The Silent Relationship Killer
as published in the Where, What, When
Pesach. It is amazing how one small word can evoke such anxiety. How sad that such a beautiful Yomtov, representing our freedom from physical and spiritual bondage can leave so many people feeling so stressed out. There is a lot to do to prepare for Pesach and without going into how to be more effectively organized (you can ask my wife about that), I would like to explore the issue of anxiety and the devastating effect it has on relationships.
Your Brain on Stress
A very helpful model for understanding the effects of stress is that of the triune brain. This model developed by Dr Paul MacLean, divides the brain into three components: the brain stem or the “reptilian brain”, the the limbic system or “the mammalian brain”, and the neocortex or the “the human brain.” In other words, there are certain parts of the brain that are responsible for different faculties.
The brain stem is the source of physical action regulating our various vital functions, while the limbic system is responsible for our emotions. These aspects of the brain function almost automatically. The neocortex, is the cognitive part of our brain. When you are relaxed and your brain is fully integrated your cognitive brain will be able to influence the responses of your emotions and your knee-jerk reactions. However, when you are experiencing stress, you will get stuck in your automatic responses. Your brain reads these stressors as if you are under attack and it protects by slipping into the flight-fight response.
Can you think of a time when you were under stress? How effective were you? Were you able to make decisions and think logically or did you respond out of sheer desperation? Unfortunately, most of us spend a large percentage of our life stuck in our more primitive part of our brain. Anxiety has become the silent killer in our society and our relationships. Besides our own personal stressors, we are constantly bombarded with negativity and fear in the news. While we live in scary times, technology has compounded the matter by flooding us with up to the minute reports of every worldwide calamity. It is crucial to find a sanctity of sanity amidst all of that we are confronting.
Ideally, the home should serve as a safe refuge from the stresses of life, yet we see that it is often the opposite. In order to reverse the tide of the storm, it is necessary to work on curbing our own anxiety. When we are anxious, we become easily triggered by our spouse. We enter fight or flight mode, often hurting our spouse, and escalating conflict. This provokes a counter response and the power struggle ensues. If we were only able to get ourselves to a place of calm, we could easily work through almost any issue. You won’t believe how couples are able to work through some of the most seemingly insurmountable issues, all because they were able to get themselves to a place of calm and safety.
Here are a few ways in which you can remove anxiety along with your chometz this Pesach
Clarify your expectations
The root cause of much of pre-Pesach anxiety is our expectations. Let’s take for example, b’dikas chometz (the search for chometz). Your Rabbi taught in shul the halacha that it should begin at nightfall. You come home from shul and your house is nowhere close to ready. Your kids are running around. No one is helping you. Three hours later, you finally begin the search. And how about the seder? You are supposed to come home from shul and make Kiddush right away. And of course, the table is supposed to be set. You come home from shul and your wife has passed out on the couch from exahuastion. The table cloth is on but that is about it. The kids are tired and kvetching and, at this rate, it will be a good few hours until you reach the mah nishtana. Don’t worry, your house is not the only one.
While we have expectations for things to run smoothly, the most reasonable expectation is to expect the unexpected. Otherwise, you will surely be disappointed, anxious, and maybe even angry. To drive this message home, I was once speaking to a Chassidic Rebbe about the stresses of Erev Pesach and he told me that he accepts upon himself every year not to get angry from the time of b’dikas chometz until after the seder. If the Rebbe would entertain the possibility of getting angry, it shows us the inevitability of our expectations not being met.
Although you can work on having no expectations, you will surely have some strong preferences of how you want things to go. While your expectations may seem obvious to your spouse, it is always best to articulate them beforehand. If it is important to you to begin the seder in a timely manner, share that with your spouse in advance and discuss ways that you can make it happen. Unspoken wishes will leave you upset when they are unfulfilled and leave your spouse confused as to the cause of your discontent. Perhaps your in-laws are coming for Yom Tov. Talk about a strategy for being on the same page prior to their visit so that you can present a united front. The clearer you can be with each other, the less room for failure.
Have compassion for your spouse
If you notice yourself feeling frustrated, do your best to have compassion for your spouse. If your spouse is cranky, tired, or unhelpful, try to picture their story. Perhaps he has been working late hours so he can take off for Yomtov. Maybe she has been up all night cooking and cleaning. No, she didn’t yet set the table, but she has been preparing non-stop for Pesach the last three weeks, besides taking care of the kids and getting dinner on the table. Keep those visuals in the forefront of your mind so you can be more understanding when your spouse is not living up to your expectations.
Accept the ratzon Hashem
When I was a bochur in Eretz Yisroel, I spent Pesach by a Chassidic Rebbe. His wife had a baby two days before Yom Tov. Although his Rebbetzin had cooked in advance, he was still left practically alone with a house full of kids, the oldest barely bas mitzvah, and a few guests. In addition to his regular involvement as a father, the Rebbe plated and served the entire meal. While this may have not been his ideal seder night, the Rebbe taught me a valuable lesson that the most important question that a Jew must ask himself is, “what does Hashem want from me now, at this moment?” We have to be able switch gears and take action when things don’t go our way. Instead of getting wrapped up in our own story of how things should be, we must be proactive and deal with the way things are. This is the only way we can achieve true piece of mind, for life will often throw us curveballs along the way. Yes, you may have your expectations, but can you live with it and make Hashem’s will yours.
When we accept G-d’s will over ours, every moment is a cause for joy as we are doing exactly what we need to be doing at that time. Putting an extra effort to have a positive attitude can defuse the anxiety that builds up around Pesach. It is also an invaluable lesson for your children. How many kids grow up dreading YomTov because all they saw in their house was anxiety, complaining, and fighting? The central theme of the seder night is perpetuating the story of yetizias mitzrayim(the exodus from Egypt) by telling it to our children. We want that experience to be as positive and memorable as possible, not laced with strife.
As we approach Pesach, and busy ourselves with searching and destroying our chometz, let us work on purging the anxiety that so often enslaves us and our relationships