It’s the Stress, Not Your Spouse

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Relieving Stress, the Word Stress Being Washed Away by a Wave on a Beach

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Pesach. It is amazing how one small word can evoke such anxiety.  How sad that such a beautiful Yom Tov (holiday), representing our freedom from physical and spiritual bondage, can leave so many people feeling so stressed out.

There is a lot to do to prepare for Pesach, and without dishing out tips on effective organization (you can ask my wife about that), I would like to explore the issue of anxiety and the devastating effect it has on relationships.

Your Brain on Stress

A very helpful model for understanding the effects of stress is that of the triune brain. This model, developed by Dr Paul MacLean, divides the brain into three components:  the brain stem, or the “reptilian brain”; the the limbic system, or “the mammalian brain”; and the neocortex, or the “the human brain.” In other words, there are certain parts of the brain that are responsible for different faculties.

The brain stem is the source of physical action regulating our various vital functions, while the limbic system is responsible for our emotions.  These aspects of the brain function almost automatically.

Triune Brain Photo Credit: American Combat
Triune Brain Photo Credit: American Combat

The neocortex, on the other hand, is the cognitive part of our brain. When you are relaxed and your brain is fully integrated, your cognitive brain will be able to influence the responses of your emotions and your knee-jerk reactions. However, when you are experiencing stress, you will get stuck in your automatic responses. Your brain reads these stressors as if you are under attack and it protects by slipping into the flight-fight response.

Can you think of a time when you were under stress? How effective were you? Were you able to make decisions and think logically or did you respond out of sheer desperation? Unfortunately, most of us spend a large percentage of our life stuck in the more primitive part of our brains.

Anxiety has become the silent killer in our society and our relationships. Besides our own personal stressors, we are constantly bombarded with negativity and fear in the news. While we live in scary times, technology has compounded the matter by flooding us with up-to-the-minute reports of every worldwide calamity.  It is crucial to find sanity amidst all of that we are confronting.

Ideally, the home should serve as a safe refuge from the stresses of life, yet we see that it is often the opposite.

In order to reverse the tide of the storm, it is necessary to work on curbing our own anxiety. When we are anxious, we become easily triggered by our spouse.  We enter fight-or-flight mode, often hurting our spouse and escalating conflict. This provokes a counter response and the power struggle ensues. If we were only able to get ourselves to a place of calm, we could easily work through almost any issue.

Along with the chametz (leavened products), here are a few ways you can remove anxiety this Passover.

Clarify Your Expectations

The root cause of much of pre-Pesach anxiety is our expectations. Let’s take for example, bedikas chometz (the search for chometz). Your rabbi taught in shul (synagogue) the halacha (law) that it should begin at nightfall. You come home from shul and your house is nowhere close to ready. Your kids are running around. No one is helping you. Three hours later, you finally begin the search.

And how about the seder (the ceremonial Pesach meal)? You are supposed to come home from shul and make kiddush (ceremony of blessing over wine) right away. And of course, the table is supposed  to be set. You come home from shul and your wife has passed out on the couch from exhaustion. The tablecloth is on, but that’s about it. The kids are tired and kvetching and, at this rate, it will be a good few hours until you reach the Mah Nishtana.

Don’t worry, your house is not the only one.

While we expect things to run smoothly, the most reasonable expectation is to expect the unexpected. Otherwise, you will surely be disappointed, anxious, and maybe even angry.

To drive this message home, I was once speaking to a Chassidic Rebbe about the stresses of Erev Pesach (the day before Passover) and he told me that he accepts upon himself every year not to get angry from the time of b’dikas chometz until after the seder.  If this Rebbe considers the real possibility that he’ll become angry, it behooves us to expect the same.

Although you can work on having no expectations, you will surely have some strong preferences of how you want things to go. So while your expectations may seem obvious to your spouse, it is always best to articulate them beforehand.  If it is important to you to begin the seder in a timely manner, share that with your spouse in advance and discuss ways that you can make it happen. Unspoken wishes will leave you upset when they are unfulfilled and leave your spouse confused as to the cause of your discontent.

Perhaps your in-laws are coming for yom tov. This can add stress on top of stress. Talk about a strategy with your spouse so you’re on the same page prior to their visit–that way you can present a united front, instead of erupting into conflict right in front of them.  The clearer you are with each other, the less room for head-butting.

Have Compassion for Your Spouse

If you notice yourself feeling frustrated, do your best to have compassion for your spouse. If your spouse is cranky, tired, or unhelpful, try to picture his or her story. Perhaps he has been working late hours so he can take off for yom tov and hasn’t had much time to pitch in. Maybe she has been up all night cooking and cleaning. No, she didn’t yet set the table, but she has been preparing non-stop for Pesach the last three weeks, besides taking care of the kids, going to work, and getting dinner on the table. Keep those visuals in the forefront of your mind so you can be more understanding when your spouse is not living up to your expectations.

Accept the Ratzon Hashem, G-d’s Will

When I was a bochur (single young man) in Eretz Yisroel, I spent Pesach by a Chassidic Rebbe. His wife had a baby two days before yom tov.  Although his Rebbetzin had cooked in advance, he was still left practically alone with a house full of kids, the oldest barely bas mitzvah (12 years old), and a few guests. In addition to his regular involvement as a father, the Rebbe had to take on all the responsibility of his wife, including the technical details such as plating and serving the meal.

While this may have not been his ideal seder night, the Rebbe taught me a valuable lesson: The most important question that a Jew must ask himself is, “What does Hashem want from me now, at this moment?”  We have to be able to switch gears and take action when things don’t go our way. Instead of getting wrapped up in our own story of how things should be, we must be proactive and deal with the way things are. This is the only way we can achieve true piece of mind, for life will often throw us curveballs. Yes, you may have your expectations, but can you live with it and make Hashem’s will yours.

Be B’simcha (Joyous)

When we accept G-d’s will over ours, every moment is a cause for joy as we are doing exactly what we need to be doing at that time. Putting an extra effort to have a positive attitude can defuse the anxiety that builds up around Pesach.

Keeping a positive attitude is also an invaluable lesson for your children. How many kids grow up dreading yom tov because all they saw in their house was anxiety, complaining, and fighting?

The central theme of the seder night is perpetuating the story of yetzias mitzrayim (the exodus from Egypt) by telling it to our children.  We want that experience to be as positive and memorable as possible, not laced with strife.

As we approach Pesach and busy ourselves with searching  and destroying our chometz, let us work on purging the anxiety that so often enslaves us and our relationships.


Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin is a licensed counselor and Certified IMAGO Relationship Therapist. He is an author  and international lecturer on relationships. Get a free download of The Five Step Action Plan to Saving
Your Marriage , or visit to learn more.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.