Every normal person dreams of a trustworthy spouse who is appreciative and responsible and with whom one becomes increasingly closer as time goes on. A loving spouse, with whom one can share one’s joys and sorrows, is one of life’s greatest gifts. Love bestows a sense of self-worth, security and dignity upon the beloved. No normal person ever gives up the dream easily.
Yet many people never fulfill the dream. They are “married widows/ers,” constantly trying to figure out how to survive in an emotional freezer or in a virtual war zone, feeling scorned, terrified or ashamed of their spouse. Many blame themselves, thinking, “I must be a failure if I can’t get him/her to function, win his/her love, prevent his/her violent outbursts or stop his/her addictive behavior.” They bravely try to forgive, ignore and overlook, hoping things will improve, while trying to stave off the insidious effects of their spouse’s hostility, deceit, deviancy, irresponsibility and addictions or to simply survive, despite a feeling of disconnection and despair.
Abuse is rarely discussed in the frum world. It is considered impolite and lashon hara. Many deny that it even exists “in our circles.” The silence allows abuse to flourish. Those who complain are shamed and blamed or offered simplistic advice, such as, “Just be more respectful and submissive.” Such advice fails to address tragic realities such as incest, infidelity, dysfunction and violence. No normal person can respect someone who is deviant or destructive. Although a loveless marriage can be kept alive indefinitely on “artificial support,” bitterness and despair flourish in the hearts of those whose trust has been violated and whose love has been scorned.
Lack of love is as devastating as lack of food. Abuse destroys the foundation of healthy relationships, i.e., the ability to trust that one is lovable and capable of loving. Despite the pain, most frum people stay in loveless marriages, mainly out of fear - of poverty, not getting good shidduchim, social stigma, legal battles, loneliness and being left an aguna. Women, in particular, are quoted a famous gemara which states, “A truly righteous woman can change the most evil man,” implying that if she couldn’t change him, she’s bad. Divorced men are assumed to be either mentally disturbed or abusive. Victims wage an on-going inner battle, constantly questioning, “It’s courageous or cowardly to stay?” “Should I be the one to pull the plug? I’ll die if I stay but if I leave, I’ll be branded a failure and shunned as a threat. Will my children be hurt more by staying or leaving? Must I be the one to make the Bais Hamikdosh cry?”
THE PAINFUL REALITIES OF DIVORCE
Many think that the high divorce rate today is due to people being less mature and more selfish than generations ago. The real reason is that people are less willing to put up with mental illness, molestation, infidelity and abuse. However, like an amputation, divorce does not end the pain, especially if there are children, since issues and celebrations involving them constantly arise. In addition, abusers use the social services, the courts, the police and the children to harass former spouses. Divorce can mean facing numerous painful realities, among which are the following:
1. ANGRY CHILDREN: Mothers usually take the brunt of the children’s anger, as mothers are expected to “make it all better.” Her inability to do so is seen as her failure. She should have done better and tried harder. She should have known how to keep him calm and should have been able to stop the abuse and protect them from it. If the mother is abusive, children are enraged at the passive father, wondering, “Why can’t you protect me?” Children are angry if divorce means sudden poverty or moving to a new home and leaving friends and familiar surroundings. Boys are terribly ashamed if they have no father to go to shul with and may simply stay home. Bullied children may refuse to have any connection with either parent. Anger creates an illusion of power and control, which helps them cope with feelings of shame, vulnerability and insecurity.
2. CHILDREN WITH LOW SELF-WORTH: No matter how common divorce is, “normal” means a family with two parents living together. When parents fight, children feel scared and ashamed, but if the parents stay married, at least they can maintain the “lie of normality” in public. Divorce is a public declaration that the family is “abnormal.” No one divorces a normal spouse. Children also make up theories to explain why things went wrong. They want happy, loving parents and often blame themselves if they can’t fix the problem. They assume, “I am abused and neglected because I’m unlovable. It’s my failure that I can’t make my parents happy.” A child’s sense of worth is formed when parents are protective, responsive to his needs, goals and feelings. When unhappy parents are preoccupied with their pain, children feel unloved, unimportant and shut out.
3. SOCIALLY REJECTED CHILDREN: Neighbors may not let their children to play with C.O.Ds (Children of Divorce), who are considered bad influences. Schools may refuse to enroll C.O.Ds, for their high level of emotional distress can lead to lack of self-control, social and academic problems and that many of these children have learning disabilities.
4. DEPRESSED CHILDREN: Without love, children feel unworthy and insecure. They may be so emotionally overloaded that they shut off their feelings. Many withdraw from social contact as a result of all the gossip and speculation about them. Abused children and incest survivors (one in seven girls, one in six boys) are especially at risk.
5. UNTRUSTING CHILDREN: To love is to be vulnerable – to disappointment and rejection. When children see people walk out on a relationship so easily, many decide, “I won’t be vulnerable; I’ll never let myself love anyone.” Abuse and neglect teach children to mistrust people. This makes it difficult to establish long-term, stable emotional bonds. It’s just not worth the risk. They are quick to judge and reject or provoke rejection because they are certain that what they fear most - abandonment – is inevitable. Even if things are going well, they never feel safe. If parents divorce, children fear that they, too, will be “divorced.” If a parent has been unfaithful, children assume that their future spouse will do the same or that it is unavoidable for them to do so.
6. UNDISCIPLINED CHILDREN: For discipline to be effective, parents must back each other up and respond to misbehavior with consistent rules. If not, children play one parent against the other to see how much they can get away with. Parental authority is undermined if one tries to win the child’s love by being permissive and indulgent. After divorce, a parent is often afraid to set even normal limits – like asking the child to clean his room, do his homework or daaven - for fear that the other will cry, “Abuse!” Children may threaten, “I don’t have to listen to you! I’m going where I don’t have to follow any stupid rules,” and that place might be the street or the permissive parent. Irresponsible parents teach them to get violent or run away from responsibilities.
7. ABUSIVE CHILDREN: When children are hit, slapped, kicked and insulted, this behavior seems normal and unavoidable. Hurting others makes them feel powerful. To be heartless is to be strong. Isn’t life easier if one has no heart that can be broken? They practice by bullying young siblings or the weaker parent or abuse themselves with addictions.
8. CHILDREN WHO LIE AND DENY: Denial is the most powerful defense against unbearable anxiety. To feel secure, children need to see parents as good and normal; thus, they deny that abuse exists or that it is wrong, telling themselves, “It’s not so bad. They love me underneath it all. This is how normal people act.” This is how abuse comes to seem acceptable. Children may be told, “If you tell anyone, daddy will go to jail and we won’t have food to eat.” Abusers tell children, “If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you.” Abusers urge children to lie to authorities and say that they are being molested or abused by the other parent. To avoid being punished, children lie about poor grades, how they spend their time or where they got their money. When hit, they say, “It didn’t hurt.” They also lie to outsiders, saying, “These bruises came from falling down.” Or, “I’m thin because I have no appetite.” After divorce, they tell the mother that they’re at the father’s and vice versa. Meanwhile, they may be hanging out on the streets, using drugs or finding comfort in other losers and outcasts, because this is how they now feel about themselves.
9. LOSS OF PHYSICAL CONTACT: Parents form a neuro-chemical bond with children from being in daily contact with them. This bond is severed after divorce, which is why so many children become physically and emotionally withdrawn. Like an amputation, the pain goes on.
10. LOSS OF EMOTIONAL CONTACT WITH CHILDREN: B.D. (before divorce) a loving parent is intimately involved with every aspect of the child’s life. The “cement” in relationships is the 60-second interchanges which takes place throughout the day: “How did you do on the test?” “Is your headache better?” “How is the new teacher?” “Did you eat?” A.D. (after divorce), parents lose this precious bonding time. Being able to hold a secret makes children feel powerful at a time when they are feeling so powerless. They hide their pain, feeling that parents are too weak and confused to help and to avoid adding to the pain their parents are already trying so hard to cope with. Parents are often afraid to ask questions for fear of being accused of prying. Children may be secretive to avoid feeling disloyal or to protect their independence. Parents may avoid PTA conferences, graduation ceremonies or other events for fear of seeing the ex-spouse, leaving children feeling unloved and abandoned. Seeing children going through all this trauma is like watching helplessly from shore as the child drowns over and over again, each and every day.
11. POVERTY: Over 70% of women are impoverished after divorce. Many are forced to move to dingy, cramped apartments without health care or food. Fathers may declare bankruptcy or move away to avoid paying child support. Poverty devastates the morale, leaving women, in particular, at risk for depression. She may have to beg her ex for rent each month. Children go to whoever provides “funds and fun.” Single mothers are often exploited by employers who make them work long hours for low pay. Unsupervised children are at great risk. Men may also be impoverished by vengeful ex-wives who take their entire pay check, if not more, for alimony.
12. SOCIAL OSTRACISM: The world is made for couples and intact families. Widowe/ers are treated with compassion, while divorcees are snubbed as if they carry a contagious disease. It is assumed that widows/ers were loved, while divorcees must be enraged and mentally disturbed. Married people often distance themselves (or forbid the other to have friendships with divorcees) for fear that their own marriage will be threatened. Divorcees are often rejected outright when they apply for teaching jobs, as they are obviously poor role models for vulnerable children.
13. P.A.S.: Parental Alienation Syndrome occurs when a parent portrays the other as evil, uncaring and dangerous. Children are told, “Your mother/father doesn’t love you. S/he hugged you; that’s called molesting.” P.A.S. causes irreparable damage to the child’s ability to ever form healthy, trusting relationships. A loving parent avoids speaking badly about an ex spouse, knowing how damaging this is to the child’s psyche, but an abuser will demonize the caring parent until the children will eventually refuse to have anything to do with that parent. It is terrible to lose a child, but to lose a living child is devastating. And the pain grows as time goes on.
14. INCREASED CONTACT WITH THE ABUSER: Ironically, divorce may mean more contact with the abuser than before, as children’s schedules keep changing and there are always new issues, like who will pay for braces, camp or other “extras” and why, if one promised to pay, the payment was not sent. Each contact reawakens the trauma all over again. (Hint: try to get a 3rd party to handle these contacts if possible!)
15. PHYSICAL CONFUSION: Divorce shatters children’s sense of physical security. If custody is shared, children face the confusion of having to live in two separate homes, with two sets of everything - clothing, toys and books. If they only have one of an item (e.g., tefillin for boys) it’s often at the “wrong” house. They may not remember which home to go to after school or who is supposed to pick them up. There is little stability, reliability or predictability.
16. MORAL CONFUSION: People often divorce to save children from thinking that violence, gambling and other addictions are normal. But after divorce, there is even less control. TV may be allowed in one home, not the other. Shabbos may be kept in one home, not the other.
17. STOCKHOLM SYNDROME: Just as hostages often come to love their kidnappers - known as the Stockholm Syndrome – abused children gain a sense of safety by viewing the abuser as good and believing that they have the power to please and appease him/her. Abusers fascinate, for their heartlessness is confused with strength. To children, might does make right! Wanting to be on the side with the power, they bond more deeply with the abuser, rejecting the “weaker” parent. Thus, they learn to defend, tolerate and rationalize abuse, setting them up for future abusive relationships.
18. RECONCILIATION FANTASIES: The desire to create the dream of the “happy family” leads many children to pressure parents to reunite after divorce or to sabotage relationships which a parent tries to establish with a new spouse. Their loyalty to the biological parent is often expressed in extreme hatred toward the new step-mother/father, no matter how nice that person tries to be.
19. INVASION OF PRIVACY: Divorce means that the most intimate details of one’s life are exposed to family members, judges, social workers and strangers, who are quick to judge, “It’s all because you are _____ too smart/not smart enough, too pretty/not pretty enough, too assertive/too submissive, etc.” Victims remain silent about addictions and infidelities for fear of jeopardizing future shidduchim. Social workers can make unannounced visits at any time of the day or night and judge a parent as unfit for not having enough toys or food or for things being messy. This puts the targeted parent in a state of constant fear, and then the parent is condemned for being anxious.
20. SHIDDUCH SORROWS: Few want to marry a C.O.D. (child of divorce.), including C.O.D.s themselves, because they want a spouse with a mental blueprint for what a safe, consistently loving relationship looks like. Children who have experienced divorce are more likely to divorce, since it seems acceptable and normal.
21. LOYALTY BATTLES: In the humiliating “popularity contests” which follows a divorce, the saner parent is often the loser. As holidays approach, there are battles over who will go where, with the rejected one sitting alone in an empty house. Even if the court order states where the children should be, agreements are often broken by abusers, who scoff at legalities. A wealthy parent can “buy” a child’s love with money or “freedom” from all discipline, allowing children to do things the other parent forbids. Children are sure of the loving parent’s love; it’s the love of the unloving parent that they crave. Children are thrilled if a parent, who was nasty or indifferent to them B.D. expresses interest in them A.D. Desperate for the attention they never got before, they often align themselves with the abuser, especially if he’s the one with the money. Even if a loving parent gets legal custody, they can lose “emotional custody. And it’s the heart that counts.
22. ON-GOING ABUSE: Divorce does not end the abuse, as abusers are energized by conflict and on-going court battles. They may stalk, harass with hundreds of phone calls, go to the police each month with false charges or re-open court files with demands for changes in support or visitation rights, making it impossible for the victim to keep a job. Abusive wives fabricate claims that they and the children were physically or sexually abused, causing men to suffer the humiliation of having police come to their home or workplace and haul them off in handcuffs. If a child falls and is bruised, abusers claim that the spouse inflicted the wound on purpose. Abusers keep trying to prove that the victim is crazy. Who can avoid feeling crazy in such circumstances?
23. CHILDREN TRAINED TO SPY: Children are turned into spies by P.A.S. parent who asks for details about the ex’s phone calls, work, relationships, eating and sleep habits, etc. Children may be encouraged to “snitch” to social workers and say that they are abused. The torment experienced by the spied-upon parent is unbearable and can result in severing of relationships with the “child spy.” And that child has now been taught to enjoy being an abuser.
24. ANGRY FAMILY MEMBERS: Parents or siblings may be furious at the divorcee for “ruining” the family name and their chance of getting a good shidduch. Relatives who were previously close, including grandparents, may stop calling or visiting. They may be told, “I’d rather you be dead than divorced and bring shame on the family.”
25. SIMCHAS WITHOUT SIMCHA: Having to deal with an ex-spouse at a simcha turns these events into a time of emotional discomfort, at best and nightmares, at worse. In some circles, a divorcee cannot walk the children to the chuppa. Simchas can be sabotaged at the last minute by an ex-spouse who suddenly decides to show up or not show up at the last minute. Divorces may be snubbed at simchas - or not invited at all or interrogated by relatives who want all the gory details.
26. LONELINESS: We live in a family-oriented world. Divorce means being alone and losing the dream of a warm, happy family. This is especially painful on Shabbos and holidays. Abuse victims rarely remarry, for abuse destroys self-worth and the ability to trust, especially if they were P.A.S. victims. Chances of remarriage are especially dismal if she has young children. Step-parents rarely bond to step-children, as there is too much mutual mistrust. Divorcees feel cut off from “normal” social interactions because they are seen as a threat and because they, themselves, find it difficult to be a lonely single in a married world. They may prefer to stay home than go out and be the subject of gossip, judgments, speculation, pity or un-wanted advice.
27. BEING AN AGUNA: Abusive men often blackmail their wives by refusing to give a get. Men can remarry with a heter from 100 rabbis, but the wife can be tied to him forever. Men often extort huge sums for a divorce and demand that she give up all rights, in effect holding their wives ransom. If a man is considered mentally disturbed, his get may have no validity.
28. INCREASED DANGER: Battered women are in danger of being murdered if they complain to police or seek divorce. If, after deciding to divorce, the couple must live together until the divorce is final, the tension is unbearable. Abusers doesn’t stop being abusive just because of a court order. A man who wants control over his wife is enraged at any act of independence, seeing it as a betrayal for which she must be punished.
29. VISITATION TRAUMAS: The custodial parent may move far away or find excuses to deny access, like saying the child is sick or simply doesn’t want a relationship. Abusers may threaten the child with punishment if he speaks to or visits the targeted parent. A recent court decision required a nursing mother to send her baby by plane for visitations! Children suffer “re-entry” trauma each time they return from a visitation. By the time they get used to one home, with one set of rules, it’s time to go back to the other home, with a different set. After being with a hostile parent, the child brings those hostile “vibes” back with him, creating emotional havoc for all. Irresponsible parents will arrive late, not show up at all or bring the children back late at night, leaving the responsible parent distraught, unable to go to work the next morning or send the child to school. Even with court agreements, one never knows for sure where the children will spend birthdays and holidays as plans can change at the last minute. A parent may buy a plane ticket or prepare all the meals for a holiday, only to be left sitting alone waiting for a child who never shows up. The trauma of divorce is replayed over and over and over again.
30. FEAR OF KIDNAPPING: This is a very real possibility in PAS cases.
31. DEALING WITH UNSCRUPULOUS LAYERS AND JUDGES: Abusers enjoy the constant court battles because they know that this will destroy the victim, physically, financially and emotionally. Judges are often bribed into siding with the abuser, as evidenced by numerous corruption scandals. Abusers are experts at manipulating people and have no compunctions about lying, extorting, blackmailing and bribing. They forge signatures, steal papers, break contracts and simply refuse to carry out court orders.
32. LOSING CHILDREN IN CUSTODY BATTLES: Abusers effectively sway judges and psychologists into believing that the spouse is crazy, abusive or neglectful. Children are often forced to have visitations with a parent who has molested or abused him, because social workers insist that “children need two parents, no matter what.” Honest people are always at a disadvantage, as they won’t lie. The loving parent is the one who feels the emotional trauma, while the abuser just cares about winning – and also enjoys being at the center of attention in court. The fact that the victim is so distraught is seen by social workers as proof that this parent truly is inept and insane, in comparison to sociopaths, who can maintain a calm demeanor under threat. By the time abuse victims seek divorce, they are often broken in body and spirit, robbed of all self-respect, often taking medication for anxiety or depression or suffering from a major illness. The need to stifle all feelings has taken its toll. If a man has a new romance, he may give a divorce readily - or be given custody, since his new marriage makes him look like the stable one. The constant court battles break those who are honest and caring.
WHEN DIVORCE IS NECESSARY:
With all these horrors, why do people still divorce? The main reasons are:
1. TO SAVE ONE’S MENTAL HEALTH: The sane partner has spent years trying to ignore, forgive and overlook. This requires suppressing the rage which is the normal responses to abuse, neglect and rejection. The result of this emotional suppression is depression and emotional numbness. Suddenly, the victim faces a horrifying reality: “By suppressing my negative feelings, I’ve suppressed the positive ones as well. I no longer love anything or anyone, including my own children.” The broken heart has sustained so much damage that the person cannot connect emotionally with others. Many decide that being alone is better than dying in a loveless relationships.
2. TO SAVE THE CHILDREN: Children inevitably imitate insane and abusive behavior if a parent role-models this behavior. It seem somehow normal and acceptable in their eyes to hit, molest, ignore, insult, scream, lie, throw things and cut people off as if they never existed. If the children are young when the divorce takes place, they may be able to heal and learn how to relate in a healthy way – as long as they see a mother who is happy. According to research, a happy mother is the key to children’s emotional health after divorce.
3. TO SAVE ONE’S HEALTH: The stress of living in a loveless marriage is unimaginable. The longer one stays in the “war zone,” the greater the damage. A major source of stress is the inability to communicate one’s feelings. The victim learns to be silent in order to avoid being stone-walled, mocked or abused. The need to “walk on eggshells” cause tremendous damage, as one lives in a state of fear, frustration, invalidation and despair.
4. TO LIVE WITH INTEGRITY: In public, victims must pretend that “We’re a happy family and everything is wonderful.” They must act respectful or loving when they don’t feel it. Being forced to have a loveless intimate relationship is devastating. Eventually, the facade gets thinner and one can no longer live the lie.
5. TO FIND LOVE: Many hope to find a truly loving relationship with a new partner.
THE MOST DIFFICULT TYPES TO LIVE WITH:
THE DICTATOR: They crush you – physically, emotionally and financially. They cannot bear your independence. You think you’ll satisfy them by being meek and subservient, but it will never be enough. Their compulsion to make you feel inadequate and invisible makes it impossible to ever please. Physical abuse may occur if you do not carry out their demands.
THE OVER-CONTROLLER: They want to know every detail of your life, call you 20 times a day, criticize every little thing you do and hound, interrogate, stalk and nag, relentlessly pressuring you to change your opinions or way of life, prove your loyalty and agree with them.
THE BORDERLINE: This person can be extremely charming and affectionate, then suddenly go into a state of fury, making jealous accusations or carrying on tirades for hours. Their wild furies can be summed up by the phrase, “I hate you; don’t leave me.”
THE AUTIST: This person is self-absorbed, detached and indifferent. People are a bother. They have little need for interaction, show no interest in you or the children, never ask questions or share thoughts or feelings. They usually remain distant after the divorce.
THE DEVIANT: Sexual deviants often marry in order to use their spouse as a “cover” so that they can appear normal while they carry on their illicit relationships. They marry naïve, innocent girls who cannot fathom what is going on and think they can and must “cure” the spouse and that all the problems are certainly their own fault. Many are addicted to pornography, which makes them devalue every human being they come in contact with, including their spouse and children.
THE IRRESPONSIBLE, DYSFUNCTIONAL ADULT: This person may be unwilling to work, depressed or addicted to gambling, drugs, alcohol, or other addictions. They are irresponsible and unreliable, and may not get up to daaven, refuse to bathe and don’t care if they destroy themselves and everyone around them - physically, financially and emotionally.