By Baila Sebrow
I am writing on behalf of my younger siblings. We are five brothers and sisters, ranging in age from 14–22. I don’t like to label people or communities, but for purposes of this question, I would say that we grew up as frum, centrist, Zionist, Young Israel-type, Modern Orthodox Jews.
Over the past few years, our parents went through a messy divorce, which had a huge impact on us. For the sake of brevity, I will provide as few details as required so that you may be able to give us guidance.
Mom and Dad had a terrible marriage for as long as I can remember (and I am the oldest), and we all saw it. It wasn’t fighting and nastiness—it was just that they were both unhappy being with each other. I would say it was a bad fit, though, to their credit, they did the best they could to make it work (if only for our sakes).
The only difference between them was that Mom felt that they should stay together at all costs “for the kids,” and Dad wanted a divorce, which he felt would be better for both of them and for us. As kids, we differ amongst ourselves as to who was “right,” and therefore some of us blame Dad and others don’t blame either of them.
From the moment that Mom and Dad separated, Dad was prepared to move on. He did his best to resolve the issues between them, and he has lived up to the (very costly) terms of the agreements and court requirements for support. He started to rebuild his life, to date, to make new friends, to get “out there.” Mom, on the other hand, withdrew. She refused to date, build a new life, or move on. Instead, she has spent the past few years in anger and bitterness, lashing out at Dad and at us for our relationship with him (which caused some of us to distance ourselves from him). To his credit, he never stops trying to focus on his relationship with us and how to make it comfortable for all of us.
Here is the issue: Dad has a very serious girlfriend, and it seems that they are moving towards getting married. In response, Mom has put pressure on us not to have a relationship with her, to avoid Shabbos meals and family events that will include her, and to basically “cancel” her. She has asked us not to call her by name, and when she finds out that we spend time with her, we never hear the end of it.
To complicate matters, Dad’s girlfriend is not as religious as Dad. She does not take Shabbos, kashrus, and other things as seriously as we do. It seems that they have found a comfortable middle ground where he has not had to change his “hashkafah” and she has undertaken to live “our” lifestyle in our presence, when in Dad’s house and also in her house when it comes to things that would create halachic problems for us. And Dad has seemingly been able to look past her lifestyle in order to maintain peace in their relationship. Some of us think that is a huge credit to Dad, and others of us think that it makes him into a faker. And that only provides more fuel for Mom’s fire. One of us is concerned that the girlfriend might even ruin shidduchim for us, while others believe that we should not look into shidduchim with people who would be unable to accept Dad and his girlfriend. Why would his decision affect someone wanting to marry one of us?
So here are our questions: How can we find peace among ourselves even if we cannot agree? How can we deal with Mom? Should we be concerned about shidduchim? Is there a way to determine if Dad is doing something good or something bad? How should we look at it? And how can we relate to the girlfriend if she isn’t up to our “standards” in the area of religion and observance? (Other than that, she is a great fit for Dad and for those of us who see her in the big picture.) It is getting worse and worse—with mom and with each other—to the point that one of us is barely talking to the rest (even those who agree with his views).
It sounds like you and your siblings have endured tremendous upheaval for most of your lives, and I can only imagine how painful it must have been to dredge up all that is going on in your family. Had you not brought up the topic of shidduchim with regard to your father’s relationship with his girlfriend and the impact it could potentially have on you and your siblings, I would have referred your letter elsewhere. But I need to address your concerns, particularly because in the Orthodox world, regardless of hashkafah, what the parents do or don’t do is heavily scrutinized. It is sad that the innocent children feel the backlash when they are ready to get married, and they sometimes do suffer the consequences of the actions perpetrated by their parents.
One of your siblings feels that you should not consider shidduchim with people who will not accept the lifestyle of your dad and his girlfriend; it sounds like this sibling is making peace with a situation that is not in anyone else’s control. Theoretically and practically, it makes perfect sense. Why would you even consider dealing with such folks? However, realistically, you will all have to face the music, so to speak, and you may be forced to bear rejections, not just because of your dad and his girlfriend, but because the entire family situation may, unfortunately, come back to haunt some of you.
I will share some optimistic insight from what I have viewed as a shadchan: When it comes to finding one’s bashert, somehow it all comes together. This statement is not coming from a Pollyanna viewpoint. On the contrary, here is what happens. In most cases, singles looking to get married have a shopping list of what they consider compatible in a spouse. In some cases, feelings are mutual and the type they seek also seeks them. But when such a type is not on board with what they want, that is where it gets tricky and one of two things happens: the single longing to marry the type he or she wants does not get married, or he or she concedes a bit and will consider dating someone outside those daled amos of requirements. Ultimately, of course, it is Hashem Who is mezaveig zivugim, and if He wants it to happen it will. I have also seen people’s lives get turned in various directions, and, as a result, a specific shidduch happens when it otherwise never would have worked.
What can you and your siblings do? Realistically, you will not be able to change how your dad has chosen to live his life, and you cannot change how your mom is dealing with it. She is struggling with much anguish, and the best that you and your siblings can do for your mom is to make her to feel that she is loved and needed in your lives.
You say that you are the oldest child in the family, at 22 years old. It is beneficial that you did not wait to reach out for assistance after years of enduring disappointing dating experiences. Instead, you are addressing the issues at hand and asking how to deal with them before they create major havoc.
As a child of divorce, messy or not, here is what you need to know. Divorce has become more rampant in the Orthodox world than in previous generations. Whereas in yesteryear, a divorced person and his or her children were viewed as pariahs, in the present, it is not to the same extent. The stigma has gone down quite a bit simply because of the sheer number of divorces in every Orthodox community. People are more likely to be open-minded to a greater extent than in the past. Still, people do approach such shidduchim with a certain amount of trepidation. Open-minded people understand that each divorce is different than the next, where some are acrimonious while others are amicable. With regard to how children are impacted, that, too, is quite varied even within the same family unit, and that is an accepted perspective as well. Not only that, but everyone knows someone whose child married a spouse from a divorced family, and they are living happily ever after.
What you and your siblings will likely face even from the open-minded folks is the research that people will be conducting on the family. They will also be considering how each child was impacted by the divorce; also, whether the parents are emotionally healthy will likely play a role in the decision to pursue such a shidduch.
Parents choose to get married, and they choose to get divorced. Children have no say in any of those decisions. And when there is the kind of strife you are faced with, it makes it even more difficult. The conflict in the home, in addition to the lack of normal family structure, must be devastating for you and your siblings. I impress upon you not to allow what happened in your home to affect the trusting mechanism of marriage. Please understand that just as it takes two people to get married, it takes two people to get divorced. It does not mean that either spouse is bad; rather, they just trigger each other negatively.
It is of utmost importance that you and your siblings find a therapist to help you deal with what happened while your parents were married and with the current chaos. That is not only important for all of you in terms of your emotional health, but people are more likely to consider someone who is emotionally healthy, even though that person has been dealt a challenging deck of cards in life. Going even further, having a rav, teacher, or mechanech who can vouch for your spirituality and commitment to living a healthy lifestyle goes a long way when people do their research.
You and your siblings don’t need to deny the facts of your circumstances to the world. Rather, you will be demonstrating that although people can go through hard times as a child, if they are determined to get the help they need, they will emerge stronger than anyone who has lived a status quo life. With the support you will engage, your drive to succeed in your aspirations, and help from the One Above, you can confront these circumstances and rise to the top.
Baila Sebrow is president of Neshoma Advocates, communications and recruitment liaison for Sovri-Beth Israel, executive director of Teach Our Children, and a shadchanis and shidduch consultant. She can be reached at Bsebrow@aol.com. Baila also hosts The Definitive Rap podcast for vinnews.com and Israel News Talk Radio. Questions and comments for the Dating Forum can be submitted to email@example.com. Read more of Baila Sebrow’s articles at 5TJT.com.