My husband and I made aliyah four years ago. I always believed that our twenty-year marriage was a good one, but ever since we came to Israel, we have become more and more distant. I even miss the occasional fight we used to have. We don't seem to have the energy to cope with all the new demands on our lives and also to deal with the marriage. I keep trying to talk with my husband about it but he just withdraws even more. What to do?
Underlying your question is the issue of whether you and your husband need couples therapy. To answer this, we need to explore when it is time to go for help. Also, it might help to explore what couples therapy is and what it can offer you.
Few people are really prepared for marital distress when it happens. One of our most important relationships, marriage, demands a great deal of flexibility, skill and patience. But somehow, society seems to think that getting a driver's license demands far more direct instruction than getting a marriage license. On top of the inherent stress involved in living with someone in an intimate relationship, native English speakers are dealing with adjusting to Israeli society which causes all kinds of stress of its own.
In an ideal world, the government would invite all new immigrants to marriage enrichment courses as part of aliyah. Marriage enrichment sums up and teaches many of the most important skills and knowledge needed to make marriage work well. These include knowing the natural stages of a relationship; education about gender differences and how being from different planets affects marriage; knowing how to identify and express feelings and knowing how to deal constructively with conflict.
Few people know marriage enrichment even exists. Unlike in the United States, marriage enrichment has never really caught on in Israel. Perhaps living here is so stressful that marriage takes a backseat to adjusting to this culture. So many couples could have saved themselves years of distress by seeking help early on. Marital distress is very much linked to overall unhappiness. This is especially true for women who tend to get depressed when their marriage is tense. Often after the children arrive, the marriage goes untended, sometimes for years. For English-speaking native couples, lack of family support or social isolation can contribute to the stress on the marriage. It is actually the norm to experience marital distress at some point in the relationship and yet almost no one is actually prepared for it.
The most common but dangerous marital trap is the "pursuer distancer" dynamic. One partner is always seeking more closeness and the other is always withdrawing. The more the seeker pursues the partner, the more that partner maintains distance. The more distancing, the more the other pursues. This cycle is very frustrating for the pursuer and for the distancer. The result is chaos. The marriage becomes barren and cold with both partners looking elsewhere for reinforcement, or endless problems pile up without solutions and fights erupt over petty issues. When marital tension is high, partners fight and forget what they were fighting about an hour later. Nothing gets resolved.
Most people only start to think about getting help when divorce is in the air. Unfortunately, the medical model makes us think of couples therapy as something to use when marriage is "sick" or "dysfunctional". That’s why it is called therapy. But actually, couples therapy has more in common with education; it’s like learning a new language or studying for an exam. The test is the relationship and it is a really demanding one.
In couples therapy, partners are taught to listen well and to show the partner empathy and understanding before trying to solve problems. Most couples desperately try to communicate their feelings while also trying to solve their problems. In couples therapy, these two processes are separate. Before people can get down to problem-solving, they need to become emotionally intelligent, learning to identify underlying feelings and to express them directly and assertively without either attacking or withdrawing. When couples use therapy as they would the family doctor, by coming in early with minor complaints, they can often be helped in ten or even fewer sessions.
For non-native Israelis, dealing with both marriage issues and social adjustment issues can feel like just too much to cope with. Often these couples think that their problem is being in Israel. One partner wants to stay and the other wants to leave. One partner is fluent in Hebrew and the other is not. One partner has friends and the other is more isolated.
Living in Israel is stressful enough to blame for everything, but couples therapy usually goes beyond questions related to culture. It tackles both the underlying lack of knowledge and skills and it teaches people to cope with every issue and not just issues related to being in Israel.
If half a year goes by without resolution of issues or with tension and stress more common than happiness, the couple should seek therapy. In Israel, every community has a couples counseling clinic which offers help for a very low fee. These are most often located in the Welfare Department of the municipality. When English-speakers need English counseling, they can come to the ESRA counseling service which is trained in helping for a variety of problems including common couples issues. The earlier in their relationship couple seek help, the more effective and shorter is the process of counseling.
In your case, your marital tension is relatively new and probably you will find that therapy helps you get back on track. It takes courage to go for help. It takes courage to realize you are not able to manage on your own. But hopefully you can face your conflicts head-on together in the safe place that therapy can offer.
Claire can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone 054 792 2643