Eternal Harmony

Eternal Harmony

While standing under the chuppa, what couple doesn’t hope for eternal shalom bayit, lasting marital harmony?  The partners fervently pray that they should feel as good about each other in the many years of their upcoming life together as they do on their wedding day.  In fact, not only do they hope to feel as positive in the future as they do now, but they want those feelings to deepen as the marriage progresses.  Along with these expectations is the unspoken idea that being happily married means being constantly close with your partner, and not ever wanting to be apart.

It seems to make sense.  If you are happy with each other, then you should want, and be able, to be close all of the time.

It therefore can be a bit disconcerting that the Torah, in accordance with the laws of Family Purity, should tell a couple that at certain times of the month they may not be physically intimate with each other.  If the Torah wants a couple to build an everlasting home together, why does it instruct couples to pull apart on a regular, often monthly basis?

For many couples, this time of month can be tense and stressful.  On the surface, it seems that not being together creates more friction, which affects sholom bayis, marital harmony.  So why would the Torah insist on this type of relationship?  It seems to go against human nature, as well as common sense.

Surprising (or not so surprising ) as it may sound, research concerning marital satisfaction supports the Torah view – that a key to a lasting and satisfying marriage is to help couples to separate in a predictable way.  Why should this be?

First, research suggests that couples should have the emotional resources to be close to each other all of the time.  Contrary to what is portrayed in pop songs and TV shows, being too close for too long can lead to marital tension.

Part of being close means being attentive to the other person’s needs and putting aside your own desires in order to respond.  It also means opening yourself up to the other person. 

Although this type of intimacy is critical for a marriage, it can be stifling when it becomes too close or lasts too long.  The above description may sound a bit abstract.  Yet, we all know that feeling we’re being smothered is like feeling as if we’ve lost a  part of ourselves.

What usually results, marriage therapists suggest, is a sort of emotional thermostat which goes off, signaling to the partners that they need to back off.  One or both might feel the need for more privacy, more personal space.  The challenge for any couple is to be able to give each other this space in a constructive, non-threatening way.

Often a chance which would allow the partners more independence triggers negative feelings such as anger or rejection.  For example, rather than interpret the emotion of one partner as a need for privacy, the other might feel as if he or she is being abandoned.

A wife might say to herself, “Why is he less interested in me these days?”  Either spouse could take it personally – “What am I doing wrong?” – or become angry:  “How could he do this to me?”…."She’s got some nerve.”  Similarly, the person doing the backing off says, “I need some space.  Why is he being so intrusive?”

One can see how this cross-signaling can lead to more tension and often more fighting.  The theories of marriage satisfaction suggest that the fighting serves as a way of giving the partners distance from each other, since an argument, at least in the short run, usually results in their emotionally pulling apart.

Perhaps now we can appreciate the wisdom of the Torah in its instructing couples to physically separate on a monthly basis.  The Torah provides a structure for privacy in a constructive way.  The Laws of Family Purity can circumvent some of the fighting, since the partners have another way of distancing themselves.

When a couple separates because a woman has become a niddah (begun to menstruate) blaming and personal hurt do not take place.  For example, it would be a bit absurd for a husband to say, “Why is my wife not interested in being with me?”  This is because the separation is mandated from an objective source, and does not emanate from within the marriage itself.  (Of course, when for whatever reason, the period of separation becomes extended, stress can result, and must be addressed.)

The separation associated with the mitzvah of mikvah also helps the couple to enjoy intimacy when they are allowed to be together.  Since the partners know they will be separating in the future, it is easier to be completely invested in and committed to each other.  They can be intimate more fully during this time.

Besides allowing couples to separate in a non-threatening way, the Laws of Family Purity also ensure that the excitement husband and wife first experience continues throughout the marriage.  The disillusionment or the fear of disillusionment that can come with familiarity and the more mundane aspects of marriage is a problem that the secular world has tried to respond to with great vigor.  In today’s society there is no lack of remedies for couples who are tired or bored with each other.  Travel agencies promote vacations in far-off lands with scenes of romantic evenings together.  The underlying message is that the exotic element of the trip will add zest to your marriage.

In the same vein, sex therapists have no shortage of business.  Techniques are numerous.  The intent of these new solutions is to some extent correct, although the methods are often obviously unkosher.  The sexual relationship can reflect on and contribute to the overall satisfaction of a marriage.

Once again the Torah offers an incredibly simple yet brilliant solution, one which parallels suggestions offered by mental health professionals.  By having partners separate, it heightens the physical attraction husband and wife have for each other.  The longing is obviously much stronger after having not been together for two weeks than had the couple never been apart.  Rather than having to rely on different or more stimulating ways of physical intimacy, the separation in and of itself ensures a  rejuvenation. 

It is true that the expectations which occur prior to a woman’s going to the mikvah need to be dealt with.  The couple needs to learn how to express what some of the expectations are. Nonetheless, coping with the anticipation of being together is a much easier problem than the difficulties that arise from couple’s being bored or uninterested in each other.

Yet another fringe benefit, of the Laws of Family Purity, has to do with helping the couple learn to be close in other ways besides the physical.  As any married person knows, being affectionate to your spouse is an easy way to convey many messages.  Most importantly, it conveys loving, caring and closeness.  It is a sort of across-the-board statement and reassurance of the couple’s feelings about one another.

A verbal statement, however, is more specific.  Giving your husband or wife a hug is like saying “I love you” without specifying how.  It’s the equivalent of somebody who says “Thank you” to another person but does not articulate what he or she is thankful for.  Since a hug or a kiss can mean so many things, the communication can become a bit sloppy.

Preventing the couple from being physically intimate requires the partners to find alternative ways of being close and expressing their love for each other.  During the time that they are apart, they must articulate the subtitles underneath the hugs and the kisses.  This requires effort.  But it leads to a healthier relationship, since the couple has multiple ways of knowing each other.

A wife needs to show an interest in her spouse, for example, by asking about the aspects of his life that are important to him, and vice versa.  It is easier for a spouse to give his/her partner a kiss after a day at the office than to ask about the important events of his/her day.  However, the emotional glue that develops from the latter kind of conversation is more enduring and substantial.

Obviously, the Laws of Family Purity are no guarantee of marital bliss.  Yet some of the counter-intuitive, not so obvious psychological benefits of this mitzvah may have been made a bit clearer in this article   Nothing is automatic, yet keeping the laws of mikvah does provide a framework for allowing the couple to be simultaneously intimate and independent.

Partners still need to work towards allowing each other as well as themselves independence, while encouraging the relationship to grow and deepen.  As is true in all other areas of life, G-d provides us with the tools to perfect ourselves.  It is up to us to recognize them and use them in a positive way.  The mikvah is one tool that is available to us as we strive to become better.

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