Embracing Our Partners and Our Differences: A Conversation with Chaya Lester
In Judaism, the purpose of relationships is tikkun, repair. We are drawn to the person who will trigger us in the deepest ways, and navigating those challenges can bring us closer to repairing ourselves and the world. Chaya Lester, a Jerusalem-based wife; mother; co-director of the Shalev Center, which is dedicated to personal growth and spiritual development; Jewish educator; psychotherapist; and writer, works with couples to meet these challenges face-to-face and to find positive frameworks for communication that are rooted in Jewish values. We spoke to Chaya about strategies for breaking free of bad patterns with our partners and Judaism’s vision of a good marriage.
What are strategies for building intimacy with our partners?
First and foremost, I recommend having a weekly date. This should really be an opportunity to communicate about what’s going on in your relationship.
Once you’re in that space, I suggest using a communication tool that I call the HIllel sandwich. During the Passover seders, we create a Hillel sandwich using two pieces of matzah; charoset, a sweet relish, which is made of fruit and nuts; and maror, bitter herbs. The idea is to begin speaking to your partner with the essentials, a piece of matzah, or words of appreciation. Be specific about what you appreciate about your partner. Then, if you’re going to bring up a challenge that you two are facing, it’s time for the charoset. Be sweet and acknowledge your own vulnerability. Share how you may be contributing to the challenge. Then, it’s time for the maror, where you share the hard thing that you’re facing in your relationship. Make sure that you own your feelings with an, “I feel” statement. After that, share your final piece of matzah — something that you appreciate about your partner, which is connected to the situation.
When we face challenges in loving ways, we find that what we previously thought was a wall becomes a window in our relationship. By handling our challenges with love and care, our conflicts can yield the intimacy that our souls desire.
What is the number one mistake that you see couples make and how can they avoid making that mistake?
A big mistake that couples make is placing a burden of expectations on their partners, or what I call, “shoulding” each other. For example, you may think, “My partner should give me more compliments.” The best thing that we can do is move from “shoulding” to “shouldering.” We need to stop demanding that our partner fulfills our needs at all times, and instead, we need to find ways to fulfill these needs ourselves. By removing these expectations from our partners and shouldering them ourselves, we often find that our partners do actually begin to fulfill our needs.
How can we respect and honor our differences with our partners?
In our relationships with our partners, our differences can often breed resentment, but through our differences, we can also grow and expand. By accessing the unique holiness that exists when we confront our differences, we can make room for the space between us, which is G-d.
One way to handle the challenges that may come from our differences is to appreciate how we may benefit from those differences and to treasure those feelings. For example, if you want to go away for the weekend, but your husband doesn’t, don’t let the situation become a fight. Instead, acknowledge that, as a homebody, he provides essential roots for your family.
How can we change bad patterns with our spouse?
The first step is to have self-awareness and acknowledge the bad patterns. Then, communicate with your partner using the Hillel sandwich communication tool, addressing your challenge with appreciation and vulnerability. Keep in mind that you’re requesting and not demanding a change, and that your partner can always say no. But also recognize your own sense of self-worth, and know that you and your partner both deserve something better. Accessing your sense of self-love and believing that you can live a better life will enable you to create a better reality for yourself and to change your bad patterns.
What might a good marriage look like?
In marriage, we are united with the common task of making the world a better place and bringing light to the world. We do that in our home, with our children, and in our communities, and our relationship is the foundation for this work. It’s also necessary to have fun and enjoy the ride. In Judaism, there is an idea of four worlds: physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. Tapping into each of these worlds is essential for creating a good marriage.