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AdviceLine: I Can’t Respect My Wife

Bassi Gruen

It’s extremely awkward for me to write this question to a women’s magazine, but for various reasons, I can’t go for help, and the lack of real respect and deeper connection in my home bothers me terribly

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

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“Here’s the bottom line — and it’s nothing new: We can only change ourselves. If you want your marriage to change, you have to find ways to endear yourself to your wife. Instead of finding a topic of conversation that interests you, and then being disappointed that she can’t follow or appreciate the thread, find a topic that interests her. Become a listener. Explore her world even if it’s a very concrete, non-intellectual world,” explains Dr. Shula Wittenstein

M y wife is a difficult person to respect. I come from a home where I saw tremendous respect between my parents, who are very much in sync with each other; they’re both very kind, intelligent, interesting people, which gives people plenty to connect to and respect. My wife, on the other hand, isn’t a particularly nice person, and her tongue and rough manner are far from respectable. She’s also not very intelligent. If I could at least respect her ideas and opinions I’d be happy, but she’s more on the simplistic, superficial side. If I try to bring up conversations beyond the weather and what the kids did that day, she goes blank and becomes disinterested. She can talk about things or people, but never ideas.

I long to have a mutually respectful marriage, but hard as I try to find things to respect in my wife, it’s nearly impossible. Understandably, I don’t feel that she respects me as a person either, but it doesn’t seem to bother her. As I said, she’s not particularly deep, and living day after day in a home where there’s little connection but no friction suits her just fine. It doesn’t suit me at all, though. I think and feel deeply, and long for meaningful emotional connection.

You may advise me to think back to what brought us together to begin with, and I’ll tell you that being young and naive, the only guidance I got at the time was, “If you don’t see problems, go for it. Don’t live in a dream world.” I just assumed I was doing the right thing by not looking for problems.

I’m not looking for problems now, either, and we live in a peaceful home, but this lack of real respect and deeper connection bothers me terribly. Is there anything you can suggest?

Rabbi Ilan Feldman is the rav of Congregation Beth Jacob in Atlanta, Georgia. The families who are part of his vibrant, dynamic community regularly turn to Rabbi Feldman to receive his wise counsel on both halachic and interpersonal issues.

Rabbi Dr. Ivan Lerner is a well-known clinical and industrial psychologist. He has been a principal, a dynamic community rabbi, and personal therapist. Currently, Dr Lerner is a lecturer and consulting psychologist to schools, businesses, and Jewish organizations in the United States and Europe.

Dr. Shula Wittenstein Psy.D is a psychologist and an expert in CBT and EMDR. She specializes in couples therapy, and also treats trauma survivors, anxiety, and depression. She has a private practice in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Ilan Feldman

At first glance, your situation seems hopeless. You want a deep, meaningful, and respectful relationship with your wife. You’ve seen such a marriage by observing your parents, yet not only is your wife uninterested and uninteresting, she’s hard to respect because she’s not nice. You never really chose to marry her; others told you to do so since there was nothing wrong and assured you it would all work out. One senses that being in such a marriage dooms you to loneliness and a cold peace with your wife at best, until the end.

I have good news for you. There is a pathway out of this. You can have a marriage with this person that’s defined by love, sharing, and respect, and it doesn’t require her to change at all.

To have such a marriage, you have to be willing to let go of your certitude in assessing your wife and her traits. Your version of your wife is so fixed that it clouds your ability to see her any other way. Notice how many times you declare that your wife “is” a certain way (I counted five). You have assigned a quality and character to your wife. She just “is” the way you say she is, because your experience of her and your opinion of her “is” what she is. Problem is, once you’ve indicted and convicted her for being a certain way, it’s likely all further interactions with her will reinforce and support that conviction. You’re trapped in a marriage not with your wife, but with your version of your wife. And you hold the keys to getting out of that trap.

A useful tool to help people alienated from each other is to have them put themselves in the other’s place. They are asked to articulate, as powerfully and effectively as possible, the other party’s view of things, as if they were an advocate effectively promoting them and their cause.

Here’s an educated guess as to what we’d hear if we asked your wife to describe the dynamics of your marriage:

My husband has this gold standard against which he measures our marriage. He wants our marriage to be as good as his parents’. To him they are perfect. I began to realize early on in my marriage that I’d never measure up, so I began to shut down. When he’d raise topics for discussion, I just tried to avoid them, because why should I expose myself as dumb and superficial? And, though I’m not proud of it, sometimes I am short with him, because I feel bad that he doesn’t think of me as worthy of relating to because I’m not deep or interesting, by his definition. I raise his children, tend to the house, but somehow I’m not worthy of his respect. The truth is, I just try to survive his nonverbal disapproval of my very being by staying out of his way, doing what is expected, and exposing my “superficial” self as little as possible. If he would only let me be me, respect me for being me, I could be a good friend, even fun to be with. I actually look up to him and used to love hearing how he saw things, but I feel he’s withholding not only approval, but his very self from me until I somehow earn it. It’s terribly lonely.

Often, we become so fixed in our view of an issue that we forget that it’s nothing more than our view, and doesn’t define reality. If we’re open enough to allow for the possibility that our view is just a view, but not the truth, we can begin to let go of the “facts” and allow for other possibilities to emerge in the relationship.

Every husband must realize that with the ring you gave under the chuppah, came promises. No matter that they weren’t verbalized; they’re universally expected, and are part of the basic commitment made in a marriage. You promised to respect your wife, and not to compare her to others. You promised to share your life with her, not to withhold yourself until she deserves you. You promised to give her a chance to address your needs if she didn’t manage to do so successfully at first, not to write her off as hopeless. And you promised to be interested in her world, even if it wasn’t your world.

You have a choice in this marriage, and the power to make the difference in it. You can continue to notice your wife’s inadequacies in righteous loneliness, and judge her unworthy of being respected and confided in, and that’s the marriage you’ll have. (A root cause of sinas chinam is this certitude in defining others: “I know who you are, and you aren’t worth it.”) Or, you can give of yourself to the person you chose to share your life with. You don’t really know her as well you think. Consider initiating time with her, going for walks and asking her about her day, her laundry, her pleasure or frustration with the children.

Find out what’s important to her, and make that important to you. You will surely discover an entire universe that has gone unnoticed, right under your nose.

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