Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses circumstances where there is suspicion of bias in testimony from a woman that her husband is deceased. One such situation is, “when there is a marital discord.” The Gemara seeks to define the term more precisely:
קְטָטָה בֵּינוֹ לְבֵינָהּ וְכוּ׳. הֵיכִי דָּמֵי קְטָטָה בֵּינוֹ לְבֵינָהּ, אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל: בְּאוֹמֶרֶת לְבַעְלָהּ ״גָּרְשֵׁינִי״. כּוּלְּהוּ נָמֵי אָמְרוּ הָכִי! אֶלָּא בְּאוֹמֶרֶת לְבַעְלָהּ ״גֵּירַשְׁתַּנִי״.
The mishna taught: If there was a quarrel between him and her, her testimony that her husband died is not accepted. The Gemara asks: What are the circumstances of a quarrel between him and her? Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: This is a case where people heard her say to her husband: Divorce me. The Gemara asks: Is this proof? All women likewise say this when they are angry; this does not prove that there was an unresolved quarrel left between them. Rather, a quarrel is when she says to her husband: You divorced me, i.e., she claims that she was actually divorced.
At first the Gemara wants to define marital discord as statements such as, “divorce me!”, however the Gemara concludes that “all women say that!” In other words, in the heat of an argument, a person will say things that are not really meant.
In an article I wrote years ago in Hebrew and English, called the Thirteen Cognitive Distortions that Undermine Marriage, Cognitive Distortion Number Four was about this pattern. We tend to give negative and hurtful comments more weight than positive ones:
Distorted Belief # 4: When my spouse insults me during a heated argument, he or she shows their true colors and this must be how my spouse really feels about it me.
What is maladaptive about this belief: When people are angry, indeed they are less inhibited and can say hurtful things. There must be a degree of truth to what is being said, otherwise it would not be said. However, when people are angry they also want to hurt the other person, which means that not all of it has to be true.
In addition, positive and loving statements said at other times may be no less true. There is a basic biological process that is hardwired in our brains to attach more weight, validity and significance to negative statements than to positive statements. This is because the organism stands more to lose by ignoring a potential threat than by ignoring a potential benefit. Think about it, if one suspects they are about to be attacked by a murderer, even if it is just a suspicion, there is potentially a high penalty to be paid by ignoring the threat. If, on the other hand, you suspect that someone is about to give you a million dollars, if you ignore it, there is no damage other than a lost opportunity. Therefore, the instinctive part of our minds are automatically hardwired to give more credence to negativity and this is why bad news travels so much faster than good news. This is also why we tend to believe insults more than we believe compliments. The bottom line is that this is the mental equivalent of an optical illusion. It feels true, but it simply is not so.
Furthermore, when we are under an sense of elevated threat, such as during a quarrel, our rational functions tend to diminish and instinctive functions go into overdrive. Functional MRI’s show that the blood flow of person in perceived danger goes away from the cerebral cortex which is in charge of empathy, impulse control and long-term planning. Instead, the neurological energy focuses on the amygdala, which is the instinctive part of the brain. By the way, the actual structure of a human amygdala is not much different than a lizard’s amygdala. Truly, as it states in Koheles (3:19), “There is no a difference between Man and Beast, and all is nought.”
Correct Belief: In reality, my spouse, like myself, finds parts of me attractive and parts of me repulsive. We are no different, more or less, than any other couple. While what was said in the heat of the moment was hurtful and indeed may have some truth to it, it is not the only truth. It might be helpful to say, once things are a bit calmer, “You must have been very angry to say such a thing. I can understand that there is some exaggeration there. What part of it did you mean to say, and what do you regret?”
That is not to say that this observation about human nature is a free pass. One of Rabbi Avigdor Miller ZT’L’s Ten Commandments of Marriage was, “Never Say Divorce.” Or, as I like to say, there is no prohibition in the Torah against divorce, however there are numerous prohibitions against hurtful speech. So long as you are married, you must try to speak with compassion and respect. If you cannot stay married, maybe then you should not, but it still is no excuse to attack the other person.
Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, (except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation .)