Shaindy’s eyes filled before she lowered them to examine her lap. She had been feeling stuck and hopeless in her marriage for several years. She had carefully and deliberately chosen to remain for the sake of her children; her husband wasn’t dangerous or malicious. But she often found Mutty’s behavior toward her selfish, thoughtless, lazy, and disengaged. He went to work, earned a paycheck, interacted minimally with the kids, and then mostly zoned out. He occasionally made short, shallow conversation with her, generally about money, and their bedroom life was sparse at best. But his true love was his phone. He could spend hours at a time immersed in mysterious cyberlife. When Shaindy tried to address the habit, he would alternate between defensiveness and agreeing, then emptily reassuring he’d cut back, although he never did.
He was dismissive, but not destructive, critical, but not cruel, abrupt, but not abusive, self-absorbed, but not sadistic. His parenting style was detached, but not damaging. He dripped just enough contribution to the family to keep the tears at bay. Shaindy suffered a continuous, confusing purgatory, in the nebulous grading system between marital pass and fail.
After multiple attempts at couples’ counseling, it was clear to Shaindy that Mutty wasn’t interested in change. It wasn’t a happy marriage, but it wasn’t bad enough in Shaindy’s estimation, to trade it in for all the terrifying unknowns of divorce, and all its attending risks and complications: for the kids, mainly, but also the ugliness, the confrontation, familial judgments, communal clucking and stigma, the loneliness and the financial strain. She almost wished he would do something egregious, so she could have clarity, impetus, or justification to leave him. Yet, all things considered, it just seemed simpler, safer, and more responsible to Shaindy, to stay put for now. That much she knew she wanted to do.
Most days she was ok- there was no overt hostility, and the superficial life picture overall was nice. Mutty would conduct the Shabbos meals, and chauffer the Sunday outings. He paid the bills and took the car for inspections. But at times, she would pause to consider the hollowness of their relationship, the utter vacuum of connection, and her heart would ache.
“I’m not a mean person,” she prefaced. “But feeling this miserable and this trapped- it does things in my brain. I could never hurt anyone- I don’t even like killing bugs. But sometimes, when I think about my marriage, my options, the catch 22 of it all, I just wish an act of G-d would take care of it for me… you know? Like I don’t really want bad things to happen to anyone, but if it just happened, well, there’s no shame or stigma around natural loss..” She trails off, appalled and humiliated by her own feelings.
Some might hear Shaindy’s story, and want to yell:
“Why don’t you leave him? You’re so unhappy; the kids will survive, and there is life after divorce…” But for women like Shaindy, it’s not that simple. She has a lot to lose, with no guarantee of happiness at the end of the road. She worries about trading in set of hardship and misery for anther. In the end, that is her choice, and a complex, culturally weighted one at that.
Others may be thinking:
“Secretly wishing your spouse dead? That’s some awfully low, dark thinking right there.” But judging a person who is in pain and has perpetrated no evil deed is rarely productive. Women in Shaindy’s position need empathy not condemnation, yet they will rarely receive it, as this template generally includes shame, secrecy, and facades. They tend to suffer in silence, while baking pretty cakes for our bar mitzvahs.
Shaindy is not a wimp, and she is not giving up. She is working on herself, to find inner strength, cultivate independent happiness, to focus on healthy parenting, finding friendship, and consistent self-care. Her prayers vacillate between working for improvement in her marriage, and requesting the resilience to be ok despite it.
Some spouses who occasionally fantasize about being widowed, wonder if they are sick or wicked for having these thoughts. I am by no means the arbiter of moral judgement, but I’ve seen plenty of otherwise rational, kind-hearted people confess to harboring these morbid thoughts. We might be able to understand the progression as follows: It is entirely normal for people to wonder about death- their own, and their loved ones’. When someone is in a loving relationship with others, there is often an inherent fear of loss:
“He’s late coming home, what if…”
“Someone in the shul just lost his____... what if it were me?”
When the thought progression goes as “expected” – i.e. followed by a shiver of “G-d forbid! Perish the thought!” we can move on instinctively from the momentary anxiety.
But when the inner voice responds with: “I don’t know, would that actually even be so terrible? Maybe it would even be a blameless escape, a chance at happiness…” the thinker gets stuck, and begins to wonder, and then sometimes self-judge, and then often ruminate. So I believe that it’s actually part of a normal pattern of human thought, a natural cognitive dabbling with mortality and loss, but it can end up feeling disturbing, when the answers reflect a deep dissatisfaction with the relationship and the reality it creates.
A common follow up thought, fueled by guilt over the first thought, is often something along the lines of: “Actually, maybe it would be better if I were the one to go; then I wouldn’t have to deal with any of the fallout.” [It should go without saying that this is entirely different from suicidal or homicidal ideation, whereby the thinker might believe him or herself to be at risk for taking action, and should seek help immediately.]
Shaindy feels profoundly lonely but she is not alone; I’ve met many other women and men like her. Some ultimately get divorced, others keep hoping and pushing for change, some become depressed, and many learn to just deal and make the best of things.
I have come across a total of one book that I feel comfortable recommending for this scenario: It’s called: “Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay” by Mira Kirshenbaum, but even that book does not exactly fit all the cultural nuances.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t have simple solutions, and I will probably get flak for this post. But I wanted to write about “Shaindy,” and all the disillusioned spouses she represents. Because being privy to their pain, I want them to have a voice, to know it’s not only them, and they are not “wrong” in their life choices to stay or private thoughts. I want to simultaneously challenge, deepen, and then support their choices. I want our communities to know they exist, and for us to be a bit kinder to everyone, because they could be your neighbor, your sibling, or you. I hope times are changing to give all the Shaindys more empowerment and options, but for now, I just wanted to blog them a hug.