Mine the Gap

Let me start by just cutting to the essence of my marital discord here. My husband and I are radically different creatures. He’s contemplative, I’m explosive. He’s measured, I’m  boundless. He’s careful, I’m carefree.

All too often our opposing personalities rub up against each other in precisely the most painful of ways. For instance, communication styles. My husband is a straight shooter. One of the most skilled psychotherapists I’ve ever met, he communicates in masterful ways. But he does not communicate in flowery ways.

I, on the other hand, throw word flowers about like confetti, like marvelous ticker-tape parades. I love flowery words, particularly in the form of compliments: Giving and receiving them. I can’t get enough of them. And so, when I don’t get enough of them, well, I get mean. Mean magnified. I kvetch. I distance. I accumulate resentment.

I want more gushing expression from him, so he gives less. I, in turn, shut down. Resentment builds like patient kindling. And then some spark ignites all of that flammable fodder. Let’s say, someone else gives me a compliment. Inevitably, I let loose my old familiar ‘why-can’t-you-compliment-and-adore-me’ rant. Which does not, I assure you, inspire adoration.

And thus our dance of marital discord rages on…all because of our essential ‘differences’.

When I’m able to stop and tear myself away from the mesmerizing dance I see two things: 1. I desperately want him to like…and 2. I also want him to be like me.

But, he is not like me and he does not always like me.
Nor I him.
We are tremendously different people.
There is an essential gap between us.

You know those cautionary signs on  the London subways that read “Mind the gap”? Well,  Jewish wisdom tells us, “Mine the gap.” Because actually that gap is the very key to a thriving relationship.

16th century Kabbalistic mastermind, the Arizal, reveals this gap-minded model for marriage. It’s based on the two biblical stories of creation, the stories of Adam and Eve. In the first, God creates man as “male and female” — blended of masculine and feminine parts, merged together as one entity. In the second story, God creates man simply male. Adam is put to sleep, anesthetized for the surgery of crafting woman out of his very bones.

It seems like two essentially contradictory tales. And yet, the Arizal resolves the contradiction elegantly by revealing that they are actually one story, with two phases. Because love is a process.

We start out merged and our task is to separate.

We usually think of relationship as a move from separation to union. The gap is seen as the irritating problem; just as I am so often upset  by the gaping differences between my husband and myself.

But the Kabbalistic vision is the opposite. For the Arizal, the gap is the goal.

He maps out the arc of a movement from being in back-to-back relationship to face-to-face relationship. In the back-to-back state, we are one entity, woven together by the spine, facing opposite directions. We commence relationship with an enmeshed expectation that our  partner exists as but an extension of ourselves. They exist for the sake of filling  our needs for self-esteem, love, nurturing. In this state we may very well ‘have each other’s back’…but we do not have true intimacy.

Because when we are enmeshed we are unable to achieve real holiness in relationship. When we are woven at the back we face opposite directions, absolutely blinded, unable to behold who our partner truly is.

The Kabbalistic goal is thus to disentangle and turn to face each other.

We must detach from the enmeshed expectation that our partners need to always like us and to always be like us. Rather we turn to face who our partner actually is – complete with all of their likes and dislikes, similarities and differences.

In this turning we must take the space to embrace our own self-acceptance as well. We must learn that we do not need our partners to love us in order to love ourselves. We do not need them take care of us, because we know very well how to take care of ourselves. Only once we have mastered this work of self-soothing and self-care can we turn to see our partners for who they actually are. Once we love ourselves then we can come to love another. Then we can come into the grace of being face-to-face.

In the face-to-face we each stand sturdy on our own two feet, as self-fulfilled entities. Here, we simply behold each other; free of demands, coercions and disappointments. In the face-to-face we cultivate a sense of curiosity and interest in the unique soul who stands before us.  That culture of curiosity naturally breeds love and flowing attraction to the other.

Our goal is thus to endure — and even embrace — the gaps between us.
For it is from that space ‘between’ us that love and even holiness emerge.

It is taught that in the Temple the singular place that the voice of God would emerge from was “from between the two cherubs that crowned the ark”. (Exodus 25:22) The focus here is on the space between the cherubs. Commentators rush in to explain that it is that archetypal place of ‘betweenness’ that yields the full expression of divinity. Remarkably, the highest Jewish model for holiness is found in the gap itself.

So too in our own  lives, if we can view the spaces between us as holy, rather than hurtful, then we will start to differentiate and our relationships will start to thrive.

And thus we loop back around to the core of marital discord….mine and yours. What if my goal is to not bemoan but rather to celebrate the fact that my husband and I are, in fact, radically different creatures. What if I chose to turn to face him and who he is; no longer insisting that he bend to who I want him to be? What if I just compliment myself and feel full and fine on my own two feet?

Wonderfully, when I finally dropped my insatiable need for his compliments, then I found that he naturally compliments me.

For he is my compliment. My balance. My opposite.

And from this gap between us, holiness speaks.

Bio: Chaya Lester is a Jerusalem-based psychotherapist and writer. She and her husband R’Hillel are the founders of The Shalev Center – synthesizing Torah and psychology. They have created an entire approach to couple’s work based on the potent teachings from the Arizal. They offer private counseling, couple’s counseling and an online  workshop entitled “Face to Face” that teaches couples how to move from a back-to-back to a face-to-face relationship.

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