This article was originally published on www.chabad.org.
Like many other clinical terms, such as depressed, anxious, or bipolar, the term “abused” is often used out of context. Saying “You’re so abusive” can mean “I feel mistreated or disrespected” or “I’m just not being treated nicely.” In truth though, abuse in marriages is a real issue in the Jewish world, just as it is in any other population around the world. We need to familiarize ourselves with it to protect and help ourselves, our children and our community from both the abuse itself and the effect it has on those around its victims.
What Is a Healthy Relationship in Marriage?
When we talk about abuse, it’s important to understand what a healthy relationship is.
I like to describe the essence of a healthy relationship with this line: “I will invest myself in the relationship, to the best of my abilities, in a way that helps you feel safe, secure, cherished and loved. I will do this in a way that does not compromise my ability to feel the same way.” When both members of a couple approach their relationship with this mindset, it creates the foundation for a supportive and strong relationship.
The verse in Genesis describes the role of Eve, the first wife, as eizer k’negdo, or a “helper opposite him.” On the most basic level, this can mean that the wife’s role is to give aid and support to her husband. The implication of this, of course, is that the husband, to properly fulfill his role, needs to be willing and able to both recognize and accept that support. Doing this creates a cycle of purpose, with each spouse supporting the other’s ability to fulfill their respective roles and self-actualize.
The key to a healthy relationship is learning how to support one another. This learning and knowing is so important that the word used by the Torah to describe intimacy is da’as, knowledge. To truly connect, there must be authentic understanding. This is only possible in a setting protected by mutual respect, trust and honesty. Feeling safe and secure is integral to creating such a foundation.
In a healthy relationship, each person feels safe enough to trust the other with their feelings, their hopes and their desires. They know they’ll both do what they can to respect those feelings as much as possible. Knowing that you both “have each other’s back” lays the foundation for being able to build a trusting and fulfilling relationship.
If I’m worried about something, I know I can share it. The same is true if I need something, want something, or want to make a change. I know we can work together on it. Even if I don’t end up getting what I want, I know that my perspective will be acknowledged and honored. This mutuality brings us closer together.
What Does Domestic Abuse Look Like?
An abusive relationship, on the other hand, doesn’t have mutuality or a foundation of respect. One partner consistently behaves in a way that intentionally causes fear, intimidation or isolation, in order to gain power and control over the other. This is not about an argument or a one-time thing, it’s a pattern of behaviors that happen regularly. Abuse may take many different forms, but at its core, it’s about power and control.
Abuse in a relationship can look many ways. Aside from physical abuse, which is perhaps the most obvious and well-known, there is also verbal, emotional, financial, sexual, spiritual and religious abuse. Abuse can integrate itself into any aspect of a person’s life in which they should have a sense of safety and independence.
Jessica’s been married for two years. Joe is often publicly critical of her, even going so far as to ridicule her in front of her family and close friends. It’s been this way since before they were married. At this point, Jessica gets very anxious when they go out. She finds herself second-guessing what she wants to say and what she wears when they’re together. Although he’s never hit her, he’s screamed so loudly that she’s afraid he might just get there. She’s brought it up to him in the past, but he just says, “You’re crazy. I totally wasn’t yelling. You’re too sensitive.” At this point, she’s starting to question if there’s something wrong with her for feeling the way she does. The reality is that Jessica is experiencing verbal, emotional and psychological abuse.
Avi’s situation with Rina is very different. Although it never came up while dating, immediately after the wedding she became very critical of Avi’s family. Avi was led to cut off all contact with them. Whenever he would protest, Rina would accuse him of not being a good husband and not having her back. The more he voiced his objections, the more she criticized. Rina even threatened to withhold intimacy if he initiated contact with his family again, claiming they were a bad influence on him. When he asked to go together to consult with a rabbi, or even a therapist, she refused. “You’re trying to manipulate me,” she said. Avi is afraid to assert himself more, as she’s also made comments about messing up his credit if he doesn’t play along. Avi is a victim of emotional, verbal, financial and sexual abuse.
Abuse can exist anywhere. There’s no community, ethnicity or background that’s free of it. No single socioeconomic status has a monopoly on it. A study conducted by the CDC in 2018 suggests that as many as 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men will experience a physically violent relationship in their lifetime. These numbers don’t tell us how many people are impacted by non-physical abuse. Abusers can be seemingly upstanding members of the community and may look like kind, generous and charismatic people. Behind closed doors, they become cruel, controlling and dangerous.
The more awareness and education we have available as a community, the more we can protect ourselves and our children, and help those who are struggling.
What Should Victim-Survivors Know?
If you are being hurt by domestic abuse, know that it is not your fault. It has nothing to do with your behavior, moral or spiritual standing, or your relationship with G‑d. No amount of giving in or following run-of-the-mill marriage advice will change the way the abuser acts. This is the way abusers go through their lives; they exert control over an individual or a set of individuals through intimidation and manipulation. They alone are responsible for their behavior. You are not.
There’s no place in a healthy relationship for intimidation, violence, coercion or disrespect. No one deserves to be mistreated, or to feel unsafe, disrespected or afraid to express their needs. You deserve to have safety, stability and peace in your life, as well as the ability to connect with those who can help you get there.
It takes great courage and effort to reach out for help, since doing anything that will rock the boat can be scary. You can get support from professionals who are trained to work with domestic violence and can help you safely navigate the various emotional, logistical and legal obstacles that come up. Finding support is important whether you decide to stay in the relationship or not.
The question of whether to leave or stay is one that victims often struggle with. One person might be worried about how his or her children may be impacted by leaving. Another may be concerned about stigma in the community or family pressure. Logistics and finances can be genuinely overwhelming to even start thinking about. Not knowing what to expect after leaving can feel daunting. At the same time, staying can be scary as well. Ultimately, it’s up to the victim to decide what to do and, with knowledgeable support, how to do it safely. No one should be making that decision for you.
Being in an abusive relationship, being scared, antagonized, manipulated and intimidated on a regular basis, can often make you think that there’s no way to move past it. It’s important to know, though, that there is hope. It’s certainly not easy. It can take a lot of work, careful planning and support. Understand, though, that people can get their lives back and live safe, happy and fulfilled lives of self-direction and respect.
Shalom Task Force has advocates who can help victims or friends of victims via their national hotline and chatline (888.883.2323).
What Can the Community Do?
As a community, there’s a lot we can do, both to support victims and to protect people from entering into abusive relationships in the first place. One reason victims don’t reach out for help is that they’re scared of how people might react. They might not be believed, they may be judged, and they may be asked questions that either suggest that they are responsible for the abuse, or are prying and too personal for comfort. Victims need a safe place to share whatever they want to share, validation, and the understanding that others are there for them. By learning about domestic abuse, we become more capable of listening to these difficult experiences fully and compassionately, without judgment. We can work as a community to provide them with the safe space they need.
Another piece of the communal puzzle is relationship education. Spreading awareness of what healthy relationships look like helps people who are starting new relationships think about what they want, how to be in touch with their feelings, and how to react when things feel wrong. They’ll have tools to deal with conflict in a healthy way, and they’ll feel empowered to reach out for help if things aren’t going well. We can provide a blueprint for strong and mutually supportive relationships, instead of assuming that people will figure it out as they go. This might include high-school, seminary or yeshivah workshops about healthy relationships, a community discussion about how to be supportive, an editorial in a local paper, or a lecture in a local shul. The important thing is to make sure that these ideas become part of our communal conversations.
Reaching out for help when it’s needed must be normalized and encouraged. The more abuse is spoken about, the more a victim will feel that there’s someone to speak with who can sit with them in their situation without shame, questions or fear. When we speak about abuse, we identify ourselves as people who are willing to be supporters.
Community leaders such as rabbis or rebbetzins can identify themselves as first responders for these issues and should be familiar with local therapists and agencies that work with victims safely. To successfully play that role, leaders need to make sure they’re in a position to have a good relationship with people in the community. Getting to know their congregants and making an impression that they’re safe and compassionate people is important even before any issues come up.
By taking all these pieces into account and working together, we can create a community in which relationships are healthier overall, and victims of domestic abuse are given the support and compassion they deserve.
Please join Shalom Task Force for our Annual Brunch on 12/11 in Cedarhurst, NY, Honoring Jenny Gerber, 18 Forty Media (accepted by Rabbi Dr. Dovid Bashevkin), Assembly Woman Stacey Pfeffer Amato, Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, and the STF Young Leadership Board. For reservations, or to make a donation, please visit www.shalomtaskforce.org/brunch.
By Yeshaya Kraus,
Director of Education, Shalom Task Force