When you get married everyone tells you how marriage is hard work, Of course, you were too much in love to believe it. Everything is perfect. Why provide such a gloomy forecast? While I don't believe in scaring couples or bursting their bubble, if we could strip these predictions of their negative implications, we may be better equipped to deal with what lies ahead.
If the hard work of marriage means I need to hold my tongue and take abuse from my wife or the next fifty years , or I need to ignore the fact that my husband never listens to me, then the future is dismal. However, if it means that conflict is inevitable and there are tools out there that will help us transform our quarrels into connection and real love, then there is a greater more elevated purpose for this power struggle. The latter is the true definition of a test. We aren't challenged in life to make our lives miserable. We are met with challenges to make us greater people. That is why the Midrash (Breishis Rabba 55:11) teaches that the word for test/challenge, 'nisayon', means to be lifted up high (l'hisnoses) like a banner (nes). these trials serve to elevate us.
What about a test, elevates us? Is it merely that we persevere amidst adverse circumstances? The paradigm of nisayon, a test, is Avraham Avinu, our patriarch Avraham. The Mishna (Avos 5:4) teaches that G-d tested him ten times and he withstood them all. The most famous and most difficult of Avraham's tests was the final one, the Akeidas Yitzchok, the binding of his son to be brought as a sacrifice to G-d. While this is a horrifyingly difficult task for any father, what makes it more challenging than the first test, in which Avraham gave up his own life for G-d by jumping into a fiery furnace, only to be miraculously saved? (This first test occurred before G-d had even revealed Himself to Avraham, yet he was willing to sacrifice himself!)
Furthermore, why is it even considered Avraham's test (the Torah - Breishis 22:1 - prefaces the story by saying that "G-d tested Avraham")? It should have been considered Yitzchak's test as he was 37 years old and could have decided whether or not he wanted to take part in this event. If he had declined, Avraham would not be penalized on his son's account as Yitzchok was an adult!
The Zohar (Vayera 119b) explains that the reason the Akeidah was considered to be Avraham's test was that he needed to integrate the attribute of din. judgement/restraint, into his personality, for he did not possess this trait at all until this moment; for previously, he had been the epitome of chesed, kindness. Thus, the test was that Avraham was compelled to act against his nature and, as a result, become a more whole and balanced person. What the Zohar is teaching us, is that a nisayon, a test, elevates us because it challenges us to grow in ways taht are beyond our comfort zone.
Avraham's last test was the most difficult, more difficult than risking his own life, because he had to overcome in overwhelmingly kind nature to be willing to perform this most cruel and repugnant act. This explains why being in a relationship may very well be the hardest thing you will ever do. Every conflict or challenge you will face in your marriage is actually a call for you to grow towards each other and connect in a deeper way. While you may experience a feeling of completeness when you get married, that will likely be short lived. It is the growth through the ensuing difficulties that will take you to the state of wholeness that our Rabbis describe for the married couple. The reason for this is that you will likely marry someone who wants and needs you to change in exactly the areas you need to change in order for you to become more whole.
We are always growing in relationship, but we are not always conscious of it. When I work with couples, I have them do an exercise at the beginning of every session, where they tell each other about the 'stretches' they made this week for their spouse. They also state the reason they made that particular stretch. A stretch is something that we consciously do for the sake of their relationship. It can be as little as "I closed the cap on top of the toothpaste this week because I know how much it bothers you when I don't" or as big as "when you told me you were quitting your job, I listened without getting hysterical."
The point of verbalizing these stretches is two-fold. For those who make the stretch, this exercise helps them become more aware of acting consciously for their spouse. I have couples tell me they are more conscious about making stretches because they know they will have to share a stretch at our session. Besides being afraid of me yelling at them for not doing their homework (just kidding!), it teaches them to be more aware about their behavior towards their partner.
Second, on the receiving end, it is valuable to know that your spouse is consciously stretching for you. This is a message that needs to be reinforced. Sharing stretches brings couples closer together. We often forget how much we do for each other or we take it for granted how something that may be so easy for us to do, may be extremely difficult for our spouse. We begin to have compassion for our partner. It means a lot more knowing how much of a stretch it must have been.
With the strengthening of the empathetic bond between the couple, it is more likely that they will continue to make even greater stretches for each other. Not only will this improve their relationship and create a sense of wholeness in the couple, it will also allow the individuals to become more complete people. An impulsive wife will become more thoughtful. A methodical husband will be come more spontaneous. This is true growth, being challenged to leave behind our comfort zone.
Perhaps this is why our morning prayers begin with this story of the Akeidah, to constantly remind ourselves that our greatest challenge/test is to do what is most against our nature. It serves to remind us throughout the day that we need to stretch for others and that is precisely in those difficult moments that we can achieve our greatest growth.
This also can explain why we read the Akeidah on Rosh Hashana. As we face the upcoming year, it is an opportune time to reflect on our areas of growth and to develop insight into how we can become more complete people in our relationship with Hashem and with our fellow man. It is also an opportune time to consider how the challenges we encounter in our marriages can serve to attain greater completeness.
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Marriage Book: How to Improve Your Relationship One Jewish Holiday at A Time.