Marriage: 6 Guidelines from Ancient Wisdom Texts
What 1500-year-old ideas on sex and love can still guide us now?
Posted April 23, 2013
Traditional texts abound with teachings about how to create healthy marriage partnerships. The wisdom preserved in these texts were the couples counseling of yesteryear.
The following gathering of ideas from the Talmud and other writing by ancient Jewish sages hopefully will prove useful for contemporary couples, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. These fundamentals have been incorporated into just about all Judeo-Christian religious perspectives on marriage, and are consonant with those in many other religious traditions as well.
1. Sex matters.
Sexual relations are considered highly important in a Jewish marriage. The Jewish groom is expected to learn to satisfy his wife sexually, preferably before himself. The rabbis who brought Jewish wisdom together in the big set of volumes of Jewish rabbinic thought referred to as Talmud were explicit about this advice: “Ladies first!”
Jewish sages stressed that a husband must be available to his wife for sexual interaction, both to produce children and for the spouses’ mutual pleasure. “Be fruitful and multiply” is one of the first commandments of Jewish life. Children are highly valued in this perspective. At the same time, sexual activity for pleasure alone is also strongly encouraged.
In accord with the current popular notion “Happy wife, happy life,” the rabbis put heavy emphasis on the notion that sexually satisfying his wife is a husband’s responsibility and of high import. Perhaps the ancient sages understood that when the wife is sexually contented, the husband is likely to be as well.
Jewish brides preparing for marriage in orthodox traditions learn the Jewish customs of refraining from sexual relations during menstruation, and then submerging in a ritual bath that signifies readiness for resumption of sexual availability. While health considerations may have been a concern, this custom also accords with the general rules that contact with anything associated with death, for instance touching a dead person or animal, must be followed with ritual bathing.
Alternating between sexual and non-sexual phases each month encourages a monthly renewal of enthusiasm each time that sexual activity resumes. At the same time, during the times of the month when sexual sharing is not an option, the couple is encouraged to focus on enhancing their friendship. The talking together of ‘verbal intercourse’ and enjoying sexual interactions both are considered vital ingredients of a full and healthy marriage relationship.
2. Monogamy must be protected with realistic preventive measures.
In the days of the Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, men had multiple wives. Besides their several wives, each wife's maidservants sometimes sired children for the man of the house. Abraham's wife Sarah encouraged her husband to sleep with her handmaiden when she herself seemed to be infertile. Jacob had 12 sons whose mother's included this two wives, Rachel and Leah, plus each of their maidservants. But did everyone get along? No way.
The sages agreed with what is now our contemporary consensus. No way. Monogamy may be challenging, but multiple wives guarantees strife, resentments and sibling rivalry. Not worth it.
As monogomy became the rule, the question then became how to strengthen men and women so that natural inclinations to sexual pleasures could be funneled into attachment to one partner. Toward this goal, the Talmud includes discussions amongst the sages of what is referred to as the “Open Door Rule.”
To protect both men and women from allowing sexual feelings to lead to inappropriate, non-marital sexual relations, the Open Door Rule raises awareness of the risk increases that occur if men and women who are not spouses share private time in private places. If a man and a woman are alone in a private space, the likelihood increases that they will become excessively intimate in their discussion. Sharing personal and private information about each other further increases the risk that sexual feelings will arise that will tempt them to indulge in physical contact.
To prevent sexualized interactions from developing with a partner other than a spouse, the Open Door Rule says that contact between individual men and women who are not married to each other should take place only in public spaces. With the door open, anyone could enter at any time. Staying in public view decreases the risk of intimate conversations that then could lead to violations of marriage vows. An ounce of prevention…
3. Good character produces good marriages.
Another focus of marriage readiness is midot (pronounced “mee-dote”), which is the Hebrew term for character traits. When courting partners assess each other as potential mates, they may focus initially on attraction and similarities. In addition to noticing superficially attractive features such as good looks, however, potential marriage partners and their families are encouraged also evaluate the potential marriage partner’s positive traits such as honesty, generosity, kindness, slowness to anger, willingness to work hard, willingness to live a life of learning, spiritual activity, community involvement, and other traits valued in the religion. Married adults are expected to continue to develop these midot throughout their lives.
During the selection and engagement periods prior to a wedding, prospective fiancés also are advised to pay attention to signs of problematic character patterns. Indications of any of the three most common deal-breakers—addictions, excessive anger, and sexual unfaithfulness—merit especially serious evaluation.
If one or more of the fundamental character traits for successful marriage partnership look questionable, marriage plans can be postponed or cancelled.
4. Fill the home with peace, not anger or fighting.
Jewish teachings place a high value on shalom bayit, which is peace in the home. Anger is strongly frowned upon. The Jewish tradition teaches that Moses, in spite of his greatness as a prophet, was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. Why was that? Moses had a habit of getting angry instead of staying in the calm zone. To enter the promised land of a peaceful loving marriage, both spouses need strong skills for removing themselves from situations if anger arises. They can always continue the conversation later, after both of them have calmed down.
By waiting to address difficult problems until both spouses feel calm enough to talk together in a mutually respectful manner, spouses significantly decrease the likelihood that they will hurt each other with angry comments. They also become more likely to succeed in finding solutions.
While couples are expected to learn to talk over their disputes and disappointments in quiet collaborative dialogue, a man and wife also are expected to have different opinions. Jewish tradition says that when Adam was given a life partner, he was told that he would receive an ezer ka-neg-doe, which is Hebrew for “a helper/friend who will have different perspectives from his own.”
How can there be peace in households where the viewpoints of wives and husbands differ? The Hebrew term for “peace”–shalom—does not mean that spouses should always see things the same way. “Yes dear” is inappropriate as a standard response if it means that one partner is not sharing their alternative viewpoint. Better to share both viewpoints. Shalom refers to the collaborative process of building a consensus that incorporates both people’s initial views.
Peace of the shalom variety emerges from resolving differences by:
- Treasuring differences of opinion
- Listening for what’s right in both perspectives
- Building a consensus understanding based on the input from both
- Creating plans of action that are responsive to all the concerns of both spouses.
The peace that comes from finding win-win resolutions to conflicts enables two mutually respectful adults to build a loving home in which both spouses, and their children, can thrive.
5. Upsets happen; be sure that they are followed by healing and learning.
T’shuvah, a Hebrew term that refers to the process of healing by learning from upsets. The tradition assumes that no one is perfect. Since humans are imperfect, couples are imperfect as well. Imperfection means that from time to time in all marriages, mistakes, misunderstandings, and miscommunications will lead to upsets. The important question is not whether spouses will make mistakes but rather what they do after their errors.
The key to recovery from errors is learning. To accomplish this goal, each spouse aims, in conversations about the upset, to discover his or her own mistakes in the event, and to acknowledge and apologize for these mistakes. Each spouse then is responsible for figuring out how to prevent repetitions of similar mistakes in the future. Mistakes are not for criticizing, blaming, or punishing the other, for beating up on oneself, or for holding onto in silent resentment. Mistakes are for learning.
6. Learn to be an ever more loving person.
Jewish texts talk about seeing with the good eye, not the bad eye. The bad eye focuses on what you don’t like about your spouse. Hyper-focusing on negative attributes builds animosity and invites the ultimate marriage-killer—contempt. The good eye by contrast focuses mainly on what is positive in a partner’s behaviors and character.
Focusing on what you like in what your partner says and does enhances your love for your partner, and at the same time enables your partner to feel loved. Expressing your appreciation also invites your partner in turn to focus on your virtues and feel more loving.
Expressing love begets love. The more you do it, the more you get it back.
Jewish marriage aims for full enjoyment of a partnership enriched by sexual pleasure, the enjoyment of children, trust in each other’s basic character traits, freedom from angry interactions or fights, ability to see events from two differing perspectives, a healing process after upsets that leads to learning from errors so as to prevent similar problems in the future, and building an ever-better and ever-more-loving future together.
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Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the communication skills that sustain positive relationships.
Click here for a free Power of Two relationship test.
© 2013 Susan Heitler