Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Finding Time for our Personal Pleasures

Partners in a marriage often share many activities in common. Mutual interests bring individuals together and forge the bonds of healthy and sustainable relationships. Couples who like outdoor activities grow closer by taking walks, cycling, going to the beach, etc.  Both my wife and I love good food, and we find cooking and fine diningt help strengthen our marriage. Yet couples need not do everything together, and in fact, it seems unhealthy to do so. Each partner has his or her own individual interests and pleasures which are often gender influenced. When one partner suppresses the other's personal passions, or even simple pleasures, the marriage will certainly suffer.

The Talmud discusses several cases in which a husband vows to deprive his wife of things and activities that she might enjoy and feel compelled to do. The Mishnah mandates an eventual divorce in each of these cases: 

המדיר את אשתו:
If one pronounces a vow that:
שלא תטעום אחד מכל הפירות
his wife should not taste any kind of fruit
שלא תתקשט באחד מכל המינין 
his wife should not adorn herself with any kind of perfume (or jewelry)
(B. Ketubot 70a)
שלא תלך לבית האבל או לבית המשתה
his wife should not go to the house of feasting (a wedding) or the house of mourning (to comfort mourners)
(B. Ketubot 71b)

In each of these cases, the husband must יוציא ויתן כתובה, divorce her and pay the sum of money he promised in the ketubah. In other words, such deprivation is considered so abusive that the rabbis instruct that the marriage needs to be dissolved. While the Talmud (written circa 500 CE) could not have imagined a case where the wife would have the power to deny similar pleasures to her husband, we should understand the text to imply a reciprocal mandate for modern times. Just as a husband needs to allow his wife certain pleasures, so too should a wife allow a husband time to engage in activities that nurture his sense of individuality. 

The love of two partners within a relationship hinges on their trust for one another, and support for each other's passions. The Gemara explains that a husband might prevent his wife from going to a wedding because it might be a place where we would find בני אדם פרוצין, promiscuous people. Such a vow against a wife exudes jealously and a lack of trust. We should perceive such a marriage as devoid of love, and therefore in need of divorce. When marriages and relationships are founded on mutual trust, we need not worry about what each individual does in their free time, and we need not be concerned about a wife who adorns herself in perfume (or by extension a man who puts on cologne.)

Aristotle famously commented that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." We might translate this to mean that a couple in unison is better than when the individuals who comprise it are single. Yet we should remember that the vitality of a relationship depends on the individuality of each partner. In nurturing our sense of self in a relationship, we strengthen the bonds we have with our partners. 

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