To properly understand the intricate relationship of the marriage bond, we must note a unique distinction between this relationship and all other familial relationships. We are not born married; the relationship between spouses is not innate. It is not a natural, inherent, blood relationship, and it is this distinction which creates an inherent fragility in the structure of marriage. The fact that there is an escape clause (divorce) underscores this vulnerability. In the framework of a marriage, two individuals with different backgrounds and personalities have to live with each other. They are different also in terms of their mannerisms and inclinations. This can be a highly disruptive factor in the formation of the bond between the couple.
Other familial relationships do not have these weaknesses. The innate blood relationship that exists between parents and children, brothers and sisters, and even grandparents and grandchildren, is an inherently stronger relationship. In these blood relationships, strong bonds of love and devotion are implanted in the hearts of the family members. These bonds enable the relationships to withstand tensions and insults. The threshold of tolerance is almost limitless. This is not the case with the marriage bond.
In a marriage, the husband and wife first meet each other with their personalities already formed. They are now expected to integrate these two distinct personalities into one happy, perfect unit, despite their differences and incompatibilities. This can make for a volatile situation.
A certain level of belligerence which would be easily tolerated by another member of the family could bring about a situation of real hatred in a marriage. There are times when siblings have major clashes, or children behave improperly to their parents (and vice versa), yet these relationships survive. This same level of discord between a married couple will often lead to divorce. On the other hand, in marriage the closeness between the couple is at the maximum level possible. This same relationship can be either a source of intense hostility or a binyan adei ad, a building for eternity.
This is what the Gemara is referring to when it tells us, “Ish v’ishah: zachu, Shechinah beineihem; lo zachu, eish ochaltan” (Sotah 17a). If a man and a woman are meritorious, the Divine presence is between them; if they are not meritorious, fire consumes them. This completely unique relationship can be either a wonderful vehicle upon which the Divine presence can rest, or G-d forbid it can turn the couple into combustion!
Because the marriage bond can swing to such extremes, Heavenly harmony or fiery discord, it requires continual input and a commitment which is constantly renewed. Of course, none of our relationships should be taken for granted, but a marriage bond will in all likelihood cease to exist if it is taken for granted. Unfortunately, many do not make this distinction, and they treat their marriage like any other relationship, making an incorrect assumption that the success of their marriage is guaranteed. “After all,” they reason, “we like each other.” What happens in fact is that when faced with the myriad issues and challenges which confront a young couple, working on their relationship is often relegated to the lowest of priorities. The truth, though, is that a successful marriage needs continual work, especially at the beginning of the road.
This is why the Torah mandates special laws regarding shanah rishonah, the first year of marriage. This first year is a time when tremendous attention and effort are expended to establish as close a relationship as possible. It is the period in the young couple’s lives to set the tone for trust, commitment, and caring. These are ingredients which are essential for the future years of the couple. This is how they will establish the dwelling place for the Shechinah between them, and to protect themselves from a situation of combustion — eish ochaltan. The shanah rishonah is supposed to be a sample of the desired relationship for the duration of the marriage.
This is not to suggest that the shanah rishonah is an all-or-nothing opportunity. Naturally, any situation is salvageable at any stage, as is illustrated by a story told of Reb Yisrael Salanter, of blessed memory. It was the end of the day, and Reb Yisrael needed his shoe mended. He took the shoe to a cobbler and asked him if there was still time to fix it. The cobbler glanced at his waning candle and responded, “All the while the candle burns, I can still make repairs.”
Reb Yisrael, delighted with this statement, repeated it to himself several times, realizing how appropriately it could be applied to all of life’s challenges. As long as the candle is burning, as long as we are involved in a situation, we can work to improve. This is certainly the case with marriage. At any stage, a couple can remedy a situation and start afresh.
Even the elderly should nurture their marriage. The Gaon Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, of blessed memory, wrote that this applies even to the greatest of men. We see this with our forefather Avraham. When the angels came to visit him, they asked, “Where is Sarah, your wife?” Our Sages and Rashi explain that they asked this question in order to endear her to her husband.
Adapted from “Two Halves Of A Whole” by Rabbi Yirmiyohu & Tehilla Abramov. Available at www.jewishfamily.org