Phobia of Divorce:Another Perspective/Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW

Posted on June 5, 2013


(Editor’s Note: The post by Dr. Klafter was read and discussed by many. Another perspective is presented by Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW. Rabbi Feuerman maintains a private practice in psychotherapy and is on the staff of OHEL. He is President of the NEFESH organization.)

First of all, heartfelt thanks to Dr. Klafter for fearlessly bringing up a provocative topic.  I do believe he makes an excellent point that the FEAR of divorce leads people to avoid making constructive changes, having sober and mature dialogue about roles, expectations, disappointments and facing unacceptable but necessary thoughts and feelings.  This avoidance leads to marriages that are “brain dead”, and perhaps halachically it is arguably permissible to “pull the plug”.

Additionally, a strong marriage is built on the emotional independence of each party, so that they have the right amount of ahava AND yir’a to respect each others’ boundaries.  Many people are bullied emotionally (and physically) by a spouse, because, deep down the other spouse knows he or she “ain’t ever leaving.”  Then, when the threshold reaches a point the person truly cannot tolerate it, they leave or have an affair or a breakdown, and the problems finally get discussed, when it is often too late to easily rekindle love.

There is a fascinating Gemara (Megilla 14a) that says (I am paraphrasing) , “Achashverosh’s removal of his signet ring did more to bring the Jews back to Hashem and teshuva than all of the 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses.”  The point being, only when the Jews felt they were in dire danger, only then did they finally take stock of their behavior and relationship with G-d to heart and repaired it.  This could be seen as a metaphor for a troubled marriage, and I wonder if Chazal weren’t hinting at this: Only when the spouse “removes the ring” and truly shows the independence of spirit and willingness to divorce, only then does the other spouse get the message and begin to reform his or her ways.

Still, I take exception to Dr. Klafter’s statement that he has never seen an unnecessary divorce.  I do not dispute the existential right to choose, and I would not say any particular person is “wrong” for getting divorce.  It is a highly personal choice, and since so much emotional pain is at stake, I do not believe that a person can be held morally and halachically liable if he or she chooses to bail out of a horrible marriage, even if in theory, it could be fixed.  Such tzaar is equivalent to at least choleh sh’eyn bo sakana if not choleh sheyesh bo sakana.  Nevertheless, the bread and butter of my practice is high conflict couples.  And, I do contact “graduates” from prior years to see how they are doing, and I often hear positive news.  I have not saved every marriage that walked into my office, but I can testify that even the worst marriages are fixable IF there is sufficient motivation and open mindedness to the possibility of repair and change.  This INCLUDES persons with personality disorders.  Yes, believe it or not, they also have neshamos and can transcend their insane distortions IF they are sufficiently motivated.

When I work with couples, I am very straightforward and direct about the various deficits I see.  I give them intelligent options and tools to modify the dysfunctional patterns of communication, distorted thinking and defective beliefs and assumptions.  I let them know couples’ therapy isn’t psychotherapy and that though I can tell them what to do, and sometimes how to do it, I cannot fix their psychological problems in a couples’ session. They can “white knuckle it” and just change their behavior because they see the logic and value in it, or they can work through some of their blocks in individual therapy, studying mussar, praying or whatever.  (Of course, I believe therapy is one of the more effective choices, but I also believe clients should choose how they want to work on themselves, and I should not dismiss any constructive sincere course of action.)  It sounds like I am abrupt and blunt with the clients, but actually I relay this information with great tact and personal warmth and regard for who they are, their pain and their needs.  It’s not something that can be easily explained in an email, you have to be there to see it.  Behind all the tact and warmth I still tell them frankly what I see, and this too is out of respect for them and their predicament.  I also let them know, it’s just my opinion, and they can certainly disagree.

 I have found if you are fair, direct, and can give people clear information with logical rationales about what is not working and why and what  will work and why, they can get it and make healthier, more adaptive choices, despite their pathology.  When people try new patterns of behavior and they work out well, they become reinforcing.  This can help people change their behavior and their thinking.  Marriages are developmental processes that allow people to change.  Though it won’t work if they don’t have the motivation, they can’t be motivated if  they do not have the right information and direction.  If they are at the very least be open to the possibility that they are “wrong” and need to change their thinking, even people with personality disorders can at times see their illogic and distortions. Also, it helps if they “hit bottom” and are suffering terribly.  They may need lots of individual therapy to reduce their reactivity and heal past traumas and tremendous willpower.  But they can change, and it is worth it.  The love that comes after a repair is deeper and more meaningful, much as Chazal tell us that baaley teshuva occupy a place that even tzadikkim cannot achieve.

I never tell clients whether they should be married or divorced. Ever. I do not let myself get overwhelmed by the horrible pain and stress because of one simple technique:  I tell them that if they choose to work on their marriage, I can only give them the tools to make the next right move.  Just one right move is all I can usually help them figure out.  Once that move is done, and the system reacts, we can figure out the next right move. This approach is very helpful and allows for a step by step recovery process.

One final thought: Divorce can be compared to an amputation. Sometimes, if the infection has gone too far it’s necessary.  But it will hurt like Hell, it’s only a last resort, and there will be phantom pains.  Still, if it has to be done, to save a life, so be it.