I got married to Reuven six years ago. At the time, his younger brother Shmuel was 16 years old. He was a sweet kid. I always liked him and we got along well, but I never looked at him as a contemporary. While he was busy playing basketball, Reuven and I were busy setting up house and forging our marriage.
From the get-go, I had certain complaints with Reuven. All in all, he is a good man. But he likes to be served rather than serve, and his needs usually come first, not necessarily when it comes to very important things, but in small ways. For instance, if we’re eating a Shabbos meal by his parents, he always takes food for himself first before offering me anything. Come to think of it, he always does this, everywhere, but I guess when there is an audience around, it’s more obvious to me because I feel a little embarrassed by it. In ways like that, Reuven never made me feel special.
Anyway, Shmuel got married last year to a beautiful, charming, all-around impressive young woman named Shira. I only have brothers and was very excited about the prospect of finally having a “sister.” My problem is that I am extremely jealous of Shira. I don’t admit this to anyone and I hope my behavior doesn’t give it away, but I think about Shira a lot — and not in the nicest of ways. It’s easy to be jealous of how tall, slim, and stunning she is, but I know I can get past that. What I’m really jealous about is how Shmuel treats her. And when we are all together for a Shabbos meal at my in-laws, which happens pretty often, it’s in my face and I find myself filled with envy and sadness. Shmuel treats Shira like a queen. He’s always busy making sure that she has what she wants and always puts her needs before his own. Shabbos morning, Shmuel is busy making coffee for Shira, while I’m busy making coffee for Reuven. Sometimes, Shmuel will even go so far as to ask me to get something for Shira. And when I’ve complained to my husband about that, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with it. He thinks I’m overreacting.
It’s hard for me to believe that Reuven and Shmuel grew up in the same home. They are so different in this way. How one son grew up thinking that his needs must always come first and the other son believes that his wife’s needs come first is amazing to me. The truth is that Shira really is a very nice person and I’m sure that if I could get over my resentment, we could probably have a great relationship and become good friends. So I know I’m getting in my own way by focusing so much energy on how she gets so much of what I’ve been wanting out of my marriage for so long, without any effort on her part.
I’m not sure exactly what it is that I want from Shira or what I expect her to do. But I do know that I want to stop feeling these jealous feelings. I know it’s not helpful to me in any way. I’m wondering what it is I should be asking of her. What can I say to her that will help me feel that the playing field is more level? Should I ask her to talk to Shmuel and have Shmuel talk to Reuven and explain to him what it takes to be a really good husband? Sometimes I think that maybe the solution is to spend less time with them, so that Reuven’s failings are less obvious to me. But I know that I would ultimately be losing out because I really do like Shmuel and Shira.
So please give me some kind of strategy!
Dear Feeling Neglected,
It’s never good to compare oneself to anyone, or one’s life to anyone else’s, at any time. There will always be areas in which we come up short and consequently will feel badly and like we are missing out, or, even worse, like we’re being victimized. Having said that, the stark differences in Shmuel’s treatment of Shira compared to Reuven’s treatment of you are too obvious to ignore. Mind you, you see only what’s in front of you; you’ll never know what goes on behind closed doors and whether, maybe, when it comes to the bigger issues, Reuven comes out the winner. But that’s neither here nor there.
As you contemplate where to go from here, I think you are barking up the wrong tree. Your answer does not lie with Shira and Shmuel. It lies within you and your relationship with Reuven. I have to wonder, long before Shmuel got off the basketball court and into marriage, why you had no success expressing your needs to Reuven and successfully getting those needs met. Did you, at the time, just give Reuven a pass while observing him taking care of his needs first, without addressing how it made you feel? And if so, why, and what other needs did you just let slip away because you didn’t want to rock the boat?
I get the feeling from your letter that you’re more comfortable avoiding issues rather than confronting them straight on. Some people are that way, but eventually that type of behavior catches up with a vengeance. The fact that you would consider spending less time with Shira, despite how much you actually like her, is an example. You have an opportunity now to fill a void that you’ve felt your entire life and enjoy the closest thing you will ever have to having an actual sister, and yet you toy with the idea of backing away. It’s the path of least resistance, but it’s not a good path.
As far as asking Shira to speak to Shmuel to speak to Reuven, that seems like a very roundabout way to get your message conveyed. And like the ancient game of “telephone” that some of us still remember, as a message gets passed from person to person, the actual message often gets diluted or even completely misconstrued.
It’s time for you and Reuven to engage in some effective communication. It’s never too late to deal with your truths. Maybe Reuven doesn’t even know how much it would mean to you to have him bring you a cup of coffee in bed, or how nice it would be if he offered the salad bowl to you before taking some salad for himself. Go through the things with Reuven that make you feel “less than.” Not in an attacking way, but in a loving, informative way. It’s quite possible that Reuven doesn’t even know that you care about these things, especially if you’ve never actually mentioned them to him before. Avoid comparing him to his brother. No one likes being compared. But he’s not stupid; he’ll connect the dots on his own. Hopefully, he’s still young enough and flexible enough to tweak those behaviors that have caused you to feel less important.
Regarding Shira, I understand how it would be easier for you to lose the resentment toward her once you feel you’re getting your fair share of attentiveness. But try to remember that this is between you and Reuven, and no matter how well or how badly Shmuel treats her, your sense of worth should always reflect your own sense of self and Reuven’s ability to convey his love in ways that feel uplifting.
Regardless of how this plays out, as you do your utmost to communicate effectively with Reuven, your best option is to focus on Shira’s wonderful traits and let those qualities be the foundation for a beautiful and long-lasting sisterly and friendly relationship that will satisfy you in more ways than you even know. You have a wonderful opportunity right in front of you. Don’t blow it! If you focus your energies in the wrong places, you will eventually come to regret it.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone sessions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.