| LifeLines |

The Happiest Man Alive

Two months before our wedding, I got a call from a woman who introduced herself as a therapist. “I’m seeing your kallah,” she explained

 mishpacha image

T here was nothing unusual about my shidduch. At least I thought so when I got engaged.

I was a regular chassidish bochur Rivky was a regular chassidishe girl. I was 19 she was 18. We had two beshows and drank l’chayim immediately after the second.

The first sign I had that something was wrong was when my mother told me that my kallah had gone to live with her brother and sister-in-law. My parents found this strange and they began making some subtle inquiries.

Two months before our wedding I got a call from a woman who introduced herself as a therapist. “I’m seeing your kallah” she explained “and I think it would be beneficial that we meet.”

Completely bewildered I called my parents and asked them what was going on. “Apparently there are some issues in your kallah’s family” my father told me. “We didn’t know any of this before you got engaged but we think it’s a good idea for you to talk to this therapist.”

I didn’t realize at the time how concerned my parents actually were. I was on a high from being a chassan and nothing had the power to burst my bubble.

When I met with Rivky’s therapist she gave me a whole shpiel about how a person has to be warm and accepting in marriage. “Not everyone receives acceptance and love as a child” she explained. Then she quickly added “I’m not saying this specifically about your kallah it’s just important that you know how to be loving and sensitive to a wife’s needs.”

Ohhh-kay I though. This is weird.

That was about all the thought I gave to it at that point.

The problems started immediately after the wedding. During sheva brachos Rivky did not eat or sleep to the extent that on the third day of sheva brachos she fainted. Hatzolah had to come down and work on her for two hours.

After sheva brachos her eating and sleeping schedules stabilized but her behavior was bewildering. She refused to go out to either set of parents for supper or for Shabbos and on the rare occasions when she agreed to visit my parents she wouldn’t sit down she wouldn’t eat and she wouldn’t talk. She just stood in a corner mutely.

If I bought Rivky flowers or gifts she would stare at me coldly not even uttering a thank you. She was constantly complaining about having to cook and clean and wash the dishes — even though she had nothing else to do. She did actually take care of the cooking laundry and housework but the amount of kvetching along the way was totally out of proportion. If she needed to go to the doctor she would tell me to make the appointment. If we were out of milk she would look at me wide-eyed like a little kid as though she had no clue how to get more milk. If I showed her any affection she would start to shiver and cry. I was baffled.

The first months of our marriage were unbearable. Rivky was closed off to me, and I couldn’t connect with her at all. At her best, she was frightened and helpless. At her worst, she was volatile, headstrong, and controlling. We fought all day; even the most innocuous conversation had a way of turning into an explosive argument. “Tonight is my cousin’s wedding,” I informed Rivky one day.

“I’m not going!” she shouted back. “I don’t want to see your family!”

Rivky actually insisted that we make Pesach ourselves that first year. After a series of exhausting arguments, she finally agreed to go to her parents for the first Seder and my parents for the second. The rest of the meals we ate on our own, at home. Some of the time we argued; some of the time we sat in silence.

The Seder at my parents’ home turned into a fiasco. My parents have a minhag not to eat fish on Pesach, and in an act of defiance, Rivky brought along her own fish and ate it in front of everyone. When my father made a mild comment about it, she was mortally insulted. After that, she refused to step foot into my parents’ house. For six months we did not visit them.

Not only did Rivky balk at spending time with family, she hated it when I spoke to my family on the phone. She would hover around me when I was on the phone with them, and then grill me about the conversation: “Why did you say that? What did your mother answer when you told her that?”

Rivky was clearly trying to distance me from my family, but I knew that the situation was too much for me to handle alone. When I was out of the house, I reported regularly to my parents about Rivky’s bizarre behavior.

My parents urged me to take Rivky for professional help, and they gave me the name of a prominent — and very expensive — therapist. As it turned out, Rivky had gone for only a couple of sessions of therapy during the engagement. “I didn’t like it, so I stopped,” she told me. She agreed to see the therapist my parents had recommended, but during the sessions she didn’t open up at all.

After the therapist met with us, he called me in privately and said, “Your wife didn’t tell me anything about her past, but I’ve been working in this field for 40 years, and it’s clear to me that she had a dysfunctional and abusive upbringing.”

Rivky’s family, dysfunctional and abusive? They were such nice, regular people! She was the one who was crazy. “I don’t think you’re right,” I told the therapist. But he remained adamant about his diagnosis.

During the next session, the therapist confronted Rivky. “I know that you were abused as a child,” he said bluntly. “Can you tell me what happened, what goes on in your family?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.

After we left, Rivky burst into tears. “Did you hear the lies he made up about my family?” she cried.

That was the last time we saw that therapist.

We started seeing someone else, a therapist who came highly recommended — and charged top dollar. Rather than trying to pry information out of Rivky, this therapist just let us talk. When we were in his office, we felt as though we were on a time clock — the minute the 50 minutes were up, we were out the door. In addition to the steep fee we paid per session, the therapist billed us for every phone call and text message between sessions. It felt like a purely business transaction, as though our personal issues were nothing but a way of lining someone else’s pockets.

My parents, who cared too much about me to allow me to suffer in such a horrendous marriage, took me to see a well-known askan who was known for his expertise in helping people with shalom bayis. The askan listened to my story for an hour and a half, and then he turned to my father and said, “I wish there would be a better solution, but I think they need to get divorced.”

I spoke to a rav in the community as well, and he, too, urged me to get divorced. “You don’t have any children yet,” he said. “Get out now, while you can still make a clean break.”

It was tempting. My parents were warm, loving, emotionally healthy people, and I had a happy home to go back to. As a young divorced man with no children, I could easily remarry, especially since it was clear to everyone involved that Rivky was the one with the issues.

As I was pondering this option, an image popped into my mind. It was an image of myself as a divorced guy. And I knew then, with absolute certainty, that I didn’t want that image to be me.

I also knew something else. If I would continue speaking to my parents about my relationship, I would never be able to stay married.

True, every moment of my marriage was painful. True, there was no connection between Rivky and me. True, her behavior was crazy. But there was one thing about Rivky that I alone recognized, and that was that she was a fighter. Right now, she was fighting me, and fighting everyone else who was trying to help us. But I understood, on some intuitive level, that her fighting was a good sign — it meant she was struggling to survive and wasn’t interested in maintaining the status quo.

Hashem gave me this wife because He wanted her to be married to a healthy person so that she could have a normal life, I told myself. She needs me.

At the outskirts of the nightmare I was living through, there was an exit door that said “Divorce.” In my mind, I erased that exit. I was going to make this marriage work, come what may. Rivky wanted it to work, of that I had no doubt. She just didn’t know how to be a wife. But she was ready to learn, as evidenced by her willingness to go for help, and I was ready to be there for her no matter what. I just had to find the right instructor.

My marriage remained a Gehinnom even after I made the decision to stay put. I was in kollel half a day and working half a day, but I didn’t have a head to focus on either one. Rivky and I continued to drag ourselves from therapist to therapist, each of whom immediately diagnosed Rivky as the one with the problem, but none of whom had any real solutions to offer. It was just talk, talk, talk, then hand over the money. I didn’t get the sense that any of them really cared.

One day, Rivky had an idea. “None of the therapists with all their credentials have managed to help us,” she noted. “Maybe we should go speak to my high school teacher, Mrs. Kess. I was close to her, and I always felt that she cared deeply about me and all of her other students. I know she mentors people. Maybe we should go to her.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll do whatever makes you happy.”

From the very first session, I saw a huge difference. Rivky had regarded every other therapist with suspicion, but Mrs. Kess she trusted. Mrs. Kess connected with us on a personal level, rather than being all professional and formal. And she didn’t pin labels on Rivky or grill us for details that we weren’t comfortable disclosing. Her goal was to help us understand each other and work out issues effectively.

From her, we learned how to argue. “You never say anything in an argument that you will later regret,” she told us. In addition to meeting with us as a couple, she spoke to me over the phone — she didn’t meet with men alone in person — and guided me on to how to get Rivky to open up to me. “Be soft with her,” she told me. “Don’t come on strong. You need to make her feel safe. And you need to have lots and lots of patience.”

Mrs. Kess was a busy mentor, teacher, public speaker and mother, but she made herself available to us despite her full schedule. “Call or text me anytime,” she said.

And we did. If she couldn’t answer right away, she would get back to us within a short time, helping us to work through whatever issue we were dealing with rather than letting it fester.

“You have the kochos hanefesh to be your wife’s best counselor,” Mrs. Kess encouraged me. “Instead of succumbing to her vulnerabilities, work on encouraging her and building her.” She kept reinforcing my strengths to me, while helping me see the positive in Rivky as well. And she kept telling Rivky what an awesome guy she married. “I meet many people,” she told her, “and you won the lottery with your husband!”

With Mrs. Kess’s guidance, I kept on giving Rivky compliments, even though she didn’t know what to do with herself when she heard a kind word. When Rivky would plead with me to make a phone call or an appointment on her behalf, I would tell her, “I’m going to stand right next to you while you do it.”

Because Rivky had never been able to concentrate in school, her writing skills were poor, and she would ask me to write even the most insignificant note or e-mail for her. “Your writing is beautiful,” I would tell her. “Even if there are spelling mistakes, your words come from the heart and show what a quality person you are.” Eventually, she gained enough confidence in her writing to be able to express herself cogently, the wisdom of her thoughts more than compensating for the grammatical deficiencies.

It was amazing to see how Rivky blossomed in the steady sunlight I provided. The more she internalized that I was there for her and was going to be there for her forever, the more relaxed and pleasant she became.

I never pushed her to tell me about her past, but as she started feeling more comfortable with me, bits and pieces about her childhood started to leak out. How her mother used to beat her with a leather belt or a metal spoon if she didn’t listen. How she was forced to swallow an entire tablespoon of white pepper any time she uttered a “bad word.” How she couldn’t do well in school because she couldn’t focus. How she used to count down the years until she could get married and escape her parents’ house — not realizing that marriage does not fix your problems, but rather forces you to confront them.

It turned out that the first therapist had been right when he told me that my wife had been through serious abuse, except that his diagnosis was useless, because it was delivered in a way that Rivky found threatening. Surprising as it was to me, Rivky’s mother was an emotionally disturbed person — although she managed to put on an impressive show for the public — and Rivky had grown up without praise or recognition and without ever hearing the words “I love you.”

Another difference between Mrs. Kess and the other therapists was that her goal, from the start, was to wean us off her counsel. With the other therapists, the feeling we got was that we’d be in therapy forever — if our marriage lasted that long. Mrs. Kess, however, kept encouraging us to go out on our own. “You’re good,” she would tell us. “You don’t need me anymore.” Eventually, we gained the confidence to stop seeing her, although we still kept in touch with her as needed. And her constant refrain continued to echo in our ears: “You have so much to offer the world. Think about what you are needed for, not what you need.”

Under the chuppah, I had heard the brachah of “Yotzer ha’adam” being recited. In the years that followed my disastrous shanah rishonah, I saw the fulfillment of that brachah, as my wife was transformed into a delightful, capable, and confident person. In the beginning, everything had been an issue. Now, we reached a point where nothing was an issue, because we had learned to communicate in a way that was purely positive, against the backdrop of absolute safety and commitment.

By the time we were ready to become parents, after several years of investing intensive efforts into our marriage, I was secure in the knowledge that my wife would be an excellent mother — which today she indeed is. She also holds down a good job, cooks and bakes, and runs the house beautifully. She’s reached a point where she’s able to give chizuk to other people in need, and she’s a living inspiration to others — and to me.

Mrs. Kess actually predicted that this would happen. Back when everyone else thought our marriage was doomed, she assured me that not only would I use my tools, skills, and innate wisdom to be an ambassador of Hashem and help His children, but that my wife, too, would one day be a beacon to others, because of her painful childhood and the wisdom she garnered from her journey.

Each year on Purim, we pay a visit with the kids to Mrs. Kess, who is the reason I have children and a happy marriage today. We still consult with her occasionally, usually about parenting issues, but mostly it’s about sharing the nachas. And she still has us in mind every Erev Shabbos when she lights candles, as she did from the time we started seeing her.

Rivky and I haven’t yet celebrated our tenth anniversary, but I feel like we’re way ahead of most couples our age, because of all the hard work we invested into our marriage. Our relationship today is unbelievably good, and I credit Rivky for the success I have baruch Hashem achieved in both learning and work.

I can honestly say that my wife is my best friend and the person I most enjoy spending time with. My favorite time of the week is Friday night after the seudah, when we put the kids to sleep and then sit on the couch for hours schmoozing about everything under the sun.

In our quest to continually learn and improve ourselves, we have attended numerous chinuch seminars, courses, and lectures, determined as we are to give our children the best possible upbringing. Rivky, specifically, has embraced the opportunity to show our children love in a way that she never experienced growing up, and I daresay she’s doing a fine job.

My parents don’t know exactly how the turnaround happened — they don’t ask and I don’t offer the information — but it’s obvious to them that we are in a very healthy place, and today they and Rivky have a nice, normal relationship. We visit them often, and you would never know that they once wanted us to get — I can’t even say the word.

I see many couples getting divorced a short time after the wedding, and my heart breaks for them. Of course everyone’s experience is different, and there’s a reason why Maseches Gittin exists, but I believe that the power of commitment is underestimated. My marriage was not just at risk — it was hopeless, according to all the experts. But once I decided to stay in the marriage and be a husband to my wife as she was, Hashem gave me the koach to follow through on that decision. And today, I am the happiest man alive.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 649)

Oops! We could not locate your form.

Tagged: LifeLines