The Long Road Home| March 1, 2022
This comment was a dagger to my heart. Boring? How could my own husband find me boring?
As told to Roizy Baum
I was just 18 when I began shidduchim. To my joy and relief, it was a super smooth process — my husband Shua was the first boy I met.
When it came to doing homework on shidduch prospects, my parents always relied on information from people they knew rather than people who knew the boy well. As the youngest, I felt very comfortable leaving all the “background checks” to them. They’d done it successfully ten times. Why should the 11th be any different? I knew the boy must be a stellar talmid chacham with great middos, because only boys of that caliber passed my parents' thorough inspection.
Shua's mother insisted that she meet me before I met her son. From the first second, I was enamored by his mother’s infectious smile and easygoing personality. I’m going to love visiting my mother-in-law, was my first thought.
When I met Shua, I was on a high. He was so open-minded. Free-spirited and expressive, I always knew I’d marry someone less conservative than my siblings’ spouses. The way he made easy eye contact with me, so unlike the way my brothers-in-law did, didn’t bother me in the slightest. On the contrary, I felt relieved that he wasn’t this timid bochur who’d been in a protective cocoon since birth. I didn’t realize that the fact he was so different from other boys in our circles was a red flag.
After we’d met three times, the shadchan began pressuring us. “If you don’t have a reason to say no, then it’s a yes.”.
My sisters had lots of comments after the l’chayim about the way Shua posed with me for pictures. Their disapproval was scathing. “Look how close the two of you are standing!” one chided me. I shrugged. “You know I always wanted someone a bit more open,” I reminded them.
Our engagement was short. I spoke to Shua regularly and maintained a close relationship with my mother-in-law — we were close enough in age to be sisters!
Things took a slight downward turn towards the end of our engagement, when Shua stopped calling my father every Friday to wish him a gut Shabbos.
“Shua didn’t even call after he got our gifts,” I overheard my father tell my mother. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed by his behavior as well, but my mother dismissed it as “typical of a clueless bochur,” making me feel better.
During one of our conversations, my mother-in-law dropped a few comments about Shua feeling pressured by his new brothers-in-law. “You know he’s not planning to stay in learning for long after the wedding, Devorah, right?” she asked me, her voice anxious.
“Don’t worry, Ma. Shua and I already discussed it in great detail. And come on! Who’s comparing him to my brothers and brothers-in-law? He’s marrying me and nobody else.”
The countdown to the wedding was painful, every day feeling so long. Finally, the day arrived. It was beautiful in every respect. I didn’t make much of the fact that Shua wasn’t really smiling in the pictures, assuming he felt pressured by all the attention we were getting.
Before we entered our first sheva brachos dinner, Shua told me how beautiful I looked. I couldn’t have been happier — I’d married my dream man!
A few weeks after our marriage, we were headed out to my parents. Shua was hatless. I looked pointedly at his head. He looked at me and sighed. “Fiine. I’ll wear it now. But it’s only because of the crazy pressure I feel from your father.”
My father is a powerhouse and can sometimes come across as intimidating, so Shua’s feelings made sense to me. But then he continued complaining about my father — and most of his comments simply didn’t make any sense. Still, I was determined to ignore the butterflies in my stomach. Shua was my husband, and it was my job to be on his side.
We moved to Israel just a few weeks after the wedding — and our marriage immediately took a hit.
When things didn’t go Shua’s way, the “D” word rolled off his tongue effortlessly. He pushed me to buy a new sheitel, telling me the ones I bought when we got engaged were too frum-looking. But when I came home with my new purchase, he was upset, and told me that it was still too short. “Right from the beginning, I told my parents I didn’t want to go through with this shidduch, but they pressured me into it. I want to get divorced. I knew you were too frum for me!”
I felt like he’d slapped me across the face. Was he for real? I knew marriage could sometimes be difficult, especially at the beginning, but I was taught that you plowed through, no matter what. You didn’t get divorced at the drop of a hat like that. How could Shua even consider it?
I resolved to work harder on my marriage.
Shua was always the weaker one; I had to make all of the decisions. If we wanted to do something, I’d have to be the one to get things moving.
But sometimes he’d put his foot down, for no reason at all. “I’m not going to your parents for the seudos,” he said point blank one Yom Tov morning after we’d gone back to New York for Succos. “I feel so pressured there. I know your father’s going to make me say a devar Torah. Let’s just stay here.”
Torn between my husband and my family, I didn’t know what to do. I’d missed my family a lot while we were away and was looking forward to spending every spare minute with them. And if we decided not to eat at my parents, where were we going to eat? We were staying in a neighbor’s basement guest room. There was a tiny succah, but I didn’t have pots or even ingredients. At the very least, he should’ve voiced his thoughts before Yom Tov! How did any of this make sense — fly all the way here, then stay holed up in a tiny basement?
Reluctantly, Shua agreed to go to my parents for three seudos. But he refused to go to the fourth. Okay, we’ll figure something out here,” I said, trying to be cheerful. I scanned the kitchenette for options — coffee, tea, some cookie crumbs. No seudah material.
An hour into the seudah, my married brother came to check up on us. “I’m not answering the door,” I told Shua, mortified. “What should I tell him?”
Shua opened the door and muttered a lame excuse. After my brother left, shaking his head, Shua flashed me a smile. “All good, right?”
That afternoon, when we did go over to my parents, the question marks about our absence still hanging in the air, Shua asked me to make a plate of food for him. I was confused and angry.
Later, I heard that my family thought the whole episode was my fault. “Devorah and her meshugassen!” they said. I was so hurt, especially as I’d looked forward to that seudah because my favorite sister, Toby, was going to be there with her family.
Of course, I didn’t share what was going on with anyone. We were just on a meandering lane along the journey of marriage, right?
Superficially, we had a happy marriage. When Shua’s spirits were up, we had many good times together, and he was a very attentive, loving spouse. But when he was in a funk, his behavior baffled me.
Once when we went out on a walk, he turned to me and said, “You’re so boring. I don’t have anything to talk to you about.” We were standing under some scaffolding, noisy construction above us, and I felt like the entire structure was caving in on me, chunks of cement crumbling to dust. Shua mentioned divorce as often as I recited asher yatzar; I’d learned not to be fazed. But this comment was a dagger to my heart. Boring? How could my own husband find me boring?
From then on, Shua’s melancholy felt like my fault; he’d married a woman who had nothing to offer. What else could account for his mood swings?
That became the pattern of his behavior. When he was down, he’d complain about everything. His bad mood was always someone else’s fault: mine, my family’s, Yiddishkeit, the apartment we lived in, the neighborhood… and each time, I’d resolve to try harder to make things easier for him.
Shua always wanted me to change the way I dressed. He wanted me to wear a longer sheitel, shorter skirts, tighter clothes, more makeup. On the one hand, I wanted to be an ishah kesheirah and do what my husband wanted, but when my family back in New York heard about the slightest change in my appearance, they became enraged. I was being pulled in two directions, and it was choking me.
My family spoke reproachfully to me during our infrequent conversations, and their invisible, accusatory fingers pointed in my direction. “Devorah again! Being smarter than everybody, trying to be different, thinking this is where she’ll find happiness.”
I hadn’t had an opportunity to develop a network of friends in Eretz Yisrael. We’d gone back for Yom Tov only six weeks after we’d arrived, and Shua’s bad mood, which had started while we were home and intensified when we returned, took up all my energy and time.
I was so alone. My life consisted of walking on eggshells around my husband’s bad moods, trying to please him, protecting him from my family — and trying to maximize those times when he was in good spirits.
Then I found out that I was expecting. Twins, no less! I was on a high — and Shua was fuming. Still, I felt hopeful. Who knows? I thought. Maybe becoming parents would strengthen our bond. I was sure that as soon as the twins were born, he’d be won over by their sweetness.
Throughout the pregnancy, whenever I was sick, Shua blamed me. Once, when the distance to the bathroom felt too great, I begged him to bring me something to throw up in. “You wanted a child. Deal with it,” he said, before throwing a basin in my direction.
I was stuck with a difficult spouse, had no job, wasn’t feeling well, and my parents and family weren’t supporting me. I needed a therapist.
Actually, we needed a therapist.
With nobody to turn to for advice, we flipped through the business directory. At the time, desperate and unaware, I didn’t realize how important a licensed therapist was for a difficult case like ours. Instead, we went to whoever had availability for the next day.
“You’ll have your husband back to himself in time for the babies’ arrival,” the guidance counselor promised.
Promising doesn’t cost anything.
Shua was far from ready.
I knew that a first labor could take a while. “Maybe I should start out with a doula?” I asked Shua. Unsurprisingly, he was thrilled to be let off the hook, while I was secretly relieved that he’d be absent. His presence would only up the tension when I needed my space.
When I left to the hospital, Shua went to sleep. No Tehillim, no thoughts, no worries.
The birth happened so fast, Shua arrived at the hospital in time to hear the babies crying. I was crying, too. “We have twins! We have two healthy and beautiful babies!” Tears streamed down my face. Embarrassed by my reaction, Shua scanned the room to make sure nobody was watching.
My parents came to Eretz Yisrael straight after the birth and rented an apartment large enough to accommodate all of us. But having my husband and my father under one roof wasn’t the greatest idea. I was buckling under the pressure.
One night when I awoke to feed the babies, my husband’s bed was empty. He later confessed that he was browsing on my father’s computer. Because he wasn’t smart enough to delete the search history, my father saw exactly which sites he’d looked at and was furious. He wanted us to leave the apartment he’d rented and go home.
So, when my twins were just three weeks old, I went back home. The babies shrieked until the wee hours of the morning, while my husband would scream at me, and then at them, to be quiet. If that didn’t work, he’d literally bang his head against the walls, fuming. I’d tiredly take the twins out of the bedroom to the dining room to try to calm them down, anxious that they’d wake up Shua.
When Shua was in a helpful mood, he would offer to take them out on a walk, which lasted all of 20 minutes, after which he absolutely had to run to minyan, suddenly very punctual about something he’d never really cared about before.
When I finally managed to settle the twins again a few hours later, I’d exhaustedly fall asleep again at 10 a.m., feeling intense pressure to wake up in time for Shua’s return home for lunch, when he expected a meal to be served to him.
If I didn’t manage to get up in time, he’d glare condescendingly and snarl, “Why are you still in bed?”
If he ever did do something for the babies, he acted as if he was a babysitter, almost expecting payment. I’d learned to ignore his yelling and let it fly over my head, but when he yelled at the crying babies, my heart constricted.
Still, when Shua was in a good mood, there was no sweeter father. He’d play with the twins, coo at them, bathe them, and proudly show them off.
My in-laws, who lived in Brooklyn, flew us in for Yom Tov. We rushed the twins’ passport application, but they didn’t come through in a timely manner. I was ready to give up on traveling, but my husband, desperate to get away, insisted on flying as soon as the passports arrived. The traveling was arduous, but the stay made it worthwhile. My mother-in-law pampered me, doted over the twins and delivered some pep talks to a son whose ears were blocking out all the well-meaning people giving advice.
Her talks didn’t seem to help. Shua blamed me whenever the babies cried.
“You know,” he told me one day, “Moishy’s kid sleeps through the night. And his wife isn’t busy with the baby 24/7.” I felt incredibly incompetent, and tried to get my act together and do more around the house. Why was I the only one not managing?
I was desperate to go for therapy, but my funds were dry. Fortunately, a family friend was footing Shua’s steep therapy bills, but there was no one offering to pay for mine. Shua’s official diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, coupled with the fact that he was constantly in therapy and often switching to better therapists, convinced me that things would improve with time. Patience was key, I thought.
But when I did attend a few therapy sessions (with lower-priced therapists; only Shua got the “experts”), there was not a single one who encouraged me to stay in the marriage. One intuitive therapist asked me, “Do you have any children?” I told her that I had twins, and she urged me to seek daas Torah. “It’s not only about you, it’s also about them.” The conversation was eye-opening.
Shua’s Yiddishkeit was steadily declining. Hooked on his latest baby — his computer — he entirely lost interest in me and the twins. His device was unfiltered and it wreaked havoc on his ruchniyus. When I insisted that he get a filter, he eventually did, but that didn’t stop him from finding other sources of unfiltered internet.
One Erev Shabbos, I was dusting the shelves when I noticed Shua’s tefillin bag sitting there… coated with dust. “When did you use your tefillin last?” I asked. He paused to think, then shrugged. “Hmm. Two weeks ago? Last month? I’m not sure.”
On Shabbos, I notice a fan plugged in that I knew we’d forgotten to plug in. Soon, he started playing with the lights on Shabbos to catch my attention when he was annoyed that I wasn’t answering him quickly enough. “Helllllo? Are you with me?” And he’d stay in bed until the Shabbos meal.
Shua begged me to watch movies with him. I was reluctant. Then he got a “heter.” “A rav I asked said that as long as the movies don’t include scenes of the three horag v’al yaavor, we can watch. Let’s go!”
Apparently, he had his definition of the “three worst aveiros.” The movie was highly inappropriate, and I promised myself never to watch anything with him again.
As soon as I realized (although I knew I was never, ever going to go through with it) that getting divorced was actually a wise option, I felt empowered. He’d stopped using divorce as a weapon (thanks to his therapists’ hard work), but now I started using it.
The first time I went to seek daas Torah, I came to the crucial realization that my situation wasn’t sustainable. “Give him a basic list of things you need him to commit to for two weeks,” the rav I consulted with advised. The rav hoped my husband’s answer would be, “No way,” while I hoped his answer would be, “I want to change.” Because, strange as it may seem, I wasn’t ready to give up on our marriage.
The two-week period during which Shua realized I might actually leave him were the best 14 days of my marriage.
He gave me a stash of DVDs and said, “Dump them!”
I was taken aback. “What happened now? You were the one who wanted out the whole time?”
“I don’t want to stay forever,” he replied. “But just until I figure things out.” Aha, so he just wanted someone to be there to launder his socks and prepare his meals.
The basic requirements on the list proved too difficult for him to follow. But a profound change had taken place in me.
“You don’t have to change anything for me. We can get divorced,” I told him calmly.
Shua started to cry, begged that we stay together, pleaded for another chance. “The list… I promise you, Devorah… I’ll do everything on that list.”
He then had a full-blown panic attack, which broke me all over again. As much as our relationship was very complex and confusing and painful, it was also interwoven with many fond memories. After everything, I still loved the man I was married to, and the thought of divorcing was deeply painful. But I was following my daas Torah. And my rav had told me, “Once you’ve made a decision to divorce him, it’s yichud for the two of you to be together. You must separate.”
And so, my heart aching, I packed up supper for Shua, sniffling while stacking containers, and even made the phone call to check him into a nearby hotel.
Right before leaving, his hand on the doorknob, Shua turned around and said, “I’m good, you’re good. We can’t stay together, but we’ll stay friends, right?” He swiped a trembling finger across his wet, blotchy face, while I forced my gaze downward. I lifted my head, and in a quivering voice hiccupped a yes. I then asked him to please give me his house keys, which he surprisingly did without protest. Only when the door closed behind him did I allow myself a good, long cry.
Three days later, when I went to meet him in beis din to open a file for divorce, my heart beat with anticipation. I was excited to see my husband. I hadn’t seen him for three whole days. I gave him a massive smile, followed by a friendly how are you, and the dayanim, who couldn’t believe this couple was really here to get a divorce, needed my father, who’d flown in to help me, to convince them that there was more than meets the eye. The divorce went through quickly.
The first few days after we got our get were torture. I missed my husband like crazy. I needed lots of therapy to learn how to disconnect from him completely. It was hard to wrap my head around the situation. “How can someone I was married to, someone I shared such a close bond with, just disappear from my life?” I challenged my therapist, a Heaven-sent angel. To me, our separation was as painful as separating children from their parents. Reaching emotional equilibrium was hard work.
I had my get in hand, and I was back in the States, near family, but I couldn’t see myself going through life alone. I knew I needed to remarry. Although shidduch suggestions trickled in slowly, it wasn’t long until I was seriously dating someone.
Chaim was everything I could have dreamed of. We clicked instantly. He’d drop lines like, “We have time to discuss this in ten years from now,” or “You’re going to get along great with my sisters. I can so see it!”
It was on our seventh date, when I broached the topic of meeting the twins, that things fell apart. “Although they’re young,” I said, “you probably want to start connecting, no?”
He looked at me intently, confusion on his face. “Oh. The twins are staying with us… I mean, you… from the beginning? I thought your sister would have them for the first year, at least.”
My jaw dropped. Who had told him that? Never would I agree to be separated from my kids.
I continued our conversation with forced cheer, while the rock in my stomach expanded uncontrollably. I couldn’t blame Chaim. He never had children before. He wanted a wife he could spend unlimited time with in shanah rishonah, not someone weighed down by major responsibilities.
Later that night, I sobbed into my pillow. The shidduch was over. My heart was shattered. Irrevocably, I believed.
“Take a break,” I told myself. “You need to let things go. You need to do your best and leave the results up to Him.”
But being alone was hard. Every night felt like a week, and Shabbos a full month. After my near-engagement, the suggestions that followed were few and far between, most of them lacking potential.
It was time for me to face the facts: why would someone without children agree to meet a divorced woman and be a father to someone else’s children? If I wanted someone to be a father to my kids, I had to be ready to be a mother to his. Nobody was running after a woman with two kids, even if I was all of 23.
And that is how I found myself saying yes to Tzvi, a man whose heart is bigger than his towering frame, large enough to house love for his three children and my two. I went into marriage with him with my eyes wide open, with the knowledge that it would be challenging — and so worthwhile. Managing a new marriage, my twins and his three is like being a newlywed, a cheder principal, and playgroup director all at once.
Although Tzvi’s kids don’t live with us all week, they’re still my husband’s children, and a generous chunk of his mind is focused on them.
My friends and family joke about a young 30-year-old making a bar mitzvah in a few years from now. But I know I have a long road to traverse until we reach that milestone. Still, my challenges paved the road I’m traveling today, giving me strength and the ability to work hard for something I believe in.
And although my marriage has its natural ups and downs, I believe that if two loving partners are dedicated to working on their marriage, growing from the difficulties as opposed to crumbling from them, then they can build a beautiful home together, brick by shining brick.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 783)
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