She was plainly annoyed with me. "Why should I have to be assertive?" she complained. "Why should I have to 'get' him to behave properly with me when he should be doing it on his own? I'm not his mother. I don't have to teach him right from wrong. He shouldn't be rude in the first place. That's his responsibility, not mine. I don't feel like being assertive. I'm too tired, too tired of years of dealing with all this. If I were married to a nice person, I wouldn't have to."
And she was right. Except for the small detail this is the man she married. This is the man she chose. She'd like to forget her "mistake," but at the time she made her choice, it was made in good faith, made with hope, dreams, happiness, and love. No one put a gun to her head to marry this person.
So why in the world did she make such a bad, bad choice? Why did she choose someone whose bad behavior would require her to either get a divorce an option she did not want or learn to be assertive, calm, centered, and happy while immersed in a negative, whiny, abusive, miserable environment? Why would G-d put her in a place of this awful dilemma and then make her too frustrated too utterly exhausted to have the strength to go through with it?
Murray Bowen, the esteemed theoretician behind the natural systems theory of family therapy, pointed out that we choose partners who are very much like us in what he called our level of differentiation. This concept, differentiation, has to do with the degree to which each member of a family can remain happy independent of what the other family members are doing. The fascinating finding of Bowen's thirty-plus years of research is that people tend to marry someone at the same level of differentiation as they are. At the risk of oversimplifying, this concept could be summed up to say that as much as any one person feels she or he is more "together" than the person that she or he married, that may actually not be true.
Underneath the poise, the responsible holding of a job, getting kids to do their homework, or taking proper care of elderly parents, may be the same insecurities, fears, and pain as one's spouse has. In spite of successes and accomplishments that only one of them may have on the outside, they share something deep and similar underneath.
That, in fact, may be part of the initial attraction between two people. As much as there is something opposite that one wishes one had that the other one does have, there is something deep and fundamental in common.
To test out this proposition, I suggested she talk to her husband and check out such things as similarity of personality between one of her parents and one of his, early abandonment or early years of being spoiled, her deepest fears or greatest areas of confidence, and so on. A penetrating look uncovers amazing parallels. While they may have nothing in common on a superficial level (she likes chick flicks; he likes action, for example), they will discover commonalities on a deeper, psychological level where it really counts (their respective mothers were both emotionally unavailable, for example).
If this is true, then perhaps she should accept that her heart made the choice for her for the right reasons even if the journey together is difficult.
But darned if she didn't come back at me with the sharp retort: "Why should it be so difficult anyway? Okay, I agree, we did discover some incredible stories in our history that were almost identical. They were powerful forces in our lives, I agree, and I can see how those forces brought us together, but all that doesn't explain why I have to learn to be assertive. What about him?"
Which always brings me back to the flip side of the attraction: There's the commonality and then there's the difference. Lots of people think the French were wrong when they said, "Vive la difference!" They think those differences are just plain tiring. In fact, they're exhausted, like this lady was. But I think the French were right.
I think those differences were built in specifically to help us to grow to our full potential. When Eve was created, according to the Genesis narrative, she was told that she would be Adam's eizer k'negdo, which means "help as if against him." Sometimes it would feel as if she was against him, but that was only the feeling; it was only as if. In actuality, she was to be his help, and, by inference, he would be hers. Why did they need all this help from each other?
Our Sages teach that humans were created to help perfect the world, beginning, of course, with ourselves. And the job isn't easy, so we got a partner to help. The beautiful thing about this is that the precise area in which we need to grow because we are weak in that area is the very area in which our beloved is strong, and, just to make matters interesting, that is the exact source of the attraction.
Let me restate that: Not only are we attracted to our "opposite" but that attraction was built in on purpose because we need the assistance of the person with the strength where we are weak in order to become stronger ourselves in that area. In other words, maybe our Creator was having a big ol' joke when He programmed humans that way, but the end result is that there is something magnetic about someone who is opposite in the very areas where we need the most help.
Now if our purpose here on Earth is to make it a better place, starting with numero uno, how convenient that our partner is the exact right person to help us accomplish that.
With that in mind, I turned to my exhausted and annoyed friend and said, "Maybe G-d wants you to learn to be more assertive. Maybe that is the very reason for which you were born. And maybe being married to this particular guy is the exact thing you need to learn it. He's not shy, is he?"
"No," she said as she sighed again and took the sheet I gave her called, "How to be more assertive."
"But why must it be so thorny to learn to be assertive, even if it is something I ought to learn?" she asked. It was a legitimate question, after all.
"Look," I explained. "Sometimes you learn because your teacher coaches and coaxes you, but sometimes you learn because your teacher challenges you. Depending on who you are, you may need the kick-in-the-pants-type coaching. I don't know. Ask G-d."
"I'll practice it," she agreed, holding her assertiveness guide a bit more firmly.