*This post was originally published as a State of Mind column in the Five Towns Jewish Times*
My family is in a complicated state right now. We are blessed with several children, but this matter only concerns two of them. Our oldest daughter is in her 20s and has been married for a few years; let’s call her “Leah.” She’s a wonderful girl, married to a great guy, but at this point our relationship with them is very strained. Our next daughter, “Rachel,” just finished her year in seminary, and is also a gem.
My first daughter approached me and my husband and shared something very disturbing. She said that she and her husband have been in intense therapy since a few months after their wedding, and they blame us. They say that Leah came into marriage totally unprepared, and that created serious issues for them, which they’re still dealing with. I’m writing to you because she sent me some of the articles on your website, talking about the need for better premarital education. To be honest, I didn’t agree with a lot of the ideas. We raised our children sheltered and modest, and have always been proud of that. But my daughter and son in law, who are actually very frum, feel strongly that we were wrong- that her knowing more about how married life works would have saved them a lot of fighting and upset. They didn’t want to tell us about their problems earlier, because they were so angry at us, believing it was our fault. They ended up turning to his parents, who helped them find a therapist and pay for it. My husband and I feel so hurt- how could they not come to us? We feel we were and still are excellent parents. We send our kids to top schools and seminaries, and thought we’d found Leah an amazing kallah teacher. She didn’t seem to have any complaints before, so this was all very shocking.
The reason they finally shared all this with us is because Leah is worried about her sister Rachel. She says that she feels “traumatized” (her exact word) by how unready she was for marriage and intimacy, and she doesn’t want Rachel to go through the same thing. She’s threatening that if we don’t find someone to speak with Rachel she starts dating and offer her the education that Leah believes she should have had, then Leah herself is going to speak to Rachel and tell her everything. We feel attacked and blackmailed by all this. Like our child has been brainwashed and we don’t know how to get her back on the right path, get our good relationship with her back, and protect our other children from whatever it is she’s trying to do. We are writing to you since, although you are not her therapist, she references your articles when we talk about it. We are hoping you can offer us some advice that we can share with her, to repair the damage to our family, help us explain where we’re coming from and not involve her sister in this ugliness.
Thanks in advance,
Dear Hurt Parents,
My sympathies to you for this painful situation. You sound like you love your children, believe deeply in your values, and have put thought into your parenting choices. It’s difficult to hear from grown children that they are angry about mistakes they believe you’ve made, particularly when it comes along with demands.
I’ll try to address your points in order:
The fact that your daughter and son-in-law sought help is a healthy sign. When couples run into problems, and they try to go it alone, if it doesn’t get resolved, it can get exacerbated and fester over time. It’s a sign of maturity that they were willing to acknowledge the issue and seek treatment. It’s understandable that you feel hurt hat they didn’t come to you for help, although the important thing is that they are working on whatever it is that came up for them (you don’t give the details). It does seem as though they were initially honoring a boundary that your daughter learned from you: “We don’t discuss these things with you.” There was no prior framework or foundation for conversation around this topic, so she sought support elsewhere.
Leah is also, in a way, showing you respect by not simply educating Rachel herself, the way so many siblings do, but instead approaching you and offering you the opportunity to do so.
If you read my articles on this subject, you probably saw that as a professional, I oppose the practice of deliberately depriving young adults of psychosexual developmental knowledge. This is not about religiosity- there are many parents who are deeply, sincerely religious, fully observant, and then some, and also choose to teach their children, teens, and particularly young adults about their biological, social, and psychological development. It’s not that we don’t understand the rationale behind wanting to raise children “sheltered and modest.” The idea comes from a pure, holy, and caring place. But the problem is that ignorance is not the same as innocence, and the results are often devastating.
I don’t know your daughter. But I do know hundreds of other young women who describe similar experiences and emotional responses. Women who got engaged having no idea what they were getting themselves into. They were only told during their premarital lessons what the marriage commitment entails- physically and Halachically. Young women who came home from kallah classes, ran to their rooms, sobbing into their pillows, sobbing that continued well into shana rishona and sometimes longer. The husbands in these marriages suffer as well, some more educated and some less so, but in either case overwhelmed by the circumstances.
When Leah says she and her husband were “traumatized,” by how difficult this transition has been, I don’t think she’s exaggerating. It is traumatic for these newlywed couples to walk into marriage so ill-prepared. It’s not reasonable to expect even the most gifted chassan and kallah teachers to cover 20 years of critical developmental knowledge, during a very hectic time period in a couple’s life, when they’re also trying to establish their own relationship, set up their home, and plan a wedding.
Are there some young couples who are “sheltered” from this vital education and aren’t traumatized? Sure. But there are many, many who are. These are preventable crises. Leah knows this. That’s why she is determined to protect her sister from the sort of gratuitous psychological, physical, and relational suffering that she and her husband are still enduring. It’s hard to describe the amount of damage to individuals and marriages that this unnecessary problem causes. Preemptive education can go such a long way. Just ask all the therapists who deal with the fallout from this. We witness this agonizing pain daily. What should be tremendous joy, excitement, and pleasure often becomes tragic instead.
My own hope and prayer, as a therapist and a Jew, is that we as a community normalize and standardize more comprehensive education and preparation for young men and women- not only before marriage but before dating and engagement. Marriage is too important a part of life to have its training awkwardly crammed into woefully inadequate and last-minute instruction. Marriages are struggling, even in our communities, and this is a big part of that story. Not all issues are preventable, but this one is. If a person is old enough to begin dating, then that person is well past old enough to know what marriage involves. Otherwise, what are they even committing to when they get engaged?
Last week, a friend forwarded me a link to a virtual event. It was to be hosted by a Chassidishe woman, who’d organized an online video forum to discuss this problem openly and in depth with other Haredi women- the issue of underpreparedness for marriage, and the widespread pain it causes. (I haven’t watched much of the material, so I don’t have a formulated position on whether to responsibly recommend the content itself.) But the fact that it’s happening is a sign of the times.
Years ago, when Orthodox therapists and educators would write or talk about this issue, there was some pushback. Understandably- it’s been considered taboo and uncomfortable, culturally. But over the last decade or so, there’s been an observable sea change, whereby more and more professionals, leaders, and educators are addressing it head on, and thank G-d, more couples are getting the help they desperately need. Your daughter and son in law are one of these couples. The next step is prevention.
You say you want to repair your relationship with Leah, and I believe you. I don’t believe that parents should always just do whatever their kids say in order to stay close with them. I do believe in parents examining our children’s feedback, analyzing it on its own merits, putting our egos aside, and asking ourselves if there’s something for which we need to make amends. (Most of us do- none of us was a perfect parent.) When we’ve erred, even with the best of intentions, it’s a gift to have the opportunity to apologize and try to do better.
Honestly, the fact that Leah came to discuss it with you is a sign of hope. She must believe that you might be willing to hear what she has to say, even if she says it angrily. She trusts that you love her, and your other children, and that you want to do right by them. If you’re not sure where to begin, there are books, courses, and professionals available to help you- even ones from Torah perspectives. (I have some linked on my website: elishevaliss.com) I hope that you and your husband are able to repair your relationship with Leah and her husband, and be able to prepare your other children so that they can enter into their marriages at the right time with joy and good health.
*To learn more about how to educate the next generation about healthy, holy body awareness and sexuality, check this out: elishevaliss.com/sacrednotsecret