Reaching New Heights
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(This article first appeared in the Jewish Press. It is also a chapter in Miriam's book Reaching New Heights Through Kindness in Marriage.) The quality of our closest relationships profoundly affects how we feel about ourselves. Our relationships have real and measurable consequences on our lives and those around us. The way we communicate both verbally and non-verbally affects the emotional, cognitive and physical development of our children, as well as our physical and mental health.
Child-rearing is complex. Any parent can attest to the many rewards and equally distressing moments. Volumes of theories and practical approaches will not suffice to adequately explain parenting. Don’t we wish there was a manual? Each child is a unique, dynamic individual who changes almost daily. For parents to properly guide their children it is important to consider the environment that the parents create at home (Shalom Bayis). We primarily focus on the communication style between the adults which is the template for the children’s present and future relationships.
Chanie Geisinsky, a respected Rebbetzin, describes successful child-rearing as 50 percent consistent Chinuch (Jewish education) and 50 percent Shalom Bayis. A healthy relationship between you and your spouse is critical to the success of every aspect of your child’s healthy development: physical and spiritual. Treating your spouse positively in front of your children is paramount.
Why are relationships one of the most challenging aspects of the human condition? The Torah teaches us that no element of life is devoid of meaning and purpose and we believe that every interaction is divinely designed. So too, relationships are an important process that leads to completion – Shleimus. We as human beings have a variety of emotions and personality styles that impact the way we think and feel about the people in our life.
In the midst of a contentious moment it is difficult to grasp the higher purpose of elevating one’s soul to a more peaceful and unified state. Realize that provocations with your spouse, child or other, are all meant to result in you being more patient, enduring, understanding and tolerant. No one gets it right all of the time or even half of the time. Dr. Wile, originator of the Collaborative Couples Therapy model, states “solve the moment rather than the problem.” Perfecting relationships is a lifetime journey, one interaction at a time.
When husband and wife get along and demonstrate respect for each other, it helps the children get along better, and also lays a foundation for children to respect their parents. It is acceptable to occasionally express disagreements amicably in front of children.
According to Tina B. Tessina, author and psychotherapist, couples should definitely discuss many issues in the presence of their children. It teaches the children how relationships work. However, never let your children hear the two of you argue in a state of rage or anger; this is toxic! Seeing parents in such a state makes children feel terrified, unsafe, and heartbroken. In addition, when one parent yells and shames the other parent, the children witnessing these events feel ashamed.
Our sages teach that the greatest suffering is shame, and this is especially true in the case of children. Shame may cause a child such distress that eventually his life becomes unbearable and he may have little energy to achieve his potential
Even when one spouse may think the other needs to improve their communication, they should refrain from criticizing the other. It is better for a child to receive some overly strict discipline than to see parents fighting over this issue. Instead, after such an episode, when the spouse is not present, tell the children, “Tatty/Mommy may speak very strongly to you but know that we both love you and mean well.”
When the situation has calmed down, the parents can work together on reducing the amount of stress in the home, making the other aware when they speak aggressively or act tense. Bringing up the topic in a calm atmosphere, which is particularly important if the spouse is sensitive to criticism, can help them reflect on their own behavior and be more open to change.
For instance, a parent may say, “I think that we can both work on decreasing the stress in this home. Let’s help each other act more calmly in front of the children, especially when we have to discipline them.” By preparing a strategy in advance, a person can prevent many conflicts. If you cannot come up with an amicable solution, ask the advice of a Rav or a spiritual advisor who knows your spouse.
New research has revealed that exposure to common family problems during childhood and early adolescence affects brain development, which could lead to mental health issues in later life.
The study led by Dr. Nicholas Walsh, lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of East Anglia, used brain imaging technology to scan teenagers aged 17-19. He found that those who experienced mild to moderate family difficulties between birth and 11 years of age had developed a smaller cerebellum, an area of the brain associated with skill learning, stress regulation and sensory-motor control. The researchers also suggest that a smaller cerebellum may be a risk indicator of psychiatric disease later in life, as it is consistently found to be smaller in virtually all psychiatric illnesses.
Dr. Walsh said: “These findings are important because exposure to adversities in childhood and adolescence is the biggest risk factor for later psychiatric disease. Also, psychiatric illnesses are a huge public health problem and the biggest cause of disability in the world.
Fighting is an indication that your communication isn't working. When one or both parents are tired or stressed, an occasional dispute is understandable. However, ongoing conflicts are cause for concern and needs to be addressed seriously.
Action Plan to Avoid Fighting in Front of the Childs
Turn around and walk away if you think you'll have a hard time dealing with your urge to fight. Recognize that when you don't walk away, you are putting your need to vent ahead of their well-being and peace of mind.
After you walk away, write down everything you're thinking and feeling, so you can discuss it later when the childs aren't around.
· If you're going to have a discussion, take it somewhere private. Deal with your spouse closely and personally to minimize distractions and interruptions. Express your needs to your partner; they may not know what those needs are. Be articulate, state what you need, plainly and specifically. Remain calm.
· Work out the problem. Cooperation, not competition, is needed to find a solution to the issue.
· Share a moment of peace, and verbalize your feeling of resolution like saying, “I’m glad we talked”, to reaffirm your bond once a decision has been reached.
A teacher moved to a town and began giving a Shiur, which quickly became popular. One of the established teachers thought that the teachings were cultish, so he slandered the new teacher and urged people not to attend his Shiur. One rainy day, as this teacher was walking down the street, he saw the new teacher slip and fall in the mud. The teacher hurried over to him. He bent down as if to help the fallen man, but instead picked up some mud and threw it at him, hissing disgustedly, “You deserve it!”, then he walked off.
The new teacher got up and ran after the other man. “Wait, teacher, please!” he called out. The teacher continued walking, but the mud-stained teacher called out again, “Please wait!” The teacher slowed down slightly. “Please, teacher,” the new teacher gasped, “please, accept my apologies. I do not know exactly how I have hurt you, but the pain I caused you must have been great for you to hate me.” Both men stopped walking. The new teacher asked humbly, “Please tell me, what I have done to you? I must know so that I can do teshuvah properly.” The other teacher was taken aback. For a moment, he doubted the new teacher’s sincerity, but searching the man’s mud-streaked face, he only saw true humility. Astonished and ashamed, he thought to himself, “this is a G-dly man before me!” He embraced the new teacher and said, “it is I who must do teshuvah.” After that, the relationship between the two men improved. They began studying together, and became close friends.
This sort of self-reflection is especially important in regard to your relationship with your children. When they behave disrespectfully to you, stop and think to yourself “What have I done to cause them to be in this mood?"
There is a second lesson to glean from this story. Every day children are under pressure from parents, teachers, bus drivers and siblings. They “fall in the mud” many times over the course of the day. When your children come home, consider that they may have had many “muddy moments” before coming through your door. Treat them with compassion. Do your best to help them feel better. At the very least, do not throw more mud at them. Following are some important points that can help dramatically improve the way you relate to your family.
Deactivate Your Ego When It Threatens to Upset Your Family
Take note when you allow your ego to get in the way of dealing with family issues.
One way to break that habit is to pay attention to body signals that can warn you when you are about to lose control. For instance, before you raise your voice to yell, does your stomach tie itself into knots, does your nose flare, or does your face get hot? These body signals are warning you to take a deep breath and, if need be, walk away until you calm down.
Repeat the following affirmations throughout the day, even before a challenging situation arises:
“I want to unite, not to win.”
“I want peace, not victory.”
“Making peace is the greatest victory.”
“My goal is to give peace of mind, not pieces of my mind.”
“Shalom Bayis is the surest path to raising emotionally healthy children.”
“My efforts to become a positive role model will maximize my success as a parent.”
Let’s keep in mind that beyond all the pragmatic benefits of improved relationships, Shalom Bayis is a Mitzvah for the purpose of perfecting the soul. The reason why the Jewish people gave the peace offering (Korbon Shlomim) soon after Matan Torah was because they had reached a spiritual state of elevation. Hashem was symbolically preparing his people in the desert as they were going to be involved in the mundane life, to get accustomed to sacrifice perfectionism and be at peace with the process of becoming complete. Shalom, making peace with inadequacies.
Visualize Yourself Not Criticizing Your Family Members
They are the most precious part of your life. Picture yourself refraining when feeling the impulse to act unkindly.
Points for Practical Reflection
1. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude helps give your partner a feeling of security, which in turn brings peace and harmony to a home.
2. Helping your spouse, selflessly benefits you spiritually and physically, because acting generously enhances your health and longevity.
3. In order to promote peace in your home, heal your relationship to money, whether you spend too much or too little.
4. Raising your voice in anger, speaking sarcastically, or otherwise belittling your spouse or children, indicates that your animal soul has taken over.
5. When one spouse expresses patience, perseverance, and a deep commitment to the marriage, amazing turnarounds can be achieved, even when the partner is the chief cause of the problems.
6. When a spouse helps their partner feel confident and self accepting, they will treat one another as equals and even as superior.
7. A parent must model the qualities of thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and generosity that will set the standards for the children.
8. Professional counseling that is sensitive to Torah ethics and values may be useful in helping you achieve healthier perspectives on your marriage.
9. A spouse should strive to be the partner’s cheerleader rather than being an adversary.