(*Names and circumstances changed)
In my interviews with well spouses, the theme of being caged in a box of expectations has repeated itself often. Many well spouses feel that there are values and expectations that are applied to them, as caregivers that are unique to them and not to other members of our community. They have shared with me that they feel others have assigned to them the role of taking care of their spouses, no matter what. It doesn’t seem to allow for how sad they are, if they are ill themselves or even if they are abused by the person they are caring for. The community expectation is that they must remain as their spouse’s caregiver. No alternative is allowed.
Chavie* was a former well spouse. She was also an agunah. It was not that her husband refused to give her a Get (Jewish divorce). It was because he could not. Chavie’s husband had been in a nursing home for the last 15 years. He did not know who she was. He could not stand, walk, feed himself or in any way care for himself. For 15 years, Chavie had come daily to feed him and visit with him even though it was as if she was invisible to him. Her adult children saw Chavie become more and more depressed over time. She was still young, in her 40s, and could make a life for herself. But, she could not obtain a Get because her husband was in a mental vacuum. Without a Get, Chavie could not remarry.
Chavie told me she has an acquaintance, Jenny, who was in the middle of divorcing her husband. They had tried counseling but it had not been successful enough to keep Jenny from seeking a divorce despite her young children. Life with her husband had just been too painful and sad for Jenny to continue in the marriage.
One day Chavie found herself with a group of women, one of them was Jenny, when the topic of conversation turned to marriages. Chavie talked about her own situation as well as women like her who were, basically “agunot” in waiting. As caregivers, they continued to stay married and were there for their husbands, all the while knowing their husband’s illness could progress to the point of loss of mental faculties. At that point, they would be bound in the marriage till his death.
Jenny’s response was to ask Chavie what had happened to the concept of “in sickness and health, till death do us part.” Chavie was speechless. Jenny obviously thought divorce appropriate for herself, as a way to deal with her unhappiness. But this same alternative, in Jenny’s mind, was not one she allowed a caregiver.
Hadassah* was another well spouse. Her rav had been very helpful in getting their community to be there for her, her two children and her chronically ill husband. It had made her life as a well spouse easier. But now, as Hadassah’s husband’s illness worsened he began to get very controlling and abusive. Her husband’s frustration at his physical deterioration and his loss of control over his own body led to verbal abuse of those around him and a desire to control everyone he could. Hadassah was afraid that physical abuse of her and the children were next. But when she went to talk to her rav about divorce, a man who often spoke out against abuse, it was made clear to her that that was not an alternative for her as a caregiver, as it might have been for other members of the congregation.
When she spoke on issues of control, the rav countered with, “but he’s sick.” She got the same response when she spoke of her fear of the escalating abuse. It was as if illness made the behavior acceptable, at least to a well spouse. The rav also reminded Hadassah how divorce might affect future shidduchim for her children and intimated that support for her, as a single mother might be difficult to find.
It is very clear to most well spouses that a double standard exists. There are the values and expectations that we have for most marriages that include acceptable ways of dealing with marital strife. And then, there are the rules for marriages involving caregivers. They bear no resemblance to each other. Most people in the healthy world feel the well spouses should not be allowed an “out.” It doesn’t matter how difficult their life is, how miserable he or she may be or even if there is abuse in the marriage. Caregivers must adhere to a different set of standards. Ones that we decided apply to them. And we do all we can, whether by clear or subtle messages, to make sure they do.
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