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Recreating a Family

Recreating a Family

Life After Divorce


“I always tell people, I made two very smart decisions in my life: 1) to get married, and 2) to get divorced. If I hadn’t gotten married, I wouldn’t have my children, and I love them, and I’m glad I got married. But, being that my situation wasn’t livable, I am also glad I got divorced.”

It takes work to maintain an outlook that isn’t dominated by “If only I would have…”or “If only he/she/my mother/my teachers/(fill in blank) had/hadn’t . . . ,” and reach a state of balanced acceptance, but reaching that state is essential. It’s the beginning, not the end result, of engaging life post-divorce in a healthy way. And helping ourselves and our children get there is an ongoing process, sometimes starting long before the divorce takes hold.

There is no easy way to broach the subject of divorce with young children

One day, maybe out of a feeling of nostalgia, Aviva was looking through her wedding album. Tension had been building up for a long time. Frequently, her two older children, all of six and four years old, had noticed that she and her husband were fighting.

“Mommy, why are you crying?” “Why is daddy upset?” There is no easy way to broach the subject of divorce with young children. In the end, Aviva didn’t have to initiate the conversation at all. Her four-year-old son came over to her as she looked at the wedding album and said to her, “Mommy, right you had a wedding and you married my daddy, but now you don’t want to be married to him anymore?” Aviva simply asked, “What do you think?” and her son replied, “Mommy, when you’re sad, I’m sad. I don’t think you should stay married to my daddy.”

Not that everything proceeded simply and smoothly after that. Having a family friend who was divorced had made the process easier for Aviva’s two oldest children (the younger ones picked up on less of what was happening). Aviva sat down with them and explained, on their level, how divorce sometimes happens. So the concept wasn’t entirely new to them, and their unusual emotional sensitivity and maturity made it easier for them to accept what was happening.

Still, questions, doubts and fears cropped up. Her daughter felt it would be hard for Aviva to take care of four children on her own, and when some time after the divorce the idea of remarriage was approached, she wondered if a stepfather would like her. Both children had a habit of saying that whoever she married in the future would not be their family. Until she pointed out to them that one day they too would grow up and get married, and that their spouses would most definitely be family to her. “So,” Aviva asked, “won’t whoever I marry be your family?”

Staying clear of pat answers made coping with divorce easier

“Part of loving one another, and being a family, means that I will love whoever you marry, because that person will be a part of you. When I get married again, it will be someone who is my very good friend; and because he will be my good friend, he will also be your good friend, and he will like you because you are a part of me.” Staying clear of pat answers, and instead treating her children and their concerns with sensitivity and wisdom made coping with divorce easier for Aviva and much healthier for her kids. But there were still challenges, some of which preceded the divorce itself, and some that came with being a woman alone with four small children.

“Even when we were married, I saw that my husband just didn’t bond with our oldest son. He (the son) has a very sensitive, introverted nature, and his father just didn’t get him. I wanted someone to be a male role model for him, but it’s awkward to approach people and just say ‘Well, my husband doesn’t really have a relationship with our son, so can you help him?’ In that area, I really felt that I had more options to help my son after the separation. One week after we separated, I found him a rabbi from his school who would meet with him once a week at the synagogue and tutor him. It gave him one-on-one male attention, and he needed that.”

For so many families, going to synagogue every Shabbat is a major cornerstone of life, and something kids look forward to all week. But it doesn’t look the same to a boy whose classmates are all with their fathers. Different families find different ways of adjusting. A lot depends on the temperament of the child, but a lot also depends on the age of the child and the relationship of the child to his father. One mother’s strategy was to simply fill her son’s hand with candies and send him to go pass them out to all his friends. It might not have won any points with the other mothers who were already worried about the amount of sugar their kids had had, but it gave her son the motivation to go up for the Torah reading.

At home, too, both sons and daughters need positive role models of both genders. It’s something every woman I spoke with felt sensitive to, and tried to make up for in some way, either through finding the equivalents of “Big Brothers” or making extra efforts to ensure that they saw their fathers.

“Are you going to make the best out of the life you have?”

“My kids sometimes still complain about things,” remarked Riva. “They’ll kvetch (complain) and then add, ‘It’s because you got divorced.’ But I try to point out the positive things in our family and focus on that. I admit that it’s sad. I tell my kids all the time, it’s sad that we got divorced, but you have to choose how you’re going to deal with that. Are you going to sit around and mope, or are you going to make the best out of the life you have?”

Aviva agreed that the best approach is acknowledging that it’s an imperfect situation, but accepting that it’s all from G‑d. “Often, there is big shame involved and it’s really paralyzing, but I never felt embarrassed about it, and I think that’s why my kids never felt embarrassed. It’s all part of the package.”

“When I told my kids that their father and I were getting a divorce,” recalls Riva, “my 14-year-old daughter said to me, ‘Now I’m a loser.’ I asked her, were you a loser yesterday? She said no, and I told her, ‘Well, guess what, you’re not one now either; you’re still the same person.’

The next day when she went to school, I’d already told all the teachers so they would be prepared to deal with whatever issues might come up, and so they could just have the awareness to be sensitive. I didn’t have one single negative reaction from any of my kids’ teachers, even though divorce is rare in our community. My daughter’s teacher simply gave my daughter a big hug, and told her if she ever wanted anyone to speak to, she could come talk to her.

“I never felt that anyone was judgmental, but if a woman does feel that she’s being judged, she has to avoid being around people who make her feel that way. If you accustom yourself to hanging around people who make you feel bad about yourself, you’re preparing yourself for a husband who is going to make you feel bad about yourself.”

For some women, that might very well be what led to their divorce. One young woman made a quick, and very insightful, self-assessment after her divorce at age nineteen.

“I was used to hanging out with really unhealthy people, so when I met my ex-husband, I read his emotional immaturity and the unhealthy relationship we had as ‘normal.’ So I made a resolution after the divorce that from now on I hang out only with emotionally healthy people. There are plenty around, and I can be myself around them and work on growing, and they can handle that.”

Joy is your best weapon against all the challenges and battles you’ll face.

A crucial step in healing and moving on to a healthy life and, maybe, a healthy second marriage is asking yourself, “What weakness do I have in me that caused me to pick a mate who wouldn’t be right for me?” We all have weaknesses—and though, as Aviva quipped, we don’t have to tell them to our worst enemies, we do have to admit them to ourselves, because that’s part of growing. And we know that when G‑d sends us difficulties, it’s only so that we’ll grow from them—and if we handle them properly, we can make that growth into a gift we pass on to our kids.

Contrary to popular opinion, many (though not all) children of divorced parents actually learn to avoid a divorce or bad marriage themselves. They learn to be cautious. They learn that there are many “right” people out there who are not necessarily right for them, and they are more careful about how they handle the issues that arise in marriage—but their ability to do so rests a great deal on how well their parents navigate family relationships after the divorce.

Another important step in getting your strength back and going forward is finding out what empowers you, and making space in your life for that. For all of us, that includes finding time for doing special things for our kids, things that reassure them—and us—that we can take care of them. That might mean making private time for each child. It might mean cooking special foods for them, hiring a tutor, or taking a day off to go to a local park.

You have to find the unique balance that keeps your family thriving, and ward off the scoffers. Take the time to make life zany and fun; joy is your best weapon against all the challenges and battles you’ll face.

Take time too, though, to nurture you.

Riva, a licensed therapist as well as a single mom, emphasizes that she sees a difference between women who exercise and women who don’t. “You feel competent, you feel confident about your body, and if you work out at a club it is social, too. You have to eat healthy, and really nurture every side of you.”

Reconnect with old friends, with hobbies and interests that you felt unable to explore during the marriage. One woman started playing music again, and just bought a guitar—her first in 25 years. For another, it was writing poetry that really opened her up and helped her reconnect with parts of herself that had been squelched in her marriage. For others, free-form writing has remained a way of processing what they’ve been through and charting their goals, successes and failures.

I wouldn’t say “no” out of fear

“I made a decision to say ‘yes’ to whatever came my way, unless it was something I really didn’t want to do, but I wouldn’t say ‘no’ out of fear. I started teaching, even though I felt not ready, but I was offered a class, and I said ‘yes.’ People walked out of that first class, but I learned from it. Now I prepare more ahead of time.

“You can’t be afraid to flop. At the same time, stability is important. For me, there was a big value in buying a house because it anchored us, even though the financial pressure was enormous at first. But just envisioning a better future helped me through, and now I have the stability of owning a home, and things did get better.”

A common, and useful, piece of advice was to put off dating until you are doing it because you want a relationship, and not because you need one. And decide beforehand what you need your children’s boundaries to be.

“I didn’t want my kids to be exposed to dating,” states Aviva. “I wanted to preserve their innocence. I knew that if they would meet someone and then it wouldn’t work out, they would have already been expecting a wedding, and a breakup would hurt their trust. When I started dating, I would have a babysitter take them to the park, then I would get dressed up and go out, and come home when they were already asleep. My second husband wanted to meet my kids as soon as he felt interested in me, but I told him it’s the last step.”

Remarriage is challenging, from navigating a dating relationship to introducing, and eventually merging, two separate families. It takes a lot of energy, and it’s hard to go from the joy of a wedding straight into a houseful of responsibilities. You have to create time for the two of you, sometimes opting for a night out when a newlywed (for the first time) couple could create the same space by staying home. And you have to find ways to reassure both sets of kids that no one is usurping them.

While many of the difficulties can be anticipated, and minimized, beforehand, what no one can predict for you is how many pleasant surprises are in store as you build a new home together.

Many pleasant surprises are in store as you build a new home together

“I worried about my son having male role models, now he’s in such a guy house—two teenaged brothers and a new father, and they love him. My stepsons are also excited; now that they have little kids in the house, they feel like they have a whole family. The kids have really bonded.”

But perhaps the biggest advantage, and one of the best investments you can make in your children’s future, is in the relationship you develop with your spouse.

“Before, my kids did not have an example of what it means for spouses to be friends. I had to explain that when I would get married again it would be to someone I love, who loves me, and we would love each other’s children.

“Now my kids can see what a good marriage is supposed to be.”

Chana Kroll is an alumna of Machon Chana Yeshiva for Women in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Prior to moving to New York, she taught at a boarding school/shelter for runaways and young people whose families were homeless.
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Leo Angelo Calgary, AB April 10, 2014

But, it was not like that from the beginning Hello,

You have given me a next step thing to do for my counselling and a better testimony about this topic.

Though I grieve with love.

“What God has put together, let no man separate.”

I remain,
Leo Angelo Reply

Anonymous usa April 9, 2013

response to gett lemasse and (1) concerning quote: "Divorce is one of the most difficult issues to deal with because it affects so many members of the family, it needs to be considered by qualified therapists, mediators and councillors." Since divorce seekers do not take responsibility all of these others are required not the other way around. Think long about this social reality.
(2) what to do when one person refuses therapy? (a) do not use it as a cop-out solution, bargaining tool or proof that 'the one who wants therapy is right!!"
(b) accept him/her as is and grow "around" and "through" the shortcomings of the other -- give the benefit of the doubt to the 'wrong-doer' and understand that your life doesn't depend on the other's ability to meet your standards (c) accepting the other's faults and perceived "faults" will allow you to love the other person and often come to admire the same "faults" -- how? those "faults" are the person's unique qualities, which you cannot control. Love your fellow as yourself. Reply

Gett Lemaaseh April 8, 2013

First Step I found the article intriguing and well written.
It appears to me that many think that a rabbi has the answers to marital problems, and nothing can be further from the truth.
The fact is, that unless a rabbi has undergone specific training and received the appropriate education by qulaified people, they can and often do, offer wrong advice.
Divorce is one of the most difficult issues to deal with because it affects so many members of the family, it needs to be considered by qualified therapists, mediators and councillors.
And importantly, with utmost discretion!
Divorce is a process where reconcilation is no longer an option and there is the need for both parties to come to terms with it and move on.
It isn't a death sentence R"L, quite the contrary.
It is an opportunity for both parties to realise that there is a next step in life. One which does not include the other.
And when young children are invloved, it is best to be finalise it as quickly as possible. Reply

bg cleveland.... April 8, 2013

be careful before marriage Know your partners upbringing and watch their actions! Do not listen to their words. Actions are stronger! Reply

Anonymous April 7, 2013

Be willing to take part in therapy if your wife asks I am responding to the comment that says "what about the husband" and "happiness and satisfaction are mutable states." In my marriage, quite simply the husband said he was unwilling to work on any problems. He said I could be happy "if I wanted to" (much like the comment on this article) and therefore the problem was mine to fix and not his. He refused to address any of the problems in the marriage and he refused to go to therapy.

Adults in the marriage, both husband and wife, if they want to save the marriage and improve it and keep it in a healthy state, BOTH have to be willing to work on the problems. It takes two people to make a marriage work, and it requires a willingness to refine our own character.

My gentle response to husbands if a wife asks you to participate in therapy, the indicator whether you are willing to truly work on the marriage is whether you say yes or no. Reply

Anonymous April 6, 2013

what about the husband? Did I miss something? What about the husband, his sacrifices and commitments before the wife decided she was tired of having a difficult or unsatisfying relationship? Are we to just assume the husband was such a nasty, useless or selfish person that he deserved being cut off from the life he constructed with this woman and their children, the relationships with friends and professionals based on his family? There is a deep and serious moral obligation between these adults. Happiness and satisfaction are mental states that are mutable, whether or not external factors make them more readily experienced. The adults need to spend the time on getting to respect, appreciation, gratitude, compassion and a deep desire to see their partner find it easier to be joyful and satisfied with their life together. Reply

Anonymous Milwaukee April 5, 2013

Having the mind of G-d Doesn't ANYONE care what the Torah says about divorce? What does G-d expect and condone? If we were more careful and mature BEFORE marriage, we'd be better prepared to make a successful marriage. Reply

Anonymous USA April 4, 2013

well written As a person who has gone through both a divorce and a successful remarriage, I fully relate to the topics discussed. This is not an easy 'sea to sail' whether one initiates the divorce or is left to deal with a spouse who wants a divorce. Ending a marriage is a difficult choice and should not be done lightly. The kids pay the consequences either way but sometimes is necessary because the kids themselves are victims. Reply

Anonymous Israel April 4, 2013

personal discovery AFTER divorce = lack of relating properly during marriage Yes, a lot of good things in this article, but there might have been a constant reference to discovering "life BEFORE divorce".Whatever the reasons for a woman [or man] from feeling free to express/discover her/him self during marriage, the following type of affirmation is a strong indication of NOT GIVING to the other spouse during the marriage as the very cause of the relationship's failure: "For another, it was writing poetry that really opened her up and helped her reconnect with parts of herself that had been squelched in her marriage." this and far too many homes/families were/are broken due to this lack of participation. People are too quick to feel bad, blame the other and seek a divorce .Partly bc of the lightness w/ which divorce is viewed [this article contributes to the "mizbeach's tears" [when there is a divorce], partly due to the tendency in the non-Torah world to use divorce instead of strengthening one's self and accepting responsibility to overcome obstacles, bs"d. Reply

Susan Levitsky April 4, 2013

Aviva's four year old son How perceptive he is. He should be a therapist when he grow up. He will get to the core of the problem right away even when it is unspoken. Reply

Rebeca Curitiba, Brasil July 29, 2011

Muito bom, e de grande ajuda para pessoas que estao passando por este momento dificil.
Obrigada. Reply

Anonymous Beit Shemesh April 13, 2011

Yea but yea To the previous commenter, regardless of your role in the divorce, the important thing for both you and your kids is to move on constructively. Nothing good will come to your kids from being "mizken" ("nebuch" to the non-Israelis). Turn your life back right-side-up and move on, and keep the difficulties between you and your friends and not in front of your kids and not in public forums. It's not easy, but it's the current challenge, and you can do it! Reply

Yankel Lod April 11, 2011

Yea but.... This is all good and fine if you're the party that wanted the separation & divorce. Divorce is much harder to accept and move forward from if you are the injured party whose life has been turned upside down, worried about what will become of your children as a result. Reply

chana December 9, 2009

Thanks so much thanks so much for sharing this realistically upeat story of your marriage, divorce and remarriage. My daughter has just started down the divorce track and I find this article wonderfully reassuring . I read it about once a month.
May the author be blessed with only good things and may all the unhappy relationships be replaced with peace and joy. Reply

tamar har nof jerusalem, israel October 13, 2009

about the author This article really touched my heart. I would like to know if the author gives seminars or if there's anyway to be in touch with her for guidance, etc. Reply

Chana July 15, 2009

Custody and visitations You are right in pointing out what the Shulchan Aruch rules, and I should have included that in my response. Ultimately the child's best interests have to be the basis for the decision. But in cases where both parents are equally decent people and equally good role models, there are opinions that give preference to one parent or the other--and contrary to some popular misconceptions not every such opinion favors the father. Reply

Dov Beit Shemesh July 15, 2009

Custody and visitations The Magid Mishna is the earliest source I've seen about visitations - I'm curious if anyone knows of an earlier one. Regarding Rambam's position, it's important to note that the Rama in the Shulchan Aruch rules that arrangements should be set by Bais Din to whatever's in the best interests of the children. Pischei Teshuva discusses cases where the father might be the better role model. My point is that there are a lot of sources out there, not just Rambam. Reply

Chana Kroll June 3, 2009

re:Mandy's question and Stacys comment The Rebbe stated clearly, in several letters related to buying a child a letter in a Sefer Torah, that children need their mothers even more than they need their fathers, even as they get older. This does NOT in any way imply that children do not need their fathers- and, again, neither does the article. Clearly children need both parents. Re: the RamBam's opinion- I did not say that he held fathers do not have an influence on children. However, I have heard from a respected expert in Jewish law (dayan) that the RamBam advocated custody should go to the mother. That doesn't mean he ruled out visitations, even overnight ones. It also doesn't mean he advocated divorced women pretend to be both male and female, mother and father. Reply

Stacy Boston, MA February 17, 2009

Re: re: Stacey's comments RaMBaM seems clearly to differentiate between the ages of children; the older the children, the more the father's role seems to outweigh the mother's role.

So the Rabbi M. Schneerson in his talk about women and men at Mt. Sinai; it seems that moms are most important in the young years; dads are more influential as children age.

In any event, IMHO children need both parents; neither can ever replace the other and it is crucial to stress that to all divorcing couples.

Best wishes Reply

Mandy February 16, 2009

Lubavitcher Rebbe's opinion Chana, do you per chance have the source where the Rebbe addresses this? Reply