What if your husband told you that he did not want to be frum anymore, r”l? What if you and your wife are not observant and suddenly she wants to become shomer Shabbos? How about if you married someone, only to find out that he is not as religious as you were led to believe? None of these is an uncommon occurrence; all of them can cause great stress in a marriage, and for some, even the death of the relationship.
Yet there is good news: I have seen couples in these very situations, on the brink of terminating their marriage, who, with commitment, patience, and hard work, were able to save it. At surface level, the task seemed daunting. Unless one spouse were convinced to change, marital disaster seemed inevitable. When we look at the situation from a more mature perspective, however, we realize that religious conflict is but another issue. And, as with any issue, religious conflict is not the sole reason for poor state of the relationship. Rather, it is a symptom of deeper issues waiting to be addressed.
While I do not mean to downplay the significance of religion in a relationship – it is very significant – I want to draw your attention to the fact that when a couple works on their relationship and begins to feel connected, much of the conflict about particular issues dissipates, including the ones surrounding religion. They are then able to deal with or work out their differences.
If you recall a time when you felt good about your spouse, perhaps when you were engaged or newly married, you may remember that your overwhelming positive feelings helped you overlook flaws that you later discovered. Similarly, if you revitalize your relationship, you will be better able to work together and/or cope with its problematic aspects. While it may require more sensitivity on the account of both parties, it is definitely doable.
It is also important not to get too caught up in the details and panic. In general, the more we pressure our spouse with regards to Yiddishkeit, the more he or she will resist. You are not your spouse’s mashgiach! It is better to give space and work on improving the relationship. As the feelings of safety and trust build, your spouse will more likely be open to hearing what you have to say. While it can be painful for one spouse to feel on a different plane religiously than the other, in the long run, the less confrontational approach will prove more successful.
It is easy to expect the worse when faced with such a challenge in your marriage and go into the how-can-I-be-mekarev-my-spouse mode. Interestingly, when we explore the roots of religious conflict, it is usually not serious questions of theology that is causing the spouse to drop out of Judaism. I have found that it is more likely to be deeper psychological issues manifesting themselves in the form of religious rebellion. Many of them revolve around issues with authority and our parents, especially our fathers. Our relationship with our father often mirrors how we relate to our Father in Heaven. (I cannot stress enough the importance of being a good father to your children.) So, the main task for both spouses is to develop a more expansive view of this relational impasse.
Another recurring issue is with couples in which both husband and wife are frum but have conflicts over religion involving outside influences. Something innocuous as a shiur can lead to problems. Let me preface my remarks by saying that it is wonderful how many women are committed to growth for themselves and their families. They truly strive to do the right thing. Yet occasionally, a woman hears something in a shiur and reports home to her husband about the newly-found wrongdoing in their home. Of course, there are certain things that are blatant issurim, however much of the conflict I have witnessed surrounds gray areas where various opinions or different minhagim exist. If one does not have a background in the halachic process, it is very easy to view things as black or white. The danger this poses for a relationship is twofold: It causes conflict, and it causes a wife to look down on her husband and often shame him.
The solution is addressed quite simply in Pirkei Avos: “Aseh lecha rav vehistalek min hasafek – choose a rabbi and remove yourself from doubt.” While there are many wonderful shiurim available in town from local and visiting rabbanim, as well as on the internet, if you are not able to discern and ask questions, you very likely could be confused. By developing a relationship with a rav who knows you well and whom you trust, you have a consistent person with whom to discuss these questions. What might be an answer for one person may not be the answer you will receive. Yes, maybe you were encouraged to take on a chumra in a shiur you heard, but it may not be the best thing for your family. A wise guide will help you discern what is really important for your growth and what is secondary. Many of us get wrapped up in the external trappings. This can especially be true of baalei teshuva. Yet true spiritual growth is bepnimius, internal, and sechel is required to determine what is a priority and what is not.
Along the same lines, I have noticed problems arising with shidduchim. This occurs especially with uninvolved parents, baalei teshuva, and children who have become more observant than their parents. It used to be that a child would seek advice from his or her parents. If there was a question, the father would ask his rav. As the center of guidance has shifted outside of our homes, it has sometimes resulted in mentorship by those who do not know the intricacies of our lives or have our true best interests at heart. Unfortunately, there are many needy people who ask around for advice. This is especially the case with girls. I have seen good shidduchim that have almost been destroyed because of advice that was not customized for the individual and his or her particular circumstances. Asking many people is confusing. Again, if your parents are not involved, for whatever reason, pick someone whom you trust.
“Dracheiha darchei noam, vechol nesivoseiha shalom – the Torah’s ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are paths of peace.” (Mishlei 3:17) May we all merit seeing the inner peace and the relationship peace that the Torah can truly provide.