Dear Emuna,

My parents are very dysfunctional, both individually and as a couple. They were so distracted by their own pain that they really didn’t have time to be involved in my life or that of my three sisters. When they did notice us, it was usually to point out what we did wrong or how we were embarrassing them. That behavior has not stopped and when I married my husband, he couldn’t help but notice. Despite all that, they are still my parents and I love them. I would like to plan a trip to visit them in the near future but my husband is very reluctant. It’s not just that it won’t be enjoyable but he claims that it is destructive to me and takes me weeks (at least) to recover from the experience. I’m confused – about my obligations – to them, to him, to myself. What do you think?

Confused Wife and Daughter

Dear Confused,

Let’s start with the demands of Jewish law. In general, those are relatively minimal and expressed in practical terms such as not correcting your parents, standing up for them, not sitting in their chair and making sure they have food, shelter and clothing. You should consult your LOR (short form for local orthodox rabbi) but the actual parameters of halachic obligation are limited. This does not suggest it wouldn’t be good character to go beyond the letter of the law, to do extra kindnesses and acts of thoughtfulness for people who gave you life. But like with all obligations, they must be balanced with any conflicting ones.

Your primary obligation is to your husband and your marriage. If a visit to your parents will impact your marriage negatively, you may need to skip it for now. This includes (as I heard my teacher say) even if you will be emotionally distraught by the visit and find it difficult to provide the support your husband (and perhaps children; you didn’t mention if you have any or not) need in the ensuing days and weeks. You also have an obligation to yourself – in terms of your own emotional and psychological health. But let’s assume that you feel up to the challenge, that despite the unpleasantness of the experience of spending time with your parents, you feel you can weather it without too many ill after-effects. After all, you are very experienced! Yet, your husband is still reluctant.

This may be upsetting you but let’s try to understand it from his perspective – which is all about love and concern for you, his wife. All he knows of your parents – from what you have told him and from what he has experienced first-hand is, at best, their indifference and, at worst, their intolerance of you. Although you have experienced that as well, and even to a greater and more painful degree, you have also experienced some love and some caring, even if it was limited to food, shelter and clothing. There was some positive in the relationship. You felt some love and you feel some in return.

He doesn’t have that. When you suggest a trip to your parents, you feel a combination of love and dread. For him, it’s all dread. All he knows is how painful it will be for you and how he will have to watch on the sidelines, powerless to intercede. This may be untenable for him.

I don’t have the answer to your dilemma; I wouldn’t presume to have the answer. I don’t know whose feelings are strongest, whose emotional tolerance or ability is strongest, whose need is strongest or even what your parents need or request. I’m just trying to give you an overview and to deepen your understanding of how your husband may look at this situation. The last thing you want to occur is that this issue should, God forbid, drive a wedge between the two of you, especially since he probably believes he is acting in your best interests.

As mentioned earlier, it might be helpful to get your LOR (you know what it stands for now!) involved – not just for a perspective on Jewish law but also to assist you in wading through the complicated emotional and psychological demands. It’s not an unusual or abnormal struggle you are having. In fact, it’s unfortunately all too common. As long you bring calm and reason and cooperation and caring to the situation, I am confident you will resolve it in a fashion that suits everyone’s needs.