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Effective Keys to a Happier Marriage

Key One – Understanding Childhood Influences

Our childhoods are most important in marriage because at any given moment each marriage partner is still extremely influenced by that “child within.” These childhood feelings and attitudes influence and, to a great degree, determine the quality of our adult relationships. Every marriage, in fact, is comprised not of two individuals but of four: the girl she was and the woman she has become; the boy he was and the man he is now.

We do not leave behind the child within us. We do not outgrow that child at any particular age. The child we once were accompanies us along our entire road of life: to our jobs, in our marriages, to the groups we join, the crowded busses we ride, the long lines we wait on at the bank.  In truth, we each belong to two families: the family in which we grew up, as well as the family we build after our marriage.

In addition, each member brings a childhood dream to the marriage. We each bring along with us, from our childhood, definitions of what is considered acceptable husbandly behavior and what a wife’s role should be.

We are headed for possible marital problems when we marry someone who marches to a different drummer, whose childhood defined certain roles differently. Often, sensitive, awkward situations arise as a result of unrealistic expectations whose roots are in our childhood. The problem is we might not know what to do about them. [Couple Skills # 17 – Expectations, Rules, and Acceptance – can be very helpful with this problem.]

The first key to a happier marriage is to examine the influence childhood has on current behavior, so that you can use this knowledge to improve your marriage. To accomplish this task, it is incumbent upon you to be familiar with your spouse’s childhood. “Why does my spouse react the way s/he does?” “Why do I get so upset?” Do you truly understand what type of childhood your spouse experienced? Do you truly know in what type of home s/he grew up? By gaining insight into the influence your past has on your current life, you will shed light on troubling situations and be better able to handle recurring problems in your marriage.

Whatever problems we experience on the job, or even with our birth families, we can for the most part leave them behind when the workday or visit is over. It is a vastly different story with our marriages. In marriage, we can’t leave the problems behind. If something bothers us in marriage it bothers us to an overwhelming degree and influences every minute of our day.  

Although most people are capable of camouflaging the difficulties and fears of their inner child in their other relationships, when it comes to close, intimate relationships it is vastly different. Intimacy denotes risk: the risk of being hurt, the risk of being disappointed, even the risk of recreating the patterns of love or abuse we learned in childhood. But in marriage this risk needs to be taken because we need to understand each other very well to create the intimacy that brings us closer and is the glue that holds a couple together.        

The first problem to be aware of however, is that in a relationship our inner children often don’t want to risk self-disclosure. In fact, those inner children don’t want to take any risks at all. They want to be loved and protected. But when each inner child looks to the other to fill his or her needs without the adult part of ourselves being fully aware of the nature of both of our inner-children then trouble cannot be avoided.

In Proverbs (22:6) King Solomon admonishes: “Educate the child according to his way – even in his old age he will not forsake it.” This is usually taken to mean that if we raise our child in a way that suits his or her own individual, unique nature, he or she will adhere to that upbringing even into his/her old age. But there is an additional way to understand this sage advice: If you raise your child in a way that suits his/her unique nature, when he/she ages, that original child will still be within - accompanying him/her throughout his/her life. Why?

Every one of us has an inner, driving need to recreate the familiar. It is well known, and frightening, that children who were abused often grow up to be child abusers themselves. How can that be? The child, who as a youngster experienced such pain and shame, should be the first one to promise him/herself: “This will never happen in my own home. I will never raise even a finger against a child of my own.”

Unfortunately, that isn’t how it works in real life. The drive to recreate the familiar is so overpowering, that the abused child, against his or her own best will, will often end up being a child abuser. This doesn’t only apply to severe cases of abuse. Because of this inner need to recreate the familiar, we sometimes bring along a lot of childhood baggage ready to be “unpacked” in our new marriage: “When telling off my kids I heard my mother’s voice coming out of my mouth even though I swore never to act like her!” This should be recognized and admitted. Then you can decide to make the kind of changes that will prevent it from happening in the future.

If we react like children when we are adults, we are often our own worst enemies. When we behave as children in our marriages, the stakes are so much higher, the damage done so much more irreparable, in addition to the damage to the innocent children growing up in such a home. What an expensive price we pay for the luxury of allowing the child within us to react. When we react this way as an adult, it is much more serious. When we react this way in marriage, we sometimes end up with disaster. Because here it is not child’s play – this is the real thing – it hurts us, it hurts our spouse, it hurts our children now and in their future life, when they pattern their role model of a mother or father after our childish behavior. What a heavy responsibility: that our thoughtless reactions of today might influence countless future generations.

Marriages can become better and will be better, with a little more forethought, with a little more understanding, with the attitude that no matter what hardships we experience, we will learn from them, and together grow because of them.

King Solomon is saying: take care of that young child, because he or she will be there, half-buried but very real, his or her entire life. The child within - that child who felt unwanted and unloved for so long, is convinced that it’s the same old thing all over again: he or she isn’t properly loved.

Being   aware of the difficulties this presents for ourselves, and understanding why our spouses deal differently with such challenges, is a vital key to marital happiness. Children absorb and internalize the messages of their childhood. A child raised with acceptance and encouragement slowly gains confidence and ends up doing very well.

However, if we didn’t  have the kind of a parent who provided such positive reinforcement, now, as adults, it is up to us to become that loving, accepting, encouraging parent to ourselves, so that we too can begin to make small changes that will add up to big successes.     

After exploring this issue in depth, and after learning how the child within each of us contributes to the problem, both husband and wife are able to adjust their behavior so the other will be less troubled. By taking the time, they now understand that the children within them had the problem, not the adults, which puts the problem in perspective and lessens its severity.          

Obviously, it would be extremely helpful to be aware of when the child within is expressing him or herself; and when the adult is talking. When we have this awareness, we can step back, recognize the undertone, and understand what’s happening on a subconscious level, so we can deal with the situation more effectively.

How can you recognize when the child within has taken control of a situation? If you notice that in a given set of circumstances someone is reacting too forcefully – either too happily, too angrily, or too sadly – it is a signal to stop and say: “What is going on here? Why does this bother me (or him/her) so  much? Why does it get me so nervous?”

Additionally, if your opinions cannot be explained rationally, and you are resistant to change despite the fact that the specific situation demands adult flexibility, it might be helpful to suspect that childhood experiences might be the key to resolving an otherwise unsolvable dilemma.

Key Questions

1. How can an invisible “inner child” so dominate current relationships? Your inner child is not invisible. Your inner child is very much present despite the fact that you might not have recognized it as yet. It is present in your needless arguments, it influences many of your decisions, and it prevents you from succeeding despite your best intentions. You may think it is invisible, but its insidious influence is felt in many areas of your marital relationship. Believe and understand that your inner child is very much alive. Use your creativity to bring out the positive traits associated with it, and use your adult skills to deal with childish traits which are sabotaging your marriage. Curiosity, creativity, and spontaneity are positive traits associated with the uninhibited “child within.” Using them wisely in your marriage can greatly enhance a relationship suffering from too much seriousness, routine, or boredom.

2. What can I do if despite my awareness, I can’t control my inner child? “Adam nifal kfi p’ulosav – A person is mainly influenced by his actions.” (Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzva 16) New habits can only be formed by changing actual behavior. Even if we can’t feel or think differently, we can separate emotions from behavior. Emotions are sometimes uncontrollable; behavior can always be controlled and changed.

Here are three suggestions: 


  1. Try behaving maturely even if your instinctive reactions and innermost feelings are still mired in the quicksand of your childhood experiences.
  2. Pay attention to those times when you do succeed in controlling your inner child and pinpoint exactly what it was that enabled you to succeed.
  3. Attempt to engage your spouse’s assistance in avoiding situations that bring out a negative aspect of your inner child.


3. How can I change my spouse’s inner child? You can’t! S/he is the only one who can do that. Once we accept our spouse as the other half of our soul, it will be much easier to accept him or her the way he or she is. We can model  desired behavior, we can influence our spouse by reading this together and discussing your childhood experiences openly and how they affected you; we can then enlist their assistance in reaching a compromise, but we cannot change our spouse. That challenge is up to them.     

4. I was never truly a child, I was always serious and mature. Can it be that I don’t have an inner child? Our overly-serious inner child may prevent much-needed flexibility and a healthier, more easygoing attitude. Your serious, overly responsible inner child influences your adult decisions and may cause marital strife. Ask yourself, “When was the last time I had any fun? When did I allow those around me to enjoy ‘non-productive’ activities? Maybe your inner child needs re-parenting so that, finally, it can be a child!           

5. What can I do if despite all my efforts I can’t remember childhood experiences? Frequently, it is difficult for us to recall many details of our childhood. This can result from our need to repress painful memories, or from a philosophical attitude which claims that what has passed is unimportant and should be forgotten. In addition, it just might be that you don’t recall your childhood because up till now there was never any reason to do so. Try to remember how things were on special, specific occasions: summer camp, yamim tovim (festivals), holidays, trips, family celebrations, school plays, birthdays. Try to remember how you interacted with your parents, your siblings, your classmates, your cousins. Try and remember feeling anger, sadness and other strong emotions. By recalling impressions, memories, and associations, you can open up your range of choices. You have little choice about how to change your behavior until you reflect on who you are and where you came from. Your options are different if you can say to yourself, “This I want to keep, and this I want to let go of; this is useful to me, and this is no longer relevant.

Yet, awareness is not enough. It must be combined with conscious, continuous efforts to learn new ways of behaving. Learn to recognize the feelings and needs of your inner child as important and deserving of your attention. Separate them from your adult feelings. This distinction is of utmost importance. It will clarify whether your child within is threatening your marital happiness or helping you achieve your adult goals.

Behavior rooted in childhood experiences can be altered, but only with the information available to you on which you can            reflect and act. Based on understanding how childhood experiences influence your marriage, you can take responsibility       for changing that which is no longer useful. This is the first vital key to helping you become the spouse you truly want to be in your marriage.     

Practical Suggestions

1. Make an effort to initiate conversations about your childhood. Sharing childhood memories is an emotional experience that many people seek to avoid. Resist that temptation! Sharing long-buried feelings, describing outstanding memories, allowing your spouse to become privy to the hurts and triumphs of your childhood is a good way to forge close emotional bonds. Sometimes, it also sheds light on unacceptable behavior, unwarranted sensitivity, or strong resistance to some of the tasks of marriage. At first, making time to speak about days gone by may seem artificial or useless. However, if utilized correctly, it        can enhance your relationship and prove to be a vital key to mutual understanding. So make it a priority early on.

2. View recurring conflicts in the light of childhood experiences. Attempting to understand why we feel, think, and behave as we do is an ongoing, Torah-sanctioned process. When Hashem asked Adam, “Ayeka? – Where are you?” (Genesis 3.9), He was asking us all: “Where are you today in light of your past?” Of course, having been created as an adult, Adam had no childhood experiences to influence his behavior. However, he did have a past, even if it consisted of only several hours. While, understanding inappropriate adult behavior in light of childhood experiences increases our awareness of its cause, it does not free us from the responsibility of trying to improve. Indeed, it is a twofold process. You should use this newly acquired understanding to accept your spouse, at the same time that you take responsibility for your own actions so that you, too, can improve your behavior. If each partner would decide to act in this manner, the exchange of childhood experiences would be a true key to constructive change.

3. Don’t allow your spouse’s actions to sabotage your desire to change. Often, after much soul-searching we conclude that we would benefit ourselves and our marriage by changing our own   behavior. Yet sometimes, despite our best intentions, we postpone our decision to change due to something our spouse says and does. “Why should I be kinder and more understanding when s/he continues along his or her merry way? Why should I be the only one taking responsibility for improving our relationship?” Be aware of this prevalent pitfall. Most of us resist change, so we grab at any excuse to relieve ourselves of the need to do so. If sharing childhood experiences has given you deeper understanding that has inspired you to change, no matter that your spouse isn’t yet “with you,” make the effort and change. In system’s theory there is a principle that when any one person changes in a system the whole system changes – so your efforts will not be for naught. Because every action breeds a reaction; your “one-sided” change is a key to better days and a happier marriage.          

4. Analyze overreactions to everyday situations. When you find yourself overreacting to your spouse’s comments or behavior, realize that you have a child within who must be recognized and dealt with. You will find that you are overly sensitive to situations that are emotionally similar to your childhood experiences. Should that pent-up anger and resentment be directed toward your        spouse? Does his or her current behavior warrant such an explosive reaction? Negative childhood influences should be dealt with as best as possible, in order for you to be able to live in the       present. Sometimes the fact that you are aware of these possible pitfalls is enough to minimize them. However, if these situations occur too frequently, or if they seriously damage your relationship, it might be necessary to work out childhood influences with a        professional. When parataxic distortion is occurring for example, you will need more than just insight. The exercises in Couple Skills # 13 – Old Tapes: Separating Your Partner from Your Parents are designed to deal with this issue.

5. Learn to understand and accept yourself. Learning to love ourselves and to accept the child within us is the basis for learning to love others. “V’ahavta l’raiacha kamocha – Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), teaches us that before one can love another, one must love oneself. The child who doesn’t love him or herself grows up to be the spouse who never believes in his or her partner’s attempts at affection, no matter how many times and in what ways that love is demonstrated. Ask yourself, “What does my inner child need right now? Less stress? More help? More fun?” Don’t try to fight your needs. Work with them, and try to fulfill them if at all possible. Whatever you do, take full responsibility for your own happiness. Learning to understand and accept yourself is modeling desired behavior. It will make you happier and it will free you to meet the challenges of marriage with energy and creativity.

For example, if you are aware that you don’t work well under stress, make sure you have ample time in which to accomplish your work in a relaxed manner. If you realize that because of childhood experiences you are supersensitive to criticism, accept this as a fact, share this difficulty with your spouse, and ask for his or her support on this issue. Fighting your inner child will not improve matters. Accepting yourself and utilizing your adult capabilities to deal with your inner child is the mature way to integrate who you were, who you are, and who you will become.    It will be most helpful if you have the basic skills every couple can’t do without: Couple Skill # 1 – Listening; Couple Skill # 2 – Expressing Feelings and Stating Needs; Couple Skill # 4 – Clean Communication.

6. Learn to “re-parent” yourself. Your child within might need a parent who is more suited and more capable than your original parent was. YOU must be that parent. By re-educating the child        within you, you will improve the negative aspects of your inner child, which will enable you to act more maturely, as befits an        adult. In order to make this task easier, ask yourself how you would react if your son or daughter would be speaking or behaving as you are currently doing. Ask yourself, “What kind of parent am I being to myself? Am I punishing myself? Am I indulging myself? Am I demanding too much, or too little, of myself? Am I treating myself as my parents did in such situations?” By being in touch with your current parental values and skills, you will find it easier to use those identical skills in “re-parenting” your troublesome inner child. The next time you find yourself indulging in unimportant pastimes instead of fulfilling your responsibilities, or when you realize that you are overreacting to a trivial setback, ask yourself how you would parent your son or daughter in a similar situation. Utilize your mature parenting skills to guide your own inner child.  

Adapted from: Effective Keys to a Happier Marriage, Key # 1: Cultivating Emotional Intelligence.


For more help see below the brief outline for each of the couple skills referred to above:

Couple Skill # 1 – Listening

Listening is the most important of all the communication skills that can create and preserve intimacy – but it’s usually the hardest skill to master when it counts the most. When you listen well, you understand your partner better, you stay closely in tune, you enjoy the relationship more, and you know without mind reading why your partner says and does things. Learn the five unbreakable rules for effective listening and which of the 10 blocks-to-listening you employ with your partner.

Couple Skill # 2 – Expressing Feelings and Stating Needs

Some people fail to get important needs met by being too passive, while others fail by being too aggressive. You can learn to express your emotions and ask for what you want assertively and appropriately. If you are weak in one of these skills, your relationship will be impaired. If you lack both, it may be doomed. However, attending this workshop will quickly reverse your situation.

Couple Skill # 4 – Clean Communication

Pejorative communication between a couple erodes each partner’s self-esteem and makes mutual problem solving almost impossible. Clean communication, on the other hand, protects self-esteem and creates a safe place for working on problems. Stop harming your relationship. Learn the 10 commandments of speaking and other foundations so you can really be heard by your partner.

Couple Skills # 13 – Old Tapes: Separating Your Partner from Your Parents

You can treat your partner as if he or she were your parent or someone else from your past. This parataxic distortion can occur in intimate relationships when high-stress interactions that provoke anxiety increase its likelihood. It’s as if all the hurts you experienced as a child are ready to be triggered at the slightest provocation. Any behavior, even slightly reminiscent of the person responsible for these hurts in the past, can reawaken a whole set of accompanying reactions.  However, recognizing this harmful association between your partner and your parent is not enough to break the influence of that link. Only when the two people can be separated in your mind will you stop reacting to your partner as if he or she were your parent. This couple’s skill will help you to recognize and break that association.

Couple Skills # 17 – Expectations, Rules, and Acceptance

Couples tend to enter into relationships with differing expectations. Your dream of the ideal relationship creates expectations that you bring to your relationship. These expectations become codified in unspoken rules. This workshop will show you what happens when the dream becomes a nightmare – when you and your partner have conflicting expectations and therefore conflicting rules about such things as the division of labor, how to raise children, how to spend money, and so on. In this workshop you’ll do exercises designed to help you identify the dysfunctional dream, examine the implications of your unspoken rules, and learn to make your expectations and needs known more directly and effectively.

Disclaimer: This blog/article is not a substitute for therapy and does not guarantee any outcomes for therapy. Any advice given does not imply any therapeutic relationship and is taken at your own risk.


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