“You only want him to change for you,” these wives were told. “You don’t really care about him.”
The thing is, it’s almost impossible to separate one’s personal interest from the bad behavior of one’s spouse. If a husband’s behavior is causing enormous distress to the wife, then how can she filter out her own self-interest from her desire for him to change?
Furthermore, maybe she really doesn’t care about him so much at this point. If he’s been consistently distressing her, maybe she just wants him to knock it off and let her live in peace. Maybe she’s concerned about how his behavior is affecting the kids. Maybe she wouldn’t mind getting divorced, but doesn’t feel like the hassle is worth it.
The thing is, I understand what these well-meaning-yet-pretentious advisers mean. And technically, they’re right: Ideally, we should be focused on what’s good for the other person, and not just what’s more comfortable or pleasant for us.
Why Even the Most Caring Nagging Doesn't Work
This makes you dig in your heels even more.
For example, picture a smoker being nagged by his wife about how bad his smoking smells and how much it bothers her and makes her cough. When that doesn’t work, she explains the damage smoking causes him (as if he didn’t know), which just sounds manipulative to him. He knows that it’s her own discomfort she cares about. Later on, she tells him how smoking can harm their children.
“Nu,” he says, “so I won’t smoke near their bedrooms. Anyway, all the pollution from the cars and factories outside is worse than a couple of cigarettes in the home. Maximum, I’ll open a window or bring home one of those air-cleaner things. What’s the big deal?”
Even if the wife in the above example starts off with the damage smoking causes him, rather than the discomfort it causes her, he can still sense that she’s bothered by the way his smoking affects her, and not just bothered by his potential suffering.
Finally, the wife in the above example is absolutely right: Her husband should stop smoking!
But he won’t.
The Benefit of Compassion...for You
And the wife is absolutely right to demand that a husband change in any of the above areas—both for hers and children’s sake and for his.
Many times, a wife gets someone else to talk to the husband, but this often bears mixed results.
For such a difficult husband, the Pele Yoetz recommends that she try talking to him herself:
…at an eit ratzon [a favorable time] in a pleasant manner, with charm and kindness, this certainly bears more fruits because in truth, they said, “A soft tongue will break a bone.” (Mishlei/Proverbs 25:16)
Yet it’s rare that any of the above types change their behavior just because their wife says it’s hurting her.
Similarly, the Pele Yoetz makes no promises and it’s clear that the above is just a suggestion that is likely to be more effective (“certainly bears more fruits”) than other actions the wife can take, yet the Pele Yoetz ultimately encourages a wife to turn to Hashem as the most effective action:
Included in the love of a woman for her husband is that she should pray for him before God. Since the prayer of a woman emanates from her tender heart and her tears are near, if she calls out to God from the innermost walls of her heart, certainly her prayers will bear fruits.
A woman must also pray for her children because in the well-being of her husband and children, she will find peace and well-being.
And who will have pity on them more than she?
But how can a wife actually filter out a chunk of her own self-interest in order daven for her husband’s well-being? How can she pray for her husband’s well-being from a place of pity and compassion for him?
First of all, the Pele Yoetz assumes a wife feels profound love and compassion for her husband, even though not all wives do today, especially if a wife has been struggling with consistently hurtful behavior from her husband.
And frankly, I don’t know how to tell a wife to feel this way if the feelings just aren’t there. (And like I said, those tender feelings of love and compassion simply may not be there through no fault of her own.)
Judaism is a lot about action and being proactive, whether spiritually or practically. So I think this is a situation where explaining things isn’t very helpful. On the contrary, it’s smarter and more effective to just start doing it, and then you’ll see how it works and how your inner feelings and attitude change.
Needless to say, it’s easier to make this transition if your husband is basically a decent guy, but just has some annoying traits that are holding him back from being his best. If your husband is a real ogre, you may not be able to cultivate these lofty feelings, but the davening can still be very helpful for you to achieve a better outcome, whether that outcome is shalom bayit or divorce or something else.
Like I said in a previous article How to be a REALLY Good Wife, we don’t know all the tikkunim for which God put us here. And it’s certainly difficult to know what other people need to rectify and how. So all this is meant to be helpful, but even the Pele Yoetz himself doesn’t guarantee a desired outcome.
He merely says that davening is often extremely effective and that he expects it to be effective within marriage too, but some people do suffer here a lot despite their best spiritual efforts and that’s impossible to deny.
Tips on Davening for Your Husband’s Sake
It doesn't matter how ridiculous or insignificant it seems.
Here are some suggestions:
- He should have clear traffic any time he travels
- Green lights at every intersection
- A geshmak learning session
- Any elevator should always arrive for him immediately
- Finding favor in the eyes of everyone he meets
- No technical malfunctions
- Not getting caught in the rain
- His shoes should be really comfortable
- He should always be in a shady spot (whether cloud-cover or a tree) when outside in the sun
- Your own idea
Now, if your husband is the kind of guy who takes out his frustration with traffic on you or the kids, then of course you do have personal interest in the above going well for him. That’s also fine.
Spiritual efforts tend to be about what you can do, and not pretending to be on a level or in a situation where you aren’t.
The point is to just start taking even the smallest steps in the ideal direction.
In addition to the davening, when doing the above, you’ll usually notice a change in yourself, however slight. You’ll start to feel more altruistic toward your husband in some way and this is good.
Even if your husband is genuinely a big problem, it’s much healthier and maintains your personal equilibrium to feel pained on his behalf (especially if he is too sunk in his own bad middot to be pained on his own behalf) and go in emuna with Hashem rather than:
“I hate this big, stupid jerk. Why can’t God have married me to a normal person?” or “Men stink.”
The Pele Yoetz also recommends maintaining the awareness that your husband's problems or bad middot aren't your problem, per se, and therefore, his badness doesn't reflect on you personally.
I want to emphasize that self-interest isn’t necessarily bad. The Pele Yoetz certainly acknowledges that a wife can and should also daven for her own self-interest.
A Summary of Principles
Also, I don’t know who I’m talking to. In such a wide audience, you’re going to have a variety of situations.
For example, I’ve personally encountered:
- wives married to decent husbands who don’t appreciate their husband's decency.
- wives married to really good men with much better middot than the wife and the wife doesn’t see it at all (and thus treats him like dirt)
- Problematic wives married to problematic husbands (but she thinks she’s basically fine and that he is the only real problem)
- wives who know they need to and genuinely try to improve their general character married to duds, jerks, or ogres
- wives with exemplary character married to ogres
So the above advice is based on classic Torah sources and personal observations and experiences, but may need to be tweaked to fit your individual circumstance.
What works for one person will not necessarily work for you and vice versa.
In other words, this post offers general principles based on Chazal and not modern psychology, which frees you to adjust any advice therein to suit your own tikkunim and current spiritual level and to keep growing at the pace set for you by God.
The main thing is that you merit to do whatever is the right thing for your personal situation.
To paraphrase a nice prayer appearing in many siddurim:
May Hashem help us all to complete our rectifications in this lifetime without trials or disgrace.