Q: Our 31-year-old son just informed us that he is planning to separate from his wife. We are devastated at this news because they have three children and we would not want them to get divorced. He and his wife have been married for seven years. For the first five, we did not know he was having any marital problems. During the past two years, we have seen and heard evidence that they were having shalom bayis issues. But we never suspected it was this serious.
We asked our son if he would consider marital counseling before taking such a drastic step. He then revealed to us that he is seeing an individual therapist to help him decide what to do about the marriage. But he is resistant to marriage counseling because he is convinced his wife “will never change.” Then he told us that he briefly had tried marriage counseling “a couple of times,” in the past with no success.
We don’t know anything about the therapist he is seeing. But we are glad he is discussing things with someone who can guide him. What troubles us is that he is unwilling to give marriage counseling another try. Can you give us any suggestions as to how to convince him to try again before he breaks up his family?
A: As the saying goes, if I had a nickel for every time someone asked me how to convince someone else to enter therapy, I would be very rich by now. Chazal have taught (Taanis 7a), however, regarding Torah, “If a talmid is proper [i.e., he is motivated to learn, then the following passuk applies to him]: ‘Bring water to the thirsty’ (Yeshayah 21:14). And if [he is] not [proper, then this passuk should be applied]: ‘Whoever is thirsty; let him go to [find] water’ (Yeshayah 45:1).” Similarly, all forms of therapy are more successful when people seek help on their own. Efforts to convince people who are resistant, therefore, are usually futile. Considering the high stakes involved here, however, with three young, emotionally vulnerable children at home, any and all efforts must be made to persuade your son to reconsider his opposition to marital counseling.
What you need to point out to your son, therefore, is that marital counseling is not about changing one’s spouse. Personality change is not the objective. As Harav Yisrael Salanter, zt”l, once said, “The hardest thing in the world to change is a middah.” And he said that about someone attempting to change his own character traits. When one tries to alter someone else’s middos, however, it is practically impossible.
Rather, the goal of marital therapy is to improve the marriage relationship. And personality change is not required to achieve that objective. As I point out in my book, Ten Minutes a Day to a Better Marriage (Artscroll, 2003), when couples learn to communicate more effectively, they can resolve almost any conflict. Even long-standing, thorny stalemates can be worked out using proper problem-solving techniques. And personality change is not a prerequisite for improving a couple’s communication. All that is needed is a willingness to deal with old problems in a new way.
Sometimes complex concepts are more easily understood if they are explained by way of analogy. Try this one with your son.
Suppose he went to an ATM. He punched in his account number, checked his balance and then tried to make a withdrawal. No money came out. He tried again with the same results. Would he simply walk away and assume the ATM was out of cash? Would he conclude that ATMs never work? Or would he at least entertain the thought that he may have pushed the wrong buttons, in which case he might need some help in working the machine?
Marriage can be compared to an ATM machine. It may have the potential to provide what you are looking for, but only if you know which buttons to push. If people are unhappy in marriage, it may not be because either spouse must make major personality changes. It may simply be because each spouse is bringing out the worst in the other by pressing the wrong buttons. In marriage counseling, couples learn how to hit the right buttons to bring out the best in each other.
Finally, all therapy can be compared to shidduchim. With shidduchim, someone may be right for one person yet poison for another. Similarly, not every therapist is best suited to treat every patient. If your son and his wife did not succeed with their first attempts at counseling, therefore, that does not mean they should abandon hope, concluding that counseling is of no benefit. Rather, they should continue their search for a therapist who will be able to help them.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.