Marriage is not the fantasy world which newly married couples believe it is. While fantasies are not real, they are not necessarily harmless. If the fantasies are not put to rest quickly, the shock of disillusionment can be disastrous.
The major fantasy about marriage is that it confers eternal bliss. Two corollaries follow from this: (1) that married people are constantly in love, and (2) that spouses have no faults.
Fantasies, like all dreams, are largely forms of vicarious wish-fulfillment. Thus, whatever our innermost desires — lust, power, prestige, or even the spiritual goals of Torah acquisition and character perfection — we fantasize that marriage will achieve them all for us.
The fantasy of “marriage as eternal bliss” thrives especially among those who have grown up under the influence of Western values. From their early years, children are informed that the close company of a woman produces quick and permanent ecstasy. (It is no coincidence that in the popular songs heard in America, the word “love” often rhymes with “above” in the phrase “heaven above.”) The victim of too many of these messages naturally expects to find instant bliss in marriage.
Another cause of fantasies about marriage is the sex drive itself, viewed by many single young men as their most troublesome problem. Because it overshadows all else, they are led to believe that when they find relief from it through marriage, their lives will be problem free. This is, of course, naive. Coping with the sex drive is only one of life’s many challenges — as the difficulties of married people so plainly testify. A single person, however, does not easily see things this way; he perceives this as his only problem. Hence the fantasy of everlasting bliss…
THE DISILLUSIONMENT PROCESS
Unfortunately, the fantasies are short-lived. Slowly, but inevitably, the shocking truth sets in.
The physical attraction begins to lose its initial excitement. The wife who no longer preens herself and wears a different dress for each meeting, appears somehow less attractive.
Her attitude towards him has changed for the worse. Probably as a result of being able to see him daily from close up, her admiration has grown thinner. She no longer accepts his opinions uncritically and often even claims to know better than he.
She is not at all the perfect human being he thought he was marrying. There are obvious flaws. She is not as calm and relaxed as he knew her to be on their dates. She can be shrill and panicky; she can be stubborn and illogical.
Especially disturbing is the absence of that surge of accomplishment and wisdom which he had expected to materialize once the fetters of bachelorhood were cast off.
Worst of all, he sometimes feels lonely. He cannot share so much of life with her. She does not appreciate his words of Torah. She does not accept his opinions. She does not grasp his jokes. She does not like the same music. She has different tastess in clothing and in home furnishings.
He often wishes he were single again and in the company of his old friends. He had it much better then. There were no bills to be paid, far fewer distractions, no wife who needed constant attention, no decisions weighing on his mind.
As the fantasies dissipate, terrifying questions begin to insinuate themselves into his mind. Is she the right one? If overcoming loneliness is what marriage is all about, why is he so lonely?
The questions gnaw at him. Because he is too ashamed to share them with anyone, they fester within him. Disappointment and hurt begin to seep through his entire emotional fabric. He suspects that his marriage was a mistake. He feels trapped by it and wonders if it will last.
He begins to feel resentment towards his wife for having concealed her true nature from him before they were married. The resentment breeds an anger which grows within him.
One day, he feels he can no longer tolerate her inability to make him happy, and his disillusionment and bitterness, triggered by some trivial matter, pour out in a spasm of rage.
The wife is shocked and grievously hurt. The man she loves, and who she thought loved her, has now turned on her without good reason. Before long, her shock gives rise to bitterness and anger and she retaliates. A cycle of attack and counterattack is set into motion, with its tragic potential.
THE REALITY OF LOVE
Rabbi Leib Chasman, spiritual supervisor of Chevron Yeshivah, once saw a student eating fish with great relish. “Tell me, young man,” he asked him, “do you love fish?” The student answered in the affirmative. “If you love fish,” replied Rabbi Chasman, “then you should have cared for the one on your plate. You should have fed it and tried to make it happy. Instead you are devouring it.” As the student groped for a proper response, the rabbi explained: “Obviously, you don’t love fish. You love yourself!”
Rabbi Chasman was trying to drive home the point that what most people call “love” is really self-love. The love sold on the billboards and television screens of the world is merely the selfish love of pleasure fulfillment. The romance portrayed as an ideal is so often just a glorification of some of man’s baser instincts, a fantasy of physical and emotional gratification.
Real love, in contrast, exists where one is willing to give up something dear to him for the benefit of another person. Developing a relationship of love is not an instant process. One cannot love unless something has triggered that love. When a person feels gratitude for benefits which another person has rendered him, when he finds noble qualities in another, when he senses that someone is devoted to him unconditionally — only then can he truly and completely love that person.
Not surprisingly, this form of love does not come about during the early stages of marriage. Two strangers who have met each other a limited number of times before becoming husband and wife cannot possibly enjoy this degree of mutual devotion. Love in its true sense is only possible between two people who have spent many years sharing experiences, working towards common goals, undergoing sacrifices for each other, and building a life together. It must be realized that this can take decades.
This is why the early years of marriage are the most difficult, and why most divorces occur during this period. For this reason (among others), the Torah commands a man to spend the first year of marriage making his wife happy. As the author of the Sefer HaChinuch explains, a man and wife, who start out as nearly total strangers, need time to get used to one other. A newly married couple needs more work during the first year of marriage than at any other stage of their married life in learning to be mutually compatible. This obligation reflects the reality of marriage and shows the naivete of expecting love to begin simultaneously with the breaking of the wedding glass.
Marriage cannot begin with true love. What should be present at the outset, however, is a strong commitment by both partners to devote themselves to helping each other and serving as each other’s lifelong friend. This means that a husband must undertake to treat his wife as well as he would treat himself: to fulfill her physical and emotional needs; to ensure her happiness; to deny her nothing he would not deny himself; and to treat her with due respect.
All of this is contained in the Sages’ prescription of the duties of a husband to his wife: “He must love her as himself and honor her more than himself.” This means that he has to satisfy her needs as much as he satisfies his own, and he must concern himself with making her feel as respectable in his — as well as the public’s — eyes, even more than he concerns himself with his own needs and respectability.
Because this commitment will make each partner feel that his/her spouse genuinely cares about him/her, it is the first step and the surest way of building the emotional bond which will lead to a happy marriage.