Dear Mr. Weisbord,
I have been married happily for almost a year to a very caring and kind man. Having been involved in shidduchim not so long ago, I remember how girls would talk about marrying a “top” boy. In stories, for sure, girls are always looking for “stars.” I can honestly say that I’m glad I married a regular guy, one with whom I have shared many wonderful moments. So what’s the problem?
I was listening to the messages on our answering machine and heard a message from a psychologist telling my husband that he needs to change his appointment to a different time. I thought: That’s weird; it must be a wrong number – maybe someone with the same name. Definitely not my husband.
At dinner I mentioned the message to my husband, and as I was telling him, I noticed the change in his eyes. Well, the message was delivered to the correct person, just not on his cell phone, as usual. It turns out my husband goes to counseling due to anxiety.
I am sure I would have been okay with this before I married him, but I feel very hurt and sort of betrayed. I have been sharing my secrets and intimate thoughts with him, but he has been holding back. He has been keeping this big secret, like another life that I have no part in. I asked him why he didn’t tell me this before, and he responded that his parents always told him this is very private and he should keep it to himself.
It is not a question of divorce or anything like that, but I feel I need guidance. Is this okay for a spouse to do? I had always assumed that there are no secrets between husband and wife. I keep wondering what else he is hiding from me. I find myself re-evaluating our courtship and the year of our marriage in the light of this new information. I am also having trouble settling my thoughts about my in-laws, whom I like and with whom I want to have a close relationship. How do I not make my hurt feelings the issue here? I am trying but finding it very hard. I would also like to know the specific details of why he goes to counseling. Do I have a right to know this, or am I being intrusive? What is the place of privacy in marriage?
Dear Let Down,
I can only imagine the shock you felt when hearing that your husband is seeing a psychologist without your knowledge. I am sure it was only compounded by what sounds like a very lukewarm response on his part. You don’t specify what his reaction was, but if he was deeply apologetic and explained it all to your satisfaction, I doubt we would be having this conversation.
You say that you don’t want to make this about your feelings. I would suggest that we begin by making it very much about your feelings. You entered into this relationship in good faith, and made yourself vulnerable and shared yourself, as is appropriate. You suddenly found out that, to some degree, your husband is not following suit. Any feelings you have as a result of this are legitimate and need to be respected. In terms of the objective reality, I would agree that this is a violation of trust. It makes perfect sense that you are looking at your shared history in a new light and that it may take you time to trust your husband completely again. It is also natural that you have some anger or resentment towards your in-laws for their role in creating this situation.
In my estimation the goal is not to get rid of your feelings, which are simply the natural response to being hurt. The goal is to move forward with your marriage. There are two areas of focus needed for that to happen; one is on yourself and your feelings, and the other is on rebuilding your relationship with your husband. To address your relationship, trust needs to be restored, which will definitely need some more openness on your husband’s part. I would recommend beginning by having a conversation about the impact this has made on you, and, since you describe him as being kind and caring, it is likely that he can understand this. This conversation is not about blame, and this is not the place for venting anger at him. You just want him to understand what you are feeling as a result of this and that you would like to be able to get back to feeling safe and trusting with him.
Once he understands, you want to be sure that he shares your value of openness between spouses. If he thinks nothing is wrong and that this is just your problem, then you are facing a more challenging situation. But assuming your values are shared, the question then becomes how to recover from this. The first step is making sure that you are included in the story of his anxiety. I believe that, for the most part, you are correct in that there should be no secrets between husband and wife at any level of importance. I don’t think that every thought one has needs to be shared, and inasmuch as you are separate people, there is a need to maintain some privacy even in marriage. For example, in your situation, I think you are entirely justified in wanting to know more about his anxiety. This includes getting a sense of how long he has had it, how bad it was, and how it has affected his life. That is the part that he needs to share, so that he is not living a life apart from you. The details of what goes on in his therapy sessions can be private, and that is the part he does not need to share. If he wants to share some of it with you on occasion that is great, but in general, emotional work can benefit from privacy.
It is important to remember that this may be a big shift for your husband. Although he may be happy to share his life with you up to a point, it will possibly be quite uncomfortable for him to begin sharing things he considers shameful. If it seems this is the case, you would need to be appreciative of any efforts he makes, and acknowledge his commitment to making progress in this area. As time goes on, and as he sees that you respond to what he shares in a non-judgmental manner, you can expect that he will share more fully. I am not suggesting you give up on the togetherness you are seeking – rather, I want you to be open to the possibility that it may not be an instant transformation.
Similarly, you may need some time to feel completely safe with your husband, and during that time it is fine to ask for reassurance. If something suddenly occurs to you that you want to clarify regarding some earlier time in your relationship, it is important that you feel okay in asking for whatever clarity you need. You can let your husband know how important your relationship is to you and that you really want to get back to feeling as safe as you did before, but that it can take time. Again, the assumption is that he will want the same thing, namely enhancing your togetherness, and will consequently be a full partner in rebuilding this trust. It is important to keep in mind that there is no timeline for safety, and that a thought may occur to you down the line.
This brings us to the second component, namely dealing with your feelings. Feelings cannot be legislated or given a timetable, and though this may seem counterintuitive, the more you are okay with whatever feelings arise, the quicker they will pass. Very often, people want “negative” feelings – such as anger, sadness, grief, or shame – to move on as quickly as possible. Sometimes they block these feelings in an attempt to keep them away. Although blocking can be beneficial in certain circumstances, to prevent becoming overwhelmed, it is generally only healthy as a temporary measure. When one welcomes emotions as being a normal response to a situation, with the understanding that they will pass, they tend to move along of their own accord much more quickly. Allowing yourself to experience your feelings in a safe, private setting means that you won’t fear letting them out inappropriately at anyone who happens to be around you. This gives your feelings the same respect that we all desire for ourselves. Just as you want to be acknowledged by those around you, your feelings want to be acknowledged by you! It can be helpful to write them out, verbalize them to yourself, or even set aside some time to allow yourself to sink into the feeling, with the understanding that after that time you have to move on with your day. You can reassure yourself that if the feeling needs more time later, you will make that time for it. It is important to not be angry at your pain or at yourself for having it, or wish it would just leave you alone – that is a sure way of having it stick around! You can remind yourself that your anger is not at your feelings – it is at the cause of your feelings, which in this case was the secret that was not shared with you.
Once your husband understands and appreciates your perspective and you are doing well enough with your own feelings that your distress level is significantly reduced, we can discuss how you can reconnect with your husband and in-laws, even though they have caused you pain. I think that, as long as you give yourself time, you will be able to move in the direction of having the relationship you want. It is important to remind yourself that you do want to be in a relationship with them. You do not want your hurt to make a rift that cannot be bridged. I would suggest that you look at this as something that was done without malice; rather, that it came from a place of fear. I think you can develop empathy for your husband, who was so afraid that you would not keep dating him that he did not tell you about his anxiety. Perhaps you can also empathize with your in-laws and whatever factors may have led to their insecurity, which contributed to them advising your husband so poorly. Once you can see things from their perspective, it is possible to consider forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean pretending nothing happened, and it does not in any way invalidate your pain. It is a decision to see your husband and his parents as the imperfect human beings that we all are, and to decide that your desire for relationship is not worth sacrificing due to this error, as serious as it was.
Even after forgiveness and moving forward, there may be times when a feeling related to this will arise. That is why it is important to be maintain open communication with your husband, so that you can get the support you need and get to a place where your shared values of togetherness are paramount and expressed in your daily lives. Of course, if at any point you are feeling stuck, there is always the option of getting some therapy as a couple for added support in rebuilding the relationship and growing beyond this issue. I wish you much success and am certain that you can get through this by tapping into your compassion and commitment to yourself and your relationship.
NOTE: Many rabbanim advise that by a certain date (e.g., the third or fifth), it is proper to share any medical or mental health issues. I recommend that anyone in this position consult with a rav to determine the best way to proceed.