Lessons I Have Learned From My Work As a Divorce Mediator


divorceBy Rabbi Menachem Rosenfeld

The Torah operates with a rule that “Miklal Lav Atah Shomea Hen”; i.e. we learn the positive action from a negative statement. If something is forbidden, we can presume that the opposite action would be laudatory. I have worked as a divorce mediator and family attorney for a number of years. People often ask if I find the work to be a “downer”. In truth, the opposite is true. As a mediator, I am often encouraged to see that even under very trying conditions, a couple can often work together to try to find solutions for their issues. This problem-solving helps the couple prepare for the next chapter of their lives. In addition, it is from the pitfalls I have observed that occur in marriages that I learn positive lessons for couples who see happiness in their marital relationships. As we approach a New Year, I have decided to write about three such principles, among others, that I can attribute to observations I have made from work with divorcing couples.

A Relationship Requires Constant Work and Dedication

In a previous article written here, I made reference to a thought that was presented by Dayan Ehrentrau of England. In the Kesubah, we refer to the fact that the husband will “work and will treasure” his wife. The Dayan asked why the order is not reversed. First we treasure our choice, then we marry her, then we work for her well-being. Why is the order reversed in the Kesubah? The answer is that the phrase can be understood in a different fashion. The husband (and wife as well) is making a commitment. He states that he will work on treasuring his spouse. The statement is a reminder that a relationship requires constant work. Once we put our relationship on “automatic pilot” we will be setting ourselves up for possible pitfalls and unnecessary challenges. The work must never end.

There is a Rashi on Torah that had troubled me as a young adolescent. Rashi describes the scene when Yitzchok and Rivka davened for a child. Each one davened in their corner but Yitzchok’s tefillah was eventually heeded because he was a “tzadik ben tzadik” while Rika came from no such yichus. My question centered about the fact that we talk in such glorious terms about a Ba’al Teshuva. No one can stand in the “place” of such a person. If so, Rivkah should have been deemed a greater person than was Yitzchok. Why does Rashi say that the opposite was true?

Years after my question arose, I read that the Alter of Kelm raised this very question about this Rashi. His answer was that the greatness of Yitzchok was due to the challenges that he faced as a son of Avraham. To have greatness in your very home, on a daily basis, and still raise yourself to individual achievement was truly impressive. Yitzchok did not fall prey to “hergel” or “habit”; the passionless feeling of acting mechanically and instinctively. He felt a love for HaShem that was ever-fresh and deeply personal. This achievement is what made Yitzchok so esteemed in the Torah’s perspective.

We date, we marry, we have a home. It all follows the script. We may even bring the weekly flowers for the Shabbos table. But do we feel there is an energy and a freshness in our relationship? When the Torah refers to the expression “VeHayu L’Basar Echad” it is referring to a relationship that is absolutely unique and hallowed. We need to keep a unique relationship that way for years and decades. We need to know that falling into “hergel” is not acceptable.  This requires work and dedication. We need to work on valuing that which is unique about our marital relationship. That work will never end.

Love Can Easily Turn to Hate

In my work I am constantly taken aback by seeing how a relationship that was created by a feeling of love and concern had descended to a level of bitterness and enmity. I wish I could say that working with Torah-true couples is different in this regard than working with non-Jewish couples. But that would not be true. It is difficult to see a relationship that once held out such promise and hope now turn to shattered dream. Nevertheless, my thinking on this is quite elementary. If we expect our children to marry as Bnai Torah, then we must demand that they divorce as Bnai Torah, as well.  The Gemara tells us that we have certain obligations towards our prospective spouse due to considerations of VeAhavta L’Reacha Kamocha. I do not believe that when the relationship begins to decline, the obligation of basic respect and civility may be replaced with boorish and confrontational behavior. There may be rationales for being tough-minded with a spouse when a relationship is almost over. However, that does not make it any more acceptable than any other behavior that is understandable, but nevertheless forbidden, by Torah requirements.

I have been told that Rav Avraham Pam, Z’L, late Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaath, gave his students practical advice for the time when some of them unfortunately had to undergo the Get process in Beth Din. He advised them to take their wedding album to the Beth Din. Glancing at the album before the Get was written, would remind them of better times they had experienced. It would hopefully safeguard against the need to “act out” or lay blame at this last period of their married life together.

If love can easily turn to hate there is only one reasonable conclusion. We cannot take matters for granted. Our relationships require renewed dedication and effort.

Act As If Your Children Are Truly Important to You

A theologian once said that the greatest gift a parent can give his/her children is to create a stable and loving household. In a divorce, this reality is not possible to create. However, as many studies have shown, a household that has experienced a divisive and confrontational divorce, is one where children will likely be challenged by mental health issues. Children should not suffer due to the fact that their parents have been divorced. But yet people spend tens of thousands of dollars to contest virtually every issue of supposed rights they feel they are entitled to receive as a result of their divorce. There is no defense in this regard. If your children are important, remember them when you choose to end your marriage.

A mediator once wrote an article about a question he poses to couples going through a bitter divorce. His question is posed to both parties: “Imagine that you are talking to your child on the night of their graduation.  What will you tell them about the way you conducted yourself at the time of your divorce? Will you say you were proud of your actions or that you cannot explain these actions?” Most of us will not go through a divorce. However, we will have marital challenges, disagreements, parenting issues, etc. If we can keep in mind at such times that our children are watching our every action, and internalizing many lessons, we will be truly showing that they are truly important to us.

It is not by chance that our relationship with HaShem is described as a marriage. Marriages require effort, dedication, and commitment. As we are told by the Chazal: “The reward accords with the effort.” It is a promise that makes our efforts well-worthwhile.

Rabbi Menachem Rosenfeld is a mediator and attorney. He can be contacted at Rosenfeld@Juno.Com. Rabbi Rosenfeld has begun a project with mental health professionals for Agunah situations. This work is described at www.AgunahProject.Wordpress.Com.

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  1. The people disagreeing with this article are pro divorce-this article is about working on and saving marriages-destroyed homes affects the children beyond. He is trying to say there is no instant Shalom Bayis u needs lots of effort-the Shechina rests when there is shalom Bayis