There is a pattern that presents itself in my marriage counselling work. Naturally, individual details, relationships and personalities will vary. This is not the only kind of marriage trouble around. Men or women can occupy the attacking or victimized role. But there is so much recurrent thematic unison in many cases I have worked with, that I see it as helpful to write about this somewhat common and painful pattern. Chazal tell us the mizbayach (altar) cries when a Jewish marriage ends. It is a serious responsibility to do everything humanly possible to restore peace to a troubled marriage. Extra effort is mandatory to preserve marriage when a couple has a child, or more than one child.
I'll receive a phone call from a woman (or, occasionally, a concerned relative). She tells me that her husband is emotionally abusing her (or worse). There is no meaningful relationship and she doesn't know what to do, but the marriage is too unbearable to keep it as it is.
The wife will often come in at the start alone for counseling. There is no affection and there usually hasn't been for years. The woman is torn for one or more reasons such as: * he's really not a bad or mean person, he's just troubled, * they still have to marry off children and it is much harder with a broken home, * she has no means of financial support without him, * she doesn't want to have divorce emotionally cripple the children, * she has guilt about quitting the marriage, * she has misplaced pity towards him, * she's too emotionally drained, weak or insecure to confront him and/or divorce, etc.
The husband typically has several characteristics which include being very angry, critical, nervous, wanting things his way, bullying, seeing things one-sidedly, rigid, steamrolling, blind to his wife as a person or woman and to his impact upon her, deeply insecure inside but a self-important "big shot" outside, is in deep need of warmth and approval, comes from a dysfunctional or emotionally lacking family, can snap in an instant, has either no interest or only physical interest in intimacy (but with no emotional connection to or concern for his wife), defensive, explosive and basically makes his wife feel cancelled, cheapened, used, pained, burned-out and/or disrespected. She might want to know whether to divorce or accept her fate, she may want coping strategies or may want coaching on how to guide her husband into counseling.
One of the most important things for the wife is to work on building her often weakened, pained and battered self-image and emotional strength and security.
My general strategy is to change her frame of thinking to prepare to view the situation from a healthy perspective and to set herself up to take charge of her course. She has to be made to clearly recognize that her husband is troubled and is not in her control. Some of these women can see things somewhat realistically while others are lost in fantasy or wishful thinking. Very often, they view or handle the situation with contradictions. For example, they can intellectually tell you that they deserve not be treated like a shmatta (rag) while constantly accepting "shmatta treatment," explained away with elaborate rationalizations. Often, the husband does not agree to come in for counseling. He will say that the wife is over-sensitive and crazy, that they tried counseling [with him giving resistance or half-hearted effort], that he knows more than counselors do, he is too busy with "real life," etc.
When counseling women alone, I basically work to get them to * see the situation objectively, * clear out mental cobwebs that irrationally and unjustifiably cause her to defend or explain the husband's abuse, sadism and irresponsibility and * build up her emotional strength, inner resolve and self-esteem. This is critical. She has to undergo emotional healing inside before she can take any credible and actionable position about the marriage. If she tries to make a stand with her husband, and is too weak or too steeped in dysfunctional habits to carry it out and stick with it, she will not only fail, she will be a laughing stock to her husband, an object of scorn and ridicule. She must become emotionally strong, mentally clear and in possession of a set of firm principles.
Then, the most frequent goal is to get her to decide that she is taking charge of her situation. She will basically say to her husband something like this [of course the details vary from case to case], "This abusive state of marriage is unacceptable and IT IS NOW OVER. I will only be in a marriage that is healthy, workable, halachic and normal. I am moving forward and it is a new situation from this moment on. You are invited to come forward with me and repair this marriage. But make no mistake that if you don't, I am proceeding anyway and will leave you behind. If you come with me for help, we stand a chance of a satisfying and workable life together. If you don't, you will be responsible for your damaging impact on this marriage and all consequences. I will only be in a liveable marriage. Will it be with you or not? YOU CHOOSE. You have [a limited time e.g. two days] to give me your final decision. I will proceed then as I see fit."
An approach along this line makes stagnation or procrastination NOT an option. It takes control out of the hands of a husband who is not equipped to be entrusted with it. It lays out clearly and firmly where things are going.
The wife must recognize in advance the chance she is taking. She also has to realize that if her husband is only willing to be married on the condition that she be his "shmatta," verbally, emotionally or worse, she has no marriage anyway. If she has no marriage, it just may be time for her to face up to the truth of this, and do what she has to for her life. She has to be the one to take control and force the current "non-marriage of a marriage" out of existence. If she can have a real marriage, the only way she will have it is by bravely and actively bringing it to the "real marriage" status. She must be realistic about her husband's limitations and not be unrealistically demanding about his speed of change. Rather, she must be demanding about his SINCERITY AND CONSISTENT LEVEL OF EFFORT. She must NOT go to the other extreme by being punitive, neurotic or demanding anything unreasonable or unfair from him.