In a Perfect World
The pool sparkles in the sunshine as a pair of would-be swimmers arrive. Let’s watch the way the two of them approach the water.
The first, a hardier sort, or perhaps simply more impulsive, plunges right in. She endures the icy shock and, seconds later, is splashing merrily about. Her companion, however, has a different method. She is more cautious. She takes her time.
First, she extends a tentative toe toward the water to test the temperature. When she has finished shrieking about how freezing it is, she begins to ease her way into pool, inch by inch. With every step, she pauses to assess the situation. How cold does she feel now? How much more exposure to the water is she willing to risk? And so on, for several long minutes, until she is finally immersed and can start having fun.
People enter a room more-or-less the same way. One individual will throw open the door and barge right in. Without thinking much about it, he expects those gathered inside to instantly adapt to his presence and his agenda. With little or no finesse, he makes his presence known. “Pay attention! I’m here!”
Obviously, this kind of entrance calls for a certain degree of both self-confidence and self-centeredness. The newcomer is convinced, rightly or wrongly, that he has much to contribute to whatever is taking place inside the room. Oblivious to the atmosphere, he may blunder into a sensitive situation without realizing it. He hits the ground talking, eagerly sharing whatever is on his mind and feeling insulted if the others do not seem to be all that interested.
Like a snail, he carries his world with him wherever he goes. Like a child, he assumes that he is as fascinating to everyone in the room as he is to himself.
Another individual, either less confident or more socially aware, opens the door in a more tentative way, figuratively poking in a toe to assess the room’s temperature. She eases into the gathering, trying to figure out what took place before she got there. She has no desire to draw immediate attention to herself before she knows what’s going on. Instead of talking, she first spends some time listening. Assessing. Feeling her way.
We engage in this kind of process all the time. When speaking to a child, we study his face with each word we say, to gauge whether he understands what we’re telling him. If we pick up on some incomprehension, we instinctively simplify our vocabulary and adjust our syntax to suit the child’s level. A good teacher will do the same thing in front of the classroom: feeling her way as she adjusts her modalities, in an effort to reach her students.
Whether or not we are aware of it, we feel our way through our relationships, too.
Remember the last time you made a new friend? Because you are strangers to one another, you take nothing for granted. You don’t know if your brand of humor will delight or disgust her. You have no idea if your conversation will engage her or bore her. So you take gradual steps, from the initial meeting through the various initial and largely superficial stages, making instinctive adjustments as you go.
If your new friend laughs heartily at something you’ve said, you make a mental note of it. If she gives you a blank stare when you touch on a certain topic, you learn to steer clear of that topic in the future. When you’re late and she gets annoyed, you remember to leave earlier the next time.
These constant, almost subliminal adjustments are the method by which we feel our way through to greater closeness.
Since marriage is the closest and most intense relationship there is, we need to feel our way here, too. From the moment we step out from under the chuppah, we are engaged in a learning process. It is a process that can take a lifetime.
On the way, there are certain pitfalls to be wary of. One of them is imitating that hapless fellow who bursts into a room without taking the time and trouble to assess the atmosphere. The person who insists that the group’s attention revolve around his personal interests, instead of adapting himself to the group’s agenda.
If a person goes into marriage feeling needy because of a difficult childhood or self-esteem issues, he or she may make the mistake of expecting the spouse to conform fully and automatically to whatever those needs are. Alternatively, this kind of self-centeredness can also arise from arrogance. But whether the expectation comes from strength or weakness, that marriage partner has a lesson to learn. And that less is this: nobody has the right to demand that their partner completely recreate themselves in order to be what the other person wants, or even what he needs.
I remember once attending a Sheva Brachos where the new husband gave a speech in which he went on and on about how much he expected to gain from his new wife. I would have preferred if he’d focused less on what he planned to get from her and more on what he hoped to give her. The young chosson seemed to be entering the married state with the stated intention of being a taker. Not a great idea.
Every person is a whole universe. When you link your lot with someone, you need to take into account the fact that his universe is as important to him as yours is to you. That means that not all your happy-ever-after expectations will necessarily look the way you hoped they would. Neither of your needs and dreams takes precedence over the other’s. Each of you must feel your way gently, with compassion and understanding, toward the fuller understanding that eventually leads to a fuller acceptance. Each of you must be willing to compromise on your rosy expectations, in the cause of building a more beautiful whole.
Another common pitfall is the “Read My Mind” syndrome. That’s when a person says of her spouse, “If he really cared for me, he would know what I want!” As if the act of standing under the chuppah side by side invested him with a magical ability to know the inner workings of your mind.
If you want your partner in life to know what you’re thinking, there’s a simple solution: tell him. Communicate honestly and openly. Don’t leave him floundering in confusion, and certainly don’t punish him for getting it wrong.
It’s not his responsibility to know the contents of your mind. It’s yours. And if, like so many of us, you occasionally struggle with a lack of self-awareness, it’s your job to figure yourself out. To seek help doing so, if necessary. To dig deep inside and figure out why you feel the way you do… and then tell your partner all about it so he can help.
Like a good parent, a good teacher, or any sensitive individual entering a new room or situation, it behooves us to feel our way carefully and gently through the various stages of a burgeoning relationship. This is doubly true in the case of marriage. That’s because, to continue our analogy of separate universes, getting married is like taking off in a rocket ship to explore another galaxy: a journey into the unknown.
The only way to reach our destination is by carefully feeling our way through the planets, asteroids and whirling debris of outer space. Letting our internal radar ping us away from the wrong direction… and letting our own heaven-sent intuition guide us, as we feel our way toward the happiness and harmony on which we’ve so hopefully set our sights.