By Esther Mann, LCSW
It seems as if from the time I was born, my parents’ goal in life was to raise me to the point where I could get the perfect shidduch and make them proud. I went to the best schools, camps, and yeshiva in Israel. I learned from a young age to be gracious, be polite, and always smile. I was always slim, no question about that. I was dressed appropriately, and in the finest clothing. My friends had to be from similar families, who would always reflect well on me.
When it came time to start dating, my parents were in full control of the situation, sorting out who I could and could not date. I went out with three different young men without success. Two I knew right away were not for me, and one felt I wasn’t for him. By the fourth try, I went out with someone who was perfect on paper. Even in person, he seemed just right for me. Probably just as my parents were able to put a check mark next to all of his credentials and those of his family, his parents were able to do the same with me.
By the third date, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why I wasn’t “feeling it,” but I wasn’t. My parents were so ecstatic about this particular shidduch, that they pooh-poohed all of my quasi-concerns. I couldn’t come right out and say what I didn’t like about this guy, but something didn’t feel right. In retrospect, I would say that behind his smile and proper words, I always sensed that he was hiding the real him from me. But these are things that are hard to pinpoint or explain. It’s such a vague feeling, that I thought I was just being nervous about marriage. My parents were quickly falling in love with this guy and the idea of being associated with his family.
Despite my better judgment, since no one really cared what I had to say in the matter, we got engaged. The engagement was quick and not fabulous. Already I started seeing parts of his personality that he had been covering up beforehand. Suddenly, he wasn’t so concerned about which evening worked better for me to go out on or which restaurant I wanted to eat in. We went from being equal individuals to him being in charge. I wasn’t happy about this.
When I spoke to my parents about feeling like I wasn’t being treated as respectfully as I deserved—the way I had been when we were still just dating—they didn’t take my concerns seriously. They always made excuses for him and tried to minimize any particular incident.
When we got married, things went from bad to worse. As early as the week of sheva berachos, he started acting like a tyrant. Bossing me around, telling me what to wear, which sheitel to put on, what time we were going to leave, and so on. I’ve never been treated quite this badly, though I must say I had some training from my parents. But at least when they told me what to do, it felt like it was coming from a caring and loving place. With him, it felt cold and mean. He was starting to act like a bully.
I was so stunned that I just went along with his demands. But after a few weeks of marriage I decided that I had to stand up to him or I would eventually become a total shmata. The first time I told him not to speak to me a certain way, I saw his eyes bulge and his face turn red. He walked out of the room and slammed the door. When I went over to my mother’s house the next day, shaking and crying, she soothed me but ultimately said that a wife has to be respectful of her husband and maybe I wasn’t acting respectful enough. I tried to explain that she was off the mark and that I had never seen my father treat her the way my husband treated me. Again, my mother encouraged me to go home, put on something nice, make a beautiful dinner, and get our relationship back on track. Boy, did she not get it!
I tried harder, though. I did my best to be sweet, accommodating, and respectful. But the slightest thing would set him off. One day he got so angry at me for forgetting to pick up his dry cleaning, that I made the mistake (according to him) of giving excuses rather than just apologizing. I finally cracked. I stood up for myself and yelled at him. So much had been boiling up inside of me and I actually raised my voice and told him he had no right to treat me the way he had been treating me. Again, the bulging eyes, the red face, and rage pouring out of him. And then the unspeakable happened. He pushed me hard against the wall. He didn’t really hurt me physically, but emotionally I was devastated.
I ran out of the house, ran to my parents, and told them I didn’t want to live this way anymore. I told them exactly what I had been living with and that it was a big mistake to marry him and that I wanted to get a divorce. Based on my parents’ reactions, you would think I murdered someone. Ultimately, their position became clear. No one in their family gets divorced. It would be the worst thing that could happen to them. End of story.
I tried to get my husband to agree to go for counseling, but he refused. The situation at home has only gotten worse. I’ve tried speaking to my parents many times about how miserable I am and how I can’t stay married to this maniac, but they just tell me that sometimes marriage is challenging and I have to learn how to make it work. But it’s not workable. And to make matters worse, when we are around my parents, he’s a total fake and they don’t even see it.
I don’t know what to do. I’ve never disobeyed my parents, but besides the fact that it feels as though my life with my husband will always be miserable, I am afraid for my well-being. I believe that someday he can lose it to the point where he can really hurt me. When I tell that to my parents, they practically laugh at me and tell me I’m being a drama queen.
So what do I do? I don’t have the support of my parents. All they want is to keep the reputation of our family unblemished and pretend to the world that I am happy and everything is perfect. All I want is to get away from my husband and start all over again, but my fear is that my parents will abandon me if I go for a divorce on my own. Sometimes I think this is just the life that I must live, and I was meant to suffer forever. But then I think that I need to do everything in my power to live a good life, and that will never happen with my husband.
Do I defy my parents and do what I know in my heart must be done?
The story you describe is appalling, but not unique. According to the details you’ve shared, it sounds as though your parents care much more about what others might think about them than they do about your general well-being and happiness, and even your safety. There is something so flawed about their way of approaching life. It sounds arrogant, shallow, and completely missing the mark on what is meaningful in life and what is not. It’s almost like they, and other people like them, have lost their way and forgotten what really matters. Their concern about what other people might think and say about them has taken center stage, to the exclusion of your happiness and safety.
If, as you say, your husband is abusive both emotionally and physically, and he absolutely refuses to go for marriage therapy, not to mention individual counseling focusing on anger management, your situation sounds hopeless to me. Again, this is just based on what you are sharing with me. In the absence of professional help, men like the one you’ve described tend to go from bad to worse. As they test the waters and see that they’ve gotten away with yet another, worse, transgression, their next lapse in appropriate behavior is often more out there and ultimately dangerous. And the fact that he knows your parents are not taking your worries seriously can further embolden him.
Though your husband is unwilling to go for therapy with you, it’s important that you go on your own. Firstly, I’d feel more comfortable knowing that you have a support system in place, since you aren’t getting it from your parents. I also would like to see you empowering yourself, so that you have the strength to take whatever steps you may determine are necessary, despite your parents’ need to bury their heads in the sand and pretend all is well in their make-believe bubble.
I also urge you to contact Shalom Task Force (888-883-2323). They offer every type of information a woman like yourself needs to learn about, and most important, if you should ever feel as though your safety is at risk, they can walk you through steps you would need to take to protect yourself, in a preemptive way and in the moment.
Regarding defying your parents, I know that can’t be an easy possibility for you to consider. It sounds like you’ve always gone along with their program, no questions asked. But living with an abusive man is not something anyone in her right mind should sign on for. There’s no telling how your parents would ultimately react, should you someday feel that you have no choice but to seek a divorce. They may fight you at the beginning, putting themselves first while feeling personally betrayed. But my hope is that they would ultimately come around, get over themselves, and understand the severity of your situation and eventually show up as the loving, responsible parents that on some level they hopefully always have been.
We cannot predict the future. Regardless, it is important for you to understand your options and protect yourself. I believe it is our duty to be respectful toward our parents, but we are also meant to stay out of harm’s way and take care of ourselves, particularly if our parents fall down on the job.
Wishing you strength, wisdom, and the confidence to do the right thing.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.