tantamount to murder.

The do’s are:

1- COMMUNICATE – COMMUNICATE – COMMUNICATE. This takes practice. Don’t assume that it will happen easily or automatically. Hashem gave us two ears and one mouth to remind us that it is twice as important to listen as to talk.

2- Remain as calm as you can especially when your partner is not. It takes two to make a fight.

3- Learn to take turns backing off.

4- When things are calm, decide on an effective technique for calling “time out”.

5- Stick to the subject. Keep out anything extraneous. If your fighting about money, don’t bring in what his/ her mother said about you three years ago.

6- Give each other some ‘elbow room’. Learn to listen. Too often, what sparks a fight was nothing more than one person letting off some steam and the other taking it personally.

7- Know your partner’s moods. Men have a particularly difficult time relating to PMS. All is smooth and for no apparent reason the world turns upside down. Women can’t fathom how men can be so dumb about everything.

8- Part of the art of communication is knowing what to say, when to say it and when to keep your thoughts to yourself! Diplomacy and tact are essential always.

9- Recognize the difference between “I hate you” and “I love you but disagree with your words or actions right now”. This alone may defuse a potentially sticky situation.

10- Optimism, cheerfulness and positive outlooks are catchy. A smile is a wonderful antidote.

11- Patience and tolerance strengthen the bond. Your spouse needs understanding and someone to turn to. It should be you.

12- Recognize both your own and your spouse’s shortcomings. Knowing that certain situations or times are harder to handle can make both of you more sensitive to each other’s moods and needs.

Someone once asked me what the parameters of a successful marriage are. I told him there were two. He said, “Okay Rabbi, love is one, what’s the other?” “No” I said. “Love is not one.”

The two parameters of a successful marriage:

1- I am here to stay.

2- I would not willingly do anything to hurt you.

The first point is commitment. “You are my life. I am totally dedicated to this marriage”. If your spouse even suspects that you’ve come into the relationship on a trial basis or that you now harbor the teeniest notion of opting out, you’ve dealt a serious, almost unforgivable blow to success. This is not, as commonly thought, a 50 /50 deal. It requires 100% effort on both sides 100% of the time.

The second point recognizes that we will inadvertently hurt each other from time to time. Knowing it was inadvertent is a far cry from knowing you set out to cause hurt. Should I walk into the room and step on your toe, you have a right to be upset. Yet, you know it was an accident. Repeatedly calling you stupid is unforgivable. The former is an annoyance and requires a simple apology and an effort in the future. The latter leaves a permanent scar on the heart.

So where does love come in? After I had been married several years we were visiting my parents. My father’s parents, my grandparents, were visiting as well. In conversation, I mentioned to my father that I had thought I loved my wife when we were first married but now, after several years I really knew what love was. My father responded by saying, “You think you know what love is? Wait until you’re married 30 years like me…Then you’ll know what love is!” My grandfather, sitting across the room, looked up at my father and said, “Oh, you think you know what love is? Wait until you’re married 55 years like me. Then you’ll know what love is.”  In fact, all three of us were correct. We each loved our wives to the extent our relationship had endured. Like oak trees, love grows and like oak trees the longer it grows, weathering many storms, the larger it gets – if it receives the proper nourishment.

Rav Dessler points out that love means giving. Giving, limited to material gifts, is a very small part of the picture. That is giving ‘from’ oneself rather than ‘of’ oneself.  Total commitment is the key. (This idea is beautifully expressed in the O’Henry story “The Gift of the Magi”. While it is a Xmas story, look beyond the religious background to the underlying message. At bottom, the Hashkafa is on target.)

How is this accomplished? How is the marriage nourished?  There are certain steps that can be taken to increase chances of success.

I) Pirkei Avos exhorts us to establish a relationship with a Rav. Too often, couples today have no objective outsider who knows them well and is in a position of arbitrator and even, on occasion, the deciding “vote” in a given issue. This one factor, a Rav, makes all the difference in the world. Prior to marriage every couple needs to agree on who this Rav will be. If this has not been done yet –it is never too late.  Both must be able to relate to him. In some cases the Rav chosen for Kashrus may be different from the Rav used for Nidda questions and there may be yet a third for issues of Shalom Bayis.

II) Maintain perspective. I once asked a group of women in a Shiur on Shalom Bayis to take out a sheet of paper and list the causes of the last ten fights they had with their husbands. These were not going to be collected or read out loud. They took out the papers with relish and….very quickly got stuck. They couldn’t remember. My point was made. If you can’t remember, how important could it have been? At the time, of course, the entire existence of the universe hinged on this argument. In retrospect, it had no relevance whatever. So, maintain perspective.

III) Some couples need a non-confrontational method of communication. I often recommend writing letters. This strategy has a number of advantages:

– The writer can take the time to clearly state their “side” without interruption.

–  The writer has the opportunity to edit, revise and rewrite.

– The writer can clearly articulate what needs to be said without          pressure.

– The writer retains the option of never delivering the letter but it has clarified the issues.

– The reader has to read the entire letter without the opportunity of stopping at each point to rebut.

– The reader has a chance to calmly digest the other’s point of view.

– The reader sees the whole picture in a (hopefully) non-emotional frame of mind.

– The reader may respond by writing a letter in return.

– Both may be able to see “the other side” more clearly and explore options in a problem -solving mode rather than as adversaries. Keep in mind that you cannot solve a problem until you know what the problem is.

The letters should preferably be read to an objective, discrete third party. Did you say everything you needed to say? Is it worded well? Is there anything written which should not be there? Include a PS. “Every time we have a fight, show me this letter.” Reread the letters as part of the time out. Rereading your own letter, one that was written ‘from the heart’ should help restore perspective.

IV) Most couples get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the daily grind especially once there are children on the scene. There is rarely time to calmly sit down, compare notes, stay in touch – communicate. In some marriages, particularly where there are Shalom Bayis problems, it is crucial that there be an established mode of accomplishing this. If necessary, hire a baby-sitter once a week, go out to a public place (thus minimizing raised voices) and talk.  It is even helpful for many couples to agree on a formal agenda for the topics to be covered. Or, use this time to meet with your Rav.

V) Marriage is a financial partnership. My money / Your money attitudes are detrimental. So is basic disagreement on how money is to be spent. In these cases, it is helpful for the two to agree on a time to sit together and pay bills. How much came in?  What needs to be paid?  How much can we save? If finances are creating tension and strife your Rav needs to be made an integral part of the process. The alternative is to continue slugging it out.  Most people figure that they are the only ones with a particular set of problems. While problems in a marriage tend to be somewhat unique to that couple, it is a fundamental error to consider yourself alone. To one extent or another, most marriages have very similar problems. The major difference is how they are dealt with.

VI) The intimate component of marriage is ripe for dissension. Generally, intimacy, or the lack thereof, is not the root cause of fights. It is, however, an extraordinarily powerful weapon. After a fight, intimacy and affection are often casualties. This feeds into the negative cycle and fosters a poor atmosphere for reconciliation. I knew a family in which the two bothers and a sister were very close. The sister married and, as is the custom, came with her Chasan for the first Yom Tov. At the table the two had words. The brothers told their father that nobody was going to treat their sister like that. They were prepared to ‘do something’ about the situation. Father, a little older and alot wiser told them, “You only saw the fight, you didn’t see them make up.” The best part of a fight is the make up. Knowing this, utilize the occasion of a spat to demonstrate your true feelings – make the most of the make-up. Warning: Intimacy is a potent weapon. Used improperly, it can destroy a relationship. For obvious reasons, few people choose to share these problems with their Rav. In fact, the Rav should be approachable on these issues as well. If you don’t feel comfortable, you need to find a different Rav. {A word to the wise; You’re looking for leniency here, not Chumra.} Advice in this area can spare both partners much pain and possibly set a rocky relationship on the right path.

VII) Children can often become an issue. Child rearing requires a consistent message coming from parents who are united in their approach. (This remains so even after a divorce. Woe unto the children whose parents cannot or do not communicate.) Once again, the key may be the objective advice obtainable from your personal Rav rather than having the children play the two of you off each other and creating dissension.

VIII) Learn how to be a good listener. Listen ‘between the lines’.  Not every comment needs to be rebutted. Not every remark requires a comeback.  Even if it does, right then and there is almost always going to be the worst time to do it. Be careful that your spouse doesn’t get the feeling that you are ignoring. Ignoring is worse than answering back. At least if you say something the other person feels that they’re being heard. Ignoring is dismissing the spouse (not just his/her comment) as worthless. When things are calm, agree on each others right to walk away without hearing “Get back here, I’m not done with you yet.” The sooner you are able to separate and cool off, the easier the problem will be resolved with the least amount of screaming, fighting, ill feelings and the cold shoulder treatment that is sure to follow.

IX) Actively demonstrate respect, love and affection. All three of these are essential. Any two without the third is a recipe for trouble. Too many spouses take for granted that their ‘other half’ “knows”. This is a dangerous assumption. It’s not enough for a husband to sing Aishis Chayil on Friday night. A woman needs to hear “I love you” and needs to see respect, needs to feel the affection. So does a man. All three of these cannot be one-sided. If that is the case in your marriage, seek counseling now. Without love, respect and affection the relationship is already shaky. Never assume that things are going to get better by themselves. It rarely happens without active cooperation from both partners — and with guidance.

X) Elbowroom is needed on both sides. Forcing a spouse to account for every minute or every penny is asking for trouble. Insisting that things always be done your way creates resentment. You are two separate and unique individuals. You have differing tastes, likes, and dislikes, needs, pet peeves and tolerance levels. Give a little but make sure it’s not all one-sided giving. As above, that is a sign of trouble ahead. Allow for differences, they are the spice of life. Accidents happen, so what. Mistakes are never a signal for the end of the world.

XI) It is safe to say that your spouse would like to be treated at least as well as you treat your boss (you’d never speak to him that way), an acquaintance (you’d never behave like that), or your doctor, dentist, lawyer or accountant (you’d never treat them this way).  Due to the close nature of the bond it is far too easy to feel very comfortable at home and let out frustrations in a way that would be considered entirely inappropriate anyplace else. They are just as inappropriate, if not more so, at home.

XII) Clearly defined roles are necessary. When a man needs a mother, his wife needs to be careful she doesn’t fall into that trap nor may she treat him as a son through some misguided notions of her own. She is not his mother. The same is true in reverse. A husband is not a father. The relationships are very different.

The two of you have the opportunity to create a “storybook” relationship. You are a team, a single entity. 1+1=1 may get you a failing grade in a math class but it is a sure-fire positive attitude in marriage. Lifelong romance can be yours. Others can look to you and your spouse as role models. It won’t happen by itself. Great marriages are the result of hard work. They result from two people pulling together, in the same direction, over years of time. The ‘job’ never ends.

There are many components of a marriage.  In a good marriage you should be receiving a sense of satisfaction in most, if not all, the following areas:

Financial – Money should not be a bone of contention. Some disagreement is not the end of the world. If it seems to come up all the time, budgeting together and/or counseling are priorities.

Familial – The raison d’être of marriage is children. How many, how often should be understood. Any issues must be discussed with your Rav. Most Rabbonim today tend to be somewhat lenient in allowing contraception if there are reasonable reasons for doing so. There has to be a clear understanding of how the children will be raised. It doesn’t just happen. Too often, the children become sources of dissension between husband and wife. Get help!

Emotional – Everyone needs to be stroked. You should be doing this for your spouse and your spouse for you. When you need somebody to talk to, it should be your spouse.

Psychological – Statistics indicate that married people live longer and healthier lives. Harmony in your marriage will result in a healthier state of mind.

Service – Division of labor is necessary. You pick up the cleaning; I’ll get the oil changed in the car. We take care of each other’s life on an equitable basis.

Physical – There’s still a spark. Romance plays a place in your life. Hubby, when was the last time you bought your wife a single rose for no special reason? Wife, do you ever put a love note in his lunch or coat pocket? Use your imaginations!

Sharing – Separate vacations and separate bedrooms may work for some couples. For most it is a recipe for disaster. Work at growing closer, not further apart.

Security – Your home should represent the safest, most comfortable place in your life. Should you find yourself creating reasons to delay going home, view them as danger signs.

Companionship – You should both truly feel that your spouse is your best friend.

Fulfillment – You share life goals in common and have a deep and abiding sense of satisfaction.

Use the above as a checklist for your marriage. Determine, for yourself, how healthy your relationship is and, more importantly, which areas need work. Discuss them together. It will surprise you to find out how different your needs are.

How can you tell if it’s over?

When must a relationship be diagnosed as dead? There are no simple answers. Every individual will have a different tolerance level. Each person will have different criteria for remaining or opting out. These are signs that you should be taking seriously:

1- Any ongoing physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

2- Any ongoing alcohol or drug abuse.

3- When repeated attempts at counseling have failed. Refusal to go to counseling.

4- When medication is indicated but is refused or not taken regularly.

5- If dealing with mood swings, rages and temper tantrums becomes a regular part of your life.

6- Repeated dishonesty, ‘hidden’ monies, too much “unaccounted for” time.

7- If fighting has become the mainstay of the relationship.

8- If the level of mutual love, affection and respect has fallen to unacceptable levels.

9- When intimacy disappears. [Merely having relations should not be confused with intimacy.]

10- Where all the efforts to maintain the relationship are one-sided.

Professionals tend to agree that the worst reason in the world for continuing a bad marriage is for the sake of the children. Raising children in a dysfunctional home is far worse than a single parent house. For all its drawbacks, at least they are spared watching the two most important people in their lives constantly beating up on one another.

Should you decide it’s time to get out, when all else has failed, there are several things you need to know.

1- Divorce solves some problems but will create others. Often the ‘cure’ seems worse than the ailment.

2- Few divorces are amicable. They turn into horror stories very easily.

3- Resolution is rarely achieved quickly. You could be looking at a year or two before life can get back on track. Expect to lose many nights sleep. You will be on an emotional roller coaster.

4- Money and/or property will cloud the issues.

5- Lawyers operate in an adversarial system. They are usually the only ‘winners’ in the settlement. {Look into mediation. It is cheaper, faster and non-adversarial. It leaves you in control. You make all decisions together with the spouse you are divorcing.}

6- Even the best intentioned parents find it difficult to not use the children as pawns. Custody is almost always seen as the major win or lose piece of the war. More damage is done to the children in the effort to gain custody than was done in all the preceding battles. The children are often more traumatized by the manner in which the divorce occurred than in the dysfunction of the home. This can be avoided.

7- Even with supportive family and friends, you will be as alone as alone can be.

8- Unless there are big bucks involved (we’re talking millions here), you will be worse off, financially, divorced than married.

9- Never make a move without advice. Every move you make may have legal ramifications. Everybody you know will be offering advice, most of it poor. The more people you speak to, the more confused you will be. You will feel a constant need to vindicate your position. Doing so only hurts your cause.

10- The justice system is misnamed. At least 50% of the litigants will be dissatisfied with the judge’s decision. Right and wrong may not even enter the picture. A strange person in a black robe will be deciding how you will be living a major portion of the foreseeable future. (Mediation, on the other hand, allows you to set up the parameters. If the judge feels they are fair, those parameters will become binding.)

11- The tendency to ‘get the dirt’ on the other side could result in police intervention and child protective service involvement. In a word, don’t unless there is real reason and no other choice. Either option escalates the situation way out of anyone’s control.

12- Assuming the relationship is over when the ink dries on the divorce papers is a mistake. Financial issues such as alimony, child support, property settlements, pensions etc. can stretch on for years. When children are involved there will be ongoing issues essentially for life. Divorced couples are still going to need to communicate, sometimes more than they did while married. Messy divorces usually leave dissension that will adversely affect all involved for a long, long time

13- The best advice you will ever receive is: Find a mentor you can trust. Speak with that one person only. Don’t make a move without running it by that person. 


-Running right to a divorce lawyer. (If your spouse already has a lawyer you will need to get one fast)

-Confiding in all your friends.

-’Venting’ to anyone who’ll listen.

– Making any disparaging remarks about the spouse to the children.

-Always assuming the worst possible intentions on the part of the spouse.



Both sides must agree to all of the following rules:

1    Children may not be used as pawns in the ensuing power struggle.

2    Visitations may never be delayed or withheld by either party for any reason.

3    Joint custody is the preferred mode.

4    All major decisions (e.g. Choice of school, braces, discipline) must be made jointly.

5       Both sides agree to raise the children with the understanding that “Honor your father and mother” applies all the time. This must come from both parents.

6      As difficult as it may be, a spirit of cooperation is always expected. Don’t hire a babysitter if the spouse is available to watch the children and don’t count that as “my” time – “your” time.

7      The children must understand that one parent is not the disciplinarian and the other the ’candy-man’.

8      Neither parent ever disparages the other to, or in front of, the children. This means you have to watch what you say, even on the phone, so you aren’t overheard.

9      Keep everybody else out of the picture. No police, no CPS, no courts, no lawyers. They are all destructive to the children!

10   You love them. Prove it by doing what is best for them even if you must overcome your own bitterness to do so.

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