"Zimzum of Love" review: 1-43, "Responsive"

Honestly, I’m still not really clear on the zimzum part of this book. Rob and Kristen seem to have connected with the metaphor strongly, but I’m not finding in it everything they did. I’m not sure how Rob was introduced to the concept, since what I can find has it appearing in Life of Pi and Kaballah, and Rob says it comes from “the rabbinic tradition.” I know I have Jewish readers, so if you could help me out with where this term comes from that would be spectacular.

At any rate, Rob and Kristen explain it as a step God had to take to create the universe– he had to withdraw from a certain space in order to create a world that wasn’t himself, that was separate from himself. This supposed retraction is zimzum: making an empty space for something else to fill. They apply this idea to marriage because they think that marriage is all about making space for the other person in our lives, and that makes sense to me. Where they go after that sort of loses me, but it’s a lovely image how they describe it.

I think the most important concept they’re emphasizing in the opening chapters is mutuality. “Mutuality” is frequently used as another word for egalitarianism in marriage, especially in Christian circles. It’s the idea that Rob and Kristen mention– that “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (41), and one that many Christian find in passages like “you are not your own.” They argue that the ideal for marriage is mutual giving, mutual sacrifice, that no relationship this intimate can survive in an environment where one is expected to lead and the other serve.

They talk about it in terms of the zimzum being “responsive,” which is an idea I think gets skipped over in many (if not all) Christian marriage-advice books. What they’re referring to could probably be summed up in the phrase “you have to put your own oxygen mask on first in order to help others”– essentially, if you’re not healthy and stable, than that’s going to contribute to your marriage being unhealthy and unstable. I wish this concept wasn’t so revolutionary by Christian marriage-book standards, but it is. If all I’m ever doing in my marriage is giving and serving and self-sacrificing without giving any thought to my own emotional burnout, that’s not going to be good long-term.

It’s also important to understand that in terms of your partner as well as yourself. They can’t contribute to a healthy marriage if you force them to make their lives all about you. Rob and Kristen bring it up like this: “You make deals, and then you laugh about how absurd it is to make deals because you would have done it anyway.”

For example, my partner loves building model airplanes, and he got eight different kits for Christmas as well as an airbrush. After he had the airbrush assembled, he was excited about working on them, and casually mentioned something about doing one every month– which is where I stopped him, because in order to do one every month he’d have to work on it every single weekend, virtually all day. And while I get a kick out of the painting and help him do the extremely detailed work, I have no interesting in the actual assemblage or putting the decals on … which meant that I’d either a) have to do something I found tedious and boring every weekend in order to spend time with him or b) not spend time with him.

I was not fond of either of those ideas, and responded with “well, maybe not one a month. I’m fine with every other weekend, but not all of them”– and once he’d thought about it, he agreed. Which means that we’d just “struck a deal,” but in reality he never would have worked on those planes every single weekend, because he wants to spend time with me as much as I want to spend time with him.

One of the negative things they talk about is “the scorecard”– how easy it is to become resentful if you feel that your partner isn’t pulling their weight, so you start keeping track of how often they unload the dishwasher and such (35).

I’m practically still a newlywed (celebrated our second anniversary this month), so I have to admit I haven’t experienced The Scorecard in my marriage yet, but I have felt that way in some friendships I’ve had. Right now, though, in my marriage if he doesn’t unload the dishwasher or doesn’t help with the laundry or doesn’t help keep the apartment tidy … I’m not particularly concerned. I imagine that won’t always be true, especially if we throw children into the mix.

Anyway, I’m enjoying the book, and since this is my second read-through, there’s actually quite a bit more meat here than I’d initially realized. It’s presented so conversationally I think it’s easy to skip over some of the more noteworthy ideas.

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  • Jewish reader here! Tzimtzum (that’s how wikipedia spells it when I glanced it over for a refresher) is the idea that G-d contracted, then expanded into all of Creation, and that making that empty space was necessary so that it could be filled, not only with physical things like planets and galaxies, but also with free will and independent thought. While I’m not 100% sure how I feel about this idea as I understand it in a spiritual sense (because I’m really drawn to a transcendentalist world view, and would need to ask someone who knows more about Judaism and Kabbalah than I do if/how this fits with tzimtzum–also, I am unsure if this contradicts the idea I was taught in Hebrew school that G-d is everywhere and in everything) I kind of like this as a metaphor for love/marriage: the idea that you and your partner will both need to draw inward to give each other space to blossom and grow, but that you’re still fundamentally a part of each other.

  • marciepooh

    Yeah, I’ve only been married 2.5 years but I’ve caught myself starting a scorecard a few times. It’s been really bad these last 3 weeks since I’ve been back at work and my husband is a stay at home dad. Saturday he was off volunteering and I got 3 loads of laundry done, flipped the dishes, and did some baking and kept thinking ‘why can’t he get more done?’ Then I reminded myself that 1) men aren’t taught/socialized to “multi-task” the way women are (he’s learning), 2) he has the one of the most important job in the world right now and laundry isn’t it, and 3) I know I wouldn’t get nearly that productive if I were home all the time because I’d want to nap when she did, and spend other spare moments catching up on the rest of the world, reading a book silently, etc. rather than pushing a broom or with my hands in a sink of hot water again for something other than cleaning bottles, so who am I to judge. Goodness knows, I get practically nothing done after work because BABY!

    Long story short, scorecard bad and something I’m working on.

    • Heya! Fellow breadwinning mom with stay-at-home-dad husband here. Some very similar thoughts go through my mind when I find myself trying to catch up on the cleaning whenever I have a spare minute, yet whenever I come home I seem to find the baby napping and my husband playing on the computer.

      I have found that when I manage to nicely say, “Hey – I know life is full of suck right now for both of us but I really feel like I’m doing more and it doesn’t feel fair to me,” then we’ll have a good conversation and if necessary something will change.

      Usually the conversation goes one of a few ways:

      1) His days have been harder / more hectic than I realized, so yes he totally gets to chill and it’s my job to pick up the slack right now
      2) He hasn’t been feeling well and he’s been mostly working through it, so yes he totally gets to chill and it’s my job to pick up the slack right now
      3) He hadn’t realized just how much suck my side of things has been, so he’ll give me time to relax while he picks up the slack and gets some things done
      4) He acknowledges that he’s been lazy and commits to doing more to make the house at least feel a bit more organized.

      Any of these solutions usually last anywhere from a couple days to a week, and then we repeat the same conversation.

      Just the act of checking in with each other, mutual understanding and mutual effort over time really helps with the resentment and scorekeeping.

      I have found it’s really awesome to have one parent stay at home. I am free to work late during busy times and generally focus on my career without worrying about the logistics of childcare. Which in turn makes me a better provider. Good luck with everything!

  • marciepooh

    (Sorry for the double posting. I forgot something.) I wanted to applaud their promoting of self-care. This is so important in any relationship. I think I have run into the problem (other than in your previous book reviews) in terms of mothers (and fathers to a lesser extent) being expected to completely ignore their own wants and needs in favor of their children*. I would do anything within my power to help my daughter and husband (and other family, too) but I have to be healthy to do it. We have a friend who seems to feel guilty when he ‘takes a night off’ from caring for his teenage nephews; sometimes he needs to do what makes him happy and recharges his batteries or he can’t be there for them and the 3 of them have had one clusterf*** of a year.

    *I’ve read forums and parenting articles essentially saying if a woman isn’t willing to completely give up all sources of caffeine during her pregnancy and while nursing, then she’s not worthy of being a mother.

  • Hilary

    Another Jewish reader/lurker. I get the metaphore, it is an accurate enough description of Isaac Luria’s Kabbalah – I think, I’m not very mystical or into Kabbalah. But as someone married . . . well, 15 years together as a couple, 11.5 years since exchanging vows and gold rings, 1.5 years legally married (It can be that complicated as a lesbian couple. Point of awesomeness, our Rabbi signed both our Ketuba/religious wedding document and our civil liscence, 10 years apart) I do want to comment on the scorecard idea. I get what you are saying, but it does have it’s place.

    From personal experience, resentment can really build up when one person is always doing the dishes, especially when you don’t have a dishwashing machine. It’s like drips of water on stone, it can take a few years, but when one person’s default is ‘it doesn’t matter if he or she is here, or sick, or not, I’ll still end up doing the dishes, making dinner, running the laundry and cleaning the kitty litter, and picking up. So I might as well do it anyway’ That can really do a number on a relationship. Add in faulty, tired, and human memory ‘But I did clean the bathroom, you never do that!’ and . . . . . we’ve had a few screaming matches.

    What we have now is a magnetic star chart on the fridge, with a list of weekly chores. We put up our color star next to what we do. This does two things: it does offer a visual check about what has and hasn’t been done this week (kitty litter – we have three of them). And it does offer a visual reinforcement that yes, I did do that much on Sunday, and Tuesday, and you really haven’t done very much yet. Can we please balance this out? (Before I shift into the default that you might as well go visit your mom, I’m going to be doing all this myself anyway?)

    I guess rather than say, it doesn’t matter, being loving isn’t keeping score, my advice is to admit that it does matter, rather than slowly build up reserves of resentment 4, 5, 10 years down the line. Because when it’s 10 years of ‘not keeping score, not being resentful or bitter about the dishes’ the other spouse can land in a position where NOTHING they do is enough to make up for years of ‘not keeping score.’ No amount of ‘I’ll try and do better this week’ can undercut years of ‘I might as well do it myself.’ Communication is the only way to deal with this, and some way of each spouse recognizing that ‘oh, my SO has done most of the housework this week, I’d better do my share this weekend.’

    Obviously, if one person is going through a box of kleenex every other hour with a sinus infection or deep cough, one weeks imbalance isn’t worth holding on to (That’s been our week, I had the infection, she’s got the cough). But when I hear about really long, seemingly fine marriages ending out of the blue, this is what I think of. Years becomeing decades of one person doing so much of the gruntwork, that he or she decides they might as well be alone, because they are functionally caring for themselves alone.

  • Good to know there’s a book out there where a marriage is more than, “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”

  • Allison

    Overall, I enjoyed this chapter of the book. But one part bothered me: The “conversation” between Rob and Kristen about the jacket he bought (on page 23). They say that Rob once bought a jacket that he absolutely loved. But when he brought it home, Kristen saw it and “immediately said No way.” She hated the jacket, so he returned it.

    To me, this sounds like horrible marital advice. Do the Bells really think that someone should have absolute veto power over their spouse’s clothing choices? I would be really angry if I bought a new jacket that I loved, brought it home, and my husband immediately said, “No way!” and told me to take it back.

    I love my husband and want to make him happy, but I also recognize that I am my own person with my own likes and dislikes. He shouldn’t tell me exactly what I can and can’t wear. Likewise, I shouldn’t tell my husband exactly what he can and can’t wear. I don’t always like the clothing he wears, but does that mean I should tell him how horrible it is and tell him to return it to the store? Of course not. I respect that he and I have different preferences when it comes to clothing choices. There’s nothing wrong with telling your spouse—nicely—that you don’t really like a particular clothing item they have. But saying “No way!” and making a spouse return something that they really love? To me, that seems controlling and very limiting to the other person’s autonomy and sense of self.

    Did this bother anyone else?