By Rabbi Dov Heller, M.A. *
How to stay in love the rest of your life
Intimacy is primarily about how two people make each other feel. If you consistently make each other feel good, then you feel close to each other. If you consistently make each other feel bad, you feel distant from each other.
There are thousands of books written on the psychology of intimacy and love. The Torah provides a profoundly simple formula for creating and maintaining intimacy based on the premise that emotional intimacy depends upon how well you handle negative or troubling feelings. The formula of which I speak is found in the book of Leviticus 19:16-19. There are seven commandments which follow one another in quick succession. Contained in these verses are fundamental psychological principles about how to stay in love for the rest of your life.
As you study this formula, rate yourself and your partner on each principle on a scale from 1-10. 1=Failing miserably. 10=Consistently excellent.
1. “YOU SHALL NOT BE A TALE BEARER AMONG YOUR PEOPLE.”
Principle A: Strong boundaries are necessary to protect intimate relationships
This commandment warns us against telling someone what someone else said about him or her, if sharing this information will hurt the person or cause any kind of harm. One underlying principle here is about setting boundaries in order to protect your relationship. Every relationship needs to be protected from outside influences that might harm it. You must carefully watch what you say to others about your spouse.
As a general rule, I tell married couples that any problems in your marriage should never be shared with anyone outside the relationship unless you have permission from your spouse to do so. This is one aspect of setting good boundaries.
A common fatal mistake in this regard is when married couples share their problems with family members. Parents and in-laws need to be kept out of your marriage. Parents must respect your privacy and if they don’t, need to be told to stay out. Once you’re married, your spouse is your number one priority.
Principle B: Carefully watch every word you say to others
We are never permitted to hurt anyone with our words. This is a simple idea, with very profound consequences. We are always responsible for what we say to another person, especially our spouse! Yet, we see how careless and lazy so many couples are with their words.
It is never right to call your spouse names, curse at her, or even raise your voice to her, if it will scare or intimidate her. Imagine how much greater their love would be if every couple followed just this one guideline. Every word you say to each other has either a positive or negative impact on how you feel. If you want to be in love forever, you must constantly monitor and control the way you talk to each other. There is no such thing as “down time” in a marriage; every interaction matters. Every word you speak to each other will either bring you closer or push you further apart. Rate yourself on a scale of 1-10.
2. “YOU SHALL NOT STAND IDLY BY THE BLOOD OF YOUR NEIGHBOR.”
Principle: Do not dismiss another person’s emotional pain
How do you respond to your spouse when he or she is in pain or in a bad mood? Do you get upset and intolerant or do you listen with patience? Most of us don’t like it when our partner is in a bad mood. In fact, sometimes we even resent it.
Frequently our bad moods are an expression of emotional pain. I suggest you try to see them as a cry for help. When I’m in a bad mood, what I’m really saying is, “I’m in pain and need you to understand and support me.” This commandment tells us that it is an obligation to be sensitive to other people’s pain and certainly not cause them more pain if they’re already in pain.
It is never acceptable to dismiss or attack someone who is in pain, let alone your spouse! How many times has your spouse said to you, “Just get over it already.” This is not only insensitive, it’s cruel.
One of the deepest needs of a human being is to be understood. When we dismiss our spouse’s pain, we are very far from providing a nurturing experience of being understood. Every time we reject our spouse’s pain and don’t take the time to understand him or her, we are missing a great opportunity to create more closeness. One of the greatest acts of kindness that a person can do for another is to listen without judgment. Rate yourself on a scale from 1-10.
3. “YOU SHALL NOT HATE YOUR FRIEND IN YOUR HEART.”
Principle: Don’t dismiss or deny bad feelings. You are responsible to process and resolve your bad feelings about others
The Biblical commentators point out that the power of this commandment lies in the words, “in your heart.” The implication is that it’s normal to have bad feelings, even feelings of hatred. Only Mr. Spock never has bad feelings towards others. Unfortunately, many people who grew up in emotionally unhealthy homes don’t give themselves permission to feel their bad feelings, or for that matter, even their good feelings. Some people actually believe that highly evolved people don’t ever experience bad feelings.
This is not the Judaism’s view of human emotion. The Torah assumes we will have bad feelings towards others, and the key is not to hold onto them and let them stew in your heart. The problem isn’t having bad feelings; it’s not being able to manage them effectively! And the prerequisite for managing feelings effectively is the necessity of being emotionally honest with yourself.
We all occasionally have bad feelings towards our spouse. But bad feelings that are not understood and resolved become toxic and destructive. They must be dealt with and understood.
Beating yourself up, feeling guilty or blaming others are ways to avoid taking responsibility for your feelings. There are four ways you can explore and resolve your negative feelings. Work them through yourself, speak to a friend, or discuss them with your partner. And if the bad feelings persist, talk with a professional.
One of the challenges of staying in love is learning from and resolving your negative feelings towards your spouse. Rate yourself on a scale from 1-10.
4. “YOU SHALL CERTAINLY REBUKE YOUR NEIGHBOR.”
Principle A: When someone hurts you, communicate with him about how you feel
We are not permitted to dismiss people from our lives because they hurt us. Judaism requires that we communicate with those who hurt us and try to repair the relationship by communicating openly and honestly. In marriage, good communication is about telling my spouse how you feel in order to repair breakdowns in the relationship.
Principle B: In order to communicate, you must feel safe
In order to talk about your feelings with your spouse, he or she must be receptive to listening and allowing you to express how you feel without judgment, ridicule, or criticism. Creating a safe space for sharing your feelings is a necessary prerequisite for open and honest communication. How safe do you feel with your spouse? And how safe do you make your spouse feel? Rate yourself on a scale from 1-10.
5. “YOU SHALL NOT BEAR SIN BECAUSE OF HIM.”
Principle: Communicating how you feel does not give you license to shame your spouse, make him feel guilty, or abuse him
Rashi, the famous Biblical commentator, interprets this commandment as a prohibition against shaming another person when telling them how we feel. Shame is one of the most painful feelings a person can experience. This is why Judaism compares it to spilling one’s blood.
There are three communication styles. Some people never tell their spouse how they really feel. This is the passive style, which only results in much suffering and distancing. Of course, sometimes the reason why a spouse chooses not to communicate his or her feelings is because they are afraid of how their spouse will react. This is why it is essential that couples learn how to create a safe space for each other. If you don’t feel safe with your spouse, you will never tell her how you really feel.
The other unacceptable communication style is aggressive. Aggressive people only know how to yell and be angry in order to get their feelings out. This is obviously not effective and in many cases is abusive.
The style that works is assertive. Assertive communication means you can tell your spouse how you feel without provocation. Assertive communication gives you the opportunity to be heard and understood. The most you can do is express your feelings honestly and respectively to your spouse. He or she may choose to listen or may choose not to, but at least you did your part by expressing yourself assertively.
One of the most important relationship skills that couples must have in order to succeed is what Dr. Jon Gottman calls the ability “to repair breakdowns.” Assertive communication is the essential tool needed in order to repair breakdowns. A breakdown is considered repaired when no resentment, anger or other bad feelings remain. This implies that repair means the conflict is 100 percent repaired. Ninety percent is not good enough. If you have 50 fights and repair each one 90 percent, you are left with ten percent resentment multiplied by 50. Those little amounts of resentment add up quickly! When resentment or any bad feeling lingers, the relationship weakens and love disintegrates. The “issue” is rarely the problem. The communication about the issue is the real problem! Lasting love is built on assertive communication. Rate yourself on a scale from 1-10.
6. “DON’T TAKE REVENGE OR BEAR A GRUDGE.”
Principle: If you don’t finish all “old business,” you will continue to hurt each other
Unfortunately, too many couples don’t repair their breakdowns 100 percent and as a result build up scores of toxic feelings and unresolved issues that are never brought to closure. When old wounds are not fully healed, they become infected and love begins to fade. This commandment tells us two ways that people try to hurt the one who hurt them: taking revenge and bearing a grudge.
Taking revenge in marriage means “getting even” or getting back at your spouse. This may look like withholding help or pleasure from your spouse such as intimacy, affection, or any kindness. How often do couples give each other the silent treatment, withdraw or attack the other with accusations or complaints? These are all forms of taking revenge and will obviously extinguish the flames of love.
Bearing a grudge is the other way we try to hurt back. We are bearing a grudge when we say to our spouse, “Okay I’ll help you this time, but don’t think you can get away with what you did to me again!” Or, “I’ll help you, because I don’t want to stoop to your level.” Rate yourself on a scale from 1-10.
7. “LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”
Principle: When we resolve our bad feelings towards others, we create a space for love
The fact that the commandment of love comes last in the series indicates the truth of this principle: love and intimacy cannot flourish and grow in an atmosphere of negative feelings. Bad feelings must me confronted and resolved if you want to stay in love the rest of your life. It’s always easier to ignore our feelings or try to rationalize them away. But this approach never works! The difficult road — and ultimately the only road — is to acknowledge and understand our troubling feelings and take responsibility to work on them. You must make a commitment to be emotionally honest with yourself and your spouse. If you don’t feel the love you want to feel, it is because you and/or your spouse are holding on to bad feelings that have not been dealt with effectively.
Rabbi Noah Weinberg defines love as the pleasure we experience when we identify someone with their virtues, while accepting them with their faults. When there are bad feelings such as anger, resentment, shame, loneliness, and guilt, they cloud our ability to see the good in another person. Negativity always obscures the positive. Only when you’ve created a space for love by removing the negative can you consistently identify and appreciate the virtues in your spouse which generate love. Rate yourself on a scale from 1-10.
* Rabbi Dov Heller, M.A, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who holds Masters Degrees in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University and in Contemporary Theology from Harvard University. He also holds a B.A. in philosophy and was ordained a rabbi in Jerusalem in 1982. He is presently the director of the Aish HaTorah Counseling Center in Los Angeles and in addition to teaching extensively for Aish HaTorah, runs a private practice specializing in adult psychotherapy, marriage counseling, and personal guidance.