Q: One of our sons has been married and living out-of-town for the past seven years. He is 31 and has three children.
For the first two years after marriage, he was learning full-time in kollel. For the last five years he has been dabbling in real estate. So far, he has not been very successful, although he is spending more and more time alone in his office, working at his computer. When we speak with him over the phone or when he comes to visit, he gives us no indication that anything is wrong or that he is unhappy. From the reports we have received, however, we have learned that he has slackened somewhat in his religious observance and is having some shalom bayis issues.
This week, one of our married daughters called to tell us that our son packed a small suitcase and left home with no explanation. We contacted our son immediately and he reassured us that he was planning to return home before Shabbos, which he did. Both my husband and I were very shaken up by this entire episode and are left with many questions. Should we bring up this episode with our son or just let it pass? What could be causing him to act this way? And what can we do to help him?
A: I shall address your questions in the order in which you presented them. You most definitely should initiate discussion of this incident with your son. Since you have already spoken with him about it — which was the correct course of action, by the way — if you avoid the subject you will only contribute to the problem by colluding with his denial. Your son has a serious problem. And the sooner he acknowledges that, the better.
From the information you supplied in your letter, it is impossible for me to assess the exact nature of your son’s problem. Clearly there are strains in his marriage. It is unclear, however, whether that is the cause or the consequence of his difficulties. There are also strong indications that he may have become ensnared in an internet addiction.
Internet addictions are as new as the internet itself. They do, however, share many of the same features as all other forms of addiction. When people fall into substance abuse or behavioral addictions such as gambling, their first attempt to deal with it is always through denial. Afflicted individuals try to convince themselves and their families that they have not lost control and can stop whenever they choose. Unfortunately, addicts’ lives unravel very far before they accept the reality that they need help.
Since we do not yet know exactly what your son is dealing with, I would not recommend that you discuss addictions with him. Rather, you should assume a supportive role and encourage him to get whatever help he feels he needs. And you do that as follows:
Remind your son that your home is and always has been open to him. Tell him that you are there for him whenever he feels the need to talk, over the phone or in person. Be sure not to criticize him now for anything. You must maintain open lines of communication with your son to give him what he needs from you now. This is not the time for a mussar shmuess on shalom bayis. He needs to know you accept him with all of his flaws and imperfections.
Next, tell him that you see he has been unhappy lately. Do not give specific examples, even if he asks for them. Just tell him that that is the impression you have been getting from him. If he challenges you on this, ask him to prove that your assessment is incorrect.
Finally, tell him that you would like him to discuss whatever is bothering him with a therapist who can help him. Let him know that you understand that he may not want you to know exactly what is going on in his life right now. He may be too ashamed to share it with you. For that reason, he may be more comfortable talking to a confidential, professional therapist about it. Even offer to pay for the sessions, if he is unable to do so by himself.
Chazal held up the friends of Iyov as the quintessential examples of supportive friends (Bava Basra 16b). What was so special about their traveling to be with Iyov in his hour of need, asked the Maharsha. And he answered that it was the enormous mesirus nefesh involved in their making the long trip which gave Iyov so much chizuk. Similarly, by volunteering to pay for his therapy, you will be demonstrating your high level of concern and caring for your son’s current plight.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.