Before most couples get married, they don’t know what to expect. They’re excited and scared, but ready to make one of their biggest life decisions: forming a union with the one they love. Local rabbis from all different backgrounds and denominations shared their best marital advice for partners about to make the leap. From the day of the wedding ceremony to day-to-day married life, here are their thoughts on how two people can make it work.
Two people, one soul
Rabbi Avi Rabin, who leads Chabad of West Hills and has been married for nine years, said Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, teaches that when people are born, they have only half a soul.
“When you get married, you’re marrying the other half of your soul. You’re not complete until then,” he said. “It’s not you and your wife [as individuals]. Marriage is something that is greater than both of you. If you see problems in your spouse you need to work through, you have that problem. If she sees a problem in you, it’s because she also has it. You are the same person and the same soul, and you need to work through your problems together.”
Seek outside help
Rabbi Nick Renner, assistant rabbi at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist congregation in Pacific Palisades, said couples shouldn’t hesitate to reach out for advice from an expert.
“One thing that’s really worthwhile is having some kind of premarital counseling, either with a religious leader or with a family specialist. That kind of experience can be really valuable for couples,” he said. “It’ll help you communicate and learn from each other, and make it easier in the future to make that call [for counseling] if you’ve been in the process before.”
Don’t expect perfection
Your spouse is going to be flawed, and those shortcomings might never go away. Before you walk down the aisle, keep that in mind, said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.
“I learned an important counseling tool from the [late] visionary Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi,” the Reform rabbi said. “In a premarital meeting, he turned to the groom and asked, ‘Is there anything about your fiancee that you can’t stand?’ The groom looked uncomfortable, hemmed and hawed, and finally answered, ‘Well, yes.’ Then he turned to the bride and asked the same question. She, a tad miffed from her beloved’s response, answered, ‘Well, I guess so.’ Then he said: ‘Whatever it is, it will never change. You have to choose each other knowing that some things will never change.’ I ask the same question with each couple. It leads to an important conversation about expectations.”
Rabbi Nicole Guzik works at the Conservative synagogue Temple Sinai in Westwood with her husband of five years, Rabbi Erez Sherman. She said the best marriage advice she ever received was from Rabbi Bill Lebeau at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, indicating that a relationship shouldn’t be viewed as a series of compromises.
“In a compromise, you always have to give up something,” she remembers him saying. “The definition of compromise is to allow for concessions, and as soon as you feel as if you’ve lost something, the issue between the couple becomes much larger than it usually is in the first place. Instead, as a couple, look for synthesis. Synthesis is coming up with an idea together and working as a family to solve a problem.”
Guzik said many couples come to her afraid of losing their identity and ideals, but it doesn’t have to be that way: “I explain that marriage doesn’t have to take those away. Rather, marriage can be a journey using our individual experiences to create and grow together.”
Give up your ego
Sometimes, disputes can go in circles and never seem to end. To stop the cycle of fighting, Rabbi Elchanan Shoff of LINK East shul in Pico-Robertson believes one partner should take the blame, even if he or she is right (and knows it).
“When you really weren’t wrong, to take the blame is a tremendous thing,” Shoff said. “It does a couple of things. It says, ‘I value you more than my pride, and I’m prepared to say I was wrong.’ If the other person is half decent, it’s going to sink in. He or she will say, ‘What, am I a brat? My partner wasn’t wrong.’ This is the easiest way to diffuse a disagreement.”
The Orthodox rabbi said it’s natural to want to engage in an argument because humans feel the need to defend themselves. However, he said, “You have to say that ‘I’m going to sacrifice that ego for the sake of my marriage.’ It can ensure that fights are extremely rare.”
Make time for each other
People have busy lives. In between taking care of kids, going to work and running errands, they might not have any time left to pay attention to their partners. This is a mistake, according to Rabbi Spike Anderson from Stephen S. Wise Temple, a Reform synagogue in Bel Air.
“There has to be a certain amount of proactive mindfulness that goes into a couple spending real quality time with each other,” he said. “They have to make each other a priority, no matter what.”
Anderson said that by celebrating Shabbat, a couple could focus on each other at least one day a week: “It’s an out-of-the-box way of taking time out from the hamster wheel we all run on to spend that sacred time with each other.”
Write love letters
In preparation for a wedding, Temple Akiba’s Rabbi Zach Shapiro asks both partners to write each other letters that say why they love one another.
“I also ask them specific questions beyond, ‘How did you meet?’ ” he said. “For example, ‘What was/is it about [your fiance] that made you want to ask him on a second date?’ ”
Shapiro, whose Reform congregation is in Culver City, said he asks this of couples because the letter helps them put into words what they feel. “It’s so important to have a written document that they can read to one another throughout their lives,” he said.
Look for the feeling behind your partner’s words
Arguments between couples can get nasty because each knows the other’s faults — and what words will hurt the most. When fighting, both parties have to focus on the feeling behind the words to determine what’s really going on, explained Rabbi Eliyahu Fink of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, who has been married for 12 years.
“Every conversation has two parts to it: There’s the part where you hear the words and the part where you say the words,” he said. “But every conversation also has the thing that’s not being said. This is the feeling that is contributing to the words being said. It’s very easy to get distracted by the actual words and argue them or discuss them. There is always something that’s much deeper, which is what the conversation should be about.
“Take a moment before responding to anything you hear or disagree with or might react to, and think about the feeling that the person might have,” the Orthodox rabbi said. “Try to validate those feelings instead of getting caught up in an argument about things that made them say that.”
Only marry ‘The One’
When Rabbi Judith HaLevy from the Reconstructionist Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue first meets with engaged couples, she sits them down on her couch.
“I look at my couch when I talk to them, because it says everything I want to know about the couple. Sometimes they sit at different ends of the couch or they won’t leave each other alone while I’m talking to them,” she said. “I can tell by the body language how difficult a marriage is going to be, and I point it out. If you can’t sit together and discuss your wedding, I ask, ‘What are we doing here?’ ”
The day of the wedding, HaLevy stresses that the bedeken (veiling) ceremony is extremely important.
“I tell them that when they lift the veil, they need to ask themselves whether the other person is ‘The One,’ ” she said. “I tell them to look their partner in the eye and say ‘I love you.’ At that point, they always cry. I say afterwards that they can fix their makeup.”