Parallel Play

Having raised children in both places, I can testify that playtime is a lot less complicated in Eretz Yisroel than it is in the United States. Our Har Nof building offered running hot-and-cold friends for my kids. The staircases leading from floor to floor were frequently populated by children of all sizes, traipsing up and down after school or on Shabbos afternoons to visit their pals. Another handy playground was the lobby. Not much had to be arranged in advance. Playdates sprouted organically, day by day.

Not so in this part of the world. People live in their individual homes, surrounded and isolated by driveways and streets. Playdates have to be pre-planned, and transporting the youngsters to them often involves a four-wheel vehicle of one kind or another. After the ease and spontaneity of apartment-building living, it takes some getting used to.

But kids at play have certain things in common, wherever they may be. One of them is that, below a certain age, they don’t really play together at all. Observers of young children will notice them seated side by side, each absorbed in his or her plaything or imaginative scenario. Though they scarcely acknowledge one another’s existence, they seem to enjoy a certain camaraderie in this kind of parallel play. And it doesn’t end with early childhood.

Picture a group of siblings sitting around the dining-room table, doing their homework. Clearly, there are different assignments being addressed. They are laboring side-by-side, yet they are working individually. Similarly, mothers and daughters may be in the kitchen “making Shabbos” together though each is involved in a different recipe. Ditto for co-workers toiling alongside one another in factories or offices: parallel play in the workplace.

When it comes to marriage, a parallel existence is part of the very structure of the relationship. To a greater or a lesser extent, the roles of husband and wife are played out in their individual spheres. True, every marriage is different; each has its own, unspoken “contract.” But whether the domestic duties are rigidly or more flexibly divided, whether the pair tackles some chores together or each stays strictly within their own domain, couples generally spend a good chunk of their time doing their own thing. They work side-by-side, so to speak, within the framework of the marriage, each fulfilling his or her individual responsibilities. It is a system that, by a large, has worked beautifully for a long, long time.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work so well. Like everything else about human beings and their relationships, there exists a spectrum. It spans the gamut of personalities, from extreme individualism at one end to extreme neediness at the other. Many young women get married with the dream that she and her spouse—a.k.a. her new best friend—will spend far more time together than will ultimately be the case. Many a young man dreams of a wife endowed with endless time and energy, all available for him. These rosy dreams, as they both quickly learn, are not consonant with reality. Jobs, children, religious and household obligations, and a simple need for personal space get in the way of this ideal of togetherness. And most of the time, that’s fine. That’s just the way it is. That’s life.

The problems creep in when one member of the couple (and this can apply to a friendship or any other close relationship as well) has stronger needs for togetherness than the other. He wants to take a Friday-night walk together, while she’d rather curl up with a magazine. She wants him to participate in every agonizing decision pertaining to their home renovation; he’d prefer to go to the bais medrash. His view of marriage is eighty percent “parallel play,” where each of them inhabits their own sphere of duties and pastimes and spends the remaining twenty in each other’s company. Her view would drastically pare that percentage down by half or more. Or the opposite can be true… His attitude hurts her feelings; she feels rejected, unwanted. Her attitude makes him feel smothered. Or vice-versa…

An individual’s instinctive approach toward “alone” and “together” time comes from the depths of their basic personalities, a bottom line that’s hard to change. A loner will naturally opt for a great deal of solitude, with just a sprinkling of togetherness to give him a sense of family. An extrovert, or someone with a deep need for connection, will crave far more. And a person with boundary issues may yearn for and demand a vastly unrealistic amount of attachment.

The discrepancy between the couple’s needs in this area can lead to all sorts of nasty misunderstandings, resentments and guilt. After all, a person just wants to do what comes naturally, right? But what do you do when your life-partner’s “natural” is different from yours?

The answer: the same thing you do in any area where differences arise: You hear each other out respectfully. You try to work out a compromise position. And you slowly train yourself to live within the borders of that compromise.

This training can be both conscious and unconscious. Each member of the couple may actively work to adapt to the other’s needs and attitudes toward work and play, keeping that goal at the forefront of their consciousness. At the same time, armed with a clearer understanding of each other’s needs and preferences, they intuitively learn to mold themselves to one another’s reality without much conscious thought. And while that’s happening, a tiny miracle of adaptation begins to take place.

Gradually, because you care about the other person and want to build the best relationship possible, you begin to find it easier to set aside your agenda in favor of his. You allow the breeze of your newfound understanding of where he’s coming from blow away the clinging dust of resentment. Hopefully, he is undergoing a similar process. With time and good will, a new plateau is reached. One where neither party gets the fullest, rosiest, dream-come-true of what they’d hoped for in marriage, but where everybody gets something. Best of all, they have the knowledge that their spouse cares enough to try to change for the sake of the relationship. That counts for a lot.

Time, and the ongoing effort to reach that plateau, can bring about an ironic and almost humorous outcome. I knew a woman who craved frequent DMCs while her husband, of a more practical bent, had little patience for the nuances of relationship development. After many clashes, disappointments and perhaps a few tears as well, they finally began to recognize and accept who the other was and what they needed. They eventually achieved a peaceful truce that tended toward the practical rather than the emotional side of things. She learned to diminish her emotional needs or to displace them to her children, hitching her star to the goal of living contentedly with her husband in a largely “parallel play” type of relationship. And then, in an interesting twist, during a difficult phase in his life the husband began pressing her for more DMCs. Now that she’d finally managed to move away from bringing a more emotional nuance into their marriage, he found that he missed and wanted it!

All of which stands as testimony to the fact that no relationship is stagnant. Like the people who form them, they are constantly growing, changing, evolving. Nobody ever gets everything they want, but with time and good will, a place can be reached where everyone gets something. And that place is filled with the kind of comfort and harmony, which (to quote the Lorax) everyone, everyone, everyone needs!