Dear Dr. Respler,
I am writing to express my disagreement with the advice you gave the anonymous letter-writer in your May 15th column.
Anonymous wrote that her husband is “amazing in his mitzvos bein adam l’Makom,” davens with a minyan, and is very focused on his learning but that his treatment of her “leaves much to be desired.”
She then goes on to say that they have a number of young children and when she is pregnant and tired he gets upset if she lies down: “He tells me to get up and clean.” She says he doesn’t help her bathe the children or put them to bed. She goes on to say that he screams at her in the street and “basically has little respect for me.”
She says her husband and his siblings treat their mother with total disrespect, making fun of her and calling her a silly lady. “Sometimes when I say something he doesn’t like, he’ll say ‘You remind me of my mother when you say something stupid.’”
Finally she concludes, “I am so upset with my husband. He even does this in front of the children.”
It would be impossible to ascertain the severity of her situation with a hundred percent certainty from her brief letter. Does her husband behave like this all the time, or only on rare occasions (although it would be hard to imagine she would write such a letter if he only behaved like this on rare occasions)?
However, it is clear to me that what she writes – husband forces her to get up and clean when she is pregnant and tired, screams at her in the street, belittles her in front of the children – are strong red flags that she is in a psychologically abusive relationship.
In your response, you make a number of suggestions, all of which may be helpful, but they can only be helpful if her husband is willing and able to change. You start by suggesting that she have a serious talk with her husband, but then say, “Depending on how deep your husband’s disrespect runs this may or may not help him change.”
You write, “Unfortunately, the probability is that he will not see a reason to change…[he] clearly has some issues with respecting women. If this is the case, it is important to understand that you cannot change your husband, you can only change yourself.” And you end with, “If your husband agrees to go for therapy, wonderful. But if not, you may want to seek professional help to build your self-esteem and help you be strong. I wish you hatzlocha in this challenging situation.”
The gist of your advice seems to be that there are some things she can try, but coming from the home her husband comes from, chances are he won’t change. And therefore, if he won’t change, all she can do is strengthen herself to cope with the situation. Perhaps this is not what you meant, but this is the message I got.
I respectfully ask if you would have given this advice had Anonymous told you that she is being physically beaten? Is emotional and psychological abuse not abuse the same as physical abuse is?
The only thing Anonymous can do if her husband doesn’t change is to strengthen herself? Must she stay in an abusive relationship for the sake of keeping her family together?
Speaking of the family, how does her husband’s behavior affect the children? If they have daughters, will he eventually treat his daughters with the same disrespectful and abusive behaviors with which he treats his wife? And what kind of example is he setting for his sons? How will his sons treat their wives? And how are they all learning to treat their mother?