By Esther Mann, LCSW
This week’s letter is being answered by Jennifer Mann, LMSW.
I am a young woman, married a handful of years. I am in the worst place of my life. I realized soon after I got married that I made a big mistake. It’s not important what went wrong in my marriage or the specific flaws of my husband. What matters is that I have been living in pain for so long. I have decided, after much struggling and anguish, that I am getting a divorce. Yes, my husband is upset and wants to stay married to me; but again, this is not the point.
He is not a well man mentally, although everyone thinks he is charming; and when people find out, they will think I broke up the marriage. This kills me because he has emotionally tortured me, but I am smart enough to understand that I can’t stay with him forever. I am not going to say how many, but we do have children. I wish I could stay with him, if only for our children, but it’s not even healthy for them to see us together, so I believe I am doing the right thing for myself and for them as well.
My reason for writing to you is that I am devastated. I just recently told my parents that I want a divorce, and they are horrified. They think my husband is the most wonderful man because he is so charming and has always been nice to them. I never talk to anyone, let alone my parents, about the horrible things I have lived through with my husband. They can’t understand and they even said that I am exaggerating and that it can’t be as bad as I say. They tell me that everyone fights and that I have children and I can’t be responsible for breaking up a marriage. They tell me this will be the greatest regret of my life and that they don’t support my decision. I am devastated. When I hear their opinion, I begin to question my decision. Can you give me some guidance?
The decision to divorce is never easy. It sounds as though you have struggled greatly in your marriage to your husband–in his treatment of you, and in making the gut-wrenching decision to leave him. Though you have left out information, what you have written all over your letter is the pain and turmoil you live with regularly. Clearly, you understand the gravity of divorce when there are children involved, but have resolved that in your situation it is healthier for the children to have divorced parents because of what they must be exposed to regularly. And then you made the brave decision to share your plight and pain with your parents, only to be turned away and to be left questioning everything you have felt and known to be true.
Based on what you have written, it seems as though you feel you have no other option but to leave your husband. They say “it takes two to tango” but if your husband is mentally ill, as you say he is, sometimes the only way to stop the tango (that is, the bad dynamic) is to exit the dance floor. Let me state that my response is based on the limited information I know. I do not know if your husband indeed has a personality disorder or mental illness. If he does, that would make staying with him a constant challenge that manifests itself daily or even hourly, depending on the severity of his symptoms.
You write that your husband has “emotionally tortured” you. Again, I am responding based on several assumptions, so forgive me if I am wrong. I want you and the readers to understand that when I read “emotionally tortured” my mind focuses on abuse. Abuse is not only physical; it can be psychological and emotional as well. Here is an example of psychological abuse. A husband approaches his wife Shabbos morning and accuses her of forgetting to plug in the urn before Shabbos. She promises him that she did. He continues to insist that she forgot. He then proceeds to tell her she is forgetful, and does things like this all the time. He may even tell her she is worthless and may not speak to her for hours because of her stupidity. He may tell her that he deserves better and that he doesn’t need an idiot like her. The thing is, in all of this, he doesn’t tell his wife that right before Shabbos he deliberately unplugged the urn with the intention of torturing her about it. This is an example of psychological abuse.
Emotional abuse is the act of undermining someone: never validating a feeling, telling the other person time and again why he or she is wrong. It is about shame, humiliation, criticism, and isolation. Volumes can be (and are) written about emotional abuse but, for the purposes of this column, I will only say that abuse in any form hurts and it takes tremendous strength for a victim to leave the abusive situation. After the abuse (physical or emotional), there may be a period of time in which the abuser treats the victim very well, doting on her, buying her flowers, being extra-sensitive to her needs. This further confuses the victim.
If you are indeed in an abusive relationship, please know that very often it is not easy to leave because the abuser often does not let go easily and/or the victim begins to believe that she is indeed worthless and should try harder. If you are in an abusive relationship or even question whether you are in an abusive relationship, my clinical recommendation is to see a qualified therapist now, regardless of whether or not you leave. Abusive relationships are complicated and never clear-cut. Well-intentioned friends and family may say “get out,” but it is not simple. The abused or emotionally tortured spouse may wonder if things are really that bad and if she should “give it another shot,” as per the advice she is given.
Unfortunately, your encounter with your parents is not uncommon. Well-intentioned parents may tell their children to stay in the marriage for a myriad of reasons, amongst them the stigma of having a divorced child, the stigma their newly divorced child will face, the inevitable pain they see their child facing in the event of divorce, and the belief that the grandchildren are better off with married rather than divorced parents. Though encouraging a child to stay in a marriage is not wrong in general, when the stakes are high and the situation is abusive, it is the worst, most dangerous advice to give. I advise you to share with your parents some of the torture your husband has inflicted upon you. I know sharing these private secrets can be very painful. However, if you need their help, be it emotional, physical, or financial, now is the time to let them know what you have been living through.
A woman leaving a marriage such as yours needs all the help and support she can get. Having your parents as your allies could be wonderful for you. I wonder if you would consider inviting your parents to join you for a session with a therapist to help them understand the severity of the situation. If they are unyielding in their stance, you will still have your therapist to assist you explore your situation, intuitions, and options. Clearly, you are a strong woman. I hope you continue to be strong and courageous as you continue on your journey.
Jennifer Mann is presently working as a psychotherapist at Ohel. She also works as a relationship coach and can be reached at 718-908-0512.