My Parents are Separating

May 15th, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 7 comments

Dear Rabbi and Susan Lapin,

First off, thank you for all that you both do and the wisdom you dispense through your podcasts, books and teachings. I find them all tremendously valuable and you have impacted my life for the better.

I have a question regarding my parents. Their marriage has been on the rocks for the past five years and they are now choosing to separate, but not divorce, because of their beliefs. Their issue is not due to infidelity but seems to be a communication and pride problem. They have been married for over forty years and have raised five children together, of which I am the youngest.

My question is what should our response be as their adult children? My instinct is to not get involved or share my opinions because it could be seen as taking sides and it doesn’t seem respectful.

As for background: we all live near our parents, there are many grandchildren in the family, we are all Christians, and we see each other often. I am struggling to identify what my responsibility is in this situation while still honoring my parents. My wife and I disagree with them not choosing to work harder on their marriage but we don’t know if it is our place to confront them on it.

One of my siblings suggested talking to them as a group, what do you think?

Any insights you could provide would be most welcome. Thank you tremendously.

Blessings,

Sam

Dear Sam,

Your sad situation reflects an important truth. No matter how old one’s children are, divorce is going to affect them. Of course, it also affects more distant relatives, friends, social circles and work groups. We are very sorry that you and your siblings and children are facing this situation.

Having said that, your instincts are spot on. In our audio CD on the Ten Commandments we explain why the Fifth Commandment about honoring parents is related to the Tenth Commandment, “Do not covet.” In short, recognizing one’s specific place in relationship to others is something that leads to happier interactions. We also explain why the Fifth Commandment is placed on the first tablet that otherwise deals with the interaction between people and God, while the second tablet deals with interactions between people and people. Honoring parents seems to be in the wrong place. Correctly understanding why there were two tablets clears up this confusion but even on a basic level it is clear that one’s parents occupy a position that no other people do.

Because of this, children have to be very careful about what is and isn’t appropriate in their communication with parents. Interference in the parental marital relationship is specifically an area that is largely off-limits. Your sibling’s suggestion of all the children going as a group would only raise the level of disrespect.

Considerable calumny is heaped on Jacob’s eldest son, Reuben for intruding on his father’s private life.

While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and lay with Bilhah,
his father’s concubine; and Israel heard…
(Genesis 35:22)

Ancient Jewish wisdom informs us that Reuben did not actually lay a hand on Bilhah, but that he moved Jacob’s bed from Bilhah’s room to that of Leah his mother.  The language of the Bible is especially harsh to teach that interfering in even the mildest way in his father’s marital life was a serious violation.

Of course, your parents separating after all these years is difficult for you all. Perhaps, even as youngest, you can lead your siblings towards an understanding that the proper role is non-interference.

You are absolutely correct that your obligation is to honor both your parents. They are now making this harder in many ways though we hope that they will not make it more uncomfortable than necessary. Nonetheless, you and your siblings can set an example for your own children in respecting your parents’ decision and coping with disappointment.

You, of course, don’t know the whole story and kudos to your parents for not asking you to take sides or sharing inappropriate confidences with you. Maybe some time apart will give them new perspective or perhaps someone other than your sibling group will approach your parents and help them, if possible, to recapture affection for each other. We would suggest you and your siblings get together to discuss how to share this with the grandchildren and how to explain it to them in an age-appropriate but nonetheless substantive way.

Whatever the future holds, you and your wife can use this unfortunate occurrence to commit more strongly to maintaining your own relationship and covenant of marriage.

Thank you for your kind words,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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7 comments

Cynthia says:

Just pray over the whole situation and ask God to intervene and just Trust Him with it.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Cynthia-
In many of our weekly Thought Tools (available in collections of fifty https://rabbidaniellapin.com/product/thought-tools-set-3-softcover-books/ ) we have taught that prayer is necessary but insufficient. God wants us to not merely sit passively and wait for Him. See the entire section in Exodus on the shores of the Red Sea before He split it. God said “start walking into the water, don’t just cry out to me” We also explain why Noah had to build the Ark rather than await a miracle from God. We also study why Elisha made the poor widow find a tiny jar of oil in her hovel rather than just letting her sit back in prayer while he did the miracle.
In this case we didn’t advise talking to his parents but often, there is much to be done. Praying is a vitally important start; it is often during prayer that a course of action comes to us. However, we must respectfully disagree with your prescription of just pray and ask God to do it all. Praying is part of it. The first part of it. Then action is called for. Miracles are brought into being by action not merely by prayer.
Cordially
RDL

Mark says:

My parents separated, and then divorced when I was ten or eleven. I wish to this day that it hadn’t happened. I was an only child. I can’t pretend that it did not affect me, both then and ever since. It was a long time ago. However, one thing I have always been grateful for, is that neither of them ever, EVER said mean, critical, or nasty things to me about the other. In fact, when either of my parents said or asked anything of me about the other, it was invariably with kindness and respect. That can’t have been a coincidence. I noticed it at the time, I’ve always remembered it, and I will always be thankful for it.

Susan Lapin says:

Mark, your parents gave you a great gift by doing so even as you recognize that the scars of the divorce linger.

Rich M says:

It seems I started to blunder into dishonoring my mother, but fortunately did not pursue it. However, for years, I still thought the answer was important.

From my earliest years, my memory is of my mother constantly verbally demeaning my father, for most of the choices he made. Frequently, my mother screamed out insults at him. In my teenage years, I wondered why my father did not leave this situation.

Finally, he did. He took early retirement, left his job, left his wife and moved out of state. My mother told all of her friends that it was a form of the “7 year itch” even though they had been married over 25 years. My mother was very aggravated with all of her children for not telling them of his plans. I do not remember that he had discussed his plans with me, but I was not at all surprised that he left. At that time, it had been years since I had seen my mom, not wishing to deal with the hassle.

For a long time, it seemed important to me to have my mom admit that it was not all my dad’s fault.

After I was married and had children, we did visit with her a few times a year. Once our children were grown-up, my mom would invite my wife and I out for dinner. It was at one of these dinners that I brought up the possibility that dad’s leaving may not have been all of his fault. My mom became agitated and insisted it was, so I dropped the subject.

From your teaching, I now know that their specific relationship is none of my business. Still, it does seem a common enough issue that the Bible tells us: It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and an angry woman.

Susan Lapin says:

Rich, it sounds like you tried to deal well with a very difficult situation. It must have been, and still be, very painful.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Dear Rich
Contentious and angry women make themselves even more miserable than they make their husbands but happily, you and I are both blessed to know nothing of those problems.
Cordially
RDL

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