Shalom Bayis When You Can't Leave the Bayis

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by Rabbi Efrem & Rebbetzin Yocheved Goldberg

There is an old joke that a man’s version of “shalom bayis” is to turn and wave as he leaves home and say “Shalom, goodbye bayis.”  But these days, the joke is on those who think they can have peace by leaving.  The word shalom also means hello, and right now, like it or not, we can only say hello to being home, there is no goodbye. How can couples maintain, even improve shalom bayis, when they can’t leave the bayis? While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, the following are practical tips that we find apply to many if not most people:

  • Allow for Differences: This pandemic and quarantine has forced many into roles and responsibilities outside their experience, expectation, and comfort. Everyone is adjusting to these new realities in different ways.  Our rabbis teach, k’sheim she’ain partzufeihem domim zeh la’zeh, kach dei’oseihem, ainam domim zah la’zeh. Just like our faces aren’t identical and we don’t criticize or reject those who don’t look exactly like us, people’s personalities, their psyche, coping mechanisms aren’t the same either.  Make space for the other people in your home to cope in their way.  Honor and validate their feelings and their needs.  Know what you need and respect the needs of others.
  • Communicate: We are deep into this crisis and many haven’t even shared with one another how they are feeling, what they are worried about, what they long for or dream about, what is particularly hard about the situation and what is working to make it easier.  Be sure to let each other know about what your triggers are, specifically what you are feeling when negative emotions come up (“I’m feeling anxious”, “I’m feeling frustrated”, “I’m scared”, “I am overwhelmed”).  Agree to boundaries that need to be honored and respected, such as work space and work time versus family space and family time. Often the best way to communicate is to listen actively, not trying to fix the other person or their problem.  Don’t take anything for granted and don’t assume that either your spouse or children know what you are feeling or needing, or that you know what they are going through or how you can help. 
  • How to “Fight”: Dr. John Gottman writes that within every fight is a conversation that needed to happen but didn’t because the fight broke out instead.  The very differences that enhance and enrich our relationships can also, at times, introduce friction and conflict.  Gottman says that the way conversations begin usually determines how the conversations end. So, when bringing up a challenging or difficult subject, remember, this is someone you love, make sure to give the benefit of the doubt and see the whole person and the big relationship. Pirkei Avos (Perek 2) teaches that we must dan es kol ha’adam l’kaf zechus, judge everyone favorably.  The Menachem Tziyon points out, it says, judge kol ha’adam, the whole person, because a happy relationship demands not defining a person or your relationship with them by one action or conversation but by kol ha’adam, the big picture of who they are and the life you have together.   Use a productive, non-judgmental, and non-accusatory tone. To be productive, get to the root of the difference and calmly navigate and negotiate a conclusion or action both partners can live with, even if not ideal. 
  • Positivity: We may feel like we are struggling to keep our heads above water, but we must not forget we are the heads of our homes.  Rashi at the beginning of our Parsha writes, l’hazhir gedolim al ha’ketanim, the adult Kohanim are instructed to teach the children how to protect their holiness.  The Imrei Chaim explains l’hazhir doesn’t just mean to warn or caution, but can be translated as to brighten or illuminate.  The adults are charged to bring light and, through modeling, brighten the lives of the ketanim, the children, with positive messaging and positive behavior.  Focus on the good, the blessings and opportunities and feel grateful.  Be mindful to use positive language and to smile, even when you don’t feel happy.  Smiling utilizes facial muscles that release dopamine and researchers have shown that smiling is contagious, like yawning or sneezing. Smile and those around you will start smiling too.  The passuk says, He’emanti ki adabeir, which has been translated as I have emunah, faith, because I choose to talk about Hashem.  Bring Hashem into your home by speaking about and to Him, even if it doesn’t come naturally.
  • Self-Soothe: When you are struggling to stay positive, when you sense you are at the end of your fuse, don’t take it out on others or display moodiness.  Know what you need for self-care to restore your sanity, nourish your soul and bring back your patience and positivity. Go for a walk, savor a cup of coffee, call a friend, listen to a shiur, or do what works for you in a way and at a time that can work for your spouse.
  • Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: When under pressure and in a tense environment, we tend to overact and over-dramatize what are ordinarily small and insignificant issues.  In his bestselling “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff…And It’s All Small Stuff,” Richard Carlson reminds us that the secret to serenity, good health, and happiness is perspective.   It is understandable to sometimes grow frustrated or to want to address difficult matters, but do it with perspective.  Before escalating, ask yourself if this really matters, if it is worth getting upset about or holding on to.  Use the 5-5-5 technique to hold yourself back from getting angry. Before losing your cool, take a step back and step outside yourself and ask, “Will this matter in 5 days? Will this matter in 5 months? Will this matter in 5 years?”  If it won’t, let it go and move on.  There is never a time to hold a grudge but especially not during a pandemic when we need to conserve our energy for what really matters. 
  • “Steal” Time: Time is the oxygen relationships need to breathe.  Many are juggling working with homeschooling with trying to make it through the day.  By quitting time, there is no energy left.  However, we can’t neglect this critically important relationship in our lives.  Make the time to go for a walk, play a game, laugh and dream together.  Partner in a goal that will add meaning to your lives like learning Torah, volunteering, or planning for the future. Being stuck at home presents a great opportunity to do what social psychologists refer to as “nostalgizing.” Go through that trove of cards, letters, pictures and videos of simchas, vacations and outings.  Reliving the best parts of the past will put a smile on your face and bring you closer together.
  • Make an Effort: You may not be engaging the outside world, but you are still presenting yourself to those who should be the center of your world.  Make an effort to be attractive to one another.  Surprise your spouse with a cute, inexpensive gift ordered online for no reason at all. Give compliments and express gratitude, especially for mundane and expected things like shopping, cooking, cleaning, taking out the garbage or putting the children to sleep. 

Most relationships will not emerge from this extraordinary time the way they went in. The pandemic of 2020 is a chance to either grow together or, sadly, to grow apart.  Whether we look back with positive memories and sentiments towards our relationship in this time, or find ourselves still recovering from the conflict and trauma, will be determined by how we act and treat one another now. 

The shalom in our bayis is up to us.  Now is the time to say goodbye to strife and hello to happiness.

*This article is adapted from classes delivered by Rabbi and Rebbetzin Goldberg.

To hear Rabbi Goldberg's class for husbands, click here
To hear Rebbetzin Goldberg's class for wives, click here