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"No one owes another anything"—really??

We have been married for several years. I invest a lot in my marriage, in my opinion, more than most husbands. The problem is that I've reached a situation where I feel too obligated.


For example, if I just think out loud that we might go somewhere together, she gets very excited, talking about it and planning. Then I feel stressed and obliged to make it happen. If I dare abandon the idea, she doesn't forgive me. She becomes sad, withdrawn, and irritable. She also becomes resentful and argumentative.


We've talked about it a few times, and she usually agrees with me in the end. But the situation keeps repeating itself. Then I realized from you that I really do not owe her anything. This is what you wrote in one of the previous issues: "No one owes another anything." Also I understood from you in a face-to-face conversation that I am not responsible for her feelings.


Since then I've kind of freed myself. I still get stressed when I realize she's expecting something from me, but I feel calmer about it now. I keep in mind the insight above, and it helps me.


However, something here confuses me. If I'm not responsible for her feelings, does that mean she's not a part of me? Maybe not really. This is the conclusion I came to. Is it true? What can I do to completely let go of the stressful feeling of obligation?


Answer:


First of all, do not "think out loud" if you are not going to carry out ideas that affect her.


When you, as a man, think of an idea to travel, for example, you consider it: maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe it's suitable, maybe it's too expensive. Maybe not this time of year, maybe yes.


When she, as a woman, hears the idea from you, she immediately begins to imagine it. She already sees an orange sun sinking into the sea and hears the lapping waves. When you eventually drop the idea, you are actually interrupting this dream of hers, destroying it as she holds it in her hands.


You can think with her. Don't throw out ideas but rather consult with her and include her ideas in your considerations. This way the idea might be less of a "dream" to her. But take into account that even if you consult with her in this way, she may develop expectations. Instead of getting her hopes up, if you're not sure you'll be able to make it happen — just make it happen. Go out with her. It's important!


To address the body of your question: the words "not responsible for her feelings" and "she is not a part of me" are a bit too harsh, too extreme.


Are you responsible for her feelings? No, but the truth is somewhere in the middle. The statement "No one owes another anything" is also true but requires further explanation to understand the boundaries this responsibility and your wife's being a "part of [you]."


So really you don't owe her anything, and she doesn't owe you anything either. From a practical point of view, this is the approach you should take. Jewish law does provide dictates to direct the husband and wife, but if we treat these as obligations and demand their fulfillment by the other side, we would not be creating married life but rather a type of business agreement.


On the other hand, each person in the relationship must strive to give to the other, to do his or her will. The husband must "respect his wife more than his own person," and the wife must "follow the dictates of her husband's heart" (see Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Sefer Nashim, Ishut 15:19-20). Well then, are you or are you not obligated to make her happy?


The guidance is that you are obligated to try. You are obligated for your own sake and for the sake of what you know G-d requires of you — for the sake of the unity you want to have in your home. But not for your partner's sake. Toward the other, you don't owe anything, and they can't demand anything from you. But you can and should demand from yourself all that you are capable of doing.


Another way of saying it is, "I want my wife to do well, really want it, and I'm going to do everything I can to make that happen." The key word is that you want to; you don't have to.


For example, this sense of responsibility for her feelings: do you have some button on hand that can filter out her difficult emotions? I know that if I had one, I would use it. But there isn't one. Such a button doesn't exist.


Also, if the difficult feelings were yours, does that mean you are responsible or rather to be blamed for them? Also not! You have a responsibility to do what you can to better your situation, emotionally and otherwise. That's all. The success of the outcome is not in your hands, ever. The same goes for your wife.


You are not responsible at all for her feelings, and she cannot ask you to be responsible for them. She can describe to you what she feels. She can also ask for whatever she wants, but knowing clearly that you are not obligated to fulfill her request.


(Regarding the statement she "can describe" and "can ask," it's more that she should do so. Expressing oneself is the right way to live. When you want something, say it. Do not keep anything in your gut. Only make sure you express it in an effective way.)


For your part, you really want your wife to feel good, so you think of what you can do to bring that to fruition. What can you do for her? As part of your deliberations, you must also consider your own sense of freedom. When you feel freedom, the unity in your household will be elevated. Thus you can truly give from a giving mindset, not out of a feeling of being suffocated.


If a person is unable to say no, then his or her yes is not a yes; it is only a surrendering to the other's will and not giving to the other. In marriage, we give to each other, lovingly and willingly — not out of obligation or fear of their reaction or a desire to placate the other. We give based on a simple desire to do good for the other, clearly knowing that only our actions are in our own hands, not the results of those actions.

To summarize, your mindset should be as follows:

  • I don't owe the other anything.

  • I will try — with all my might — to do good for the other.

As for "letting go" completely of feeling responsible for your wife's emotions, try talking it out with yourself, literally arguing and speaking out everything you feel and also the beliefs that seem to be underlying this feeling. Only after that, when you have really gotten everything out, will you be able to discover the answer, a specific answer. If another challenge surfaces, following your answer, ask it of yourself as well! Argue as if you were two people, each saying whatever is on his heart. The more detailed you are, the more helpful it will be to you.


You can also perform this exercise in writing. Writing is more powerful than speaking. If this process isn't adequate for you, or there are no results, then I suggest you seek the help of counseling.


Good luck!

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