Save this Marriage

On Guard Grandma

July 30, 2010

Dear Beryl,

As someone widowed at a young age, I had always enjoyed a close relationship with my son. When he got married five years ago, I welcomed his new wife into the family with open arms. Three years ago, after the birth of their second child, my daughter-in-law became cold and unwelcoming to me. To this day, I am not sure what I did wrong. My son tells me that I should know what happened, but he won't be more specific. I have tried apologizing, but it didn't seem to help at all. At this point, our relationship has eroded to almost nothing, save for birthday calls and cards around the holidays. They recently had their third baby, and it is their eldest's birthday. They called me up and invited me to visit and celebrate my grandchild's birthday. I readily accepted, but I am nervous. I want the visit to go well and have all be part of each other's lives again. What can I do to make the visit go well?

On Guard Grandma

Dear On Guard Grandma,

Wow! What a tricky situation you have had to deal with for the past few years. It must be so hard for you to be estranged from your son and his family. I hope that this birthday party and new baby will be the beginning of a new close relationship between all of you.

It is very big of you to apologize for something you don't know you did. Most people would just get angry in return, and not attempt any reconciliation. The only thing that anger would have accomplished in this scenario is more hurt feelings and greater estrangement. The fact that you tried to apologize in the past is most likely what paved the way for this visit now.

The relationship between mothers-in-laws and daughters-in-law is usually pretty tricky. There are a lot of underlying feelings for both women as they try to maintain importance in the same man's life. A daughter-in-law can be especially sensitive to a mother-in-law's comments, actions or deeds that may be totally non-threatening in another relationship dynamic. A mother-in-law can also be sensitive to a daughter-in-law's ministrations as well, but, hopefully, with the wisdom of years, the mother-in-law can navigate these waters better.

The fact that they are inviting you to this event is a sign that they want to try and repair the relationship in some way. The best way to go about this is to be as positive as possible about the trip before, during and after. If you go in with a positive attitude, they will feel it in those first few awkward moments when you arrive. Beginnings set the tone for almost everything, so try to come into it feeling good. They are probably just as nervous as you, if not more! Helping to set the tone will put everyone at ease.

Indulge them with some thoughtful presents. If you can, treat each grandchild to something special, and don't forget the new mother as well. Perfume, bath oils or other pampering gifts for the new mom (manicure/pedicure?) are always appreciated. To let them know that you really appreciate the invite, you could write a short note on the card stating how happy you are to be there, and you hope that the past will be forgiven, or something to that affect.

If you find that either your son or his wife are less than welcoming to you, focus your energy on your grandchildren. Get on the floor, play with them, bathe them, and put them to bed. Bonding with your grandchildren in this way is good for all of you. You will feel a part of their lives, and they will develop some nice memories of you. And, by giving your son and daughter-in-law a much needed break, they will appreciate your visit even more!

Attitude is everything, and as the Lubavitcher Rebbe advised, "Tract gut vet zein gut!" – think good, and it will be good. Most of our life experiences are molded not by what happens to us, but rather, how we react. So go in with a genuine positive attitude, and shower them all with love. Once they are enveloped in that, it will be hard for them not to respond in kind.

Best of luck, and mazal tov!


Recovering After a Stillborn Baby

July 23, 2010

Dear Therapist,

About a year ago, my wife gave birth to a stillborn baby. It was devastating for both of us, but I feel that I have dealt with my anger and disappointment, and I have decided to focus on our living children. My wife, on the other hand, is still completely devastated. She talks about what happened on a regular basis, and I still catch her crying. I was finally able to convince her to start therapy about a month ago. She says that it is helpful, but still feels jealous of women with healthy pregnancies and babies. Her therapist and I have tried to tell her that she is not alone, and it would be good for her to meet others who have gone through similar experiences, but she is hesitant to go. Do you have any ideas?

Worried Husband

Dear Worried Husband,

What a heartbreaking story! I am so sorry to hear about your family's ordeal. I can see how hard it is for you to watch your wife try and process what has happened. Know that these feelings are normal and part of the healing process. It's excellent that your wife agreed to go for individual counseling as this step can often be the hardest. I trust that her therapist will monitor her depression and assure both of you that her feelings are within normal range. If the therapist is concerned, h/she should refer your wife to a competent psychiatrist who can prescribe medication.

Since your main question was about a support group, I will take the remainder of the letter to focus on the benefits of joining one. Support groups are a wonderful tool for people craving social connections. By processing her feelings in a group setting, she will lessen her anxiety as she will have others support her working through them.

It is not uncommon for women to feel isolated after such a trauma. It can be overwhelming for your wife to feel as though she is the only woman to have dealt with such a tragedy. Meeting others would sooth her soul, as she may no longer feel singled out in this challenge. In addition, hearing the stories of others will help her see there is a process people need to go through when they experience a loss. Listening to others may unexpectedly put her in a position to comfort others. By being put in the comforter role, she may become imbued with renewed inner strength.

I would like to tell you about a client of mine named Chanie. Chanie unexpectedly gave birth to a baby at 25 weeks. Her son lived for three weeks in the NICU before passing away. Chanie had a tremendously hard time with this, and she too felt very alone and depressed. She had medical problems from the delivery, so she was constantly at her OB's office to clear up the issues still plaguing her. One day in the office, she noticed that the woman beside her was obviously pregnant, and had a few young children crowded around her. She assumed, based on her estimations of the children's ages, that this women had no pregnancy issues, that she had babies whenever she wanted them, without suffering. Chanie began to get more depressed.

In walked a young mother pushing a stroller. Chanie glanced at the baby, guessing the baby to be about 18 months old. Chanie concluded that this woman must be coming for an early prenatal visit. Chanie thought that the young mother would never know the sorrow Chanie experienced. This young mother engaged Chanie in conversation, and Chanie unexpectedly revealed that she is overcoming a medical issue, and that the doctor had been incredibly helpful.

The young mother asked about the issue and Chanie told her sad story. The young mothers' jaw dropped as she revealed that she, too, was there for a postnatal check after losing a baby in the 25th week. And, unbelievably, the pregnant woman on the right overheard the conversation, and shared how she, too, lost a pregnancy in the 25th week a year earlier. Chani's heart ached for these women, but, she realized that G‑d was sending her a message that, no, she was not alone. Meeting other women helped Chanie begin the slow process of crawling out of her shell, reaching out to others and reclaiming her life.

As her husband, I would encourage you to reach out and help her. Find a support group for couples, so you can better understand each other. By joining together, she will be able to draw strength from you and hopefully move on from this tragedy, but not forget.

I wish you luck, and I want you to know that your wife is lucky to have such a caring husband.

All Talked Out

July 16, 2010

Dear Tzippora,

Sometimes it seems like my husband and I can talk for hours – about literature, politics, or Jewish ideas we are studying. Yet other times, the simplest exchange, like who should've bought milk or who is driving carpool, can set off an argument. I don't understand why sometimes it is so easy to talk to each other, and other times so hard. It is almost like we are different people from one conversation to the next.

All Talked Out

Dear All Talked Out,

Your question touches on the essential difference between conversation and communication. In the first case, when you and you husband are discussing books or ideas, you are having a conversation. There is nothing that you truly want or need from the other beyond a willingness to listen and participate in the discussion. Basic conversational skills are enough to ensure that the conversation is a successful one.

Yet in the second case, in which you are called upon to negotiate and delegate household responsibilities, you need to do more than have a simple conversation. You need to be able to communicate with each other. Now it becomes necessary to express your separate needs, and identify the needs of your household. This conversation has an agenda and an urgency that your previous conversation didn't have, and therefore it requires additional skills, i.e., communication skills.

In order to communicate with each other effectively, each of you must be able to express your needs while simultaneously listening to and respecting the needs of your spouse. However, when people become threatened, they worry that acknowledging someone else's needs will cancel out their own needs. At that point they become defensive and unable to listen.

It is possible that this is what happens between you and your husband, and is it why you seem to become "different people" during this type of discussion. While it is perfectly normal, and many married people experience power struggles during these "agenda driven" discussions, it is not inevitable.

Begin by recognizing that these discussions about mundane matters truly affect the smooth functioning of your home. Once you acknowledge that these topics are worthy of your respect, you and your husband can choose to make a concerted effort to work together on your communication skills. Increasing your ability to communicate about household and family matters will allow you to create a more peaceful and supportive atmosphere in your home.

Keep these discussions short, direct, and non-judgmental. Focus on what needs to be done and how to make it happen, rather than on who has done what and whose turn it is now. Don't try to keep score. When your household runs well, you all win.

Consider that sometimes less is truly more. Our sages teach that a simple vegetarian meal eaten in peace is better than an elaborate meat meal eaten with conflict. A modern day application of this idea is that sometimes it is better to let things go, and serve everybody Cheerios for dinner rather than arguing over whose turn it was to cook.

Thanks for writing,

Tzippora Price, M.Sc.

Should We Tell the Kids?

July 9, 2010

Dear Mrs. Radcliffe,

We're a married couple with three children, ranging in age from 5-12. We're currently going through a difficult period in our marriage, and though generally my husband and I are cordial to each other — especially in front of the children — we have decided, by mutual agreement, to sleep in separate bedrooms for the time being.

The question is what to tell the children. On the one hand, we could tell them excuses such as that I snore loudly or my husband works in the room and leaves the light on late. Or we could tell them the truth (which they might suspect anyways), but we're worried about the emotional affect this may have on them.

Do we tell them the truth? And if yes, what would be the wisest way to break it to them?


Dear Sara,

In order to answer this question, we have to consider the nature of children. In general, children are at a stage of life in which they are the receivers, rather than the givers. In the mental health literature there is a term used for children who are expected to somehow take care of their parents: "parentification." This term means that the child has been prematurely promoted to a position of care-taker rather than care-receiver. The child may be responsible for running the household or managing the money or raising the younger children. Or, they may be responsible for listening to their parents' problems. Parentified children are considered to be overly stressed and burdened with adult-like responsibility. Their young nervous systems cannot remain healthy in the presence of this excessive stress.

Although children aren't stupid, this doesn't mean that they are able to properly digest and process all of the circumstances of their young lives. For instance, a child who must deal with his parents' divorce understands that his parents don't live together anymore and that this means that his own life must take on a very different form. However, the child is unlikely to be able to understand much more than that. If his parents try to explain to him why they needed a divorce, the information is likely to go way over his head. How can a 6-or 8-year-old possibly understand the nature of an adult relationship? "Daddy was mean to Mommy" makes sense grammatically to such a young person, but in no other meaningful way. Even if the child has personally experienced the mutual hatred the parents have for each other, he still cannot understand its origins or meanings. Nor is it his job to do so.

Saying to a child, "Mommy and Daddy have decided to have separate bedrooms because we are not getting along right now and need our space" is overburdening him. He doesn't want to know what's going on in his parent's marriage and he doesn't need to know. The marriage is an intimate relationship, meaning a private relationship. It is no one's business why the parents are sleeping in separate rooms. Similarly, just because someone would like to know how much money the couple earns doesn't mean that it is necessary or appropriate to give them that information. Even if one's own child wanted to know the gross familial earnings, it is not necessary nor appropriate to give him that information (until he becomes the legal custodian of the parents' affairs!). Similarly, the fact that the couple no longer wishes to have intimate contact is their business and theirs alone. Their children are not "entitled" to it.

However, what is the parent to do if the child explicitly asks why the new sleeping arrangement is occurring? Is it proper to lie to a child, offering the types of excuses you mention above? The Torah promotes truth telling. When parents deviate from the truth, aren't they providing an incorrect model for their children?

Perhaps the only vessel greater than truth is peace. Indeed, it states in the Talmud (Yevamos 65a) "Great is peace; Hashem even changed truth for its sake. It says elsewhere, "It is forbidden to lie, unless it is for the express purpose of achieving peace." When parents explain to their children that they must separate because of the conflict between them, children become alarmed. They fear the worst – particularly in today's society in which every child has heard the word "divorce." Almost all young children are terrified and deeply disturbed when they sense that their parents' marriage might end. And of course, they can't possibly know whether this step indicates the end of the marriage or not, since they are way too young to understand how problems develop and resolve within adult relationships. They don't know about the process of marital and rabbinical counseling. They don't know about their parents' histories, skill sets or anything else that would give them a clue of what is to come. All they know – after their parents tell them the "truth" – is that their parents are in trouble. After that point, these children will lose sleep at night, suffer all sorts of stress symptoms and become anxious and depressed. They will lose their peace.

My suggestion, therefore, is to tell them about a snoring problem. Hopefully, your marriage will heal and you will be a happy couple again and your kids will have been spared unnecessary suffering along that journey. If it turns out, however, that you do seek divorce, then your children will have to deal with the "truth" at that point in time. They needn't suffer one minute earlier.

Marriage: A Relationship Between Real People

July 2, 2010

Dear Tzippora,

Perhaps I put my husband on a pedestal while we were dating and engaged, but now that we are married, I am quite disappointed to discover he is not the person I thought he was. It is not just that my "perfect" husband isn't really so perfect after all. He actually has a number of small but annoying qualities that make living with him difficult. I try to conceal my real feelings from him in order not to hurt him, but I am quite disillusioned.

Post-honeymoon blues

Dear Post-honeymoon blues,

Marriage is a relationship between real people. It is a relationship between people who forget birthdays and anniversaries. It is a relationship between people who leave the toilet seat up, and the cap off the toothpaste. It is a relationship between people who forget to pick up your best suit from the cleaners, or don't take out the trash until it overflows on the kitchen floor. It is even a relationship between people who leave their socks on the floor in the corner of the room, and accept without question when they magically return to the drawer freshly washed.

Over time, all spouses come to possess an intimate understanding of each other's imperfections. The question is how to prevent the familiarity that naturally comes with time from tarnishing the esteem and love a couple feels for each other.

Nobody is perfect, and there is no perfect spouse. Anybody you'd marry would have qualities challenging for you to accept. I am sure that after more than ten years of marriage, my husband could catalogue my flaws better than anyone. Yet if you asked him, he would decline to do so, just as he would decline the same request to catalogue his own flaws. This is because after many years of marriage, the knowledge of who I am and who he is can no longer be considered a separate narrative.

A good marriage depends on cultivating this vision of a shared reality. This is one of the challenges of early marriage. Now is the time the two of you must develop a sense of yourselves as a couple, which is separate from your sense of individual identities. As you shift your focus towards developing an awareness of togetherness and connectedness, his small flaws will begin to disturb you less.

Focus on the larger picture. Familiarity does not need "to breed contempt." Rather, in a good marriage, that same familiarity can be a source of contentment and emotional security.

Consider this classic story which is told and retold about the saintly Rabbi Aryeh Levin. Rabbi Levin escorted his wife to the doctor, and explained "My wife's foot is hurting us." His simple statement articulates this essential truth of marriage, and revealed the deep connection between Rabbi Levin and his wife. Their marriage was based on a shared reality.

If you are honest with yourself, you will realize that you also have qualities which may pose challenges for your husband. Yet the beauty of marriage is that it allows two imperfect individuals to develop a relationship that allows them to move past their individual limitations. Within the context of marriage, you are both capable of achieving a higher level of growth and self-transformation than you are capable of achieving independently.

Thanks for writing,

Tzippora Price, M.Sc.

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