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The Most Common Problem in Marriage | Dr. Meir Wikler

Who should pick up the clothes from the dry cleaners? When should the weekly grocery shopping list be prepared? At what tem­perature should the air-conditioner thermostat be set? Where should the checkbook be kept at home?

Do these issues sound like trivial details of daily life to you? Perhaps you never spent much time (if any) discussing these matters with your spouse. The couples who have haggled, debat­ed and jousted in my office, however, have spent many hours and hundreds of dollars trying to resolve these and similar questions.

At social functions, when I meet people for the first time and they learn what I do for a living, one of the questions frequently posed is, “What is the most common problem in marriages today?”

Then, even before I have a chance to formulate a meaningful reply that can be understood over the electronically amplified roar of the band, they usually propose their own answers. “Raising children. I’ll bet most fights are about how to handle the kids, right?” “It’s finances, isn’t it? Couples can never agree on how to spend their money.” “I know. It has to do with in-laws. Someone’s parents are probably interfering.”

Most of the time, I simply smile, nod my head in agreement and move my lips, pretending to shout over the din of the music. Then I head back to the smorgasbord for a refill. On rare instances, I provide the following in-depth response.

Certainly, couples experiencing marital distress do quarrel about childrearing practices, family finances and in-law relation­ships. But these issues are not the causes of the conflict. Rather, these are the symptoms or the manifestations of the strains and dysfunction in the relationship between husband and wife.

Couples can, and unfortunately do, disagree on what could be considered major issues, such as parenting, finances and extend­ed family, as well as what may be perceived as minor issues, such as who should replace the soap in the shower when it becomes a sliv­er, and whose responsibility it is to remember to fill the car with gas before a long trip. But it is not the issues, topics or subjects of the arguments which are the true causes of the strife. What, then, is the most common problem in marriages? What I believe to be the single most common cause of marital disharmony today is the failure to communicate effectively.

When couples are able to communicate properly, both minor as well as major differences can be resolved without bloodshed. But when couples do not have the necessary marital communication skills, every disagreement no matter how insignificant becomes a critical battle.

Yidel and Mindy have been married for 24 years. During that time, they have probably attended hundreds of chasunahs together as a couple. Regardless, of how many times they have gone to simchas, they still cannot agree on when to leave the house. Needless to say, this is a sig­nificant source of irritation for both of them. Yidel is the organized spouse. He keeps lists of every­ thing and he knows exactly where every household receipt can be found on his desk or in his file cabinet.

Mindy is laid back about details. She knows what she has to do and gets to what is most important, most of the time. But she is not nearly as disciplined and orga­nized as Yidel would like her to be.

When an invitation arrives, Yidel immediately marks the date and time on his calendar and expects Mindy to do likewise, as she has learned to do over the years. The sticky part emerges in determining just when the couple will actually leave the house for the reception.

Yidel likes to be one of the first ones at a chasunah, so he won’t miss any of the guests, entertainment or refreshments. Mindy enjoys socializing and getting out, too, but she would prefer to go when she is ready, even if it means she will miss part of the affair.

In order to avoid conflict, Yidel and Mindy have learned that they should discuss in advance when they will leave for a wedding. But even advanced discussion does not resolve their problem. Yidel pounces on Mindy as soon as the invitation arrives and tries to nail down their time of departure on the date in question. Mindy usually attempts to stall or delay giving a definitive reply until the date of the affair draws closer. Even when she finally responds, she often agrees to a time much earlier than she would pre­fer, simply to placate Yidel. But then when she is not ready to leave at the appointed hour and Yidel has been waiting, fully dressed, for half an hour, the explosion which erupts can put Mt. St. Helens to shame.

Why not let Yidel leave for chasunahs whenever he wants and Mindy will follow whenever she is ready? Wouldn’t that resolve the issue for both of them? And why didn’t one of them think of that compromise? Actually, Mindy did think of that idea and even pro­posed it.

Unfortunately, it was not at all that simple. Even though Yidel and Mindy each have their own car, Yidel is not comfortable going to simchas alone. And even if he could accept leaving at different hours, he simply cannot tolerate going home from an affair by himself. He likes to talk about the celebration with his wife on the way home. And if he and Mindy were to take sepa­rate cars to the chasunah that would mean that they must drive their own cars home — alone, making Yidel feel like a bachelor, which he hates. As a result of this stalemate, almost every time Yidel and Mindy have to attend a chasunah, a shouting match takes place before, during or after the affair.

What is painfully obvious is that Yidel and Mindy have yet to learn how to communicate effectively with each other on this and many other issues. They each know what they want and are very clear as to why they want it. But, so far, they have consistently failed to work out a better system for negotiating with each other. Should we say that the problem disrupting Yidel and Mindy’s marriage is chasunahs? Or, would it be more accurate to attribute the strain in their marriage to their joint inability to resolve dif­ferences with each other?

Some people mistakenly believe that the key to success in mar­riage is finding someone who agrees with them on everything. After all, they reason, if they can find mates with identical tastes, pref­erences and desires then they will have blissful marriages free of any friction or disagreement. Those who look for mates who share all of the same tastes, preferences and desires, however, often find that does not guarantee a happy marriage.

What, then, is the key to success in marriage? What is it that sets the successful marriages apart from the failures?

Good marriages are characterized by the facility with which the couple can negotiate and resolve their differences, not by the absence of disagreements. By the same token, stressful mar­riages are generally those in which the couple has not yet learned how to communicate clearly and effectively without fighting and arguing.

“What is effective communication?” Dovid asked me when he arrived for an initial consultation with his wife, Esther. “I keep begging Esther to make sure there is cold seltzer in the refrigerator when I get home from work but it is almost never there. I even try to put a bot­tle in the fridge the night before. But then she finishes it during the day without replacing it. I know she’s busy at home with the kids. But how long does it take to place seltzer in the fridge?

“I have a long commute on the subway each day. It is hot and crowded on the train in the evening. I don’t mind if supper is not ready, I come home at odd hours and cannot expect my food to be ready the minute I walk in the door. But at least I’d like to refresh myself with a cold glass of seltzer.

“I’m not asking Esther to pour the seltzer and serve it to me. She is usually bathing one of the kids at that time. And believe me; I appreciate all the housework that she does. I certainly don’t think I could manage as well as she does if I had to keep house. But no matter what I do or say, I haven’t been able to get across to Esther how much I need that cold glass of seltzer when I walk in the door.

“You talk about communicating effectively. I used to think that I was a pretty effective communicator. I’m a partner in one of the largest C.P.A firms in the city. But when I try to communicate with Esther about the seltzer, I feel that I’m just not getting through.”

Dovid did not feel that he was being heard at home. And he was right. Esther was not really listening to him. She was not even paying full attention to him when he spoke. And she certainly did not fully understand the depth of his feelings. Of course, part of the problem was that Dovid was not doing a very good job of listening to Esther, either.

During the initial consultation, I explained to Dovid and Esther what I mean by “effective communi­cation.” Both spouses have to feel that they are really and truly heard and understood by each other. In addi­tion, each spouse has to be able to express himself or herself in a clear, civil, constructive and non-confronta­tional, non-accusatory manner.

This is how I put it to Dovid, “When Esther senses that you really understand what is bothering her and how she feels, she will be better able and willing to listen to your concerns and your feelings. And when you learn how to speak without attacking, you will stand a better chance of your message getting through to Esther.”

Dovid took his first step toward avoiding conflicts with Esther when he directed some hostility away from her and channeled it toward me. “Are you suggesting that I have to learn how to speak to my wife?” Dovid asked, rhetorically, with an unmistakable tone of irrita­tion in his voice. “I think I can communicate fairly well with my clients. They have no difficulty understanding me nor do I have any problems understanding them. If I did, I never would have made it to partner in my firm by the time I was 38. It seems that the only one with whom I have difficulty communicating is my wife!”

“So what you are saying, Dovid, is that you don’t under­stand why, at the age of 51, you should have to learn new communication skills, especially since you communicate so effectively at work. Is that right?” I asked.

“Exactly! At least you understand me. Unfortunately, my wife is the only one who doesn’t seem to be able to comprehend what I ask of her.”

I explained to Dovid and Esther that communicating with a spouse is just not the same as speaking with clients or colleagues. The dynamics are different and, in many cases, the stakes are much higher. Spouses are far more interdependent than co-workers or friends.

“You are both very pleasant people,” I said, leaning for­ward in my swivel chair. “And I find that I can speak freely to you. You both understand me and I think I have a good grasp of what each of you is feeling. But I do not have to live with either of you. You, on the other hand, need to learn to live more peacefully with each other. In order to do that, you are going to have to acquire some basic mar­ital communication skills, which I can teach you.”

“If I learn your communication skills, do you think I’ll finally be able to get a cold bottle of seltzer waiting for me in the refrigerator when I get home from work each night?” Dovid wanted to know.

“Well, I cannot guarantee it,” I cautioned. “But I cer­tainly think you’ll have a much better shot at it.”

Improved marital communication is not a one-way ticket to a blissful marriage. Expectations must be realistic. In order to get, it is necessary to give. For example, Esther felt that she needed Dovid to do a better job controlling his temper. She could handle his com­plaints as long as they were not followed by sarcasm or a put-down.

As I told Dovid and Esther, “You must not expect all of your needs to be met once you learn to improve your communication with each other. But you can hope to have more of your needs met than are being met now. The goal of our work is not that you will achieve everything you want. That may not be realistic. But I believe that you can get more from each other and give more to each other than you are getting and giving right now.”

Working on their communication with each other over many weeks eventually led to Dovid learning to control his temper and Esther having cold seltzer waiting for Dovid in the refrigerator at the end of the day — and much, much more.

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Dr. Meir Wikler is a noted psychotherapist and family counselor in full-time private practice with offices in Brooklyn, N.Y. and Lakewood, N.J. He is also a prolific author and sought after public speaker.

This article has been reprinted with permission of the author and publisher from Ten Minutes a Day to a Better Marriage: Getting Your Spouse to Understand You by Dr. Meir Wikler (Artscroll, 2003).

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There are 2 Comments to "The Most Common Problem in Marriage | Dr. Meir Wikler"

  • Wondering says:

    Can we make this a requirement for chassan and kallah classes? This is the nitty gritty of marriage as so clearly explained by Dr Wikler.

  • Wisened says:

    In an answer to wondering-marriages can start off with communication . Couples can get very distracted by child rearing and work. Everyone thinks that it can’t happen to me -even living as truly on track yidden.Healthy communication skills start during the formative years-I.e. childhood. Food for thought…