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How to be a Good Jewish Lover: The Basics

Strong marriages aren’t frictionless; strong marriages have deliberate practices that allow for complicated, fallible people to be in relationship with each other.

In her senior year of college, my wife fell in love with a fairly sedentary journalist; now she’s married to a fairly active rabbi.

In some ways, I’m the same person I was 25 years ago; in other ways, I’m really not. I’ve grown and changed in our time together and so has she. In many important ways, we aren’t the people we were when we met – our interests have changed, our bodies have changed, even our names have changed. Our relationship, however, has endured all these changes and many more.

As we’ve stumbled and risen again, we’ve come back to a few simple practices that form the basis of our life together as well as the work I do with couples preparing for marriage. These are not the practices of saints; they are the practices of two flawed, imperfect, inconsistent humans who work every day to love each other a little bit better than we did yesterday. These are the three foundational practices we rely on the most:

Know your Partner

It might seem obvious, but we need to really know our partners. The Hebrew Bible uses the same word to indicate physical and emotional intimacy because the same practices that make a good lover in bed are the same practices that make a good lover out of bed. A good lover gets naked, which is to say, gets vulnerable, so our partner can see us fully, in our insecurity and perceived flaws; practices tenderness, and is only ever gentle and loving with the most sensitive and vulnerable parts of our partner’s body and their psyche; and cultivates curiosity, recognizing that there really are different strokes for different folks, and what turns them on – in bed or out of it will necessarily turn their partner on.

Pioneering relationship therapists John and Julie Gottman write that “knowledge of our partners, as they are now, is the foundation not only of love, but of fortitude to weather the storms all couples inevitably face.” Sometimes, it can be easier to know our partner’s body than it is to know their soul. A good lover cultivates knowledge of both by getting naked, getting tender and getting curious.

Embrace Imperfection

The Jewish tradition teaches that the world could not stand without teshuva, without the ability to recover from life’s inevitable disappointments. Any two people who love each other will frustrate and fail each other at times – that’s practically a given in human relationships. The real question is what to do with that frustration – we can tally our partner’s shortcomings and use them to tear each other apart, or we can cultivate teshuva, or an orientation towards repair, and forgive our partners’ failings and accept their forgiveness of ours. The greatest gift that two partners can give each other is acknowledging flaws and places where work is needed, and loving them anyway. Your relationship is more than the sum of your problems.

Commit to Maintenance

Any complex system has imperfections that need to be addressed through ongoing maintenance – this is true of car engines, this is true of organizations and this is true of relationships as well. I strongly encourage every couple I work with to commit in their ketubah, or marriage covenant, to regular and frequent times to talk with each other. This is not a date or pre-bed conversation; this is a weekly opportunity to center our partner’s reality, and listen to their hopes and frustrations on their terms, not ours. It is also an opportunity to hear from our partners in a calm and deliberate way about the way we have (inevitably – see above) fallen short and make amends.

These three rules are not magic, nor is this a comprehensive list of best practices in a relationship. In my life and the lives of the couples I work with, I have found that these practices can provide a foundation for the grace and respect that are necessary for any relationship between humans to thrive.

The Jewish tradition teaches that when a relationship is weak, we can live in the lap of luxury and be miserable, but when it is strong, we can deal with any adversity, even a bed as narrow as a sword.

Strong marriages aren’t frictionless; strong marriages have deliberate practices that allow for complicated, fallible people to be in relationship with each other.


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