You Glow, Girl!
Coach Kayla Levin’s Take on a Happy Marriage
Everyone wants to be happy. A happy marriage is very much in line with that mindset, and that’s why Kayla Levin’s work is so important. Kayla Levin is a marriage coach who has coached hundreds of married Jewish women and the host of the popular marriage podcast, How to Glow. Kayla approaches some sticky marriage topics by explaining the psychology behind it. Men and women are different, and Kayla believes that understanding those differences is an important key in building and maintaining a happy marriage. Want to know more? Read on for a recap of my conversation with Kayla to learn some of her secrets to a happy marriage.
RR: There’s so much focus on happiness today, certainly more than in previous generations. Our survivor grandparents were focused on rebuilding what was lost, and our parents were focused on creating healthy families and continuing their parents’ work. Ours is the first generation that can focus our own happiness, our relationships, and what makes us tick. That’s why what you do is so relevant. But let’s back up a little! Can you tell us a little about your background? How did you get started as a marriage coach?
KL: My mother is a counsellor, so we had a lot of mental health talk in the house when I was growing up. When I was newly married, I was figuring things out professionally and personally. I’m a baalas teshuvah. I had a career in theater and film, but by the time I got married, it was clear that that was not where I was going to be going with my life. Interestingly, mental health is where a lot of actors end up. One of the reasons we like acting is because we’re interested in the human mind, and so it translates well into psychology.
While I was transitioning into the frum world and trying to figure out my career path, I was also a newlywed. My husband and I became religious together, and we were navigating all of that together. To add to it, my parents were divorced. I spent shana rishonah on pins and needles. I was so anxious and all over the place.
I had originally planned to go for my MSW, but after expecting my first child, moving to a new city, and a lot of conversation with my mother, I ended up deciding that working in the consulting space was a better fit for me. I got certified as a life coach, helping people who reached out to me with whatever they needed. At the same time, I dove into figuring out how to make marriage work. I got this idea that maybe a good marriage is not determined by luck – maybe it could be a skill set! I went to every shalom bayis shiur, read every book, and joined every online class I could find. I wasn’t planning on sharing that information, but when people came to me for other coaching and brought up their relationships, I’d share the things I’d learned. It was life changing for them, and I came out of those sessions feeling like I’d done something meaningful. It’s nice to help someone with their job, but when you help them work out a relationship it feels a lot more exciting!
I put together a course for a small group of women like me, who were newly married, came from divorced homes, and were feeling anxious. I taught them the tools I had from coaching, self-awareness and self-regulation, the things that helped me most. There were a couple of women who were convinced that they were going to end up divorced. They told me that this was their last-ditch effort and that I shouldn’t be upset when they got divorced. They took the course, and it completely turned their relationships around.
At that point, my husband and I realized this was it. I was quitting my job and focusing on marriage coaching.
RR: How long ago was this?
KL: Probably about four years ago. I started coaching almost 10 years ago, and we launched the podcast about three years ago. It actually started under name First Year Married. In the beginning, most of my audience wasn’t Jewish. At some point, someone commented on my YouTube video: “I can tell that’s a shell! I can tell that’s a sheitel!” That’s funny, but at a certain point I realized I couldn’t straddle both worlds at once, so I made an announcement on the podcast that we were switching over to a frum audience.
RR: What does How to Glow mean?
KL: There’s this little missing piece that I’m passionate about bringing to the marriage space. We spend a lot of time waiting for the world to make us happy. We say, “I’ll be happy when I do this” or “I’ll be happy when I have that.” I think it’s our avodah as Jewish women to learn to make ourselves happy and to show up in that way for our relationships.
RR: So, when you say to “glow” you mean to glow from inner happiness.
KL: Yes. What motivates a husband is that he can make his wife happy, but instead we get into these ruts where we’re not available to be made happy. So many couples have this situation where he’s motivated by her happiness, and she struggles to be in that place. We women tend to be too serious, too bogged down, and we feel like we don’t have the room to be happy. When we work on a marriage, we can talk to the husband and work on his communication, but that doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t willing to be happy.
RR: When you talk about “glowing” you seem to be directing that at women.
KL: During the time we were designing the First Year Married course, my husband and I went on a road trip – that’s when we have our best discussions – and my husband said, “I figured it out! The husband’s job is to make his wife glow.” I had this awkward moment because he was so inspired by this idea, and I was thinking I should make him glow too, but it didn’t excite me. It didn’t light me up the way it lit him up. I was siting there thinking what kind of wife am I? But then he said, “I don’t think that’s your job. Your job is to glow.”
I don’t coach men, but what I see from the texts and the work I do is that the job of the man is to replace the me first attitude. When’s the last time you heard a man say, “Gosh, I’ve needed to go to the bathroom all day”? Never! But you hear women all the time saying things like, “I haven’t even eaten since yesterday.” Men are inherently providers, and in order to do that they are wired to put themselves first. That’s not a bad thing. But their avodah is to go beyond that and make sure to focus on their wives. Our job to be receptive to that.
RR: Do you ever get pushback? Especially in the beginning, when you were sort of incognito as a frum Jew, I can’t imagine that these sorts of ideas were accepted as absolutes by your listeners.
KL: I had one comment – and you can still see it on my Apple podcast reviews – along the lines that obviously, my husband was sitting on the couch while I was doing the laundry and watching all the children. She felt that I was reinforcing that. But I think by virtue of the fact that I speak about “husband” and “wife” as opposed to “partner” that will eliminate many of the people who have an issue with my work.
RR: One of the things you’ve said on your podcast is that men look for respect and women look for love. Is that a basic idea you need to accept as reality for marriage to work?
KL: Yes and no. I say that your husband is your best resource. I’ll give you ideas like men need respect, but a woman’s idea of respect might be different from her husband’s. So go ask your husband what respect looks like, because at the end of the day we want to refer back to him. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. We don’t need to know how to be married to all men, we need to know how be married to one. Not every single piece of information will resonate with every single couple
RR: So, there are no absolutes. When a couple walks in, you can’t say men are like this so you, wife, need to do this, and your husband needs to do that.
KL: Exactly. I like them to try the idea on. Sometimes, they’ll say, “That’s backward! My husband’s emotional and all over the place, and I’m super focused!” I’ll say, “Ok. Let’s explore this, and you’re welcome to discard this piece of information at the end.” Often, they’ll realize that it’s true for them in some way.
RR: The basic psychological principles are relevant, even though it looks different for everyone.
RR: What do you say to people who have a hard time accepting the idea that men and women are so inherently different?
KL: If the whole concept that men and women are different is too hard to swallow, I’d want to explore that as a coach: What are you holding onto? Why is it safer to think we’re the same?
I came into this from a secular academic background, and it was really amazing to learn about the differences between men and women. When I grew up, we weren’t so liberal that we wouldn’t speak about differences, but I didn’t know that men’s and women’s brains were literally different. When that information first came out, it was used against women – to prevent us from voting, for example – so that’s why people felt that maybe it was a better idea to focus on other research about the brain. But I love digging into the academic material of what makes us the way we are.
I find these paradigms to be so helpful for me because on one hand you can say my husband is an individual, and women need respect too. That is true. So much of marriage is good middos, and that goes both ways. Having these paradigms can help avoid issues but it’s much more than that for me. Starting to see how fundamentally differently my husband operated from me helped me be able to celebrate him, to be excited about being married to a man.
We hear all the time that men can’t make dinner and hold the baby, but his wife can do that plus three other things. There’s a reason why a woman’s brain is picking up on a million things at once and a man can’t do that. If you’re able to say well, that’s how Hashem designed us, it doesn’t make him a neanderthal. It allows us to say, maybe I can learn from him to focus on one thing at once when I have to. It’s similar to when people learn about introverts and extroverts. It’s not personal. He needs alone time.
RR: It adds another layer of danger to the movement in the outside world to blur the differences between men and women and remove traditional gender roles. Maybe the divorce rate out there gives us a little clue about how that might affect things.
KL: You’re hitting on something really big. Even though there are some valid concerns – women don’t get paid as much, for example – when it comes to relationships, I tend to hear from women that the female paradigm is the right one. If you can’t communicate like a woman, you’re not good at communicating. If you can’t multitask, you’re not as good as a woman. It’s not a neutral standard; it’s a female standard. If you’re coming from that place, your husband loses all the time. He’s not good at becoming a woman.
RR: Stereotypically, the husband goes out to work and the wife stays home, although that model has shifted significantly over the last few decades. What happens when those roles are completely reversed? Can a marriage be successful when, for example, the husband takes on the role of stay-at-home parent and housekeeper while the wife pursues a high-powered career?
KL: I think an arrangement like that could definitely work. If they master the basic ideas behind a successful marriage, it could potentially work no matter what they’re doing, whether she’s staying home or working an attorney, whether he’s washing dishes or going to the office.
A lot can come out in terms of troubleshooting. Sometimes, we delegate but we don’t know how to hand over the reins. If a husband is a stay-at home-dad, is he in charge or a mother’s helper? Author Allison Armstrong says that the person who’s in charge is the one who has veto power. If he’s in charge of bedtime, he’s allowed to say there’s no bedtime tonight, were staying up, eating popcorn, and looking at the stars. That’s where the stay-at-home dad thing is tricky.
A woman has to be honest with herself about her image of a spouse. If her idea of masculinity is rooted too deeply in him providing for the family, this would make her see him as ineffectual.
RR: These are real mind shifts. In your episode on housework, you said that if we decide that garbage must be taken out a certain time of day, that’s what we expect him to do, but really if he’s in charge then he can decide what works. What are some other mind shifts that can help a marriage?
KL: I want to add to that example that you can still ask him for help but be okay with him helping you on his terms. We can use this as paradigm shift, because a lot of women start to calculate: If I get excited about him taking out the garbage – no one wants to get excited about him taking out the garbage, that’s normal human behavior – it’s almost as if we expect him to come cash that in at some point. We’ll have to do something for him that’s equally exciting.
RR: When you make a big deal about something like that it also makes it special, like it’s a treat you don’t have to do. If you don’t react it’s a regular evening activity.
KL: Right. So, we say maybe I’ll never get something more special than the garbage if I make it a big deal.
I love these little things because we think we only need to deal w the big issues, but that’s not what marriage is. There are these little triggers throughout the day, and when we clean those up, we say I love being married, this is great! So, what’s the shift there? You want to give him opportunities to win. You’re looking to give him what my husband calls “points.” Your husband is not looking for anything in exchange. You being happy is the end goal. That’s it. That’s what he wants. So why not be excited if he takes out the garbage every day? What happens is we think we’ll end up getting less help. It comes down to female programming.
We females may be motivated by criticism, but it when we turn that female brain on him and criticize him it works, yes, but is it not a great way to motivate anyone. What will motivate him to take out the garbage is when you’re excited. That gives him a rush of energy because he feels like he scored. Imagine a football player who caught a touchdown. He’s so excited, he doesn’t know what to do with himself, he throws the football in the grass. He just got a testosterone surge. That’s what we want to be producing. It ends up helping us, but hopefully we’re not always focused on how this comes back to us. We want to be showing up for him because he’s our partner.
RR: Look at all the psychology that’s involved in asking our husbands to take out the garbage!
KL: One of the pieces that I try to get across is that this isn’t puppy training. I’m not trying to figure out how to motivate him to turn into the husband I’m looking for. We want to get our needs met, but we need to remember that that’s a piece of a puzzle. The bigger puzzle is how do I want to show up as a wife? Who do I want to as an eved Hahem? It’s a much bigger picture than just me, me, me.
RR: What if one spouse is just sitting on couch not interested in any of this? Can it work when one spouse is really motivated to change things and the other spouse Is complacent?
KL: A lot of the women I work with are not going to marriage counseling for that reason, because their husbands are just not interested or not available for that. I’ve worked with women whose husbands have mental health issues like severe depression. I think that’s where coaching shines, because that’s where we’re really focused on what’s in our realm of influence. We work on how to get from proactive to reactive, feeling like I’m choosing my life instead of being a victim.
When one person makes a change, it affects the entire dynamic. Think of a child’s mobile. If you removed just one piece, the whole mobile would tilt. It’s the same thing in a marriage. If one person shifts, it changes the dynamic because they’re relating to each other differently.
RR: Can we talk about dating? What do you tell daters to look for in a potential spouse?
KL: Find one thing that you respect about the person you’re dating, one area where he shines, and you can’t even come close. So, when you’re married and find yourself coming close to contempt, which is a very concerning emotion in a marriage, you can always have this one place to hang your hat. One thing that you can still find and say, “I like this about him.”
RR: What can parents do to prepare their children for marriage? I know you’re going to say have a good marriage!
KL: (Laughs.) I’ll elaborate on that one piece. I released a podcast episode called “Marriage Isn’t Hard.” I chose that title because it isn’t motivating to think that marriage is hard. We know that hard isn’t the same as bad, but it’s not motivating to think well, marriage is hard, and I’ll be working on this hard thing for the rest of my life. What I try to bring to my work is that marriage can be fun and illuminating and insightful. Instead of thinking of it as work, think of it as an investment. What we want to teach our children is that marriage is enjoyable, that there’s something to be gained here.
The other piece is battling the tide of what’s going on in the world. Let them understand that men and women operate differently. I think that laying those seeds can be really helpful because later it will allow them to embrace and work with those differences and find the tools to make things work.
RR: But you want to cushion that second thought in the idea that marriage can be fun.
KL: I like to tell women to think of your husband as a gem. What’s layered on top of that gem is all the miscommunication and confusion and misunderstanding that we have between the two of us. The goal here is to allow women to see their husband as that gem.
Sidebar: Kayla’s Top 3 Pointers
I work with frum married women, so although these are directed at women, they are relevant to men as well. I’m skipping over respect here because we addressed that during the rest of our conversation. There are so many precepts to a good marriage, but these basic ones will get you headed in a good direction. Remember: marriage is not work, it’s an investment!
This is an important one. Women always say, “Why should I go first?” The answer is because you want to. We get so stuck in the self-righteousness. When we start with that thought of why should I be the first one, it leads us to start judging our spouse, which makes us show up as a worse spouse, and no one’s making any progress. Out down that thought, because it’s not getting you where you want to go.
Your husband is the expert on himself and what makes him tick. Ask him questions, but not loaded ones. Don’t say, “Why didn’t you do what I asked you to do last week?” Instead say, “I thought this was going to happen, and it didn’t. I know you have a good reason for what you do, so can you help me understand that reason?” Women tend to talk over each other and interrupt to show we’re listening. That’s not how men communicate. To them, interruption means to stop talking. A great to get a lot of information out of your husband is to not talk while he’s talking. Allison Armstrong says to imagine duct tape on your mouth for 30 seconds. Really listen and hear what he’s saying.
This one’s a challenge for a lot of women, and I want to validate that challenge, but I also want to say that we need it. We deserve to enjoy our lives. I think it requires some mastermind level thinking because in some situations it feels impossible to love our lives, but why not? I was sitting at a Shabbos meal recently and just watching the negativity. Everyone was deflating on each other. All it took was one joke, one silly comment, until we were able to expand back into who we wanted to be. If I lighten up, my husband sees that he’s making his wife happy, I end up getting more support, and it creates a very happy ecosystem.