A lack of self-esteem is often the root of serious problems in marriages. As we noted above, a brilliant young man who feared that his wife would reject him if she discovered what he felt was his real self almost sabotaged his marriage by withdrawing from his
wife. A couple may come for counseling after many years of difficulty in their relationship. By this time the consequences of low self-esteem on the part of either one or both partners may have become so ingrained that establishing a healthy relationship is fraught with great difficulty.
Milton and Evelyns relationship had deteriorated beyond recovery. Milton had been orphaned as a child, and suffered oppression and humiliation from a stepmother who favored her own children, to his detriment. He was energetic and developed an advertising firm of moderate success. Evelyns father had favored her three brothers over her. She grew
up with a dislike of men, and tended to belittle them. Milton and Evelyn both suffered from low self-esteem, and their reactions to these feelings doomed their marriage.
Milton tried to get a modicum of respect via his success in business. As an example, he would come home in a cheerful mood, relating that he had closed a deal which earned him a profit of $20,000. Evelyn tried to gain a better feeling about herself by disparaging others. Her reaction to Miltons boasting would be, Hmph! My brothers make deals of millions of dollars every week and nobody ever hears about it. Miltons need to build himself up and Evelyns need to tear him down made them
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One couple came for counseling after twenty years of marriage.
The husband was an acknowledged academician and a respected Torah scholar. The wife, who suffered from low self-esteem, was constantly critical of everything he did. If he offered a Torah discourse at the Shabbos table, she would make irritating comments to refute his points. After a while he discontinued these Torah discussions. She discouraged him from submitting a book for publication. To preserve peace in the home, he developed a passive-aggressive attitude of silence.
After twenty years their patterns were so deeply engrained that
resolution of this problem was impossible. Each blamed the other for the deterioration of the marriage. Neither was willing to own up to part of the responsibility.
Had this problem been presented at its onset, resolution would
have been possible. Failure to address self-esteem problems early may result in virtually irreversible relationship patterns.
In The Shame Borne in
Silence I discussed the problems of abuse in marriage. At the risk of oversimplification, abuse, whether emotional or physical, is often the result of low self-esteem on the part of both partners. A husband with low self-esteem may react by being domineering and controlling. His pathologic defense may include insulting and belittling his wife. Women who have tolerated years of abuse may say, I thought it was my fault. I thought I was doing something wrong. It is characteristic of abused wives to fault
Addressing the problem of an abusive relationship after it has been operative for many years is extremely difficult. These problems may be nipped in the bud. For example, a woman with healthy self-esteem can react to the very first indication of an uncomplimentary remark by saying, I am not going to be talked to like that. I respect you and I expect you to respect me. This is a difficult statement to make after years have passed, when
she feels herself trapped in an abusive marriage because she has nowhere to go with her four children and has no means of support. At the very onset it is much easier to defend her dignity.
Counseling early in the marriage may allow the husband to
realize that his behavior is due to unwarranted feelings of inadequacy. Therapy directed at building his self-esteem can result in his discarding the defensive maneuvers of domination and control.
Problems detected early in a marriage should not be allowed to fester. It is unwise to rely on things getting better by themselves. There may indeed appear to be a getting better
which is in reality only an adjustment to a dysfunctional relationship rather than a correction of the dysfunction. Such adjustments may allow the dysfunction to escalate and become deeply ingrained. When the couple seeks help because the relationship has become intolerable, the golden opportunity for correcting the dysfunction is likely to have been lost.
If young people could recognize that they are far more adequate
and worthy than they think themselves to be, and begin to raise their self-esteem before they marry, much distress could be