“We’re getting a divorce,” my friend told me over the phone.A divorce after so many years of marriage? After having gone through so much together? After raising children? Why? What happened?But I knew the answer. I had heard it so often lately and from many different friends and acquaintances: boredom, growing apart, sitting in front of each other and having nothing to say, lack of romance and intimacy, feeling like two strangers, not seeing eye to eye, unwillingness to continue to put up with issues that one has endured for so long because the children were still at home, a chance to find someone else who can truly satisfy one’s needs.In the midst of all this turmoil, I couldn’t help but think about what was happening in my marriage. When the children were at home, our conversations were centered on them, on work and ways of running a functional home. After our children left home, we began to experience some of the same challenges that our friends were struggling with. There was a gap that had developed and the question was how to close it.
It comes as no surprise that the divorce rate in the United States is one of the highest in the world—over 50%. What is truly shocking, however, is that the divorce rate for people over 50 has doubled in the last two decades. Sociologists are now calling this phenomenon “The Grey Divorce Revolution.” Experts predict that the divorce rate among this age group will continue to accelerate in the future. Although formal study of the phenomenon has only just begun, it is believed that the primary cause is the focus on self-fulfillment and individualism by the “Me” generation. The philosophy of “what have you done for me lately” has finally come home to roost.
In order to avoid becoming part of this growing trend my husband and I had to take quick, definitive action.
I always thought that I knew my husband like the palm of my hand and that nothing he could do or say would surprise me. But one day he surprised me in a way that I never thought was possible. He said, “How about we take a year off to travel, learn, and reconnect?”
I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Take a year off and do something that goes diametrically in the opposite direction of what our friends are doing? It was brilliant!
But how could we pull it off? While I had some flexibility, my husband had a demanding job as a senior executive at a big company. They would never allow him to take that time off.
“I’ll quit,” Eli suggested. “Or more accurately, I’ll volunteer to get laid off,” he added.
“Quit, laid off…?” How about all the bills? How about leaving a high paying, stable job at a time when we have two kids in college and the economy is being dragged down by unprecedented unemployment?
“Are you willing to downsize after we get back…if we have to?” he asked.
And right then it began to dawn on me. I was tasting freedom, the realization that we were not trapped, there were options and it’s all a matter of choices. My husband was serious and this was decision time.
I trusted that after returning we could find a way to survive, but I would have to be willing to downsize and make sacrifices. It only took me a few seconds until I heard myself saying, “Let’s do it!”
We informed our family and friends. Our children were very encouraging, as were my parents. Even my father, who has always been a workaholic, quoted (without realizing it) Ethics of the Fathers, saying, “If not now, when?” Among our friends there were various reactions. Some thought it was a marvelous idea; others thought that we were out of our minds. But for us, the train was leaving the station and we were determined to catch it.
It happened much faster than we expected. Two months later we were on our way.
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Israel: Confronting Our Issues
We decided to start our trip in Israel because spirituality had always been a contentious issue in our family. My husband grew up in California and came from a very secular background. I was raised in Argentina, part of a close-knit Jewish community that was more bonded by culture than religion. When we got married and had children, I was appalled at how easy it was for Jews to integrate and assimilate in American culture. I decided to send the children to a Jewish day school where they would learn Judaism from teachers who lived by and believed in what they were teaching. Eli went along with it for the sake of shalom bayit but did not embrace it with enthusiasm. In time our children and I became more observant, and as I unilaterally introduced more Judaism at home, spirituality became an issue in our relationship.
Israel was the ideal place where we could confront head-on the core issues that had taken us in different directions. For a few months, I went every morning to learn at Neve Yerushalayim, a seminary for young women with little background in Judaism. Eli attended the Essentials program at Aish haTorah, an introductory program for young men (and a few older men from time to time). The transformation in our marriage was immediate.
New doors and horizons opened in front of us. For the first time, we were delving into Torah and we couldn’t get enough. It helped us gain a tremendous perspective and led us to question ourselves about our lives and goals as individuals and as a couple. We couldn’t wait to see each other and share the new things we had learned. We had so much to talk about.
For Eli, something awoke deep within him. This was the first time that he had the opportunity and inclination to explore, question, challenge, understand and begin to forge a relationship with God. This was crucial for our relationship. Now instead of me pushing, we were able to grow together, side by side. It was his suggestion that we should start observing Shabbat.
What we learned in Israel had a significant impact on the way we relate to each other. For example, we found very interesting the concept that a spouse is like a mirror that exposes the weaknesses of the other in a way which leads to growth. Marriage is not supposed to be all fun and games, but an interdependent relationship that challenges each spouse to grow and strive to reach his or her potential. This concept has helped us to deal with our differences.
Now when we have a difference of opinion, instead of using it as an opportunity to create more distance we view it as an opportunity for growth. This doesn’t mean that these conflicts are enjoyable, but there’s always something positive to learn when the dust clears.
Seeing the World
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After Israel, our trip continued to other countries like Australia, New Zealand, Botswana, South Africa, Italy, France, England and several more. Every few months though, we felt compelled to return to Israel to recharge our “spiritual batteries”. The level of consciousness and connectedness that we found in Jerusalem, we concluded, has no parallel in the world.
Still, in each place we visited we had unforgettable experiences and learned so much. Among other things, we discovered that even though we were spending most of our time staying in tiny, one-room hotels or apartments, we were incredibly happy. We didn’t need as many clothes and things as we previously thought. We started with four large suitcases and gradually reduced down to two. We learned that in other countries people live and enjoy life with less stress and without as much pressure to work incessantly in order to acquire the latest material things. We discovered that we can live with less, work in a more balanced way and invest our time in what is really important: family, Torah, and our relationship.
Ours was a rare opportunity. It is not necessary to take a year off to have a successful and fulfilling marriage. All it takes is the willingness to make the relationship the number one priority. Take time to be with one another, invest in the relationship, be giving, be grateful, bring some fun and sense of humor to the relationship, treat each other with the utmost respect and learn Torah and grow Jewishly together.