By Esther Mann, LCSW
My husband and I have been married for 18 years. We basically get along very well, and after reading most of your columns, I feel we have one of the better marriages! But there is a problem, and I see it getting progressively worse as time goes on. I fear that, down the road, it can really get out of control and I’m trying to figure out if there is a way to nip it in the bud before we get beyond the point of salvation!
My husband and I both grew up in the neighborhood and we come from similar backgrounds. I would say that when we met, we both considered ourselves and our families to be Modern Orthodox. We both attended co-ed schools. We spent our summers in similar types of camps. And we went to similar yeshivas in Israel for a year. So when we started dating, we had much in common, certainly in terms of the religious lifestyles we were accustomed to.
Around six years ago, my husband, “Benny,” started attending a new shul in the neighborhood. He had tried a number of different ones since we got married, but each one seemed to be a problem for him. Apparently, he was searching for something. Anyway, when he started going to this latest one, it seems he finally found what he had been searching for all these years. He fell in love with the rabbi of the shul immediately, and over the past six years the two of them have become close and, I would even go so far as to say, good friends.
I was so happy for him. I always felt it was important for a man to feel at home in the shul that he spent so much time in and to feel as though he belonged. Because I watched Benny struggle with finding this comfortable place for so long, I was beyond thrilled that his search was over. I was supportive of his close relationship with the rabbi.
The problem is that Ben has been slowly yet steadily changing. Clearly his rabbi has been having a big impact on his religious beliefs, and he has been moving consistently toward the right. At first it was little things that Ben began to ask me to do differently or be more careful with. I had no problem becoming more careful with my observance. When he asked me to stop wearing pants, I wasn’t thrilled at first, but decided it wasn’t such a bad thing, and I acquiesced. Next came a sheitel, which I must admit was a hardship for me. I didn’t grow up seeing my mother wear one, and none of my siblings wear sheitels either. It was a hard thing to take on and I still feel it’s a major concession to Ben, but I went along.
Next, Ben started reevaluating the yeshivas that our children go to and decided that he wanted to take them out from the schools similar to the ones we went to as children, and put them into schools that were much more to the right. At this point, I was starting to have a hard time going along. Our friends, or at least my friends, were parents of my children’s friends. I enjoyed being involved in the PTA and, frankly, didn’t really know too many women who were parents of children in the new schools.
I tried hard to strike up some kind of compromise, to maybe only change out the boys. Eventually, Ben got his way and we made the changes with our children. I’m still not happy about this one, and not all of our children are doing great with the transition.
So that would be enough—one would think. But it seems it’s not ending there. Now Ben is telling me he doesn’t want to do some things we’ve always enjoyed doing together, like going to the theater or movies. This was how we used to socialize and relax together. It’s something we always loved doing and now Ben is telling me he’s no longer interested.
He wants all the TVs to go and is becoming stringent about just about everything. It’s getting to be way too much for me. I respect Ben for his convictions. I know he is trying to be the best he can be and believes that these changes are the only way to go. But I’m not in the same place. I was satisfied with the way we were living six years ago. We are good people who live good lives. Ben is still a good, caring individual. But I feel as though I’m being dragged on a journey that I’m just not interested in going on.
What do I do? I’m feeling resentful and frightened. I don’t know how to get through to Ben that I can’t keep up with him and don’t even want to! Any suggestions?
When most people in our community get married in their early twenties, they are honestly not fully baked. They are still growing and coming into themselves. Often, for men the process of truly knowing who they are takes a little longer. The changes that take place are not always monumental and don’t impact a marriage to an enormous degree. However, when changes in attitude take place toward important matters, the hope is that the husband and wife are in sync and grow together. When that happens, the marriage becomes much stronger.
In your case, though it’s clear that you and Ben respect and love each other, Ben has been on a religious quest that is taking him to places that you never saw coming—certainly not years ago, before he become so involved with the rabbi of his shul. It sounds as though you have been accommodating and supportive as he has taken on more and more. But for now, it sounds as though you’ve reached your limit and are no longer willing to make any more concessions.
My first question relates to your level of communication with Ben. From the beginning, did the two of you talk about how you felt about the changes taking place within him? Were you able to hear him identify the feelings that were propelling him forward? And equally important, was he able to hear how you felt about the changes he was asking of you? Though growth is admirable, no one lives on an island, and it’s important to be sensitive to how change is affecting the people in one’s life, especially one’s wife and children.
I somehow get the feeling that perhaps the two of you never took these changes to a feeling place. That should have happened and can still happen. Behind every action there is an emotion. Getting in touch with these emotions will give each of you a greater sense of compassion and understanding for the other.
So my first piece of advice would be to get some meaningful dialogue going, if it hasn’t already happened. Perhaps Ben has been so focused on elevating himself within Yiddishkeit, that he’s lost his focus on you. That needs to be reestablished. Sometimes it’s helpful to sit with a trained therapist who can help you really listen to each other with a full heart and an open mind.
Next comes understanding and compromise. You have made many concessions already. At this point, you seem to have given all that you are presently able and willing to give. When there is a desire to compromise, with sufficient creative thinking and enough give-and-take it’s possible to create an arrangement in which you and Ben can both feel cared for and respected. For instance, though living without a TV is no big deal for some people, for you it may be a big deal. Is there a room in your home where you can keep a TV tucked away in a cabinet and available for you to use when you feel like watching? I’m hoping Ben can feel comfortable with such a situation.
Or let’s discuss movies and theater. Again, some people may not understand why these are things you are digging your heels in about. But others can appreciate the joy you receive from this type of recreation. Though it’s wonderful to share downtime with one’s spouse, I would be surprised if you don’t have a few friends whose husbands are equally uninterested in going to movies and shows, for whatever reasons. Why not arrange “play dates” with your girlfriends, so that you can continue to enjoy these activities?
Work together with Ben on remembering ways, or coming up with new ways, to be together that you can both enjoy. Museums, walks on the beach, hiking? These must be activities that you can both feel comfortable with and that will bring you back together in a fun and fulfilling way.
Finally, I don’t think it would be a terrible idea for you to speak with Ben’s rabbi. Explain to him what it’s been like for you to be on the receiving end of Ben’s transitions. He may offer you some insights into Ben’s journey, and I think it would be good for this rabbi to hear from you, firsthand, what it’s been like living with Ben for the past six years and being asked to give up parts of your life that you didn’t necessarily want to give up.
As I stated at the beginning of this column, it’s never easy or simple when a husband and wife grow in different directions or at different paces. It creates some practical complications in the running of a home and family. However, staying focused on each other’s happiness is the key to keeping the marriage alive and healthy. With enough love in a marriage, most hardships can be worked through. As with all compromise, not everyone will get everything that they want, but hopefully each of you will get enough of what you feel you want and need, as you maintain the shared goal of a happy marriage.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.