Imperfect Orthodox Marriages: Shame, Secrets And Missteps


In the world in which I live, which is primarily Modern Orthodox Bergen County, being divorced and a single parent isn’t extremely rare, if not exceedingly common. People don’t treat me any differently than they did when I was married with regards to Shabbat meal invites or inclusion in social groups. Life is pretty much the same—except for every obvious way it’s not.

My knee-jerk reaction to growing up frum in Flatbush—where everybody left uglier things not only unsaid, but kept studiously concealed like people deserved shame for experiencing the normal vagaries of everyday life—is to be proactively and, occasionally, aggressively forthcoming about things.

Since I’ve written a couple of articles about how my divorce and single-hood impacted my life, I’ve become an unofficial guru for those experiencing relationship angst—divorced people, separated people, unhappily married people, people who are mostly happily married but have this one niggling issue they are having trouble circumventing. I suppose because I wrote openly about a topic that is still a little verboten to discuss honestly, people feel like they can confide in me, and that I might possess some pearls of wisdom to offer them. If I can help someone feel less alone in any way because of something I wrote or might be honest about, that’s a huge privilege. But assuming this role where I am privy to so many secrets has also taught me most keenly about marriage in the Orthodox community—namely, that no marriage, and no relationship, is perfect.

You might think this is obvious, like anyone who is over the age of six knows instinctively that there’s no such thing as the perfect Disney romance, where the couple meet cute, surmount some kind of challenge together and then live happily ever after, cue the credits and throw out your popcorn container on your way out.

“Life is pretty much the same—except for every obvious way it’s not.”

But I think in the Orthodox community, even the more modern one, people are still so hesitant to talk openly and honestly about less “pretty” topics, like the difficult realities that so many modern marriages feature and that touch every couple of every faith and every background. Coupled with the fact that social media allows people to put forth glowing narratives of their choosing, it’s easy to think that if two people are not divorced then their relationship is perfect, their home life is flawless, and they are insanely happy together. Not so. Every person has problems and every marriage has its issues. Trust me. If yours are more public because you now have an ex, you live in separate homes and your associated divorce drama sparked a couple conversations at the Shabbat table before the next “scandal du jour” reared its head, then so be it. At least you’re living an authentic life on your own terms, as difficult as it may be.

Situations are nuanced and most people deserve understanding and a measure of compassion, if not always approval or endorsement.

Because I am now so well-versed in what goes on behind so many closed doors and gleaming smiles in Facebook profile pictures, I’ve also learned to be a lot less judgmental of people. I used to buy fully into this one single code of ethics that mandated certain standards of behavior, and if you ever crossed the invisible lines that demarcated what was acceptable and what was sketchy, you deserved some kind of archaic ritualistic stoning, which I suppose in modern times, translates into people bashing you in a private Whatsapp group.

This black and white line of thinking, however, doesn’t work very well in a world that has so many shades of gray. People frequently make mistakes. Sometimes they make public mistakes. People are complex, as are their relationships. People grow up and grow apart and sometimes, their values grow muddled in the wake of their pain. It’s not easy to navigate the complex web of emotions inspired by realizing—I made a misstep. I’m deeply unhappy, and I’m lost. What now?

Sometimes people are able to to find their way back to one another, something people’s union comes to an end, and sometimes people settle on some arrangement that would never suit you and your relationship, but which works for them. Someone who starts dating a few weeks after her divorce was finalized could have been lonely for years, and her marriage over long before a judge made it so. A husband who flirts indiscriminately with women who are not his wife might be a creep, but he might also be someone whose wife checked out of their marriage, refuses to go to therapy with him, and whatever miniscule boost of confidence he gets from these flirtatious encounters helps him meet his pain in the meantime. Are these things inappropriate or extend beyond the realm of moral fortitude? Probably. Do they make the people doing them monsters? Maybe. Not necessarily. Yes. No. Situations are nuanced and most people deserve understanding and a measure of compassion, if not always approval or endorsement.

I was often told straight out in my more religious elementary school that to pursue romantic happiness is a very secular idea.

Finally, here’s where I think the Jewish community does a disservice to people contemplating divorce from someone with whom they share children: if your spouse doesn’t beat you, or have a severe drug problem, or uses the mortgage payments to play the ponies, or some readily apparent major flaw that would easily “justify” dissolving a marriage, the community can make you think you’re inherently selfish for wanting out. If you have kids with someone and he or she is not an ogre, it implies, you don’t deserve to leave for…what, exactly? To pursue romantic happiness? To lead a self-determined life? Because you realized you married the wrong person at 20 years old and would maybe like to find someone who suits you with whom to spend the next 40 or 50 years?  I was often told straight out in my more religious elementary school that to pursue romantic happiness is a very secular idea. The Jewish community treats true love almost like this antiquated notion reserved for, here it is again, Disney princesses, not for Orthodox Jewish women, especially mothers who should shelve the idea of marital happiness lest a divorce somehow mar their children’s development or lives in some way.

The Jewish community treats true love almost like an antiquated notion reserved for…Disney princesses, not for Orthodox Jewish women, especially mothers who should shelve the idea of marital happiness lest a divorce somehow mar their children’s development or lives in some way.

As a parent, you want your kid to have every advantage and opportunity in the world, and to think that you might limit something in some way for your children is frightening. I struggled between staying lonely in a marriage that wasn’t working but with the knowledge that at least my kids wouldn’t be marked with whatever stigma remains of divorce and have their lives disrupted in a major way, or take a leap of faith into the unknown – a realm where my children could possibly be negatively impacted because of a move I was initiating to seek more genuine happiness, but would probably recover because children are resilient, children should never grow up in a home with two deeply unhappy adults who can’t fully mask their misery, and children are parented better by happy parents leading self-determined lives. After struggling for almost two years  to embrace the idea that striving for happiness and a self-actualized life was not the mark of a narcissist, but the right of every human, I made the leap into this unknown. I had to, and still have to, trust that following your heart can only model positive life lessons for impressionable children.

Read more in The Layers Project series here.

Don’t perceive that I’m an advocate for divorce. God forbid. If it’s not broke, then don’t fix it. If it is broken, then try, try, try—and then try one more time for good measure—to fix it. I believe you should do everything in your conceivable power to preserve the relationship and the love that obviously once existed enough for you to bind yourself to this person for what you thought would be the rest of your life. And if you have kids with him or her, guess what? You did, divorce or no divorce! But, at the same time, if you’ve tried the therapy, and you’ve given it significant time, and it still isn’t working because of some fundamental reason that remains unlikely to be changed, I’m not afraid to advise you to leave. Make a new life for yourself. Find the happiness that has thus far eluded you. Yes you’re a parent. Yes, your kids are the priority. My kids are, without a doubt, the most important people in my life – but they’re not my entire life. Because men and women were people before they became parents. While I hope everyone is a parent first, they remain people too, and every person is someone who is worthy of love, respect and genuine happiness in whatever way, shape or form they find it: by themselves, or with someone new, or they get a puppy (rescue dogs are a salve on broken hearts, I hear,) or they decide to devote their lives solely their children. Whatever. However. Just because the Orthodox community suggests that marriage is the ultimate ideal does not make it true. But I’m confident that if you are a more self-fulfilled human being, your kids will only be better for it. And you? You will most likely be a wiser, more compassionate, forgiving and genuinely happier person for your experiences.

About The Project
During the High Holiday season, The Jewish Week and “The Layers Project” will be collaborating to bring you the series, “Hidden Reflections, Revealed: A Communal Introspective on the Thresholds of Orthodox Femininity.” This is the fourth installment in the series that will contain images and essays that serve as a communal cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul) on the topic of several women’s issues in Orthodoxy. Read the rest of the series here, and look out for the next installment on The Jewish Week. For more personal stories and ‘in-depth insights into the lives of Jewish women,’ check out “The Layers Project” on Facebook. Images created by Shira Lankin Sheps, founder of “The Layers Project.”