Dear Rosie & Sherry,

My son is engaged to a lovely, educated young woman. She comes from a good family and is a psychologist. I get along wonderfully with her. I treat her like a daughter and she loves me as a second mom.

She had an eating disorder years ago and attempted suicide twice in the past.

My son really loves her, but even though he has a job and his own apartment, he doesn't have so much worldly experience and I’m afraid he doesn’t realize what he might be getting into. From what he tells me, she is cured, but is he taking a chance by marrying someone who already has a history of conditions that may recur?

I know that in life we don't know what will happen five minutes from now, but I worry. Women gain weight during pregnancy and it worries me that this might trigger new eating problems. What if she gets a relapse?

I'm so torn. I have never seen my son so happy, and they both love each other. I know that life isn't perfect, and I always say, "Don't worry until you have to." Here I am, going against my own advice. Am I handling this properly? Am I right to be so concerned?

Miriam

Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Rosie and Sherry's Answer:

Dear Miriam,

It is valid for any parent to be concerned that someone who experienced a serious medical or emotional condition in the past might experience it again in the future, even if it was successfully treated.

Sometimes, these conditions do recur. That's because there are no guarantees in life. There are also no guarantees that someone who is mentally and physically healthy today won't develop a serious medical condition in the future. Becoming engaged and getting married requires a leap of faith and an element of trust in God that life together will proceed relatively smoothly and that the couple will be able to ably deal with challenges they encounter in the course of life.

Making a leap of faith doesn't mean that a couple jumps blindly into their future and hopes that all will turn out all right. Each party has to be aware of circumstances that are likely to impact day to day married life, so that s/he can make an informed decision about marriage.

A prospective spouse needs to know about personal problems, past or present.

Jewish law requires people who are dating seriously for marriage to disclose medical or emotional conditions, even if they are well-managed with medication or lifestyle, as well as serious illnesses and conditions that occurred in the past. A prospective spouse should also be told about significant current and past circumstances that may have an effect on their future marriage, such as ongoing child custody and visitation arrangements, child support or alimony requirements, debts and other financial obligations, a bankruptcy, a criminal conviction, past marriages, broken engagements, and difficult intra-family relationships. These are all factors that a dater should take into consideration before deciding that this is the right person to marry.

Because most of this information is deeply personal, it has to be handled with sensitivity. Most disclosures can wait until a relationship is serious enough for the couple to begin discussing marriage, but other details may need to be revealed earlier in the process. We usually recommend speaking with a rabbi or counselor who is experienced in these matters to find out what information needs to be discussed, and when to disclose it.

The person revealing these personal details should be able to honestly describe the situation In terms of treatment and prognosis; explain how s/he deals (or dealt) with it – circumstances in life that triggered or aggravated the situation, the treatment she received and how long it continued, and if s/he currently takes medication or attends therapy to address the issue.

She should also answer any questions, and permit the other person to discuss the condition, with the health professionals involved to get an "unbiased" perspective.

Alleviating Anxiety

A good marriage is built on honesty. Unfortunately, some daters choose to hide important information. When the "secret" emerges during the engagement or marriage (and it usually does), the partner feels that the trust between them has been broken, and may decide to leave the relationship. Even if s/he doesn't, the couple must then do the difficult and lengthy work of rebuilding trust.

Your son's fiancée did the right thing by being forthcoming about her medical history while they were dating. It may have been difficult for her to reveal that she had an eating disorder and clinical depression (that led to suicide attempts), even though she was successfully treated for both conditions and has been healthy for a number of years.

It's possible that you son knew many details before he became engaged, thus having more than enough information to make a well-considered decision. Has your son indicated that he knows many of the details, or has he consulted with someone about his fiancée’s situation? If so, then your need for answers is in order to lessen your own anxiety – and that’s not a good reason for you to start asking questions now.

On the other hand, perhaps you’re unsure whether he naively became engaged without knowing enough information and worry that he may face devastating surprises in the future. In such a case, how do you balance your concerns with the reality that your son is an adult and it may be unwise to interfere with his decision?

Can you explain yourself in a way that won’t challenge his judgment or put him on the defensive?

Before deciding to say anything to him, think about what will happen if you express your concerns. Can you explain yourself in a way that won’t challenge his judgment or put him on the defensive? Will his obtaining more information at this juncture change anything about his decision to marry this woman? Will it help him be a more supportive husband, or help him handle potential problems that may or may not occur? Will your asking questions upset him and/or alienate your future daughter-in-law?

These are difficult questions for a parent to answer, especially when wedding plans are under way. If speaking about your concerns now will not change anything or benefit anyone, we suggest finding another way to alleviate your anxiety.

If you're a worrier by nature, it will help to learn some relaxation techniques to help lessen your anxiety. Try the first three suggestions described in our article, “Performance Anxiety.”

It also might help to step back for a moment and look at what you do know about your son and his fiancée. Even though you think of him as an "innocent boy,” he has been self-supporting and independent. and seems to be relating beautifully to an intelligent, educated woman. Whenever you start to feel anxious about their future, try focusing on your son's strengths and the quality of the connection he has with his fiancée.

All parents want their children to have a healthy, stable, loving marriage. By focusing on the quality of the relationship between them, continuing to give them your love and support, and remembering that everything is in the hands of the Almighty, we hope that you will be able to worry less and begin to enjoy the new relationship that is being added to your family.

Rosie & Sherry