||CAN I HELP A SPOUSE WHO IS DEPRESSED AND
- Thursday, November 2, '00 - Parshas Noach 5761
A certain man asked a question about
his marriage, seeking help. His wife was letting her appearance go. He lost interest in
his now obese wife and no longer considered her appealing. She lost interest in pleasing
him and communicating. There are many elements to his question.
There is a principle called "tolui al da'as achairim (dependent upon another
person's mind)." This has practical implications. For example, the commentators
wrestle with why tzadaka has no blessing, since mitzvos should have blessings. One reason
is that acceptance of the donation is dependent upon the other person's mind. If the
pauper rejects your handout at the last moment or if an institution refuses your check for
political reasons, you will have said G-d's name in vain. We see from this how real this
principle is: we cannot control another person. Therefore, you have to start out being
realistic about limitations on how much one can change another person (which is why I
counsel singles NEVER to marry on the basis of expecting another to change - especially
religious or psychological change).
Second, we have to know why your wife is withdrawn in order to determine what might be
done and what the prospects for improvement are. The Talmud (Taanis 22a) tells of two
clowns who Eliyahu haNovi promised olam haba (eternal life) because they used humor to
make depressed people happy. Rashi, there, says that they were, "Happy people who
made others happy." We learn from Rashi 1. that one person cannot make another person
happy unless he himself is first happy and 2. that one person cannot be made happy by
someone other than himself - only if a person is first basically happy can a second person
make him/her happy (which is why I counsel singles NEVER to marry expecting another to
wash away inner unhappiness). If your wife is depressed or unhappy, you have to identify
the root of this in order to know how to fill-in or to remedy realistically. If the
problem is something in her present situation, you can "humor" her. This need
not literally mean knee-slapping jokes. Be more loving, supportive, accepting, giving. Do
things that please her, acknowledge, respect and appreciate her; and make her feel
precious and special. For example, the Chazon Ish z'l says that a husband should always
tell a wife when he is leaving and returning. Bring presents, give compliments, offer to
help or relieve pressures, repeatedly ask her opinion and act upon it, write notes that
tell how much she means to you. Adapt this, of course to your wife's situation and
personality. But most important of all; be steady and unchanging. The Maharal writes
(Nesiv Ha'Emunah) that the essence of marital relating is trust. You must make her secure
and trusting before this will start to seep into and be assimilated into her heart and
mind. If she has deeper pathology in her personality, stress, poor self-esteem, emotional
trauma; need to rebel, test or win; or other significant psychological issues; the above
may not work without professional counseling from someone competent and Yorai Shomayim.
Also, try to delicately wean her away from any acquaintances who provide bad psychological
or behavioral influences. A non-confrontational strategy is to find more constructive ways
to have her spend her time; without mentioning or disparaging her friends. Could she
volunteer for Tomchay Shabos, Bikur Cholim Neshay Ahavas Chesed, a loshon hora or midos
vaad? Also, at such activities, she will meet a better class of friends. Similarly, if her
relatives are dysfunctional, meddling or neurotic; maneuver her a safe distance from their
destructive influence. Find ways to break any tendency to escalation or negativity.
Reinforce good things she does and changes she makes. Be very patient. Try to help her to
find a rov that she can be comfortable with.
Think in terms of your own responsibility and perception. Think of her attributes to
develop appreciation for. And, by focusing on giving, you will invest a part of yourself
into her and psychologically come to increase the extent to which you identify with her,
accept her and love her. This must be unconditional love, since this lasts forever (Pirkei
Avos). Since she resents your comments, follow Shammai's teaching, "Say little and do
much" (Pirkei Avos). Rabbi Hiya's wife constantly caused him pain. However, whenever
he found something she would like he would buy it, wrap it nicely and bring it to her.
When Rav heard of his practice, he asked Rabbi Hiya why he did it. "It is enough to
require appreciation for our wives from the fact that they raise our children and save us
from sin" (Yevamos 63a). One of my rabbinical instructors, Rabbi Avraham Asher
Zimmerman z'l pointed out to me that there are several lessons in this gemora, besides
appreciation. We notice that Rabbi Hiya judged his wife favorably, never took revenge and
recognized that she was not a perfect person but she did have good attributes.
To address your need to separate from her due to the loss of attraction, utilize the
separation of nida to find things to do on your own, to separate from intimacy and
closeness (without being callous or inconsiderate), which legitimately accord with the
separation rules, that enable your mind to "go on vacation" and find relief and
opportunity to "recharge." Don't make the contrast extreme or blatant because
that will backfire by making her feel used, cheapened, disrespected and pained when you
are together. During nida, call her at home from work every day just to find out how she
is and bring flowers erev shabos when you come home from work. She should perceive your
attention and feel important to you with uniformity and balance all month.
Remember that you may not realistically be able to change her behavior or overcome
internal obstacles in her personality. Halacha obligates a wife to be, and to remain,
beautiful in her husband's eyes, and responsive to his wishes. But two wrongs never make a
right. Your ultimate inner happiness must be independent of anyone except Hashem. You be
"objection-proof." Focus on: being your best self, being available for her,
never dropping from G-d's high standards, prioritizing peace, a warm smile, a cheerful
disposition, being as attractive and valuable a husband to her as is humanly possible. The
rest is up to her. Motivate her to change more on her own. May Hashem give you both Siyata
Di'Shmaya (help), rachamim (compassion, mercy), understanding and strength to do all which
is "Proper and good in the eyes of Hashem in order that it be good for you"
(Deuteronomy 6:18). When the Chafetz Chaim was asked how he changed the entire Jewish
world, he answered, "When I tried to change others, I changed no one. So, I changed
myself. When I changed myself, I changed the world."