~~Dear Mr. Weisbord,
I am married to someone who is described by everyone who meets him as a “great” guy. He is funny, handsome, a good provider, and nice – to other people, not to me. He wants to control me. He decides how the house is set up, how much exercise we get, when and where we go for vacation, how much money I can spend, what diet we are going on next, and what I should wear. He wants a certain “look,” so he even tells me which sheitelmacher to use. He makes all the rules, and if I express an opinion, he just ignores or overrides it. It’s “my way or the highway.”
I grew up in a stable family where things weren’t always perfect, but if I complained about a sibling or things being unfair, I was told to “make it work.” That was the family mantra. All my many siblings seem to have good marriages. Only I am very unhappy.
Parts of my life are very nice, but it’s getting harder and harder to live like this. I worry about my children growing up with this example of a dysfunctional marriage and knowing that you don’t cross Daddy. I also fear that I look like a wimp in their eyes. I am not a wimp, but I have learned that it does not pay to oppose my husband, because of the period of disruption and his not talking to me that follows. Still, the idea of divorce is foreign to me and to the way I grew up, and may create more problems than it solves. I realize that the grass is not always greener on the other side.
I know you will tell me to “go for help.” I can’t turn to a Rav, because my husband is well known in the community. And, of course, he won’t go for counseling, because I’m the one who “has the problem.”
So what am I asking you? I guess I want to know how I can change myself in a way that helps me live with this. I also want to know if there any way to change my husband without his even realizing it. I appreciate any insights you can offer.
You lay out specifically what you would like me to help you with, and it is obvious that you have given much time to figuring out your situation. You are certain about what is not possible, and you ask for help in the only things that you believe can still work – either changing your husband without his awareness, or changing yourself so that you can be happy in this terrible situation. I must respectfully disagree with some of your assumptions, and perhaps in that way, open other possibilities for you to consider that have not yet suggested themselves to you.
You mention that you are not a wimp. I would ask you to find this strong part of yourself before you read further, so that you can fully consider the choices that may develop from this discussion.
I would like to begin by expressing deep concern for your situation and for your children. What is happening in your house is extremely unhealthy and damaging and you are very right to be worried about your children growing up thinking this is normal. In addition, there is the destructive impact on all of you of such powerful negativity, which can leave deep scars in a person’s self image.
There is an axiom that must be kept in mind – namely, that you cannot change anyone in the world other than yourself. I am not saying that your husband cannot change; but whether he does or not is not up to you. Therefore, expecting or waiting for that to happen, or trying to bring it about yourself, is a waste of time and emotional energy.
Once we accept this as truth, what are we left with? The only person in this scenario you can do anything about is you. What kind of change? I would not suggest trying to change yourself to tolerate this, because that is not who you are. You are an individual who has needs and values just like anyone else – and there is no way to deny that without separating yourself from yourself so completely that you will be absolutely unable to function as a parent. In addition, it would only strengthen the message that your children are getting about this being a normal relationship. This is not what Hashem wants from you as a wife or mother. You would be letting yourself down, letting your children down, and even letting your husband down by allowing him to think that he has a right to treat you this way.
The change that you can work towards begins with taking some time and thinking about what specifically you will not tolerate from your husband any longer. What are the things that you will do the way you believe they need to be done, even if it is only for your own sense of self? What are the areas in which you need to make your own decisions, so that you can breathe your own air?
Once you identify a few areas of necessity, I would urge you to calmly trust your decisions and begin to live them. There is no need to fear his emotional withdrawal, because you can keep in mind that you are not responsible for his emotional welfare. He may get upset if you disobey his order, and he may sulk or ignore you for a few days, but that is his choice. Your choice is how you will act, and his is how he will respond. It is not your job to make him happy when the price is your health and that of your children. A wife has certain responsibilities towards her husband, but assisting him in continuing to live in dysfunction is not one of them!
When you begin to assert your limits calmly and matter-of-factly, whether you announce your intentions verbally or whether you just do what you need in spite of his commands, you know how he will react. And that is where you may need support to not back down. You are doing him a great service by not allowing this to continue, and by using your strength to stand up for what is right and healthy. You are also beginning to give you and your children the gift of life with integrity and power in spite of fierce opposition.
The key to successfully thwarting his control is an inner sense of strength that is not dependent on his approval, combined with the absolute clarity that the way he is treating you is unhealthy and wrong. You may even go a step further and let yourself wonder about what he is lacking inside that leads him to act this way. Once you recognize that nobody acts the way he does out of strength, and that truly strong people do not need to obsessively control those around them, I suspect that the power he holds in your eyes may be diminished significantly.
Of course, your safety and that of your children is paramount. So if at any time you believe you or they are at risk of physical harm, it is important that you have an emergency kit ready and a place to go for at least long enough to determine how to proceed and get more support. This is where the support of a therapist and a Rav can make a big difference. There are community resources that can be brought to bear should they become needed. (CHANA is a wonderful resource; their number is 410-234-0030.) Hopefully, none of this will be necessary, but having a support team in place before you begin to push limits is a wise precaution.
I would therefore like to ask you to reevaluate your assumption that you can’t go to a Rav because your husband is a prominent member of the community. Firstly I can assure you it won’t be the first time a Rav has heard of difficulties in the life of a prominent community member. Perhaps you are reluctant to negatively affect your husband’s standing in the community by “letting the cat out of the bag.” In that case, allow me to share something that might help you see this differently. If a client comes to me and tells me they are feeling suicidal, I am duty bound to see to it that they get to a hospital as soon as possible. It does not matter if they don’t want anyone to know, or how it may affect their life – once they tell me that, it is really out of my hands. I am not the one causing them the potential trouble by getting them help; they have done this to themselves by telling me they are at risk. I am not blaming them for their emotional distress, I simply am pointing out that certain responses are so unavoidable that I am not the direct cause of whatever might happen next. I think that your situation is similar, in that once your husband decided to treat you in such a destructive manner for so long, it is a foregone conclusion that you will have to get support. He is lucky that you are not considering divorce, but there is no way someone can sustain a marriage like this without a great deal of support; and part of that may well include efforts to help him see that this is not acceptable behavior. You are not causing harm to his reputation – he has already done that by the way he treats his family! He started the ball rolling, and you will continue its inexorable progress by getting the support that you need so that you can remain healthy and, as their mother, help your children to be healthy as well.
Even if you find yourself unable to completely internalize what I have just laid out, it is a worthwhile perspective to pursue. This is an area in which therapy can help you. You are probably correct in assuming that your husband will refuse to go to therapy and say that you are the one with the problem – and that will be perfect, because it means you will be able to go to therapy with his blessing! The support you get will be invaluable and can make a huge impact in helping you maintain your sense of self in the face of constant assault. It is vital that you have people who can help you stay focused on your strengths and value despite what your husband might say or do.
I wish you the strength to see this through in the best way possible, and to get the support you need to do that. May Hashem guide you so that you find the inner fortitude to stand up to this tyranny in your own home and welcome the possibilities for change and growth that will be the inevitable result.