Q. Dear Therapist,
I am embarrassed to ask this question but I have no choice as I need guidance. My wife and I have been married for several years and have a few young children. When we got married, we were very much on the same page about religious observance and the type of home we wanted to build. Over the past few years, she has changed. She recently told me that she doesn’t believe in Judaism, has not been keeping kosher out of the home, and she regularly uses her phone on Shabbos. At this point, she no longer wants to live a frum lifestyle. She agreed to keep halachos that directly affect the home, but she says that they are completely meaningless to her. She wants to stay in the marriage for the sake of the children and is happy with them remaining in their yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs. She also says that she still loves me. I don’t know what to do and what is the best choice for my children. I understand that I may need to see a therapist regularly to really work this out but wanted to hear any suggestions you might have.
A. I want to start by saying that this sounds very difficult and I admire you for trying to come up with the right solution for your family. Unfortunately, this has become a more and more common phenomenon in our community. I know of many people who are externally religious but have stopped believing or practicing. It it is not easy on a spouse or family, especially when the decision to marry was influenced by decisions and commitments that are not being upheld.
To address your question, some of the things that I would want to know include the nature of your relationship with her until this point and how much love and connection there is between you. Are you able to enjoy each other’s company, get along for the most part, and make decisions for the family that are on the same page? These are important factors, as I cannot overstate the importance of a peaceful and loving home even when significant differences exist. Is your wife willing to be involved in the children’s Jewish education and even encourage their observance? Your wife told you that she’s no longer observant, but it is important to know exactly what that looks like at this point and what is out in the open versus being done privately.
It is commonly said that when deciding whether to marry someone, three core things must be in place as a foundation for the marriage to succeed. These include physical and emotional attraction, similar life goals, and the ability for both partners to work on themselves during conflict. The reason having similar life goals is one of the three factors is because many decisions in our lives depend on what we place as priorities. Choosing a neighborhood to live in, schools to send children to, and overall type of home you want to run will all be influenced by this.
The concept of staying in a marriage solely for the benefit the children is a complicated one. There are situations in which the children may benefit more from a divorce rather than staying together just for their sake. Of course, each situation needs to be looked at individually and assessed. Many of the factors that play a role in this decision include the ages of the children, the frequency and nature of the disagreements, and the overall level of peace and calm in the home. Another important factor is the ability for the parents to parent together. Of course, you would benefit from consulting a Rav you trust. A common mistake made in marriages is the belief (many times unconscious) that each spouse is responsible for the level of observance of the other. There have been many instances of marriages where one spouse was clearly significantly more observant than the other, and yet they were able to maintain a peaceful home and show mutual respect. Something to consider is if you can imagine being able to maintain that in your relationship. It is important for you to be completely honest with yourself about how you feel. We’ve all heard stories of people who have remained in relationships despite significant difficulty, and when a person can do it in an authentic way and embraces the challenge wholeheartedly, it can be quite commendable. There are times when others might valiantly try to take on the challenge but it results in more pain in the home both with the relationship and children.
I encourage you to find both a therapist and Rav with whom you can consult when making this choice, and I hope you can find what will work best for both you and your family.