Stresses on Modern Marriage

Posted August 14, 2012 by Garrett R. Smith
Categories: Uncategorized

One could argue that there has never existed a time where there was more expectations and strains on a marriage as there are now in the U.S.  We live in a mobile society, often moving from one place to the other, being pulled away from the security of community and family relationships.  We live isolated lives, with often few if any deep and long lasting relationships.  We live highly independent, often time crunched stressful lives.  We don’t even have time for quality relationships much less be able to invest in deep relationships.  Thus where traditionally our relational needs may have been met by a variety of friends and family members, it now often is expected to come entirely from our marriage. We not only want our spouse to be our lover, co-parent, and provider, but they are to be our playmate, our business partner, our confident, our counsel, our accountability, and both our comforter and our strong rock in times of trouble.  Who can possibly ever be all those things to another person?


Commitment: The Path to Finding Shalom in Marriage

Posted July 17, 2012 by Garrett R. Smith
Categories: Uncategorized

One of my favorite questions to ask a couple when they come to me for pre-marital counseling is why they want to get married.  Often the answer is something like “we love each other.”  An inward smile forms as I follow up by asking them to explain more specifically what they mean. Almost without exception, the initial reaction is a blank stare.  Love is one of those words that we just love to use, often without much thought to what it means exactly.  I usually let the awkwardness hang for a while, as the couple struggles to form a definition. “Is it a special feeling toward the other?” I suggest, or “kind of like, like, only really liking the other a lot — super like?”  “Is it a kind of affection, like you feel for a puppy?”  “How do you know when you have it?”  I ask.  More important, what will you do if — more likely when — you stop feeling it for each other? Does that mean it’s time to stop the marriage?

I remember one young man coming to ask for some relationship advice.  He was in his early 30s, unsure which of a number of women he should pursue.  “I want to be married so bad,” he said, then went on to share this fear:  “I was infatuated with a woman when I was 18; I couldn’t believe the strength of the feeling I had for her.  Now, I am afraid that I will be disappointed with anything less, so I am looking for a woman that makes me feel that way.”  His strategy was to spend time with various women, hoping one would rekindle an emotion he felt as a teenager.  I asked him, “Have you ever met a couple who have been married a very long time, whose marriage you hope to emulate?  What do you suppose they feel for each other after all those years of marriage?    I reminded him, with a smile, that the fate of each of us is to become progressively older and uglier; perhaps it is not infatuation that sustains a marriage.

The secret of marriage is not a couple’s feelings of love toward each other. It is not their compatibility or common interests. Those things come and go.  The secret is commitment.  It is commitment that defines marriage, commitment that keeps a couple together, commitment that brings feelings of love, commitment that brings shalom (peace and wholeness) in the midst of a chaotic world.

Everything you need to know about commitment is right there in the standard marriage vows.   When you get married, you vow to love your spouse.  But how can you promise to feel an emotion?  You cannot.  Love is not a feeling; it is a decision.  It is a choice to treat your spouse in a loving way. The essence of marital commitment is the decision to love and cherish one person as long as you both shall live — in essence, to be joined together.

The Bible offers a helpful illustration of this concept.  The Bible says when a husband and wife marry, they become, “one flesh (Genesis 2:24).”    Unity in marriage means two people think of themselves not as individuals but as halves of a single body. So what are the implications of that?  A husband is to care for his wife as he would care for his own body.  A wife should no more deny ownership of her husband’s issues than she should react to a sore finger by saying, “Well, that’s my hand’s problem.”

This may seem unrealistic, but we actually  do it well in other relationships.  For example, when a couple has a child, that child is literally flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone.  Parents instinctively recognize the need to care for the baby as they would care for themselves.  The baby’s needs are automatically their own.  If the baby needs something, it is as if the parents need it themselves.  In fact, parents will often sacrifice their own needs for the baby.  Even in moment when they do not like their child, the parents’ commitment to love the child never wavers.

Now, in marriage, we do not experience the same biological connection we do through birth, so perhaps a better analogy for the commitment of marriage is adoption.  In adoption, a person chooses to be committed to a particular child.  This is what happens when you marry: You commit for life to someone, just the same as when you adopt a child.

But what about feelings?  Aren’t we supposed to have feelings of love in marriage?  I remember a man who came to see me, wanting to leave his wife.  “I just don’t have feelings for my wife anymore,” he said, as if he were powerless over his condition. Unsaid but obvious was this sentiment: If I want to be happy and true to myself, I can’t stay in this loveless relationship.  It was as if the vow of commitment to his wife was some oppressive vestige of a traditional society.  Can you imagine hearing someone say that about their child? “I just don’t have feelings for my child anymore.  It would be wrong for me to continue to be their parent.”  The problem is not that we are imprisoned by ancient, traditional values; it is that we misunderstand where “feelings” of love come from.

Feelings of love are the blossoms, not the roots, of commitment Feelings of love grow for the person you choose to give them to.  My advice to the man without feelings for his wife was to renew his vows of commitment to his wife, to love and cherish her; in giving himself to the care of his wife, he would again find feelings for her.  Indeed, unless he discovered this truth, he would set himself up for a series of relationships he would end up regretting.  Those relationships would be about getting rather than giving.  In those sorts of relationships, when you stop getting what you want from your spouse, you dispose of them for another. You become narcissistic and perpetually unsatisfied.

A lasting and satisfying marriage involves two people who are committed to unconditionally loving and cherishing one another.  This is the hunger of our hearts.  We long to be accepted and loved unconditionally.  Too often we feel only as good as what we can produce or do, and we are terrified of failure, always hiding our weaknesses.   We long for someone who will accept us and love and cherish us, apart from our actions.  Marriage is that redemptive island of shalom in a sea of strife.  Think of the wonder and security of a marriage in which both partners are given over to the care and love of the other.  When they see their union as indivisible, when each knows that without a doubt, the other will be there, “for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health to love and to cherish as long as we both shall live,” when this commitment is true, there is complete security, trust and joy.

We live in a society where words like commitment, discipline and obligation are not very popular; they are often replaced by self-fulfillment, growth and self-actualization.   But if you want to have the kind of marriage that endures and that fills the hunger of you heart and delivers the peace you so desperately crave, then it is words like commitment and discipline that you need to embrace.

But that is too difficult, some say.  I agree it is hard but, traditionally, families and communities — even the vows and marriage ceremony — were designed to strengthen the bond of commitment in marriage. We need to let our communities and families support us and renew our vows as a couple informally on a frequent basis.  For me, faith in Jesus plays a critical piece.   I find that in order to unconditionally love and be committed to my wife, I need to be secure and ever cognizant of the unconditional love and grace I receive from God.  I can love because I have been loved.

Despite the strains on marriage in our current society and the confusions about love, good marriages are still present, and it is very possible to have a long and satisfying marriage.  And while there are many ways to have a good marriage, the foundation stone will always remain commitment.

– published in Moral Relativism, July, 2012 Edition

Secrets to a Successful Jewish Intercultural Marriage

Posted August 17, 2011 by Garrett R. Smith
Categories: Uncategorized


Commitment is the Key to Making any Marriage Work (Marriage According to Genesis 2)

Genesis 2 belongs to both Jewish and Christian Scriptures.  It is probably the foundational passage in the Bible in establishing meaning of marriage.  I also think it provides a key to a successful Jewish Intercultural marriage.  It’s the idea that a married couple is actually a single unit, and that changes dramatically the way a couple behaves towards one another and deals with differenes.

Gen. 2:18, 21-25

 The LORD God said,  “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said,  “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

A question we are immediately presented with when looking at this text is why was Eve taken from Adam’s rib (or perhaps better translated, side)?  Everything besides the man and woman were made out of nothing.  God just created it.  But not so with Eve, she was not made just out of nothing. Here, God used something specific to form this wife for Adam.  He used a part of Adam, his rib (side).  Why? Why not simply make Eve out of the dust like Adam, or out of nothing?

Well, I think it had to do with helping us understand the nature of marriage.  Adam said she is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.  Eve was actually a part of Adam’s body.  The text goes on to say, that for this reason, when a husband and wife get married, they become one flesh. So what are the implications of that?  A husband or wife, are to care for the other as they would care for their own body.  They are no longer two but one. For a married person, there is no caring for themselves outside of a context of caring for their spouse.  That is a tremendous responsibility but also a blessing.  For think of the tremendous trust and security that comes in a marriage when both partners see each other as just as important as themselves.  When the needs, worries and cares of the other are just as if they were their own.

I think the beauty of the one flesh marriage, can best be illustrated with the relationship between parents and their children.  Think of when a child comes to a marriage.  The child is the product of the one flesh of husband and wife. A child is literally flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone.  Often times with a baby, people seem to instinctively recognize the need to care for the baby as they care for themselves.  The baby’s needs are automatically their own.  If the baby needs something, it is as if the parents needed it themselves.

It has not been my experience that this recognition that another’s needs are your own, comes nearly as naturally in marriage.  We seem to cling to our own needs and desires pretty ferociously at times.  In fact, oftentimes people far from giving themselves to their spouse, actually see their spouse as a way to meet their own happiness, almost like a tool.  I think that is one of the reasons for so much divorce, when the tool stops working, when we stop getting something from our spouse, we get rid of them.

Again, picturing a child.  Think of how much a child’s security and development are connected to their ability to be secure in the love and sacrifice of their parents.  So it is with a spouse, and the health of a marriage.  Think of the wonder and security of a marriage when both partners are given over to the care and love of the other.  When they see their union as indissolvable.  There is complete security and trust.

Now, does that mean life or marriage will be easy?   Of course not!  But there is a big difference in how you work out a couple works out their problems, when they know they are absolutely committed to one another.  When they approach their problems, with the assumption that each are trying to do what is best for both. They may have different opinions on what is best, but what a difference when the goal is to care for one another and not just yourself.

Marriage is not the binding together of 2 people who are “in love”.  It is each person, saying this is the person I am choosing to make the object of my love.  This is the person I am going to become one with.  Our society may say love is just a feeling or an affection.  But, it is not, love is a decision.  That is why we can vow to love someone when you get married.  You can’t commit to having a feeling.  When you marry someone, you are choosing to love someone. This is the person I am going to make the object of my love, I will cherish them.

In a Jewish intercultural relationship, if this is the foundation of their marriage, it creates a stability of commitment that brings a strength to working out any cultural and religious issues.

Learning Jewish Culture from “American Girl Doll”

Posted July 3, 2011 by Garrett R. Smith
Categories: Uncategorized

I found myself the other night reading a book about Rebecca, one of the American Girl dolls.  Now let me say off the bat that my children do not actually possess American Girl dolls, and that is because I am just way too cheap to spend that much on a doll and accessories for my children.  So what I am doing reading the books to my kids?? Well, the books are actually very well done.  They are stories about the sort of lives these dolls would have lived as children in various time and places.  Rebecca is a young Jewish girl living in New York in 1914.

Now something I recommend for Jewish intercultural couples in particular are to find fun and interesting ways to teach your kids about your respective religions, cultures and histories.   Kids don’t gravitate to a lecture or a bunch of dry facts or information, but they love a good story.  So here I am reading Rebecca to my children, and they don’t want me to put it down.  The book I was reading was taking place during the week of passover.  My children, while loving a good story, are learning about the culture of Rebecca’s grandparents, her “bubbe” who always toes the line when it comes to everything Jewish.  Rebecca laments that she is not allowed to eat anything not made at home this week, because Bubbe doesn’t trust that it is kosher for passover.   The book not only does a great job of giving a sense of New York city and culture in 1914, but helps my children understand about why Jewish people immigrated and what it was like to be in a new country and to be poor.  Rebecca also struggles being on the edge of two cultures.  She wants to integrate into American society, but she also wants to respect her family and their ways.  Here, her cousin Max, the actor, takes her to watch him make a movie, but Rebecca’s family makes sure she packs a lunch with proper passover foods.  She is embarrassed at lunch to take out the lunch at the studio, until she sees the director and starring actress also pulled out packed lunchs with Matzo and herring.  The book goes onto explain how central Jewish people were to the development of the movie industry.

I had wonderful conversations about the story with my kids.  So here I was reading a story they were loving.  They were learning Jewish words, history and culture without even trying.  It made me smile.  I thought to myself…Perfect!

4 Stages of a Jewish Intercultural Relationship

Posted June 27, 2011 by Garrett R. Smith
Categories: Uncategorized

Tuvya Zaretsky did his doctoral work specifically studying what he called “Jewish-Gentile Couples”.  Zaretsky (2004) identifies four areas where Jewish intercultural couples tend to have conflicts: identity, religious observance, life cycle events, and child rearing.  He also identifies four distinct stages in a relationship when these issues occur: dating, wedding, marriage, and marriage with kids.  Zaretsky sees a pattern in the nature of a couple’s conflict as they proceed through these four stages.  In the first stage of dating there is very little intercultural conflict.  Oftentimes the couple finds few differences in themselves, and the differences they find are often fun and interesting, and they can enjoy exploring them.  The second stage he terms the wedding stage, involves the preparation for the wedding and the serious contemplation of marriage.  For many couples, this is the first real encounter with the consequences of being in an interfaith/intercultural situation.  The couple is forced to make decisions about which traditions they are going to follow for the wedding ceremony itself.  They discover conflicts with their parents over celebratory rituals.  Who will perform the wedding?  Can they say “Jesus” in the ceremony?  Will it be in a synagogue or a church or at a neutral site?  Judd (1990) writes that the wedding is often the first encounter a couple has with the Jewish community as a couple and is often surprised by how lacking in acceptance it can be.

In Zaretsky’s (2004) third stage, marriage without children, he again finds a more peaceful stage like dating, as couples often avoid making difficult long-term decisions about family life.  The fourth stage of being married with children is then the most difficult and conflict-laden stage because a couple is forced to make consequential decisions about how they are going to raise their children.  As conflict becomes more intense, hurt and regret may surface as well as conflict with extended family.


Culture vs. Faith in the Jewish World

Posted June 22, 2011 by Garrett R. Smith
Categories: Uncategorized

I knew a man who said that while his father recited the Sh’ma (“Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one”) every day, he was an atheist. When asked why he recited it, he said it was like the Pledge of Allegiance for the Jewish people.  Sylvia Boorstein, author of That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist. summarized the book’s purpose in its subtitle, “On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist.” Boorstein calls herself a “devout Jew” even though her religion is Buddhism.

Many people are shocked to find out there are many rabbis that don’t believe in God. But that doesn’t make them any less zealous about their profession or the Jewish people. So how does all this work? Doesn’t being Jewish mean that you believe in God and Judaism? Well . . . not always.

Most traditional cultures are wrapped around religion to some extent. Jewish culture is very closely linked to the practice of Judaism. Many Jewish people as well as people from other cultures make an unconscious separation between their culture and their faith. They experience the cultural aspect without giving thought to the actual faith implications of what they are doing. I have friends who love celebrating Passover because of the food, family and fun. The faith aspect is simply not important to them. They would say, “We don’t care about the religious stuff.”

How then do I have my child experience Jewish traditions?

I am not advocating stripping these cultural forms and practices from all faith and belief, but I am saying that it happens. Some people want to experience the cultural aspects and the connectedness to a tradition apart from the actual content. This can be problematic. In general you always want to know what you are doing. It’s like singing along to your favorite song on the radio, and then actually reading the lyrics and being horrified by what you were singing.

I am not posing a solution to this problem as you pursue giving your child an understanding of their Jewishness, but it is an issue you will have to deal with. First, you are probably going to have to figure out what your beliefs are. If you do not believe in God or even are very hostile to issues of faith, you will want to enjoy the cultural aspects of the traditions and not teach about Judaism. But one of the challenges is that most of the feasts and celebrations do celebrate something from the Bible or about God. But as my book Comfortably Jewish:  Practical Ways to Enjoy Your Family Heritage suggests there are also many things that do not relate directly to anything religious.

If you are a person of faith, you will find Jewish culture, because it is so closely linked with the Bible, can form a great bridge to experiencing your faith. For instance, if your spouse or you believe in Jesus, Jewish culture does not have to be in conflict with your faith. In fact, it can enhance your faith when you discover that most of the people in the New Testament are Jewish, and that Jesus celebrated the Passover and the other Jewish holidays. Many New Testament teachings, perhaps even all of them, have their basis in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Jewish celebrations in particular are closely tied to Christian belief. In fact, many Christian churches use some traditional Jewish forms of worship because they find it enhances their faith.