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How To Make A Relationship Work

05/12/2017 01:45:21 PM


Why do some friendships last longer, or remain more peaceful, than some marriages?

There are some obvious answers to this question. Marriages are more consuming and they require greater commitment. But there is a much more important answer, one which doesn’t reduce marriage to the inevitable plight of being more short-lived than a good friendship. 

Whenever I stand under a chuppah to marry a new couple, I remind them not to become blinded by the alluring 4-letter word, and to be sure to inculcate the 7-letter word into their relationship.


Friendships are typically built upon mutual respect. A healthy friendship isn’t inspired by love. What’s the difference between love and respect?

When you love someone, you are expressing your desire to connect with that person, albeit with a few provisions. For example, you might say: I love you because: “you are so much like me,” or “you make me feel good,” or “you bring happiness to my life,” or “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

These are very endearing statements, but notice the kind of pressure that the lover places upon the beloved. The beloved needs to significantly contribute to the lover’s life to be deserving of their love.

In contrast, when you respect someone, you are expressing your desire to connect with them unreservedly. They may have little in common with you; they may not be a significant source of happiness in your life; and you might be able to get by just fine without them. Yet you have chosen to enjoy a friendship with them because they are, in your view, worthy of friendship.

But how do you deal with the many differences that you and they might have? You respect them. Your resect for them means that you are prepared to accept them for who they are, without any expectation that they will craft their lifestyle to suit you.

The premise of respect means that one party recognizes that the other is different from them. These differences create a sort of distance between the parties, a healthy distance whereby neither party feels threatened by the other, nor infringes upon the other, despite their many differences.

Love, however, is very different. Love brings two people closer together, almost to the point of a shared identity. Love causes people to become entangled in each other’s lives. The love experience is euphoric, whereby the two lovers are all over each other, both figuratively and literally.

A healthy intimate relationship possesses a great amount of love. Love strengthens the longing and the passion in the relationship. But love can only be advantageous when it is predicated upon respect. Respect serves as the firm foundation, and love serves as the glorious palace. A worthy partner is one who first and foremost has chosen to accept the other for who they are, without expectations. Then, they have also found cause to be able to love the other and to allow their lives to become consumed within their beloved’s.

These themes come to mind during the current period of the Jewish calendar. The Talmud records that during the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died. Their cause of death was from some sort of illness or plague. But the Talmud offers a spiritual explanation as to why they deserved to die, “because they didn’t behave amicably between each other.”

This description is very startling considering who their mentor Rabbi Akiva was. Many Rabbis have their favorite mitzvah which serves as the bedrock upon which their spiritual worldview is constructed. Rabbi Akiva was clear about his. He taught, “the most important principle in the Torah is “One should love each person as much as they love themselves (Leviticus 19:18).” How then, having been heavily indoctrinated by his attitude, did specifically Rabbi Akiva’s students fail so terribly in fulfilling this overarching principle?

The clue to the answer lies in the exact language of the Talmud. The Talmud writes, “because they didn’t extend kavod-respect towards each other.” Indeed, they loved each other, as their teacher endlessly taught. But they didn’t respect one another.

Their genuine love for each other motivated them to connect to each other, but with an expectation. They insisted that the other share the same values, and the same appreciation of their teacher’s lessons, as theirs. But when their friend seemed to possess a different opinion, and wasn’t willing to surrender their own viewpoint and lifestyle, then the love dissipated.

Respect can survive without love, but love cannot survive without respect. In a relationship, there will be times that you are able to love your spouse, and times that you just cannot love them. But you can always respect them. Ironically, the more two people just love each other, the bigger the chance that their love will dissolve. Healthy marriages employ constant reminders about this, because love is, as they say, blinding.

How appropriate that our tradition tells us that the students stopped dying on the 18th of Iyar, also known as Lag-B’Omer (the 33rd day of the Omer count). According to Kabalistic tradition, the 49-day period of the Omer, the days between Pesach and Shavuot, are a time to make improvements on our soul’s 49 character traits. The designated trait for Lag-B’Omer is hod-sh’behod (hod within hod). The Hebrew word hod is literally translated as splendor. As a psychological prototype, hod describes one’s capacity for empathy. To be empathetic requires one to be humble, respectful, and open to recognizing the uniqueness of the other.

The emphasis of hod within hod challenges us to analyze our capacity for empathy even deeper. Sometimes, one can behave empathetically to make things work. But empathy as a behavioral trait is obviously limited how long it can last and how effective is can be. The true splendor of empathy is when it is descriptive of one’s character; when a person is genuinely filled with self-confidence, trust and humility, so that they can accept themselves for who they are, and consequently accept another for who they are.

Probing even deeper, perhaps one is only able to respect another person when they can genuinely respect themselves. But if one suffers from the feeling of a lack of self-worth, and they feel the urgent need to constantly defend and prove themselves, then they certainly don’t have the capacity to respect another person. Such a person might crave a ‘love-relationship’ to fill the void in their heart.

So a message to all those seeking a partner for marriage: Beware of the person who desperately wants your love to help fill their lack of self-respect.

Now we can appreciate the symbolism why Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying on Lag-B’Omer, which is the day dedicated to the enhancement of empathy. And now we know how to turn our marriages into lifetime relationships!

Fri, December 3 2021 29 Kislev 5782