Matana: Hello, everybody. Thank you for joining me here today. I am so grateful to Dr. Jennifer for joining me here. It was a very last minute and I begged her. I've been following you for a long time and I'm probably the only Jewish woman in her Mormon group.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Probably not, because people follow me from different faiths. But yeah, you would be a minority.
Matana: I found Dr. Jennifer's podcast a while back and I've been following her Facebook community, I think it's 22,000 people. And I'm really just observing because I don't know how to respond because the questions that come up there are very much not questions that I understand. I understand the pain but I don't understand what they're asking. But at the same time, I can relate as an Orthodox Jew to the pain part of the questions.
So I asked you to come on because I'm doing this 5 to 6-week series on relationships, marriage, divorce, and intimacy. A lot of our audience is Orthodox Jewish, usually women. And I'm finding the more and more I speak to couples within the religious umbrella; if it's Muslim, Jewish, Mormons, or any Christian; there's the same pain and the same struggle. I speak to a lot of Jewish therapists but I wanted to get the perspective of someone from a different religion, the Mormon religion. And I love your podcast. I could just listen to it because there's so much empathy, so much connection and love in your words, and you bring comfort. Whatever you say you just bring comfort. It's very inspiring. There are different conversations there, whether it's religion or not religion. There's a lot of desire to understand the human dynamics and to understand how we can cultivate healthy and good relationships no matter if you're religious or not. I'm grateful that you were willing to join me on such short notice and that you're here with me.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: My pleasure. Honestly, it'll be fun.
Matana: Yeah, it's going to be very interesting. I was always called a controversial girl. Until I was 18 I was quiet with my controversy, but at 18 I started asking out loud. And I still don't have a lot of answers, but I decided that I'm no longer going to sit in the silence of the confusion. I'm going to ask and I'm going to try to learn and understand. One of the things that I wanted to discuss with you today was relationships. When we bring God into the relationship, if we're God-fearing humans and we're a part of a religion or a tradition, a lot of times we find that we lose ourselves and our true voice in the name of religion. And then there can be a conflict in the relationship.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes. And a lot of Latter-day Saints are experiencing this very phenomenon, because with the Internet and deep access to information and to other like-minded people, what used to be a more insular community has become much more exposed. And with that, there has been much more within marriages a split where one stops believing and one is more orthodox. Or there's at least enough variation that it oftentimes creates stress around who are we as a couple because people got married under the idea that we believed the same things and that gives us common ground. And when that gets challenged it can be very stressful for the marriage and for this sense of identity and place and purpose within each individual.
I remember sitting in a class and the professor, I can't remember what the class was, was talking about religion in terms of how conservative or liberal it was or how much the faith demanded of people. And so, of course, Orthodox Judaism would be far right on the conservative and Jehovah's Witness would be far right. Mormonism was a step under that, but still high demands of the community. When you get down to something more like Universalist Unitarian, it is very liberal meaning it doesn't demand a lot of the people. When you come from more orthodoxy and your behavior is really wrapped around your identity, the upside of that is it drives a high sense of connection with that community because you do the same things. You live out your faith through your behaviors, through your rituals. The upside of it is a strong sense of connection, a strong sense of identity, and a strong sense of purpose. The challenging side of it is it's more difficult to feel like your ideas can expand beyond that community without fearing that you'll lose your community and lose your identity.
Matana: How do we find belonging when we don't feel belonging, but we don't want to lose the belonging?
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Exactly. And that's what you were talking about as a child. You had dissent but you were keeping quiet about it. I did much of that myself. It's like saying, "Wait a minute. That doesn't feel right to me, but I don't want to lose the group that is my family that I belong to. So how do I belong to my group and my integrity?" And I think the more orthodox or demanding the community, the more that question can really challenge one's sense of self. And this is genuinely me not dissing orthodox communities because I actually think human beings, especially early in development, really benefit from discipline and from structure. The ego needs it for its development, it needs expectations, it needs "you can and you cannot" boundaries because one can thrive within that. But I also think the more one stays rigid for life, then it really costs one's development.
So this is my long-winded way of saying there's a fundamental tension between belonging to our identity and belonging to the structure that has supported us and internalizing and transcending it and progressing beyond it. And we're ambivalent about that tension. A lot of people in their marriages, from a Latter-day Saint point of view anyway, people that I work with, there's one that tends to hold the anchors. "We need to do this on Sundays. We can't do this." They're holding that. And the other person can tend to be more liberal or progressive or challenging. But part of the reason they each take polarized positions is there is an internal ambivalence about "I don't want to really let go of my faith or my community, but I don't want to feel controlled." And that ambivalence often gets played out within the couple. We do that as couples like we will disown parts of ourselves and take a position that's more polarized because we know our spouse will take the other one. Then you duke it out with each other rather than within yourself.
And so this happens. These tensions, especially for someone who's deeply belonged to a community, are going to be difficult. And it's very easy to make the fight be within the marriage and to use the idea of God to pressure that fight. I sometimes say you don't serve God, God serves you. Meaning, that when we're immature we'll use the idea of God to win or to prevail, as opposed to using the idea of God to challenge ourselves. When we use religion to prevail it's always evil in my opinion. When we use our faith to become more refined loving human beings, then we are using our faith appropriately.
Matana: Wow, that's so beautiful but yet it's very hard because no one teaches us growing up how to do it properly. So give me a little bit of a background so that the audience just understands where you grew up and how you got into the field of intimacy in general and how you made the shift between very religious to more of the modern woman.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: My parents grew up in the intermountain west as Latter-day Saints, and then my dad took a job as a professor at the University of Vermont. So I was born in Vermont, which is culturally very different from Utah, but my parents were very immersed in our faith, as was I. There's a lay leadership and so my dad and my mom were very involved in leadership positions. So I grew up with my family, my extended family so to speak, being the Latter Day Saint community. And so these were my people, my friends, my safety, my social network within a larger context of liberal Vermont. So it was like I was living in two worlds at once, which was very good for me because I became literate in both realities. I could see the strength of my faith community and the weaknesses of the external community. But the opposite was also true. I could see the strength of my larger community and some of the liabilities within my Latter-day Saint faith. But my first love was my faith community for sure. It still is actually. There are so many good people there. But I could also see and feel a lot of the pain because I cared about them. And because I was a perceptive child I could see that we would, on the one hand, extoll and talk about the virtues of marriage and family life and womanhood and motherhood, but I could see a lot of women who seemed somewhat trapped. "Trapped" is a little condescending. I don't mean it quite like that, but they were trying so hard to do what they believed God was asking of them, but their lives were surrendered to their husband's desires and their husband's career. And so they were earnest but often seemed depressed to me like they didn't really have equal say in their marriages. And actually, a lot of that was considered the right way, especially when I was growing up. And I think I could see that dynamic in my parent's marriage. And I cared about that dynamic, and I cared about helping. First of all, I cared about not becoming that woman. Secondarily, I cared about helping LDS women. As a child, similarly, I was always in this duality where I would want to trust what I was being told, but I would find myself questioning it. And my questions scared me because I didn't want to lose my community. But I also didn't want to live in a trapped way. And I also wanted to live truthfully. A Christian kind of adage is that the truth sets you free, but also that you should do what is right and the consequence follows. That's to say that it's really important to live with integrity. So there was a tension between compliance and integrity for me. And in my own struggle with God was coming to terms with the fact that I believed in a God who expected me to have integrity more than just comply. So that internal permission allowed me to let myself think what I thought without trying to suppress my thoughts to belong. And so that, with time, as I became a young adult and was going to college and the Latter-day Saint thinking at the time was women should get married and education is a secondary goal only if you don't get married. So I made sure I didn't get married and pursued my education.
Matana: Oh, wow.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: And once I started my doctorate degree, I met my husband and we got married a few years later. And I had enough self at that point to choose well and to choose a real partner. But I was unusually old for Latter-day Saint terms. I was almost 30 and so on. But my larger point here is that I knew that I wanted to stay in my faith community, but do it with integrity and do it in a way that perhaps could help others. And that really defined my path and my work and what I do now.
I wrote my dissertation on LDS women and sexual agency. I was looking at the cultural pressures for women's sexuality to be there for men's sexuality, not that women are sexual beings in their own. And so I was really looking at Latter-day Saint women that had grown up in the faith and were now married. And what was their journey into marriage and who were the women that thrived and were comfortable with their sexuality? They were a minority, but there were those women there. And how had they related to theology and these ideas? And then there were the women who didn't do well and why didn't they? So that really was research that defined the work that I do now. I teach online courses for Latter-day Saint women and men and couples around sexuality, around marriages thriving, around how to create more emotional and sexual intimacy out of the basic assumption that one must operate as equals but also one must operate out of a place of integrity and not just external validation through compliance or through trying to be what others want us to be. That's a good place to start, but not a good place to end if you want to be capable of intimacy, but also a sense of internal freedom.
Matana: I think your following is just proof of how the world needs it and how they're craving it because more and more people are like, "Okay, tell me more. Here are my questions." And the questions coming up are really good questions. And so many questions are "I've been holding this for 15 years and I'm finally ready to ask" or "I've been married for 25 years and I always felt...and now I'm done. I'm ready to live truth." There's a lot of, "I'm done with fitting into the box. I need a little bit more because I'm feeling dead even though I'm following the path that I was raised with and I want to live and I'm not feeling that I'm living a life."
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: That's right. That's exactly right. Because I think, again, in the beginning, structures can actually help us live. That was helpful for me to have a sense of "this is okay, this is not okay, and you have a God that cares about you." Those were very helpful psychologically early on in life, but there's a point at which it no longer is helpful. It becomes constraining. You need to expand the container of your mind, and if you're too afraid of that growth process that's inherent to spiritual development and inherent to becoming a more godly person, you basically will use the faith structure to not grow. You need to relate to the faith structure in a way that allows you to keep growing.
Matana: And you said it so well in the beginning that a lot of times we lose ourselves in order to stay in the community and not lose the community. I speak to so many people in our community, so many people, and their last word is, "What am I supposed to do? I have kids, I have a family. If I do anything, they won't take my kids to school. We won't be able to marry them off." It got a little bit better, a little bit more open-minded, a little bit more accepting. Not so much in Israel, but in America and around the world. Israel is still very much you have to stay within the cubicle that you are set to be. And we're not taught to really expand our minds and think differently and welcome different thoughts. And what I find that comes up in marriages like you said, we're basically committed to the same path of religion and these are the rules. Then you go into marriage not even knowing what to expect, and then things start surfacing and you're like, "Wait, I know that this is the right way, but it doesn't feel good. What do I do?" And a lot of people, especially women, are afraid to even say it out loud until there's a mental illness or just there's an awakening that happens if either it's physical or mental or whatever that just says, "You know what, we have to connect to ourselves and what's really going on." And the thing that I keep on saying is you cannot live a godly life based on what God said if you're feeling dead inside. That's not godly. God doesn't want that. If you're feeling dead inside, you're not living in the name of God and you're feeling not alive and connected. You have to feel connected, that's godly. And a lot of times we would lose that because we don't have the language or because we don't have the comfort to discuss what comes up that's nontraditional.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: That's right. Because fear takes over and when fear leads us, then it does suffocate it. Now, I want to say that somewhat humbly, because when you live in a community and a society in which the cost of your individuality is so high, or it's going to cost your children or cost your belonging, well, you're often up against very hard choices and they're real. And a lot of people learn how to dissent internally while behaviorally going along in order to have the advantages of that society while trying to hold on to something within themselves. But when it really can be costly is, in the sense that you're talking about, that I just have to imagine that I am wrong. That's what a lot of us do. Rather than let myself know what I know or think what I think. I have to turn it into, "I'm broken, defective, wrong because I don't feel alive because something here is not working for me," rather than, "Maybe I'm not wrong. Maybe there's something here I need to listen to.".
And people in a marriage where somebody kind of prevails over them, that's often what they're doing is they're doubting themselves because they're afraid to know what they know. They're afraid of their own strength. They're afraid of their own capacity to see. And so they prefer the confusion and having the belonging stay intact, but they suppress something very powerful within themselves and very important. It's very human. It's understandable. But yes, I fully agree with the idea that it's not godly because to live in a godly way your soul expands. You become more capable of love. You become more capable of self-acceptance and acceptance of others. And yet it takes a lot of courage. And for some more than others, depending on what the cost would be for living true to your integrity.
Matana: There is a Hebrew book that came out by an Israeli therapist. She got her doctorate in intimacy and she wrote a book called Simply Want. She grew up religious, but she also took, in general, what the cultural world is telling women how to show up sexually. And she's saying, let's change the conversation. Instead of it being the woman's job to keep the marriage alive and well, let's make the woman a partner of a desire rather than the one servicing the husband. Not just an act of service.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife I'm a human. I'm a person.
Matana: Right. I'm sexual, too. I want it. How do we shift that understanding and how do we show up properly? And it was such an incredible book that everybody, religious or not religious, started talking about it. "Wait, I'm not only an act of service in order to keep the man happy and the family happy and the structure together. You mean I have a desire? I'm allowed to have the desire also? And I'm allowed to say no and not get the consequence by what will happen?"
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: That's very much what the online course I teach, called The Art of Desire, is talking to Latter-day Saint women about. I start with how we have been socialized and what the messages are we've learned about what it is to be a woman and what it is to be sexual. For a lot of women, it's like "My sexuality exists to prop up the man and to manage his sexual needs. My sexuality is understood in reference to men's sexuality." And so it's not at all surprising in my view, that when women get married, because they've not been taught to desire or honor their desires, in fact, many have been taught to suppress their desires in order to be good. That's why the course is called The Art of Desire.
Why does desire matter? Because it's so central to personhood. It's so central to thriving, to being an equal, and to having your own mind. And when we've been taught that to be good is to fold into another person's mind or to live out other people's lives we are dead inside and resentful and often depressed. "Desire? Where's that going to come from? I don't even have a self to share. I can only do it compliantly." And then women get pathologized for it. Even though they're doing exactly what the culture dictates then they get told, "You're broken in some way because you don't desire your husband." Then women often take that on themselves like, "I'm terrible because I don't feel excited to be with him sexually." And yet there's no basis which they could because they haven't yet been allowed within themselves or within the culture to be a full partner and a thriving individual that has her own sexuality and can choose to share it. That's really what partnership requires. But we're afraid of it.
We've been very good traditionally, and not just Latter-day Saints, but all cultures, at controlling and subjugating women as a way for men to feel on top. But very strong men don't need to subjugate anyone to feel strong. And so how do we redefine what it is to really be partnered rather than this kind of validation-dependent system where men are looking to women to validate their sexuality and women are looking to men to validate that they're okay through subjugating their sexuality? Those ideas maybe create a kind of ideal marriage in a cultural sense. The community accepts that version, but not happiness and intimacy in a marriage which our souls really long for but often we don't know how to create it.
Matana: So where's the beginning of it? Where did we go wrong? Where do you think the beginning of what you're trying to fix and what other individuals are trying to fix and where the world is waking up to now? Where did we go wrong?
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: One of the ways we go wrong is we mistake the container for life. The point of the rules in Christian thinking is to love, to love what is good. So you use the structure to facilitate that, but don't do it the other way around. That's hypocrisy. That's very human, but it will dam us. That will keep us limited. And so this is true I think for any religious culture. It's when the rules become more important than the point, which is people thriving and growing into people capable of loving and being loved. You have to push against the rules because we like safety, we like security. So where we go wrong is we make that the rules are the most important thing and demand that everybody yield to them. And there is an inherent tension between freedom and structure. You see it even politically. Conservatism is the structure, the traditions. We need it. We want to feel secure. We don't want to just say, "Oh, every new idea is a good idea." That's not a great way to go. But on the other hand, we need to be liberal. We need to be willing to adapt to change in order to grow. There's always a tension in every human being, in every political structure, in every faith. But when we get out of balance, it either becomes off the rails because there's not enough structure or dead because there's too much structure. And so we have to look at, "What am I actually doing and reinforcing through my choices? Do I need to be more cautious or do I need to challenge some of the structures for me to live more authentically? Is my fear driving me all the time, or is my honesty and my courage driving me?"
Matana: Do you mean fear of punishment? Fear of God? Or fear of doing the wrong thing?
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Fear of loss of the community.
Matana: I would say not even fear of loss of the community but fear of what if I'm going against God.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: That's right. Exactly. I think I had all those fears initially. Like, I don't want to disappoint people, but I also I don't want to be wrong. I don't want my own hubris or my own thinking to lead me astray. So there was a lot of caution for me anyway. At first, I thought about things for a long time before I chose differently because I was trying to make sure that I wasn't just being rebellious.
Matana: Doing it out of knowledge and not out of just rejection.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Exactly. And so there was a certain point at which I realized that I was holding back more out of fear of rejection. I was clear that God was actually okay with me, but I still cared about the social consequences, so I still held back. But that was more about fear of how people would see me rather than fear of what I really felt was true. And that was more when I started to speak more honestly.
Matana: And what happened? Did your family accept it when you moved to Vermont? Isn't that also a statement because you're not really allowed to leave?
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: No, that's not true. In fact, there are Mormons all over the world.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: No, there was no problem with that in terms of the religion. My dad moved back there because it was a good job. And they were fundamental to creating more of a community there. They helped build the actual church that we met in. And we had meetings in our home for a little while when I was a little girl because there aren't many Latter-day Saints in Vermont. So no, there wasn't any problem in terms of the religion.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: But I also was fortunate. I had parents that were very invested in the faith and so I was also, as a little girl, because that was just how we did things. They didn't worry too much about having dissenting thoughts. So I could have dissenting thoughts about things without anybody getting too upset. So fortunately from my family, I knew that I could be who I was. It felt like my parents didn't need me to think the same way for them to be okay with me. And that's a big deal because a lot of people do not have that in their families. I didn't want to disappoint my parents for sure. I didn't want to just toss it away what they gave to me, because I cared about them and I cared about what they'd given me. I didn't want to be flippant about it, but I didn't fear that I would be rejected. The larger question for me was my larger community that I care about and I want to belong here and maybe I'll be seen as a problem. I was seen as a problem a little bit.
Matana: At the beginning, you got more pushback.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yeah, I got more pushback. But I think I've also...
Matana: Created your own community.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: I think that's true. I'm not just trying to destroy something. I'm trying to facilitate something good within us growing. And I think a lot of people can feel that. And so they're more willing to listen because they are trying to solve something and they don't want to destroy what's been a good thing in their life. But they may want it to evolve or they may want it to transform in positive ways. And I think if they have seen that I can facilitate some of that or I have thoughts about how that may happen, then they're more open to it.
Matana: I recently was speaking to a client and she's orthodox, very orthodox, and she was talking about a sexual issue that she was having with her husband. And I said, "Did you discuss it with him?" She said, "What's the point? There's nothing to do about it." I said, "What do you mean?" A lot of times I wasn't aware that I can bring up these very frustrating conversations that are painful. Maybe there isn't anything to do about it within the faith in following the rules. But do they know that? They don't know that they're allowed. And there's this sadness of being trapped. As you said, it feels like they're trapped and there's nowhere to go. They're stuck between a rock and a hard place. And the rock is, "I don't like this. Something is wrong or something doesn't feel right. And I don't want to throw all religion out. But this doesn't feel right to me and on the same hand, I don't want to go against religion and God. So what do we do?" But there's not enough of a place where we can discuss it and comfort. It's starting to become a little bit safer, but still, there's no acceptance. And if I choose differently is it a hard place or is it okay?
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yeah, exactly. I think you're spot on when you're talking about that when you're just living it and you have no sense of a choice because "These are the rules. This is what I must do. Why would I even talk about it then? What's the point?" That sense of entrapment, depression, and psychological death is real. And the people that are often coming to me and you, I imagine, are people that feel stuck. And they're saying I can't figure this out. The work of good coaching or good therapy is helping people to move from just being and living something out to being more able to reflect on it and to it as, "Okay, this is the system I'm operating in. This is how I've learned what it is to be who I am. This is what's going on in my marriage." Because if you can move from subject to object, in the sense that you're moving from just living it to being able to think back on it or look at it, you increase your choices right now. It doesn't mean your choices are easy or don't take courage. You might even still say, "I'm not going to shake up this marriage. I'm not going to bring this up." Even then, you're still doing it from a different position. You're doing it more from a self-aware position and saying, "This is what I can live with. This is what I think is the best given the consequences or choices." But there's still more psychological freedom in it because it's not just happening to you. You're more of a chooser in it. And whenever we move from being a pawn to actor, we get happier. That's what my dissertation was on. Sexual agency. Who are the women that are sexual actors in their lives versus just living out a script that they feel they must live subjugated to a man's sexuality psychologically, versus women who are choosing deliberately how they're going to live out their sexuality? So much of a part of my work is increasing people's agency through moving them from a place of enmeshment in a system to a place of self-awareness to increase their choices and they're choosing ability.
Matana: Do you think it's important to marry someone in the same faith or the same mindset of faith in God and path of religion?
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Well, that's maybe too simple for me to say one way or the other, but I would say there are certainly advantages to it. And there are potential disadvantages to it. I married somebody who's a Latter-day Saint. I love that because we understand important cultural and theological references. We have a shared understanding, a shared family system, all that's wonderful. But I also married someone who had similar doubts and questions as I did, and we could understand, as well, both the desire to belong and an awareness of the immaturity and some of the tensions. But I again married at 30. If I'd married at 21 or something you never know what you're going to get. And so I was more able to choose someone that I really felt I could have meaningful engagement around that fundamental tension. So I'm grateful for that. But I think that I have friends who've married outside of the faith, and there are advantages to that as well and inherent tensions around my spouse don't necessarily value this tradition or this idea or this belief. And so it's harder when you have children because you're trying to find a way to give them the best in who you are. And it can be difficult if your partner doesn't share some of those ideas.
Matana: I just interviewed one of my mentors. Her son died from suicide. She's a convert. She converted to Judaism when she was 16. I just spoke about that aspect of what is it like to recover after death by suicide as a parent. She became very orthodox and they started a Jewish Orthodox family and then her husband left the faith. She's a public speaker in the Jewish Orthodox world, and her husband became an agnostic. And I said, "How is that?" First of all, it's very taboo in our community. It's very terrible. We did a whole episode on true marriage is love, respect, and trust. And maybe when we marry somebody in the same faith, it keeps us safe. But do we really lead with love, respect, and trust? Because that's true intimacy and that's true marriage. So we're confining ourselves to comfort.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Exactly. That's a very good point. A lot of us get married because we want reinforcement, not intimacy. I think this is a crisis that a lot of people that I work with are having, which is we got married on the basis of a shared ideology. And that actually gave us shelter from knowing each other or knowing ourselves even because we could just live out the pattern and do what the community says we should do and tell ourselves we're good. And so what happens when there's a faith crisis or faith transition within that is that it brings all that to the floor and kind of pressures the couple to deal with, "Who are we? Am I believing this just because I get reinforcement from the group, or is this really me? Am I rebelling against this just because I'm angry? Or is this really me to reject this?" So it pushes the question of who am I and who are we and that's often very uncomfortable and a process that many of us want to avoid. So a lot of us start invoking God to get on our side rather than actually dealing with who is this person I've chosen and what am I going to do about him or her and my love for them. But yes, to her point, which is I think if you're really going to live up to the best in your theology, it's going to facilitate you loving, caring for, and respecting another human being even if they think differently than you. The pinnacle of faith is that you can love others, you can be loved, you can respect the differences, and you can tolerate that in this complex reality of living life and that you may come up with different ways of thinking or being. The larger question is not how orthodox are you to my version of reality or what makes me comfortable or what I want you to think, but can I accept and respect another person in an honest process, if that's what it is, and make room for them because they're going to have truth that I do not have. And that's really a thriving marriage.
Matana: Exactly. I think it's hard work. But it's very hard because they say marry the same culture, the same language, the same religion because men and women as it is, it's difficult it's just hard to understand each other. So let's reduce the stresses and just make it simple because marriage is constant work, so let's find less work. But we're missing out on the core of intimacy. And that's really accepting not because you believe like me, not because you show up like me, but because I really love you for who you are. And I love and respect you. And I choose you for more than your connection to God and religion.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And when I've worked with couples where one has a faith crisis or stops believing, when the couple does that from the best in themselves, they both get wiser. They become more intimate friends. They become more able to bring the best in their thinking to their children. Because they shape each other. There becomes more of what really matters in life. They're each, to that Chinese metaphor, touching different parts of the elephant and not having so much hubris to think just because I know this part of the elephant I'm right. But on the other hand, it's a legitimate perspective. There's something here to be understood. And what is the best in what I think without claiming that I understand the whole creature? We're just limited. So what can I learn from another person's perspective, experience, and point of view? That's really the best in caring about other people is to allow them to inform how we think. That's what will drive us to be wiser and more capable of loving and accepting ourselves and others.
Matana: And remove the fear.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Exactly.
Matana: And really show up because I care, because I love you and because I accept you and I want you to be a part of my life, but not only if you follow my comfort zone of my relationship with God. I know in my own personal marriage, I got married also late compared to my community. I wasn't a marriage seeker. I saw a lot of things that I didn't like, but I didn't know how to pinpoint them. My parents had a lovely marriage, but I saw so many others and so many women who looked sad. So many just looked sad and depressed and were like a robot going through life. I didn't know how to change it, but I also knew that I didn't want that. And I'm like, that's not an attractive life for me at all. I don't want that. I was 26 when I got married, and I married a more open-minded and, quote-unquote, modern not the ultra-Orthodox that I grew up in. We moved to America, but we did have stern beliefs, but I was exploring much more. He grew up more modern, I grew up more to the right. And we were both going in the opposite direction. Then we crossed paths and I was more, "Let's go more liberal" and he's like, "Let's go more orthodox." And I'm like, "No, I'm not going back to my trauma. I'm going away from my trauma." And there was a lot of conflict and we kept on bringing God into it. And I'm like, "But it's not about God. It's about me, my feelings, my emotions, and how I feel. I don't think God enjoys the way I'm feeling right now. There's no way that God is enjoying the way I'm feeling."
I don't know if you know this, and I want your point of view, in the Orthodox world when a woman has her menstrual cycle, the husband and wife separate physically, and after her menstrual cycle, she needs to have at least five days of menstruation and then she has to count seven days of clean. And then she goes to the pure water, which is called the mikvah. She dunks once or three times and then she's pure and then they can be together again. But separation for me was brutal. Brutal. I just felt abandonment every single time. And I just felt it was wrong. Like, we don't have to have sex, but I want a hug. Even after birth, it could be 5 to 10 weeks, sometimes three months. No touch. No connection. Separate beds. Some people are more or less strict. And every time I went to the pure water I used to say, "I'm doing this for you, not for me. I want you to thank me because I'm doing this for you, not for me. I know that you believe in this. For me, it's hard. It's hell every time I go." And I used to feel resentful to God and to him. I don't want to do this, but I'm taking my body to a place that I don't want to be. I went through earlier ovarian failure and I stopped having my menstrual cycle and I think it was God's gift to me, literally God's gift to me. And my husband said, "I'm sorry, that I didn't understand. I was so living in fear of what is right or wrong that I wish I was able to remove fear and see more of your pain."
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yeah, good for him.
Matana: But it took years and years and he still doesn't know what would be the right thing to do. But there's so much of "That's what God wants. That's what the Torah says. That's the Bible. What do you want me to do? You have to go. Want do you want me to do? I won't be able to touch you." Then you're in service versus in belonging.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: That's right, yeah. First of all, good for him for just being able to see it more, to see how much fear was driving him. But yes, when you're in that and you're like, "Wait, I don't want to betray God and my wife's having a hard time with it, but maybe that's just because she's weak. But I don't want to just capitulate to weakness." You can understand why somebody would get stuck. And I also see that a lot in the people I work with where they love their wife but they don't want to break the rules. But what really has happened, in a sense, is the marriage is between themselves and their view of God or the community's view of God, not the marriage between the man and the woman.
Matana: So how do we switch that around?
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: I think we need more cultural teaching and ideas about what really constitutes marriage. Is it just loyalty to the system? Are you actors to reproduce the system? Men, you do this, women you do that. Or are we striving for something more intimate, more about love, respect, and honesty? And so again, the more people just are living out the one model they know, it's much harder to challenge it because there is no other model. It just makes us bad if you don't like the mikvah ritual rather than, "Is this actually achieving what we want?" Maybe we would be more godly to actually love and be loved. Choose more deliberately how we relate to these cultural pieces, to these rituals. But you can't even do that if you don't have an alternative. And a lot of the work I'm doing in my community is helping people to see more clearly what they're choosing and what the implications of their choices are. Not because they need to do it my way, but because it allows them to be more agenetic, to actually be choosers in a more deliberate way and understand the consequences of their choosing, which is ultimately the most human thing about us, is that we must choose and we must live with the consequences of our choices. So the more we are aware of what we're doing, the better we will choose. And so it's helping people to see by giving them an alternative. That's why I'm very grateful that I grew up in Vermont and in a bi-cultural experience because it helped me see better even though it was sometimes stressful.
Matana: Yeah. So where can people take your courses? Find you? You also have retreats that you have. You were in Europe for a couple of weeks.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yeah, we did a couples retreat from northern Italy up to Paris.
Matana: Whoever comes out of your retreats, it feels like they were reborn, literally. The voices are like, "Wow, we got another chance in life because the life before was not fun. And now we're reborn. We're alive."
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yeah, it's true. It's an incredible experience because you put the kids and work demands aside and you go and you immerse yourself in the question of who you are as a couple. And of course, I'm there to give you a way of understanding what you've been doing and what's been getting you stuck and unhappy and what you could do differently. And so through that process of seeing yourself, seeing your partner, doing these sort of self-reflective exercises, getting my input, well then couples are able to see how they've been in this stuck place and what they might be able to do that's loving, more courageous, more honest, and what they can do to create actual friendship and intimacy. And so that can be very powerful, especially at the retreat because it's so immersive, and can be this kind of transition point. I've had people say we define our marriage in terms of pre-retreat and post-retreat.
People can find me on my website Finlayson-Fife.com. And on my website, there is my podcast which is just conversations like this. And I have another podcast called Room for Two, which is me doing couples coaching around intimacy issues, sexuality, and emotional struggles. And so they get to see a lot of my concepts applied in that sort of one on one work. And others find that very helpful because they're like, "Oh, that's like me. We do that." And so on.
And then I have my online courses. The Art of Desire, which is about women's sexuality and self-development, and The Art of Loving, which is about men's sexuality and men's self-development. And then two couples courses, which is Strengthening Your Relationship which is really helping people see what's going on in their relationship, how they're playing out different roles and different reactive patterns that keep them stuck. And then Enhancing Sexual Intimacy which is a couples sexuality course. My primary reference point is working with Latter-day Saints, but much like this conversation or other conversations you'll hear me in, I'm not promoting LDS theology, but I'm understanding people's framing, which has similarities across different orthodox or more structured religious communities because of that tension between belonging, between the rules, and what it is to thrive within those rules, or how to transcend some of that into a deeper, more internalized morality and be more capable of intimate connection.
Matana: Beautiful. Do you think people should take the course before they get married or do they have to go through life first to understand the beauty of the course?
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: If it were me, as a woman, I would take The Art of Desire course, or as a man, The Art of Loving course because I think that at least helps you better understand your own sexuality and some of the vulnerabilities. The couples courses would probably be better once you are married and you're seeing some of the stuck places or patterns. We also are going to develop a newlywed course for people especially those who have not been sexual prior to marriage. So it would address what to expect around sexuality but also what to expect around shifts in the emotional relationship so that they can normalize what's happening rather than we're fundamentally broken.
Matana: Yeah, and we have it a lot also in the orthodox community. That's why the sex therapist in the orthodox community has a waiting list.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yes, exactly. I'm sure.
Matana: Dr. Jennifer, thank you so much. This was lovely. I want to come to one of your retreats. It just sounds so fascinating and so inspiring and just so refreshing. Just refreshing. And I would love to experience it.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: Yeah, it would be lovely to have you.
Matana: Thank you very much.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: You're so welcome.
Matana: Check her podcast out. Just listen to her voice, it's just so calming. And forget about the whole idea of specific Mormon. It doesn't matter because we're all beings and we have the same sexuality and the same desires.
Jennifer Finlayson-Fife: It's like different languages. We're doing it in a different language but with the same fundamental questions.
Matana: So much wisdom in these conversations, especially in the new series with the couples, it's so powerful and I think a lot of the orthodox world can gain from it. So check it out. Links will be in the show notes. Thanks for joining us. Bye till next time.