Saturday, January 12, 2013

Religion's Role In Conflating Issues & Labels

Disclaimer: This post is not comprised of personal experiences. I am lucky to have a great husband. The examples provided are drawn from life, but not my life.

Those of you who have studied psychology may be familiar with the terms 'black-and-white-thinking', 'all-or-nothing-thinking' or 'splitting.' The hallmark of this type of thinking is when a person can only see events in their life as wholly a virtue or wholly a vice, wholly good or wholly bad. People who have trouble with this type of thinking will often resort to 'You always' or 'You never' statements. Sometimes these statements have more to do with how the person is feeling at the time than the actual situation.

This is a particular challenge of mine. I have realized over time that I often conflate issues with labels. An issue refers to a particular behavior. A label is a judgement one has made about the behavior and a motivation one has ascribed to the action. It admits for no doubt and is generally immovable and unshakable. 

Suppose you have a loving husband and wife. The wife grew up always seeing her father do the dishes. She comes home from work, where she had a terrible day. She sees her husband sitting at his computer and notes that the dishes are not done. In an exasperated voice she says, "You never do the dishes. This shows me you don't care about me. You're irresponsible and you don't love me."

In that scenario, the wife has:

1) Resorted to black-and-white thinking. She claims the husband never does the dishes.
2) Assumed a motivation. Clearly the reason the husband doesn't do the dishes is because he doesn't really care about her.
3) Given him a label. She's labelled him as 'irresponsible.'
4) Come to a conclusion. Her conclusion is that he doesn't love her.

The question, of course, is whether any of these claims are true. What the wife needs to consider is:

1) Is it true he never does the dishes?
2) Why has he not done the dishes? What is his motivation?
3) Labeling is unhelpful.
4) You can't come to a conclusion until you examine the evidence, and you can't do that until you have a discussion with your spouse.

So in an alternate scenario, the wife might come home and say. "I had a bad day at work today and I am feeling very irritated. I notice that you have not done the dishes. Could you please tell me why you haven't done them?" 

At this point, the wife might be surprised by the answer. It could be that the husband truly is irresponsible or inconsiderate and simply didn't do the dishes because he didn't feel like it. But it could also be that he had a very pressing matter that had to be taken care of right then, and he was planning to do the dishes afterwards. Or maybe he was unaware that this was an expectation that she had of him in the first place. 

Only once the wife understands what has led to this behavior/ issue, can he and she together tackle the root of the problem.

All of this seems very straightforward when you lay it out this way, but to someone who struggles with this, it doesn't come naturally. It takes effort and time to learn how to see from this perspective. Some may be able to accomplish it on their own, and others may benefit from having a life coach or therapist to assist them in learning how to see from this angle.

What I have realized lately is that certain aspects of our community (specifically Orthodox Judaism) do not lead to a healthy separation between issues and labels. Indeed, they even encourage us to conflate them.

I attended a Bais Yaakov. It was not a good experience for me. At that school, we were given a very narrow, limited model of what made for a 'good girl.' A good girl wanted to grow up to support her husband in Kollel. She was completely tznius at all times, didn't talk to boys and didn't ask difficult questions about religion. 

At the same time, we were given a very narrow, limited model of a 'good boy.' A good boy was the top boy. You were looking for someone who was an absolutely brilliant Talmid Chacham. He prefers to spend his time in Beis Midrash, coming up with incredible raayos and chiddushim. He never misses minyan. He goes out of his way to learn with chavrusas and to be kovea itim. If he doesn't fit this model, then perhaps second-best is someone who still always davens with a minyan, is a big baal-chesed and otherwise devotes most of his time to community projects. 

Here's the difficulty. Imagine that you marry someone, and that person has a specific difficulty or issue. To give a simple example, suppose the man you married has difficulty getting up on time for Shacharis. He often misses minyan. If you're a typically raised Bais Yaakov girl, the thought that might flash in your mind is the following: He always misses minyan. This shows me that he doesn't really care about Hashem or Judaism. He also doesn't care about me, because it's embarrassing to me to have a husband who misses minyan. If he really loved me, he would get there on time.

Even worse, Bais Yaakov girls are taught that their sechar (heavenly reward) is directly tied up in ensuring that a man fulfills his heavenly duties. So the girl may think that her husband missing minyan is directly related to her and her well-being. She may at first try sweetly, then slightly more irritatedly and finally angrily to get her husband to daven on time. She may not be interested in the root of the issue or behavior, which may be important when it comes to trying to fix it, but instead simply decides to label him.

Let's say the husband is legitimately struggling with his penchant to be late to minyan. Having a wife who is nagging you and who then ultimately decides that you are worthless because your missing minyan is equivalent to not having true love or fear of God may not only be disheartening but crushing. You may respond to it in a variety of ways, many of them not positive. For example, in order to avoid her negativity, you may start lying to your wife and saying you went to minyan on time when you really didn't. Your wife will find out and will feel betrayed/ hurt. Everything may go downhill from there, because you now have a serious breach of trust.

All this because the wife decided to label rather than addressing the issue. The conversation that really needs to be had is, "I see that getting to minyan is a struggle for you. Can we talk about why?" or alternatively, if you know why, the next question might be, "How can I be helpful to you in this struggle? What do you need to succeed?" But not everyone realizes that an issue or a behavior is not necessarily related to the motivation one thinks it is related to, and thus the label one might ascribe. 

Obviously, the partners need to both be invested in working on problematic behaviors or issues. If something your partner is doing is really not compatible with your value system, and if the person is unwilling to change or to work on the behavior, that can lead to problems in the marriage, as marriages in our community are based on shared values. So it might not be acceptable to you to be married to a man who consistently misses minyan and who sees nothing wrong with this, or who is not interested in working on changing his behavior. But that is different from making the assumption that because someone is struggling with a behavior they therefore deserve a certain label. A person can be a 'good boy' or 'good girl' who has love and fear of God but has some behaviors, habits or issues that need to be worked on. The behavior is not always (possibly even not often) indicative of a greater meaning or statement about the person. 


Smoker. said...

Here's another example of "misdiagnosing" the "symptoms":

I am a smoker. It's an addiction. But I never smoke in the presence of my wife and/or children.
However, since smoking ostensibly shortens one's life, I have been accused of "not loving my family". After all, my smoking "puts my family at risk of becoming a widow and orphans".

Well, I happen to know that the fact remains, I DO very much love my family!

My best advice for a spouse, or anybody else, is to NOT ignore the accusations.
Even though you feel that you cannot at this moment correct your behavior, it is important to at least profess your love and concern.
Let it be known that you are aware of the pain you are causing and that it should not be misinterpreted.
It may be an insufficient response, but it's a start.
As long as it's not just "lip service".

Anonymous said...

Smoker, buying life insurance is a tangible way of showing your love, in the situation you describe.

Smoker said...

My dear Anonymous,
Money is a very weak consolation for an orphan or widow.
But I guess a feeble demonstration of affection is better than none at all.

Quitting smoking would be a better demonstration of love and caring. (Phooey on addictions!)

But my point is only that smoking (even without life-insurance) is not necessarily indicative of the absence of love.
Which, I believe, is what The Curious Jew is postulating.

Smoker. said...

BTW, I should mention that I did purchase Life-insurance years ago.
I'm assuming you meant to suggest I purchase additional insurance.

Be that as it may, I would recommend this dissertation by The Curious Jew to all engaged and/or married couples. And others as well.

yitznewton said...

As someone who lost his father to lung cancer at the age of 5, I would not accuse you of a lack of love; but I might still consider it an evasion of accountability on your part. I've never smoked, so I can't relate to the level of difficulty, but you're the only one who can eliminate this very real threat of your children growing up without a father.

Mindy Schaper said...

Have you been reading my mind? How'd you know how I feel about minyan?? :) Besides for the not caring about God part, I am certain of that.