Phobia of Divorce/Dr. Nachum Klafter

Posted on June 2, 2013


(Ed. Note: Dr. Nachum Klafter is a practicing psychiatrist, residing in Cincinnati, Ohio. Because of the importance of the thoughts expressed in this post, it is also included in the blogsite

 It is my sense that many of our patients have a phobia of divorce.  This includes Torah observant Jews, and non-Jews.

 What do I mean by a phobia?  I mean that they have an unreasonable fear of divorce which is so severe that they experience severe distress when they simply think or fantasize about divorce as a theoretical possibility.  They are afraid of divorce despite the fact that there appears to be no realistic possibility that the couple is going to separate.  This distress prevents patients from thinking seriously about their marital problems, from articulating their unhappiness to their spouses, and from honestly acknowledging the pain they feel due to bitter marital discord and loneliness due to emotional estrangement.

I have evaluated countless couples who have been miserably unhappy with one another for 10-20 years, who have not had sex in 10-20 years, and who have made no effort whatsoever to improve their marriages.  Often, in response to my suggestion that they consider actually addressing these issues, I hear the following:  If I say that to her, she will fly off the handle and scream at me; there is absolutely no point in saying anything to him about this because he believes that all of our problems are entirely my fault and all he will do is roll his eyes at me;if it weren’t for the children, I’d certainly divorce him; and she doesn’t believe in therapy and she’d never agree to see a couple’s therapist.  Underneath these rationalizations for avoiding any effort to work on their marital problems, patients often have a fear of divorce. They see divorce as inevitably causing loneliness and shame for the rest of their lives.  Such patients block any thoughts that might be associated with a fantasy of leaving their spouses, and this includes serious exploration of their marital problems.

Fantasies of divorce (like fantasies of anything else) are normal.  There is nothing pathological about imagining, What would it be like if I discovered my husband was gay? or  What would it be like if just decided not to come home tonight, and just drove to Canada and restarted a life there?  I submit that the inability to fantasize about divorce is a serious impediment to being able to work on one’s marital problems.

I have never seen a couple divorce where it seems, retrospectively, like they shouldn’t have.  I realize some of you may have seen marriages end which should have been preserved, but I truly have not.  I have heard countless people repeat the following pithy aphorism: In our wealthy society where we throw things away willy-nilly because it’s cheaper to replace them rather than repair them, we now throw away marriages rather than working to repair them.  It sounds very wise, but I think it is simply not true.  To the contrary, I have seen so many marriages where I believe divorce would be better for both spouses, but they stay together, miserable, for decades.

The possibility that divorce is damaging to children is a serious consideration.  However, this needs to be weighed against the fact that marriages where one spouse is being abused by another, or where both spouses hate each other’s guts and are constantly nasty to one another, are actually farm more damaging for children than divorce.  When someone is in a hateful marriage but afraid to divorce because of the children, I sometimes ask, If your daughter married a man who treated her the way your husband is treating you, what would you advise her?

It is clear to me that there is a common attitude among some rabbonim who are involved in shlom bayis pastoral counseling that saving a marriage is a form of pikuach nefesh.  Sometimes, this assumption is asserted without looking into the actually quality of the marriage.  Here is a current case:  A couple has been married for 22 years.  The mother has psychologically tormented and physically abused all of her daughters (but, interestingly, not her sons).  The daughters clearly have numerous psychological problems as a result of this abuse: eating disorders, suicidal ideation and multiple attempts, depression, and oppositional-defiant behaviors against religious authorities.  The father has received such irresponsible advice from so many rabbis that all insist he should not divorce.  Allegedly a godol  recently advised:  For the sake of the children, they should remain together if at all possible. This godol never spoke with them.  (Who knows what the godol was actually told about them, or what he actually said, as it was their local rov who asked on the husband’s behalf.)

Sometimes, divorce is the optimal outcome from a therapy.  Sometimes, divorce is better for the children than remaining together.  Why would the Torah give us a procedure for divorce if it were always wrong?  It is a Mitzvah!  Yes there are midrashim and aggados which talk about the virtue of restoring shlom bayis, and about how Heaven weeps when a couple is divorced.  Those sources notwithstanding, there are in fact times that divorce is best for everyone.

Other times, the capacity of one spouse to consider divorce as a real option, which would not be the end of the world, gives him or her the courage to actually address what is so painful in the marriage.  I am currently working with a woman who has been verbally abused by her husband for the last 2 decades.  His children have been abused by him as well.  It took two years of psychotherapy treatment before she could actually imagine that if she divorces, she will be able to land on her feet.  Divorce was unthinkable, literally. She was terrified that he would leave her if she ever articulated anything he would/could construe as critical or negative.  Once she was no longer so terrified of this, she was able to explain to him, clearly, that his bullying and anger are unacceptable.  She was surprised to see that he took her very seriously, and felt horribly remorseful about his conduct over the years.  She also learned that he was bullied by his own father growing up.  He has accepted a referral to a trusted colleague, who has diagnosed him with depression.  Medication has changed his mood and improved his irritability profoundly.  He is now working on making amends with his children.  She was not able to address her grievances to him until she was able to imagine being divorced.  She has never been happier.

Often, the best approach may be this:  Let’s prepare for divorce, and then we can try to save your marriage.