Selflessness a key ingredient for everlasting union

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis likens marriage to an automobile ride: it's guaranteed to have many bumps along the way.

"If you come upon a particularly rough stretch, it becomes tempting to blame the vehicle and fantasize that had you gotten a different model or make, you would have been OK," writes Jungreis, author of the recently released "The Committed Marriage."

In her latest work of nonfiction, Jungreis interweaves lessons from the Torah with her own experience in counseling couples to put a uniquely Jewish theoretical spin on mating, dating and remaining happily partnered. She presents a collection of true stories of singles searching for love as well as couples with common marital problems and addresses them with practical recipes for success. The key ingredient Jungreis proffers is selflessness — a philosophy that it is much more effective to transform oneself than to blame another person for a failing relationship.

"The Committed Marriage" appeals to human nature and our inclination to resist change. It points out the futility of resisting and urges couples to elevate their relationships by being willing to "switch gears" when necessary. The text uses the wisdom of ancient biblical sages to drive home this point.

According to the principles set forth in "The Committed Marriage," relationship transformations happen when spouses take on character traits that are benevolent, rather than self-serving. Jungreis counsels her clients to see the good, rather than the bad, in a partner; to express concern rather than to berate or criticize; to be a good friend, as well as a mate, offering support even during the most trying times; and to do things because they are the right thing to do and they make your partner happy, not because you expect something in return.

"One of the most spiritual things you can do," writes Jungreis, "is to please your mate." She reminds couples that it's the little things that make a difference, things that don't require time or money, but show thoughtfulness.

"The Committed Marriage" takes its place among an ever-growing genre of books that claim to help individuals "Find and Keep Your Mate." And while Jungreis' version of this mantra does not enlighten the reader with new or magic formulas, it does take a bold stand in proposing that having faith in God, maintaining a spiritual practice and paying heed to lessons from the Torah and tradition can help provide a loving foundation for marriage.

Among her teachings are lessons about the differences between men and women. Jungreis, in a Dr. Laura-esque manner, shoots straight from the hip, urging those who seek her counsel to own up to the fact that men and women communicate differently. She encourages couples to embrace and respect the differences, rather than making the other person wrong.

Jungreis arrived with her family in the United States in 1947, after surviving the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. World War II had come to an end and Holocaust survivors were struggling to start anew in America. Jungreis' father took on the mission of matching survivors who were of marriageable age. He believed that there was no greater mitzvah than to make a shiduch — to help two people meet their life partners.

The younger Jungreis has followed in her father's footsteps, keeping notebooks filled with tidbits about people she meets, in the hope that she will be able to match them with their soul mates. Like her father before her, she doesn't rely on a computer to make matches; she sidesteps machinery in favor of the personal touch.

Jungreis notes in "The Committed Marriage": "it is written that already, forty days before our creation, G-d selects a match for us." Does this mean that is only a matter of keeping oneself open so that when the beshert appears, one will be ready? Perhaps, although Jungreis reminds readers not to presume that the "right one" has a particular look or meets a certain set of criteria. Indeed, the one who appears to be perfect may in fact turn out to be completely the wrong choice.

"The Committed Marriage" might be just another self-help book if it weren't for the Jewish theoretical lens through which it is written, and certainly if it weren't for the background of the author who has endured some of life's most challenging moments.

Jungreis is not only a survivor of war, but also survived the death of her husband after a loving marriage of 40 years. Much of her inspiration in her work today appears to come from that relationship. She shares with readers that on his deathbed, her husband, a rabbi, encouraged Jungreis to make a shiduch for the doctor in the next room.

Such selfless acts, kindness even in the face of one's own painful moments, are something that "The Committed Marriage" preaches. Readers are left with the following lesson: when one can get happiness out of making other people happy, one has the possibility of a lifetime of joy and connectedness.