Sunday, February 20, 2011

"If we accept that we will not always feel loving to the people we love, then anything is possible." - Brad Hirschfield

In 2007 a friend of mine attended a book signing of Brad Hirschfeld. His book, You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right had just come out and my friend, kindly gifted me with a signed copy. I tried but was never pulled in by this work - until a few nights ago when it jumped off the shelf and a piece of it struck me.

(Don't feel bad, my apprehensiveness about books and videos - especially when expressed on this blog - seems to be a good luck charm. Several years ago I was sent a book about Yiddish witticisms for free in order to review it. It was not to my taste. I chose to write nothing about it. Next thing I knew it went into paperback, the author got a regular column based on the book in a major newspaper, he followed it up with a sequel, and then a best selling novel. In December I received a heads up about a Chanukah video and asked to post about it on my blog. I found the video to be lacking in spiritual umph, and it didn't work for me. I linked to it, and wrote that I hope my readers may like it - even though it wasn't to my taste. [A friend of mine thinks he's brilliant for using the phrase "not to my taste" when he says he doesn't want to date someone again - I'm not sure it's the cleverest of phrases or fits so well for his purposes, but it'll do here just fine]. The video went viral and the singing group became celebrities).

I flipped through Hirshfield's book and fatefully started reading a section that caught my eye. He contends that in a marriage, despite the fact that you - hopefully - feel love for that person there will be times where you do not feel love toward them, rather you feel unloving. He plugs this in to his own life, speaking openly about differences between himself and his wife. The contrast between their personalities came to a boil when they learned that one of their children was ill. He worried and cursed aloud. His wife was thankful to G-d that it wasn't worse. Generally, they each have their way of seeing things and have trouble getting how the other sees things. He suggests that this is not only OK, but the way things are supposed to be.

Hirschfeld is grateful to his father who taught him that "you love people not because of certain things, but despite certain things." He adds that "the paradoxical nature of love is such that if our expectations of those we love are too idealized, it's unlikely that we'll be able to sustain even realistic long-term relationships. If our expectations are more realistic, on the other hand, then we have a shot at reaching our ideals."

He ties this into a line from the Torah:

"Ezer k'negdo, Genesis says of Adam's future companion, Eve. These words are persistently mistranslated from the Hebrew into English in all the different versions of the Bible...The literal translation of ezer k'negdo is "a helper who is against him." Is this a mistake? I don't think so. Every human relationship has its moments of hurt. Even in the most loving of marriages, it is always the case that the partners will hurt each other. To marry is hard - as each of us who has married has discovered. President George W. Bush was fond of saying, "People are either with us or against us." But I think Genesis is telling us that perhaps it is possible to be both at once."

"Adam was deeply lonely, and the being that satisfied his loneliness was also the source of many of his pains and problems. If he had settled for one of the animals as a life partner, something that rabbinic legend imagines as his first approach to his loneliness problem, he would probably never have had the kind of problems he had with Eve, and he would never have found his life's partner."

For me, this has provided, and I expect will continue to foster, much food for thought.


Blogger Anne D said...

This passage jumped out at me: "If our expectations of those we love are too idealized, it's unlikely that we'll be able to sustain even realistic long-term relationships. If our expectations are more realistic, on the other hand, then we have a shot at reaching our ideals."

The first sentence: Absolutely. There is no reason to believe that another person will - or should - live up to our expectations.

The second sentence: I balk at anything that suggests we will ever attain an "ideal" relationship, even if that adjective is used in an individual sense. We humans are tough customers, and the expectation that the attractive guy/gal who made our heart (and hormones) sing in our 20s or 30s or whenever we began a life together will continue to have that effect for decades to come is just silly. The lovely infatuation does eventually wear off. With luck, when it does couples will have built other strengths in their relationship and cultivated respect for one another. Unless you marry a saint who is never ill, unhappy, unemployed, or dissatisfied, there will be discord as well.

I know that all seems obvious, yet somehow it feels different when you live it. Harder. More complicated and nuanced.

I knew when I married the man I adored that no matter how strong my feelings were for him, he wasn't "the only one" in the world for me. I think that's a false romantic construct. I also acknowledged to myself that, given two strong personalities, there was a chance our marriage wouldn't last. I was only 23, but pretty clear-eyed and, yeah, unromantic, albeit ecstatically happy.

And yet.... Here we are, nearly 36 years later, still married. A tribute to our stubbornness -- Oh, I mean "determination"! -- as much as to our initial attraction and compatibility. ;-)

February 20, 2011 at 6:01 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Thanks so much Anne for the honesty. The author did try to temper what he was saying by writing that if you're realistic in expectation you MAY reach your ideal. I do't think is necessarily guaranteeing or believing that the odds are good of consistently having that ideal. I don't think you and he are really disagreeing. You're just putting it better (or at least better than the way I presented his words).

I really appreciate what you said. I find that when people are dating they generally talk openly about their relationships and then once they're married (guys in particular) they share no more.

You reminded me of a comedian's observation - If you ask married people if they're happily married they deflect the question and say "50 years!" But you didn't ask how long they were married...

February 20, 2011 at 8:14 PM  
Blogger Ask Teacher Pam said...

The old "ezer k'negdo"--Rabbi Avi Weiss gave a lively shiur on this phrase back in the mid-'80's when Ira and I (and five other couples) were about to be married. "A help-meet against" is such a strange translation in today's culture, but I think that your post (and Hirschfield's words) work to explain what it means. The reality is that you and your mate will not, cannot, always agree on everything; someone will have to yield, someone will have to go along with the other person for the sake of shalom bayit. I do agree with you and Anne D. that unrealistic expectations cause much damage in a relationship--especially the idea that you can always change your partner later. But I disagree with Anne D. in one area: we should always have the vision of an ideal relationship before us--that's what goals are, the ideal that's out there for us to try to attain. I do not find it frustrating; I find it renewing to think that today may be the day where Ira and I have perfect harmony, all day long! Has happened once or twice in our 27 years of marriage, but I feel that HaShem wants us all to work on Torah ideals, even in a marriage. RN, you are correct about guys "closing up" after they marry--why do you think that happens? As for "50 years"--a life sentence??? With no time off for good behavior??? I'll take it!

February 21, 2011 at 1:58 AM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Sorry Pam that I haven't responded. I meant to. There's so much in your comment. I'll answer out of order and incompletely. I'm not sure why married guys don't share. Like everything it's probably different in every case. I have my thoughts on this (surprise!). There's a lot to say on ezer kenegdo. Rav SR Hirsch says that it means a helper that's parallel in importance. He says that man without his woman is like a coin which is blank on one side - not worth half, worse... Anyway - this post resonated for you and Anne. i was reminded of this post just now because I was looking through the key words that have led people here. Someone ended up at this post after googling the phrase "we don't always marry the people we love." I didn't use those words in this post, nor did Brad Hirschfield. Hmmmm.

March 1, 2011 at 10:33 PM  

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