Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How To Fight with Your Spouse - A Torah Thought from Parshat Lech Lecha

After many, many years of trying, Sarai finally comes to the conclusion that she cannot bear children for her husband. So, in a gracious and personally difficult gesture, she approaches Avram and suggests that he take her maidservant, Hagar, as a wife, and that perhaps she would be able to bear a child for him. Avram agrees, and lo and behold, Hagar conceives a child. As time progresses, Hagar realizes her new importance in the household and begins to assert her independence. The Torah tells us, ותקל גבירתה בעיניה – “her mistress went down in her esteem.” Instead of the respect and reverence that a maidservant owes her mistress, Hagar begins to treat Sarai as an equal – in effect disrespecting her. Sarai realizes that Hagar is getting her cues from Avram, and that he could stop it if he wanted to. Yet, he does nothing – maybe out of indifference, but probably out of ignorance. Yet, Sarai, whether justified or not, blames her husband for her problems.
How does she deal with it? How does she express her feelings to Avram? Does she burn his soup? Does she pout and slam doors, hoping that he’ll get the message? She does none of the above. Instead, her actions give us an important lesson about fighting – not only in a family, but in general.
Sarai takes the bull by the horns, and immediately approaches her husband. Angry about the favoritism that Hagar gets Sarai says: חמסי עליך – I’m angry with you! ישפט ה' ביני ובינך – “God should judge between you and me.” Simple and to the point, Sarai lets her husband know, in no uncertain terms, how she feels about what’s happening to her. In doing so, Sarai teaches us three important lessons about how to argue:
The first lesson about fighting is the need for communication. Sarai doesn’t pull any punches. She doesn’t mope around the house slamming doors, and she doesn’t hide from her husband and shy away from a confrontation. Instead she comes out and says it: חמסי עליך – “I’m angry with you. How could you do this? How can you treat me this way?” In addition, Sarai prevents her emotions from entering into the argument. She doesn’t blow up at her husband, and she doesn’t fly off the handle. While she does argue, she argues with a coolness that allows her husband to see her perspective and appreciate her point of view.
In addition to communicating, Sarai focuses solely on the issue at hand and on what she’s really upset about. She doesn’t bring in all of the things that have been bothering her about how he doesn’t cover the toothpaste, or how he leaves the toilet seat up. All of the peripheral things that we get caught up in are only details. They don’t relate to the root of the problem. Why is it that the toothpaste cap doesn’t bother us when things are going well? Because we overlook the details when we can see the greater picture. It might bother us a little, but it’s not such a big deal that we blow up about it. If we can deal with it when things are good, then we must also deal with it when we’re in an argument as well – and not bring in other issues into a fight. Stay on the subject, and focus only on that subject, and the argument will be a productive one.
Finally, even in argument, Sarai focuses not on what divides them, but instead on what brings keeps their marriage together. Looking at the language Sarai uses in expressing herself, she says, ישפוט ה' ביני ובינך – “God should judge between you and me.” Even in argument, even when they don’t get along, Sarai and Avram remain committed to common goals and a common set of values. Even though they might be arguing, they never remove God from the picture.
There’s a very famous D’var Torah that people love to use at weddings, and it’s very apropos to this topic. We know that the Hebrew word for man is איש. The Hebrew word for woman is אשה. We know that one of the names of God is י-ה. When you take God and godliness away from a marriage, in a sense you remove the name of God – the י"ה from them. When you remove those two letters from the איש and the אשה, what you’re left with is א-ש – fire. So we bless the חתן and the כלה – the groom and the bride – in the following way: we pray that they remain a couple who keeps God in their home and their household, because without God, all their left with is fire – strife and disagreement.
But are we blessing the couple that they should never fight? Is it really realistic that they never have arguments and disagreements? Of course not. Perhaps though, this D’var Torah is not so much teaching how to get along, but how not to get along. You see, when Sarai comes to Avram with a disagreement, she does it from a religious perspective. She never forgets that they have a common mission that forever bonds them together. Therefore, especially when they disagree, they must forever remain mindful of that mission and of that bond. So she says to her husband, ישפוט ה' ביני וביניך – “God will judge between us.” Of course we’re working together, and of course we need each other – but we need to work on how to achieve that common goal. When you argue from that perspective, an argument can be resolved, and peace will ensue. But, when we take the godliness out of the equation – when we fight not from a common perspective, then you really have a war – then you’re left with אש – with fire.
There are times in life when we need to argue – we have legitimate issues that have to be discussed and resolved. This happens in the home, it happens in a shul, and it happens in business. But when we fight, Sarai, through her example reminds us that instead of pouting, and hoping that the other person gets the picture, we must always communicate, never letting our emotions take control of us. When we send “messages,” the other side never really gets the message, and we just get more upset, assuming that they know we’re upset and that they don’t care. Arguing requires clear and controlled communication.
In addition, always stay on the subject. It’s so easy to get into the habit of saying, “You always act this way! You never do this!” Don’t do it! Remaining focused on the point of contention will bring about a resolution. Bringing up every topic under the sun only makes the problem worse, and then the conflict becomes not one of issues, but of personalities.
Finally, especially when arguing, never forget the common goals that bind you together. If you disagree with someone about a family decision, never have the attitude that the other person doesn’t have the family’s best interest at heart. It’s those common goals that will bring about a resolution, and allow you to become even closer after the fight than you were before.