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When Divorce Can Save a Marriage

by Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW and Chaya Feuerman, LCSW

How is this for a riddle?  How can divorce save a marriage?  The answer has to do with how people think about divorce and marriage, and how ironically, their fear of divorce may actually prevent them from making progress and repairing their marriage. 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 they reach a point where they are so far gone, where it feels that the only option is to "pull the plug".
 
Respect AND Love

A strong marriage is built on the emotional independence of each party, so that they have the right amount of ahava (love) AND yir'a (respect) to have regard for 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."  But that is not completely true.  There are all kinds of “leaving”, from eventually getting fed up and actually leaving, or milder forms like checking out emotionally and entering into a dark depression, or passive suicide such as eating or smoking oneself to death.  In unbearable relationships such as this, though the person may be too afraid to contemplate divorce, the pain reaches a threshold where the person truly cannot tolerate it, and so they run away, have a breakdown, become ill, or have an affair.  Sometimes, at that point the problems finally get discussed, but it is often too late to easily rekindle love.
 
There is a fascinating Gemara (Megilla 14a) that says, "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 intensely felt they were in danger, only then, did they finally take stock of their behavior and relationship with G-d and worked on repairing it.  This could be seen as a metaphor for a troubled marriage, and perhaps Chazal were 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.
 
Looking at it from a hashkafic perspective, one cannot do a mitzvah properly if one does not feel the free choice to also sin.  The bechirah (ability to choose) makes the mitzvah, because otherwise it was not a moral act.  So too, one cannot be truly married and committed, if one is too afraid to think of divorce.  But thinking of it, and feeling free to do it if necessary, is very, very different from being cavalier and taking marriage too lightly. 

Giving Up Too Quickly

People are getting divorced more frequently and while some of that may be due to increased education and ability to be independent, which is not a bad thing if it helps a person leave an abusive marriage, one also has to wonder if some people aren’t giving up too quickly.  We do not dispute the existential right to choose, and we 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, we do not believe that a person can be held morally liable if he or she chooses to bail out of a horrible marriage, even if in theory, it could be fixed.  Such tzaar (pain) is halachically equivalent to at least choleh sh'eyn bo sakana (serious illness) if not choleh sheyesh bo sakana (mortally dangerous illness).  A chaotic dysfunctional marriage is dangerous to a person’s health in so many ways, emotionally and physically.  Still, even the worst marriages are fixable IF there is sufficient motivation and open mindedness to the possibility of repair and change.  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 our sages tell us that baaley teshuva occupy a place that even tzadikkim cannot achieve.
 
One final thought: Divorce can be compared to an amputation. Sometimes, if the infection has gone too far it is a necessary evil.  But it will hurt terribly, 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.

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