Beautiful Enemies - a Love Story for Our Times
“A strong marriage requires loving your spouse even when in those moments when they are not lovable; it means believing in them even when they struggle to believe in themselves.”
- Dave Willis
With one question, my mighty, competent, responsible husband can become like an evasive child. When I ask him if he knows where some missing item might be, his instant knee-jerk response is always, "I didn't touch it."
"I didn't ask if you touched it," I would respond with icy sarcasm, "I just asked if you knew where it was."
And I would think that if only he would stop automatically assuming I'm accusing him of something, he could do something useful – like try to guess where it could be or help me find it.
It's Biblical - man's propensity to avoid blame.
And Then This Happened…
I had bungled something as an attorney. A combination of procrastination and overwhelm caused me not to pay attention to something I thought was a minor issue – which turned out to be not so minor, creating a financial loss to a client – which we reimbursed. However, my husband, a well-known family lawyer, shielded me, took the blame, and was publicly criticized for a careless act that would cause any first-year associate to get fired.
And the most shameful part was that my husband wasn't mad at me at all. He didn't yell. He didn't make me feel incompetent. And while I was sobbing with guilt that I had ruined his life, my husband laughed and said, "Don't you know - you made my life?"
For my husband, our marriage is sacred, and he wouldn't tarnish it, trample on it, or hurt the relationship on account of something as secular and mundane as a work-related legal matter.
And I cringed thinking of how dismissive I can get over ridiculous minutia.
The sacred marriage is a journey of soul mates pledged to each other's betterment and potential, and shame and blame, harsh criticism, and other behaviors that infuse the relationship with negativity are intolerable.
The Next-Step Marriage
According to social psychologist Eli Finkel, marriage has progressed from being driven by utility, function, and necessity to being love-driven and finally to a new "modern" concept of marriage as a means of self-actualization.
According to Finkel, however, this is an almost impossible bar to achieve. Finkel wonders, how can a spouse make the other feel loved, comfortable, and secure while simultaneously being the driver of their improvement. How can we finesse being a lover and coach, the safe harbor, and the push for success? Is it fair, much less realistic, Finkel asks, to expect our spouses to be all things?
Um, Read Your Bible
The answer is a resounding “yes.” Furthermore, this model of marriage isn't so modern. It originated with the first couple in recorded history when God created Eve to be an "ezer kenegdo" for Adam.
When the Old Testament was translated into English, this term, "ezer kenegdo" was mistranslated as a "helpmate," evoking an eternally submissive Betty Crocker. Granted, the Hebrew term has no direct and easy English equivalent, but in fact, an "ezer kenegdo" is a "helpmeet," a "helper in opposition," a wife who assists by "being against."
When I first learned this was my actual role as a Jewish wife, I completely misunderstood it, thinking I was commanded from on High to discover and fix my husband's every imperfection. Self-righteously, I justified nagging as a holy mitzvah. However, an “ezer kenegdo,”
is neither a Stepford wife nor a shrew but a "beautiful enemy."
Allow Me to Explain.
In writing about leadership, positive psychology thought leader Tal Ben-Shahar explains that while it is pleasant to be surrounded by those who always say "yes" to us and confirm and validate our actions, what is truly valuable is to have someone who can say "no" – albeit with kindness, intellect, and empathy. When critique is presented as an offering and not a demand, and when it comes from the person's best and highest self, then even criticism can become beautiful.
What Adam Didn't Understand
Defensiveness, however, is the ego's method of self-protection, and it blocks us from hearing what the other person is saying. For example, when God asked Adam the famous question, "Where are you?” Adam's defensiveness caused him to deflect the existential inquiry. By blaming Eve, he missed the opportunity to restore his relationship with God.
Accordingly, as Ben-Shahar notes, an indispensable component of this process is that we must also bring our kindness, intellect, and empathy to the table in understanding criticism – otherwise, our egos will perceive the person (even a loved one or the Almighty) as an "enemy."
Thus, the process is reciprocal and, ultimately, must become mutual. "As we want all our friends, spouses, and families to grow in all the possible ways, we need to become beautiful enemies toward them."
A Beautiful Paradox
A beautiful enemy will both challenge and push you to grow while at the same time love and accept you as you are. And so yes, we must continuously rise to the occasion and finesse these dual roles to help our spouses and others actualize themselves, but we must also work on ourselves.
I call that a win-win. It's a challenge but so very worth it. It's what makes marriage sacred, so unbelievably great, and right from the start of Creation, the way it was meant to be.
Integrate and Actualize
How can you believe in your spouse (and others) and their potential even when they struggle to believe in themselves?
Consider the concept of an "ezer kenegdo" or "beautiful enemy" in marriage and other relationships. How can you offer and receive constructive criticism in a loving and accepting way? How can you challenge and push your spouse (and others) to grow while loving and accepting them as they are?
How can you continuously work on yourself to create a win-win situation in your marriage? What steps can you take to support your own personal growth as well as your spouse's?