Sima had ostensibly done everything “right”. She was a prototypical “aidel maidel”- a respectful daughter, a helpful sister, a caring friend, an obedient student, and then married “the right guy”. She said, and often believed, all the lovely comments that “good girls” were supposed to modestly opine. But in my office, the confidential tears flowed freely. They were more anger and frustration than sadness, and the trigger was the mikveh:
“I know there are couples who have trouble with sex, but thankfully, that’s not really us; we’re pretty good in the bedroom by now. But I feel so upset by the whole kallah class fiasco. My kallah teacher was a pretty nice lady, and she tried to put a positive spin on it all. But it was still so awful to find out how all this works. Engagement time was so busy anyway; I was already committed to get married, and all of a sudden, I’m being clued in to this major set of secret rituals that no one bothered to let me know before. I felt tricked. I freaked out in her living room, and she must have thought I was crazy. It seemed like my reaction was strange to her. I couldn’t imagine that everyone else is just ok with all this. It sounded so primitive, so dehumanizing, but she reassured me that in real life, it’s actually very meaningful and spiritual; that women throughout Jewish history have loved and felt privileged through these mitzvas, and that I would too. I hoped she was right, and tried to just focus on what excited me about getting married, and all the normal preparations of setting up a home. But I was dreading that trip- the nudity, the inspections, the bedikas, the mandatory seriousness of this incredibly personal area of my life. Having to formally inform my husband that I am impure or dirty, then be deprived of the comfort of touch and closeness, in even the most superficial ways; it feels like a cruel rejection that I did nothing to deserve. Then I need to invade my own body for these repeated inspections, ask mortifying shailas, and finally scrub away the invisible filth, and submit to being viewed naked by a stranger, in order to have permission to sleep with my own husband, which everyone at the mikvah now knows. By the time I get home, I’m so upset that I either don’t want to do much, or I don’t enjoy it. It really puts a big damper on things. And by the time I ease back into the routine of physical intimacy, it’s time to be dirty and humiliated all over again. I hate the coerciveness of it; the fact that I feel like I have no choice in the matter; it’s just something we’re expected to do. And not men- just the women. I hate feeling this way- I’ve tried reading the explanatory books with the flowers on the cover, going to classes about the beauty of these mitzvas, talking to the ‘inspiring people,’ but it just doesn’t resonate for me; it just makes me more upset.”
We both realize that this is only one, dark angle on this subject, and many other women see it quite differently. But this is Sima’s personal story, and at least for now, her truth.
This is tricky territory for an Orthodox therapist. The elephant in the room is that we both practice these laws; I’m sure she is wondering how I see it. But whether I feel the same way as she does, or I feel fulfilled and uplifted by them, or if I practice a more dispassionate, technical observance, it almost doesn’t matter to the therapy- it can’t. If I were a secular therapist who wasn’t culturally aware or respectful, I might be tempted to empower her to challenge her societal norm as being cult-like, or abusive, and either rebel or escape. If I were her spiritual mentor or Rebbetzen, maybe my role would be to try and wisely, empathetically provide intellectually satisfying sources and rationales, leniencies, or spiritually uplifting reassurance that these proscribed minutia are, in fact, G-d’s will and will be richly rewarded. But I am neither.
A public blog post is not the place to detail the many steps and nuances of this slippery therapeutic work, which are somewhat unique to each case. But I know that my job is not to convince her to keep or abandon these laws or the lifestyle that demands them. She needs to know and acknowledge and feel her thoughts and emotions in an uncensored way here. She needs to clarify her options- both internal and pragmatic. She needs the validation that she is not crazy or wicked, that it’s not only she, who struggles against this particular element of her faith and culture.
Some women like Sima find that they’ve begun to question the whole theological foundation of the system. Others compartmentalize the issue as an emotional reaction to something they believe is necessary. Some turn to their husbands for support in their difficulty, while still others question whether they want to be married, if these are the nonnegotiable terms. For some, the feelings remain isolated to the confines of their hearts and these times, and for others it registers as trauma, and bleeds into the marriage and psychological well-being.
They often feel trapped; they either believe this is mandatory, no matter how they feel about it, or they don’t, and need to decide if the charade is worth it. But if they walk away from it all, they’re giving up everything familiar. Even if they believe they’re doing G-d’s will, but hating every minute of it, that takes a toll too. It’s exhausting to be in chronic conflict between the heart and the soul. She processes the dichotomy, the dilemma:
“I know this limbo thing isn’t healthy; I need to either go all in, decide to accept this because I believe it’s right for me, or to pull out because it feels wrong and oppressive. But this following protocol while internally tantrumming about it- it’s driving me crazy.”
Sima deliberately chose a religious therapist, and may have had certain expectations, but I refused to be added to the list of people who tell her what she needs to do or how to feel; that is not my place. So I sit with Sima, with many Simas, and we feel their stuff. We speak out their thoughts, their feelings, their pain, their questions, their wishes, their options, their plans. We explore the possibilities- of escape, of practical alternatives, or of trying to carefully tweak the internal narrative, challenge the murky, slimy, negativity of it. Sometimes that helps some, sometimes it doesn’t. An empathic narrative approach can sometimes be a brave runner-up to altering an immutable reality. What I can do is listen, support her, as she decides what she wants to do, and then help her find the healthiest way to define it internally. For women deeply embedded in our communities, in these marriages, there are few safe places to have these conversations, and no simple solutions.
I truly wish I had a magic formula for her (well, for everyone, really) that would help her get clarity on what she wants to do. And that if what she wants is to walk away, then it would grant her the strength to do so, and find her own freedom and happiness. And if what she wants is to practice these rituals from a place of faith and serenity, then the wand would instantly appear. It would help her find inner harmony- synchrony and integration between her parts- the mind, body, heart, and soul. I’ve not found the wand, yet, though I pray for it daily. So instead, I humbly offer my ear, my heart, my voice, my space. It’s not enough, but it’s something.
As unsettling as Sima’s subjective narrative is, I nervously opted to share it (knowing I may get flak,) because I’ve heard painful variations of it more times than I can count, and sometimes it’s healing to know they’re not alone, and to be heard, even anonymously.