Q: I am the mother of three children — two boys, age 11 and nine, and a girl age seven — and have been separated from my husband for about a year and a half. The shalom bayis problems we were having were very intense to say the least, and a constant struggle for me. My husband acted like like an overbearing and controlling husband, isolating our immediate family from my parents and siblings. It was actually a subtle thing, at least at first, and it took me quite a while to realize what was happening. Things eventually came to a head where the situation became just unlivable for me. Numerous Rabbanim felt it was necessary for us to divorce, and their backing helped give me the strength to separate from him.
Now he is making it difficult to finalize the divorce and is placing unreasonable financial demands on me. It is virtually impossible to create any type of united parenting front when the “war” between us continues.
Having a united front can be hard to maintain even with an intact family, so I guess it is nearly impossible now.
In theory, I know that you should never bad-mouth your ex-spouse, but children inevitably overhear you talking to your parents or friends about your aggravations. My husband and I have different standards in Yiddishkeit and the children know that I generally don’t approve of some of the videos they watch when they are with him. I’m also not pleased that he doesn’t discipline them well and feeds them all kinds of unhealthy food. It’s hard not to show annoyance about all of that — yet I wouldn’t want my children to feel that being loyal to me means disrespecting him. What are your thoughts on ways to deal with this challenge?
A: The need to create a sense of dual loyalty is an essential developmental adaptive stage for children of divorced or separated parents. A child shouldn’t feel that loving one parent precludes loving the other.
Children in this situation sometimes find themselves in an uncomfortable predicament. The children may feel that if they allow themselves to enjoy the company of one parent, they are somehow being disloyal to the other one. In actuality, they need to feel that each parent possesses numerous positive character traits, and they may have been fortunate enough to inherit these traits.
If a child continually hears that one of his parents is deficient in a certain area, the child might doubt his or her own self-worth. As the saying goes, “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. The child might begin to ask himself, ‘How worthwhile can I be if my father (or mother) is like that?’ (This is equally applicable to children in an intact family if one parent continually belittles the other.)
The question you need to ask yourself is: “How can I focus on their father’s positive character traits when he is causing so much pain? My words wouldn’t be genuine anyway; the children will sense that.”
Though it is written that if one overcomes his own tendencies or desires (for example, to take get even), then his sins are forgiven, this is probably a madreigah that is not expected of you in such a situation. Yet, when a person has reason to feel animosity towards another, it is recommended to try to awaken within oneself a sense of compassion towards that person instead. (Tanya, perek 32).
If you find your children commenting on a negative trait that their father has, you can remind them of certain difficult situations he had to endure in his life. When you find whatever redeeming quality you can and point it out to your child, you are giving your child a gift, and looking for whatever good you can find in a person who is causing you pain will expand your capacity for compassion.
Besides your being dan l’chaf zechus, there is a fringe benefit to this thinking process: Feelings of self-pity or victimhood will decrease.
I am not saying that your husband’s actions need to be passively accepted, but rather while you are at this stage in your life’s journey, you can re-frame how to look at the situation for your children’s sake, so that their life experience will be less painful.
Hatzlachah in this most sensitive endeavor.