As the young wife sat in my office with her husband, having come to me for couples’ counseling, I could see that I wasn’t reaching her. I was speaking English, but it might have well been Chinese. We were in the same room, but on different planets. Yet, on paper, we had the basis for a perfectly good therapeutic connection. We were both Orthodox Jews. She and her husband were coming for psychotherapy, which I provide, suggesting that we shared the same goal.
A cursory glance at the topics of local lectures and talks from Rabbis and community leaders suggests that marital and parent-child relationships are in trouble. There have been many wise observations and prescriptions for understanding and improving the situation from prominent Rabbis and others. I’d like to offer a somewhat different perspective, based on my experience as a psychotherapist.
I have come to speculate that the monster that haunts many of our relationships in the frum community is not anger, stress, or cell phones. It is annoyance.
We, as individuals with differing roles, often come into relationships with expectations for how our spouses and children should behave, and when they don’t, we are often annoyed, not angry.
What is the difference? Anger suggests that the status quo is deeply disturbing to the individual. That depth implies a level of caring and commitment to a relationship. One is angry because one wants the relationship to be fundamentally different. In contrast, annoyance implies no such depth of caring or commitment. One can be annoyed at one’s co-worker, sibling, or acquaintance, but the conflict does not offer any deep level of concern. Indeed, people can go for decades on end being annoyed at others without feeling deeply disturbed (though I wouldn’t recommend it).
In addition, annoyance comes to counter the second cardinal element of a successful relationship, namely acceptance. Annoyance implies a lack of acceptance for the status quo, and a lack of desire to accommodate the situation as it is. While successful relationships combine caring and acceptance, relationships can get by even if one of these elements is compromised. A marriage, for example, can be somewhat fulfilling even if there is very little real caring, given that there is basic respect and acceptance on the part of the spouses. Conversely, a relationship with much caring and little acceptance will likely have high conflict, but the implied message that the partners care enough to be angry can help sustain the relationship. Annoyance implies a lack of both caring and acceptance.
As a therapist, I came to realize that I enter many of my therapeutic relationships with clients carrying the assumption that they seek a fulfilling, deep connection with their spouses and/or children, or at least that they are willing to work to accept their family members. Unfortunately, I have found that this often simply isn’t the case. Clients often seek change on the part of other family members, but only as would a worker who complained that his or her co-worker wasn’t doing his or her job. When faced with bickering co-workers, it would be odd for a manager to guide the workers toward a deep, caring relationship because s/he would likely assume that the workers have no desire for such depth in their relationship. They simply want to the other to stop being annoying and do their job. All too often, we in the frum community treat each other as workers who have roles and jobs to fill in the family life, and, when those roles are not filled to satisfaction, we are annoyed.
A telltale sign of this dynamic is when clients engage in “supposed to”s. A husband or wife complains about the other’s behavior, saying that s/he is “supposed to” engage in or refrain from a certain behavior. In the case that I began with, I asked the wife why she wanted her husband to refrain from the behavior she complained about (spending most of his free time with his friends and avoiding being home), and she replied that “it’s not normal.” I tried valiantly to guide her to express some kind of interest in him as an individual (i.e. “I don’t want him to go out with his friends at night because I want to spend time with him”), but all she could muster for why she didn’t like his behavior was “it’s not normal.” He was denying her the role she sought as a married woman in the community with a “normal” husband. She was clearly annoyed, but she didn’t really care enough about him to be angry, or even connected enough to him to be hurt. She was just annoyed.
Indeed, too many couples in crisis seek help complaining not that their spouse did something hurtful or inconsiderate, but rather that they are not fulfilling expected roles. They are not being good co-workers in the business of the marriage.
More disturbing still is when parents engage in the same dynamic in relation to their children. “He is ‘supposed to’ be motivated to do his homework,” or to be concerned about others, or to show respect for his Rebbe. Often these parents would not express concern for their child’s present or future well-being, only annoyance that he wasn’t doing what he is “supposed to.” (Even stated concern for the future was often a narcissistic concern for one’s own or the family’s reputation). It’s as if our family relationships have become contracts to fulfill certain roles so that we can achieve a particular status and enjoy expected milestones. When family members do things that get in the way of our expected family goals, they are annoyances who are often dragged to therapists so that the therapist can do something to make them stop being annoying.
It is hardly surprising that such clients come to treatment with the clear goal of getting the therapist to change the other family member’s behavior. This is more than the universal human tendency to blame others and see our spouses or our children as the problem. An individual who seeks a meaningful relationship or can appreciate the value of acceptance may fully believe that the other person is the problem, but such a person is usually somewhat open to sharing responsibility for the problem. When one is annoyed at another, however, there is often little motivation to do the difficult work of sharing responsibility for the problem. To be annoyed with another is to simply want that person to change. Immediately.
At the very least, for those of us in the helping professions, this raises the very distinct possibility, if not likelihood, that our assumed goals in the help we offer are out of sync with the goals of those to whom we are offering the help. While I am making a sweeping generalization to illustrate my assertion, we may have all experienced some level of being in a place of annoyance at some point in the history of our relationships. I suggest that the reader transport him or herself back to that place of annoyance, and then consider what it would be like to hear a therapist or Rabbi speak about how to improve or deepen the relationship. To return to the mutually annoyed co-workers, imagine how it would be received if the manager’s suggested solution was for the co-workers to spend some quality time together, or make a list of things they appreciate about each other. Further, in the place of annoyance, does one really want to hear a message of shared responsibility for the problem, which is largely the basis of all such therapeutic advice?
I often wonder how we came to this place of annoyance. My casual observation and speculation is that this problem may be, in some ways, worse amongst religious Jews than in secular culture. In secular culture, there is a cultural notion that the basis of relationships is love; romantic, narcissistic, indulgent love to be sure, but love nonetheless. In the Torah world, we know that relationships are about many other things as well, such as HaShem, Torah, family, community, halacha, etc. Yet has our critique of the secular emphasis on love gone so far as to render our relationships mere business partnerships? I will leave the speculation about how we got here and what it all means to another time and greater minds than mine.
Still, I am loathe to diagnose a problem without any prescription for change. At the end of the day, for those of us in the helping professions, we are left with the following questions: Are we offering help that our clients are not ready to hear, and, worse, are we refusing to acknowledge this? Are we, in fact, annoyed at our clients for being annoyed at each other? Are we just as unwilling to accept our own role in the problem of annoyance as our clients are in their own relationships? If so, we are compelled to move beyond our own annoyance, and engage in real problem solving. This process would begin with re-defining the problem that our clients present us with from “problems in the marriage,” to “stuck in state of annoyance.” The intervention would look less like “deepening the relationship,” and more like “guiding them toward a state of acceptance/caring/shared responsibility.” Lectures would be less focused on generic advice about “quality time,” and more on increasing basic motivation for the very idea of achieving depth in relationships.
Broadly speaking, there are always two ways to make a situation less painful. Effect change in the situation itself, and/or increase acceptance of the situation as it is. I have begun to lay out a prescription for increasing our acceptance of the situation as it is, but what of changing the situation itself? How can we, as a religious community, move from a state of annoyance in our relationships toward a desire for depth and acceptance? Can we challenge our religious leaders to address this problem directly? It is my sincere hope that this essay will move, in some small way, this process forward, for the good of our relationships and for those of all of Klal Yisrael.