Emotional Divorce

["Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah" – Bemidbar 5769 – translated by R. Blumberg]

The psychiatrist Dr. Juliette Louise Despert, in his work “Children of Divorces” wrote:
“It is not the divorce that determines the child’s ability to adapt, but the emotional mood in the home. Amongst the hundreds of unfortunate children who reach pediatric psychiatrists, I have seen confused children whose parents have never considered divorce, but I have never met a child whose parents live together happily.”

In other words, the casualty of the war between the parents is the children, whether we are talking about a hot war or a cold war. It is natural for there to be arguments and crises between the couple. We’re not angels. Yet if the situation is chronic, and the parents don’t know how to improve it, the child, so in need of tranquility, will absorb war and tension.

He will drown in a sea of tension, with periods of strained quiet or of explosions, owing to the disproportionate responses he witnesses to every small incident, in contrast to the love that adorns a beloved person in all circumstances. Just as in Shendahl’s parable from his book on love, according to which in a salt mine, crystallization transforms the most conventional tree branch to a marvelous ornament, so does the constant tension transform everything that comes from the spouse – his regular movements, his walk, his laugh, his age, his expressions, pronouncements and judgment – to something aggravating and annoying. Every act arouses a negative response. All is lost from the start, for everything receives a negative interpretation. When one spouse is in the other’s sights, that other spouse will look for his every fault. Each will strive to destroy their unity as a couple.

This situation is called “emotional divorce”, when emotionally the couple has gone to pot, without any official, legal divorce. Since their couplehood as a living cell has been destroyed, all that remains for the monstrous couple to do is to tear each other apart and to cause themselves suffering.
This insane goal takes precedence over all else, and despite outward declarations to the contrary, all the means of war are legitimate. They are transformed from one kind of couple to another, and over the years, each learns to recognize what are his spouse’s sensitive, painful areas, and where to take aim. Often, even the children serve as vehicles in this battle, and as hostages.

In all such case, communication breaks down in the sense of interpersonal contact and positive listening. It becomes a debilitating, empty shell. Moreover, body language becomes more important than the content of conversation. Sometimes a minor conversation, limited to essential daily needs can turn into a flood of words, but there is always disharmony between content and form, as in the apathetic utterance of very important words.

Even worse is the silence. The distorted interpretation of the other spouse’s words often leads to less and less talk. At this point the couple no longer talks, but just leaves each other notes. Yet this is false silence, because it covers over the tension and the strained behavior. This is cold war that looks like peace.

There can also be open war, i.e. marital hell involving outbursts and storms. In that case, you can have intermittent cold war and hot war. This war fills three needs:
1. Liberating oneself from guilt feelings: “I am right! I am innocent! I am the victim! The responsibility for what is happening does not depend on me.
2. Always blaming the other spouse: This completes the first need. All the facts and all the memories serve, as if objectively, to prove to guilt of the other, and they constitute an always available, never ending source.
3. The need to punish the other spouse: the one who I believe destroyed all my joy, made me waste my life, and cut off all my existence – deserves punishment.

There is no saying sorry, and no forgetting. “We won’t forgive or forget”. We won’t turn over a new leaf! Such is the state of emotional divorce with constant punishment. Marriage becomes a trap. And, as noted, the ones who pay are the children who are born into, and grow up in, this marital hell. With the reality of their togetherness failing, the failure of the “we”, the disappearance of love, and the perception of the other spouse as a frustrating presence, marriage turns into a prison, and begins to function in an emotionally sick manner.

It should be noted, however, that outside the home, functioning remains normal. The spouse is not sick from head to toe, but has a sick aspect to him in his personality. A terrible paradox is created in which people who are totally normal in their professional and social lives keep the wretched, sick side of their personality specifically for their spouse and children.

Therefore, if you want to know if people function in a healthy, normal manner, you have to look at their children.

Make no mistake. Many such parents hide from their children their cold war. The children sense much more than their parents think. They sense the signs of tension in their parents’ body language. It borders on insanity to prepare a person to be a scientist, a Torah scholar an professional in some other realm, but in what is most important, his very life and the life of his children, he functions in a lowly, disgraceful manner.

Yet one mustn’t despair. Even from this terrible labyrinth one can escape. Even is snuffed-out volcano can once more spout a hot fire of love. Yet it cannot happen by happenstance. One must make a decision, saying: This is the central mission of my life.

This labor of compatibility starts right after the wedding, and it fills a person with greater joy than any other preoccupation.