Q: Today at the Shabbos seudah I didn’t know what to do. And I could barely wait until Shabbos was over so I could write this letter.
Here’s what happened. I was in the kitchen when I heard my husband raising his voice. I came into the dining room and witnessed my husband harshly degrading our 14-year-old daughter. I don’t know what caused my husband to get so upset. But I could see that our daughter was being very badly hurt. So I told my husband that he should not talk to her that way. Then my husband started lashing out at me. Things went downhill from there.
Was I wrong to defend my daughter? And how would you suggest I handle it if this should happen again?
A: If a child were playing with matches, should the parents look into which brand of fire extinguisher is most effective or should they be looking for ways to keep their child away from matches? Similarly, instead of asking how to deal with such flare-ups, you should be asking how to prevent them. And the best strategy for that would be for you and your husband to enter marital therapy. In that way, you can address and resolve your differences with each other without embroiling your children in the conflict.
Some might take issue with my recommendation and ask why does the husband need therapy? Just because his wife accused him of “harshly degrading” their daughter, he needs therapy? Maybe he only mildly reprimanded his daughter and his wife is blowing that out of proportion. How can anyone who wasn’t an eyewitness rush to judgment?
No, I was not there. And I do not know exactly what was said. I suspect, however, from the tone of her letter, that this woman is not exaggerating. But even if she is, my advice is designed to be appropriate for the situation as it is described. In other words, I never know if a case is being portrayed accurately. If this case is, however, then the following advice would apply.
Suppose your husband refuses to join you in seeking marital therapy. What should you do then? Would his objection prevent you from getting the help you need?
Hopefully, it would not. And you would go alone to meet with a therapist. Certainly, much more can be accomplished if both of you enter therapy together. There is still much to be gained, however, from even one spouse consulting with a therapist. If the willing spouse allows the unwilling spouse’s obstinacy to block his or her access to assistance, then the willing spouse is giving the unwilling spouse far too much power and control in their relationship.
But suppose your spouse is unwilling to participate and you have insufficient funds to pay for therapy for yourself. What should you do then?
You should seek help from a community-sponsored social-service agency. If none is available where you live, you should request assistance in paying for private therapy from a bikur cholim society or fund. And if those are not viable options for any reason, then you should follow this generic advice.
Approach your husband when he is calm. Tell him how you feel about the remarks he made to your daughter. Explain to him that harshly degrading someone surely constitutes onaas devarim. And be sure to point out to him how seriously Chazal took this Torah prohibition.
For example (Bava Metzia 58b): Rabi Yochanon said in the name of Rabi Shimon ben Yochai, “Onaas devarim is worse than onaas mammon because regarding [onaas devarim] it is said, ‘And you shall fear Hashem’ (Vayikra 25:17); whereas regarding [onaas mammon] it does not say, ‘And you shall fear Hashem.’” And: “Whoever embarrasses someone publicly, [it is considered] as if he committed murder.”
If the episode is ever repeated, which I sincerely hope does not happen, you should not defend your daughter or criticize your husband. To do so would only inflame an already volatile situation. Rather, you should call your husband into another room, saying you need to speak with him privately. If he accepts your invitation, proceed with the approach outlined above. If he refuses, try to change the subject. If he persists, then defend your daughter. And if he lashes out at you, leave the room without comment.
Finally, you will also need to speak with your daughter. Once again, you will need to avoid criticizing your husband’s behavior. As inappropriate as your husband’s dealing with your daughter was, it is not helpful for parents to criticize each other to their children. Instead, you should ask her about, and then validate her feelings regarding the episode. That will not completely soothe her pain; but it can minimize any long-term damage.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the view of the author. In all matters of halachah and hashkafah, readers should consult their Rav.