And how to bolster marriage
Nearly all children dream of marriage, yet nearly half of today’s marriages end in divorce. Why is divorce so rampant? Conversely, with divorce so rampant, why do we still marry?
The mystics taught that divorce is a product of chaos. When G‑d first created the world, it was a spiritual but chaotic space. According to the Kabbalah, this chaos resulted from the aggressive and assertive divine energies that filled this primordial world. Each energy focused exclusively on its task, unable to accommodate the others. They operated with independence and disregard, which resulted in chaos.
We are fiercely independent, yet we yearn earnestly to be touched by othersG‑d then created a new order, one of rectitude, which is our world. In this world, the powerful energies are moderated to accommodate and forge connections with each other. The result is a more inclusive and holistic environment, in which each is enhanced by the contribution of others.
It is therefore no surprising that the human, a product of both worlds, is an amalgam of both assertion and accommodation. We are fiercely independent, yet we yearn earnestly to be touched by others. Marriage is a product of our accommodating side, whereas divorce is a product of our assertiveness.1
The Inner Conflict
Let us explore this further. The dual desires for independence and connection are essential to the human soul. Under duress and subjugation, our spirit is suppressed. We yearn for freedom nearly as much as we yearn for life, as in Patrick Henry’s famous cry, “Give me liberty or give me death.” We resist coercion and oppression with every fiber of our being. We yearn to express ourselves freely, to have the space, freedom and wherewithal to do as we choose and be as we are.
Then there is the contrary need to love and be loved, to need and be needed, to touch and be touched. Isolation starves the soul, and is anathema to a happy, healthy human being. So there is a conflict. In our quest for freedom we seek to unshackle ourselves, but in our search for love we seek to bind ourselves.
As children we are raised by parents who love and provide for us. The nurture and comfort we receive from them is vital to our sense of wellbeing and esteem, but there comes a time when we need to break free and embark on our own path. For a while we revel in our newly gained independence, asserting our right to personal freedom. But then a deeper need takes hold, and our soul begins to pine for love. We look to forge connections, to be part of a society, a community, a family and a social network. Most notably, we seek a partner to share our lives.
When we finally find the right person and marry, we revel in our bond, plumb the depths of being that were left untouched in bachelorhood, and soar to the dizzying heights of romantic delight. Then, slowly the realization dawns that gaining love requires the surrender of a significant portion of independence. We are no longer able to choose as we please and do as we feel. We must now take another into account, and do only what is right for both. Many chafe under the burden . . . and tension sets in.
If we forgo our independence in favor of love, we grow resentful of those we loveIf we forgo our independence in favor of love, we grow resentful of those we love. If we jealously guard our independence, we risk alienating the ones we love. There must be a happy medium that enables us to retain our independence and our love.
The Seminal Point
Let us return to the Kabbalists and the order of rectitude. The ability of these divine energies to accommodate each other actually reflects their true nature. Their point of origin is divine, and in their seminal form they are generic to G‑d. Their particular characteristics are assumed at a later point. Thus, their ability to accommodate transcends their differences and engages their root essence, where they are indeed one.
The same is true of ourselves. Our need for independence is a product of our particular interests, inclinations and desires. However, whether inborn or learned, these are not reflective of our seminal point. Our point of origin, our transcendental selves, is our humanity. And humanity is generic—we share it equally. When we accommodate each other, we transcend the outer shell of our particular differences and engage our core humanity. Thus, rather than confining us, accommodation can be a transcendental and liberating experience, an opportunity to engage our truest state of being.
However, this is only true when we choose to accommodate. When accommodation is forced on us, we don’t transcend our differences and engage our common humanity. We remain confined to our outer shell of differences, and are forced by others to give nonetheless. Rather than opening us to our true state of being, such giving restricts our freedom, drains our vitality and shuts us off from our very selves.2,3
Marriage Based on Divorce
As soon as the Torah mentions the word marriage, it presents the laws of divorce.4 It is a jarring juxtaposition, but it carries a potent lesson. It reminds us that marriage and its attendant compromises are not foisted on us. It is a choice we make freely every day. The option to end a marriage is always available, and if we remain in our marriage, it is of our own choosing.
This awareness is the bridge that allows us to retain our independence and our need to connect; it is the ingredient that can save a marriage. If, when making compromises in marriage, we feel set upon and compelled, the marriage can drain our sense of self and wellbeing. If, however, we remember that marriage is a choice and that in it we choose freely to give of ourselves, it actually reinforces our sense of self and independence, because the choice to give can be made only when we are independent enough to make choices.
Independence allows us to be ourselves. Love enables us to give of ourselves. We don’t have to jettison one to attain the other; we can make both work. And when we do, we learn to transcend ourselves.5FOOTNOTES1.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneersohn, Torat Levi Yitzchak, p. 140.
Perhaps this is also the mystical answer for why the Talmud places the laws of divorce ahead of the laws of betrothal. Though betrothal in real life precedes divorce, its spiritual corollary, the order of accommodation, was preceded by the order of chaos.2.
Consider the difference between the philanthropist who chooses to support a social program and the business owner who is taxed to support it. Both give the same amount, but the philanthropist is pleased by his gift: it engages his soul on the deepest level, making him feel worthy and vital. To the business owner, it is a tax burden from which no pleasure is derived.
Giving of our own volition soothes the soul and engages the most profound aspects of our humanity. We cannot help but feel ennobled and generally better about ourselves after such a gift. But when the opportunity to give is snatched from us and we are forced to hand over the money, our spirit is crushed and our souls shackled.3.
Giving of our own volition soothes the soul and engages the most profound aspects of our humanityA friend of mine enjoys a wonderful marriage. He and his wife—let us call them Jacob and Rachel—love and respect one another. But there are, as in almost all marriages, areas of contention. One such area has recently been resolved in the following way.
For years, Rachel felt tense every time she asked Jacob to participate in her family’s affairs. Jacob wouldn’t allow her to accept such invitations on his behalf without first consulting him. She assumed this was because he didn’t enjoy spending time with her family, which distressed her. She loved her family and wanted to spend as much time as possible with them, but she was also loath to drag her husband into uncomfortable situations.
One day she shared her anxiety with him, and explained that she felt caught between her family and her husband. Jacob was surprised to learn of her thoughts. He assured her that he respected and loved her family, and that enjoyed his time with them. “Why are you so adamant that I always check with you before accepting invitations on your behalf?” she asked. “Because I know how much you want me to join your family, and I want to give you this precious gift rather than have it taken,” he explained.
This subtle but important explanation made all the difference. She had completely misunderstood his reticence, and interpreted it as a reluctance to engage with her family. Now that she understood how much he enjoyed her family, and furthermore, that he wanted to turn this time with them into a gift to her, this area of their marriage has indelibly improved.4.
By way of illustration, Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, in his book Ish Ubeiso, explains that we can lock ourselves in our homes for days on end without feeling imprisoned. The moment someone locks the door and incarcerates us, we feel confined. This is true even if the conditions in the home remain entirely unchanged. The same is true of marriage. The very same concession that can make us feel comfortable with our marriage when it is given freely can make us feel confined when we are compelled.
By Lazer Gurkow Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, and a frequent contributor to The Judaism Website—Chabad.org. He has lectured extensively on a variety of Jewish topics, and his articles have appeared in many print and online publications. For more on Rabbi Gurkow and his writings, visit InnerStream.ca.