Dear Dr. Respler,
I am writing to ask your advice about how to deal with a problem I go through every year before Pesach. My husband, who is normally a wonderful husband and father, turns into an obsession-ridden monster before Pesach. When I tell people that my husband hardly allows me to do ANY of the cleaning for Pesach, they tell me how lucky I am and how envious they are of me, but little do they know the truth of how I suffer each year!
The reason my husband doesn’t allow me to do the cleaning is because he does not trust that anyone but he will be stringent enough in eliminating any possible speck of chometz, and any other dirt in the house which “may turn out to be a crumb!” My husband takes off from work for at least a week before Pesach to clean. He does not merely clean, he cleans, he re-cleans, and he even re-does what the cleaning lady does after she leaves, claiming she “doesn’t do it properly.”
During this week of frenzied, non-stop cleaning, my husband gets very little sleep (averaging only a couple of hours a night), sometimes even forgetting to eat. Needless to say, there always comes a point that his back-breaking work, on little sleep and food, causes him to lose his temper very frequently.
Every year I go through this horror of a week with him prior to Pesach, and each year I try explaining to him that it is NOT a mitzvah to drive yourself, your wife, and your children crazy while going overboard and taking on extra chumros (to put it mildly) with this obsession of his when it comes to Pesach cleaning. Does he think he is racking up mitzvos by depriving himself of food and sleep, cleaning and re-cleaning every inch of the house, searching for that imagined speck of chometz, while losing his temper at his wife and children if they should dare ask a simple question at an inappropriate time? Each year, he explodes in anger at me and our children for no good reason, other than that he is physically and mentally exhausted and drained. Can such behavior be a mitzvah? Where is the beauty of Pesach for me? Instead of looking forward to Yom Tov, I always find myself absolutely DREADING it!
How can I get my husband to see that Hashem would be much more pleased if he kept the shalom bayis in our home by not abusing me, losing his temper with us, and driving himself and us crazy, all because of this out of control compulsion which he disguises as merely being “thorough in his Pesach cleaning?” When he is calm, he always apologizes and admits that he realizes this is a “mishugas” of his, yet he makes no effort to try and curb it. Let me again say that at all other times, my husband is a sweet, caring and loving individual, but he is totally transformed into someone I don’t recognize when it comes to Pesach.
Looking forward to your advice,
I am not exactly certain about your husband’s “mishugas,” but it is possible that your husband may be suffering from a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that is exacerbated right before Pesach (Passover). You had mentioned in the letter that your husband is sweet, caring and loving during the year, but that around the time of Pesach he transforms. Here are some questions that you should ask yourself (or your husband) to see if he possibly does show some signs of OCD during the year, but you are just not aware of it:
I think that you should seek professional help if there is OCD at other times as well. It is only ethical that I raise these possible questions, but you must seek professional help to clearly assess the situation.
1] Does he have obsessive thoughts about anything that plagues him and doed not leave him alone until he carries out an action?
2] Do you find your husband repeating tasks again and again without a reason?
3] Does he constantly think about something that has happened or might happen to him? Does he have trouble stopping these thoughts no matter how hard he tries?
4] Does he become upset when things around him are not perfect?
5] Does he repeat certain words or numbers in his head to make him feel reassured?
6] Does he wash his hands excessively until he has cracks in his skin because he is afraid of germs and diseases? (This is a harder one to assess because we are in the middle of a pandemic, but does he see more obsessional with handwashing than the norm?)
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can plague brilliant and high functioning people and in some situations destroy their lives.
Since I have never met your husband and this is just based on your letter, I am not in a place to diagnose him with any disorder. Ristvedt, MacKenzie, & Christenson (1993) published an article in Behavior Research and Therapy on this topic. They hypothesized that symptoms of OCD can increase and diminish as a result of environmental cues. Principal components analysis revealed 4 components: household order and organization, contamination and cleaning, negative affect, and prevention of harm and checking.
Thus, it is possible that your husband has a form of OCD that is intensified during the time period of Pesach (Passover) because of the stringencies of the laws of cleaning. As you stated in your letter, your husband thinks that he is just being stringent in halachah. However, he may in actuality have obsessional thoughts about cleaning and making sure that there is absolutely no speck of chometz (unleavened bread) in the house.
In addition, he may feel compelled to do something to alleviate the obsessional thoughts, namely his compulsive cleaning. Unfortunately, his compulsions do alleviate his obsessional thoughts, thus leading to a vicious cycle of obsessions and compulsions. I imagine that your husband truly feels like he is carrying out the mitzvah properly on a conscious level, but he may also be suffering terribly on a conscious and/or subconscious level. He may not be aware that a sickness is overcoming him and taking over his thoughts, and he simply may feel like he’s going insane. It is very hard for people with OCD to stop the compulsions because it is almost like they are forced to do so by their obsessional thoughts.
I feel your pain because it can be very hard to live with someone like this. Thank you for writing this letter and I hope I helped you gain some insight into how your husband is feeling at this time. Please try and take him for some outside help in order to help alleviate his anguish. Even if he does not have OCD (which is very possible, since I never met him), he is definitely suffering from obsessional thoughts, which lead him to act in this manner.
I wish you hatzlocha in dealing with this problem and please be loving and gentle with your special husband!