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Adviceline: Protecting Our Privacy

Bassi Gruen

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I live in Eretz Yisrael. My sister is here for the year in seminary and it is turning out to be a rather challenging experience. From the onset, my parents (who are generously supporting our family and making our kollel lifestyle possible) requested that I make my home available as a home-away-from-home for my sister. I was only too happy to oblige, and I’m thrilled that I can be the safe haven that I always wished for when I was in seminary. I was so glad to have a sister nearby, and happy that my two children have an opportunity to bond with their aunt.

Unfortunately, this arrangement has become rather stressful. My sister is very homesick and comes over nearly every night to call home on my DSL line, do laundry, bake, and/or just hang out. She is very helpful when she comes and always calls before, but I feel torn between my commitments to my husband, my marriage, my sister, and my parents. I’ve only been married for three years, and as we have never lived close to our families, my husband is still uncomfortable when my sister is around, especially when she is (more often than not) with friends. While I don’t mind having my sister over occasionally, and I am sure that my husband would not mind a weekly or twice-weekly visits, currently I am feeling burdened, resentful, and upset.

How can I communicate the issues to everyone involved without insulting or offending the people I love most? I am afraid that if I discuss the situation or try to negotiate a compromise, I’ll end up achieving nothing and hurting everyone’s feelings.

 

Mrs. Dina Schoonmaker is a veteran teacher in Michlalah Jerusalem College and lectures in various other seminaries. She also has a phone service through which she counsels the alumni of Michlalah in matters of shidduchim and marriage. 

Mr. Shaya Ostrov, LCSW, is a family therapist practicing in New York. He is the author of The Menuchah Principle in Marriage and The Inner Circle: Seven Gates to Marriage, as well as the director of the 7 Gates Institute 

Mrs. Joanne Dove works for “seed,” a London-based adult kiruv organization. In addition, she has done extensive premarital and marital counseling. She also oversees and advises the volunteers of Made in Heaven, an organization that helps make shidduchim and advises singles.

 

Mrs. Dina Schoonmaker

It sounds like you’re in a tough position. However, there is little standing between you and straight-forward solutions. 

Nowhere in your letter is there an indication that your parents or sister are unreasonable or selfish people. You parents are supporting you while enabling you to live far away from them. They asked you to be hospitable to your sister, which is a reasonable request. Your sister is pleasant and helpful, and seems like a fair, if possibly somewhat naive person. Yet you assume that there is no way to resolve the situation through communication and you haven’t let them know that you’re upset. It is possible that you are underestimating their ability to understand you position. 

Your sister is lacking proper boundaries and an understanding of the needs of a young couple. You are perpetuating the problem by not allowing her to be educated. And everyone loses. The obvious victims of the situation are you and your husband; the less obvious victims are your sister and parents.

How so? Your sister is unwittingly hurting you without being given an opportunity to rectify the situation. When she’ll be married herself, she’ll probably be retroactively embarrassed by her lack of sensitivity. Additionally, the situation is not enabling her to gain the most from her seminary year. The fact that you’re still her crutch midyear is a sign that you’re somewhat of a disservice to her. She has not learned to manage on her own, and find methods of self-soothing, resilience, and personal development that would facilitate her independence and spiritual growth — the purposes of the year in Israel. 

Your parents are also victims because their benevolence is turning into a source of tension, evoking your anger instead of love and hakaras hatov. I’m lacking information regarding your parents’ nature, but I suspect that they’re somewhat capable of understanding that the present situation is detrimental to both of their daughters. 

You may be projecting onto them this expectation of hospitality without any limits at any cost. It’s possible that this expectation is stemming more from your insecurities, lack of assertiveness, and fear of confrontation. It’s important to ask yourself: Why am I not able to gently discuss this issue with my sister? What do I gain by maintaining the situation as it is? Do I have a need to be the martyr? Am I uncomfortable with the level of parental support and feel that I’m only worthy of it if I sacrifice my happiness and shalom bayis?

There are strong financial ties connecting young couples in Eretz Yisrael to their supportive parents abroad requiring true levels of hakaras hatov and sometimes a vitur in favor of parental preferences. Nevertheless, it’s unfair to assume that most parents will view financial support as a means of control over their married children and of making unreasonable demands. 

Even if you are justified in your fear of direct confrontation, there are other creative solutions. For example: requesting that a seminary teacher address the topic of young couples and privacy, and seeing if your sister responds. I still feel that, ideally, the issue should be dealt with directly. You must learn to relate to yourself, and your sister, as individuals who do not have to communicate via your parents. Your sister is at the age of separation and individuation, where her needs, values, and feelings must not be seen as an extension of your parents. It seems that though you are a few years older and have already established your own family, you may still view yourself as an extension of them, and therefore have a hard time focusing on your individual needs. 

If you feel that you must approach the issue gradually, it can be addressed subtly. Without discussing an ongoing policy, you can mention to your sister, after a Sunday night visit, that this week is a little hectic, and you and your family need some quiet time. You’d love to have her for Thursday night dinner, when you’d like to make her favorite supper. You can continue the conversation if it is going well, or wait for another opportunity to mention that you’ve been thinking about a mistake that you both may be making. Use the royal “we” to align yourself with her and find solutions together. She’s missing out on her seminary experience. And you are not considering the importance of privacy in a young couple’s shalom bayis

You are equally responsible for the situation by not realizing and dealing with the issue. This will deflate her embarrassment and model accountability. Sometimes it’s tempting to maintain your position of the good guy by blaming things on your husband. This is obviously unfair. While his needs should be taking precedence, he shouldn’t become a scapegoat. A spouse, who doesn’t have the nuclear family’s unconditional love, should always be protected, not blamed. 

It’s not necessary for your parents to get involved. But if they do, try to create a win-win dialogue where you show love and concern for your sister, while asking them to help find solutions for everyone’s benefit. 

If you’re feeling guilty about establishing boundaries, you can try this tactic: Initiate some form of expression of love that your sister is not expecting (send her a cake or have the kids call her to say goodnight) while simultaneously asserting the boundaries that you’ve established. Through this you’ll teach yourself and her that boundaries are not stemming from lack of love, rather they allow the love to flourish without resentment. 

 

Mr. Shaya Ostrov

In 1978 my wife and our children made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael and were confronted by the challenges of being far from the American environment we had been raised in. Back then, a phone call to the States cost about $5.00 a minute and it took nearly half an hour just to connect with the overseas operator. At most we spoke to our parents perhaps once a month for no more than a minute or two. Most challenging were the Yamim Tovim when we deeply missed being with family. During the dry spring and summer months I even longed for the excitement of a thunderstorm to satisfy a feeling of nostalgia for a rainy summer day. This is how Hashem created us. When we are away from our homes, we long to be reconnected. 

Today, of course, there are many differences. Many American families in Israel have access to a DSL phone line, or phone plans that cost less than 2 cents a minute. Calls to and from the States are made multiple times a day. A stroll down a street in Ramat Eshkol or in Beit Shemesh could make anyone think that he’s in a suburb of Lawrence, Flatbush, or Monsey. 

Yet, with all its amenities, Eretz Yisrael is still a different culture and over 7,000 miles and seven time zones away, and homesickness is never uncommon, especially for a young seminary girl far away from her parents. So she clings to friends, her sister, her nieces and nephews, and the opportunity to schmooze with her family over her sister’s DSL line whenever possible. 

Aside from her needs, there are other perspectives. There is a young couple requiring privacy as they create the foundations of their family in their early years of marriage. There is a young kollel husband who does not feel comfortable with his home being invaded by his young sister-in-law and her seminary friends. There are parents who care for their daughters, provide for them at great personal expense, and want them to be helpful to each other. And this causes the complexities of the situation. 

There are a number of considerations in approaching this dilemma. Yet all revolve around the themes of being considerate of the feelings of others and the middah of hakaras hatov.

The seminary girl who may feel lonely for family needs to accept guidelines for her visits. She can be told, “We love you and you’re always welcome, but please be aware that we’re a young couple and need to maintain our sense of privacy as a couple. And while your friends may be welcome for a Shabbos or Yom Tov meal, because of tzniyus, we’re not in favor of an open-door policy.”

The husband, whose learning in Eretz Yisrael is enabled by his in-laws generosity and mesirus nefesh, needs to be tolerant and accepting of his sister-in-law’s visits, providing they follow flexible guidelines. 

Living and learning in Eretz Yisrael is a zchus but it comes along with yissurim that require personal strength, ability to sacrifice, and wisdom. In this situation everyone require those middos along with a healthy portion of appreciation of their zchus through being considerate of each other and demonstrating hakaras hatov.

 

Mrs. Joanne Dove 

There seems to be a lot of confusion about expectations. When your parents say they want you to open your home to your sister, what does that mean? Let her come occasionally? Set up a bed for her so she can move in anytime? The only way to get clarity is to speak to your parents and see what they actually have in mind. 

There’s no reason you can’t set some boundaries: “I love having you over, but I hardly get to see my husband and it’s important that we have family time alone every night. B’ezras Hashem, you’ll see what it’s like once you’re married.” You can also mention, “My husband is a bit shy, particularly around a bunch of seminary students; we’d really prefer if you’d come on your own most times.” 

Depending on the type of relationship you have with your mother, perhaps you can involve her and ask her for advice as to how exactly to word these boundaries. Perhaps she can even ask your younger sister, “Are you making sure not to be around too much when Baruch is home so that Chani and Baruch can have time alone? It’s so important for a couple to have time alone.” 

I know that you’re concerned that doing this will backfire. But it seems to me that you should take the risk. What you’re doing now is even riskier — your resentment will build to the point where it will eventually erupt. Then your family members will all know how you feel in any case, and your words will no doubt be sharper than had they been carefully selected. It’s also important to keep in mind that if you don’t set up boundaries, even once your sister goes back to the States your marriage will still be suffering from the impact of her year in Israel. 

You’re making many assumptions about your family’s reaction if you should choose to be honest. There’s a good chance that you’re projecting your qualms onto them. Their actual reaction may be different than what you envision. 

If you do get flak from your parents, make sure to reiterate that you’re happy to have your sister over most hours of the day, a few days a week, but you do need to have some privacy. It’s hard to imagine that a mother would object to her daughter wanting to have some quality time with her husband. But if she reacts badly, flip the issue to her, and ask what she feels is a reasonable arrangement. Then try to work on some kind of compromise. 

If your sister is exceptionally needy and homesick, try to stretch yourself to have her three times a week, and call her on the days when she doesn’t come. However, even when she does come, make sure that she usually isn’t around during the short time your husband is home. Your marriage must come first. 

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