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I am an avid reader of your column and a great fan of your words of guidance. Now I am finding myself in dire need of help.
Before I give you all the background info, here is the main issue. My wife was abused (physically and verbally) by her mother. What do I do? Help, please!
I am a chassan in shana rishona. Before we got married, I started to pick up that my wife was not very close with her mother. However, while we were engaged my wife didn’t talk much about it and basically blamed it on being an only daughter who has been smothered by her parents.
Her parents impressed me as good frum machshiv-Torah people. They are foreigners and very hardworking, yet very generous people. They are essentially financing our learning in kollel time for the next few years. They are warm, sweet people who are tremendous ba’alei chesed and are very attached to my wife, as she is their only daughter. After we got married, I noted a deep resentment and some hate/anger on the part of my wife towards her mother. I myself have had strong issues with my parents but have Baruch Hashem worked things out and am now very close and open with them. My hope was and is that my wife (who is much younger than I) would work things out as I did when I was her age – so through my loving encouragement and support, she is trying to be more open with her mother.
Recently my wife finally confided in me that while she does love her mother, she suspects that her negative feelings stem from her mother’s physical and verbal abuse throughout her childhood. Luckily, she was away from home for her seminary year. This is her first year post-seminary, and her wounds are still fresh. She told me that her mother used a belt on her, pulled her by her hair and cursed and berated her. My wife says her mother, who is exceedingly emotional to begin with, acted in anger and frustration rather than with love/discipline. And of all things, my wife has feelings of guilt! Let me tell you, my wife is an accomplished and precocious girl. She has been a top student and is very talented and well-liked. She never told a soul and suffered in silence all these years. Since we married, I have been emotionally functioning as her mother and father as well, since she keeps her distance from them.
My wife says her mother would also be physically/verbally abusive to her father. I must add that my in-laws are European/Russian and had a very challenging life. They themselves were probably raised this way and were possibly beaten by their parents and perhaps fail to realize what they have done to their daughter. They feel they give their children everything and that they spoil their kids. Indeed, they are very giving.
What do I do? As a husband and son-in-law, I want my wife to be happy and I want her to have a mother. Throughout high school she would use her close friends to fill her “mother void.” She deserves to have a good loving relationship with her parents and a strong emotional bond with her mother.
As a son-in-law, I sometimes feel weird around them and resent the fact that I need to be my wife’s mother and father because she is not always comfortable/resents/hates her own parents.
Help me, please, do the best for my wife.
Thank you very kindly.
Eagerly awaiting your response
To begin with, you must drastically tone down the eagerness to act as mother and father to your wife. The best you can do for her (and for yourself) is to be a devoted husband: mature, supportive, sensitive, caring and loving. Though your wife definitely needs to deal with her hurt and anger, she should be doing so with a competent therapist – without you in the picture.
It may be a challenging task for you to be a pillar of strength and emotional support to your spouse while maintaining and preserving a good relationship with your in-laws – but it is vital that you do just that. Gently explain to your wife that you did not grow up in her home, that her parents have treated you well – and that in no way is this an issue of taking sides. In fact, you can be a bridge between her and her mother in terms of communication, without attempting to reconcile them. (Reconciliation should be a future goal, once the hurt and anger are adequately dealt with.) If she is uncomfortable visiting them, especially for long-term (Shabbosim and Yomim-Tovim), you can and should stop by and visit your in-laws occasionally on your own during the week.
You obviously care very deeply for your wife, but assuming a parental role may wear you thin emotionally and eventually lead to feelings of resentment toward her. She has suffered much in her growing years and is in need of a great deal of love and understanding from you to help her build up her self-esteem. If her self-criticism/condemnation proves to be a burdensome factor in your relationship, you may want to avail yourself of professional counseling – by yourself – to learn how to deal with this aspect.
As your wife’s life partner and ezer kenegdo, you have the lofty mission of preserving a dignified marital partnership and upholding the mitzvah of kibud av v’eim – applicable to in-laws as well as to parents. While such obligation is incumbent upon us all, your “handle with care” assignment is a most challenging one – and will ultimately be more rewarding, in more ways than one.
I wish you much hatzlacha and siyata d’shmaya in fulfilling your goal – of shalom bayis and harmonious relations all around!