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Divorcing an Ailing Husband

January 24, 2016 | by Emuna Braverman

My brother-in-law has a serious degenerative disease. After 30 years of marriage my sister wants to divorce him to continue to live her life.

Dear Emuna,

My brother-in-law has a serious degenerative disease. Although his mind remains completely lucid, his physical self is rapidly deteriorating. He will soon need round-the-clock care and will probably end up in a medical facility. He has been married to my sister for 30 years and they have four wonderful children. My sister married him when she was very young (20) and so is only 50 now. As she looks at her future, she feels she doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life being her husband’s nursemaid or being tied to an invalid in a facility. She has privately told me that she plans to divorce him so that she can continue to “live” her life. I am trying not to be judgmental but I am appalled by her decision. Isn’t marriage supposed to be “for better or for worse”? What should I say to her?


Dear Pained,

What a terrible and tragic story. While the words “for better or for worse” are not in a traditional Jewish marriage ceremony, we certainly assume a strong depth of commitment when a couple gets married. You are certainly correct in your efforts to be non-judgmental. Since you don’t live in the home, you can’t really understand the level of pain your sister is experiencing. You also don’t have any way of gauging her coping abilities. What comes easily to one person may just be too difficult for another.

There are situations where divorce is the appropriate choice. Whether this is one of them is not for us to say. Her reasons as you present them sound selfish but perhaps she doesn’t know how to express herself. Perhaps what she means to say is that it will just destroy her to have to face him every day. Whether that justifies divorce or not is really not for anyone outside her situation to determine and I certainly don’t think lectures on the importance of commitment will make a difference or would even be appropriate.

The most compelling argument on the other side (and the one I assume your sister would be most receptive to) is to try to get her to examine how her decision will impact her children. What will it teach them about life? About marriage? About commitment? That might give her pause. I don’t know if that would be enough to change her mind but it might just get her to stop and think and perhaps table the decision for now. This is a tragic story and both parties to this marriage deserve our compassion and understanding.

Unappreciated Volunteer

Dear Emuna,

I volunteer for a non-profit organization. I help them out in many different ways – from organizing events to writing newsletters to distributing flyers to making phone calls. It’s a cause I really believe in and I’m really happy that I’m able to help. They are always appreciative and I feel like I’m making a difference. Recently however something happened that was troubling to me. I worked really hard on their latest newsletter. There is a new employee in the organization and she decided she didn’t like my style and she wants to redo the whole format. It is her decision but that was hours of work for me that she discarded in an instant. I am hurt and frustrated. I’m not sure I want to continue to be involved with the organization despite how good the cause is. I don’t want to be spiteful but I also don’t want to work so hard for nothing. What do you think I should do?

Burnt Out

Dear Burnt Out,

This is a real dilemma you are confronting. In theory, we all know that if the cause is what’s important then our personal feelings shouldn’t matter. But in practicality we are human beings who want to feel valued and appreciated and, at the very least, certainly don’t want our hard work to be in vain.

I think the decision you want to make should be practical not emotional. You don’t want to become bitter or act out of anger. Is this new employee going to be someone you’re going to have to answer to on a regular basis? If so, it may be that the two of you just can’t work together and, as much as you like the organization, you will have to part ways. If not, maybe you can let that one incident go and proceed as before.

Your time is certainly valuable and you don’t want to waste it. It may be time for a re-evaluation of what this organization means to you and how you want to use your time. Is there an organization that would appreciate your efforts more? Has this one begun to take you for granted? These are just some of the questions that you need to ask yourself. You need to engage in some honest introspection.

I imagine that you are thinking that you will feel guilty if you leave but that is really not the issue. If you don’t enjoy the working environment, you will no longer be productive and you will be doing both yourself and the organization no favors by staying there. Guilt is an unproductive emotion. Only you can decide what you can live with and what you can’t. If you decide to leave, I think you owe it to the organization to explain why. Perhaps the new hire needs some training in dealing with the volunteers so that what happened to you isn’t repeated. Ultimately this is a “volunteer” job, a kindness that you have chosen to involve yourself in and whether you wish to continue with this kindness or leave it for another is a decision only you can make.

Always Late Daughter

Dear Emuna,

My family loves to get together for events – to celebrate birthdays, to watch football games and baseball games, for barbecues in the summer and game nights in the winter. We are very close and enjoy each other’s company very much. There is only one challenge. My oldest sister is always late. No matter where we are going or what we are doing (even if it’s her idea!) she is never on time. Sometimes it doesn’t matter but other times (restaurant reservations for example) it’s very inconvenient. It’s also very inconsiderate of the rest of us who plan our days around the plans. We all have careers and busy family lives so we understand the juggling act but she’s the only one who’s consistently late. We are all very annoyed with her. Any advice?

Family Man

Dear Family Man,

In the first place, you are very lucky that there’s only one challenge! What a special family you must have! It’s wonderful that you all enjoy each other’s company so much and want to spend so much time together. Take a minute to stop and appreciate that. It’s as rare as it is wonderful.

You’re probably not going to like my advice. Besides appreciating the tremendous good you have, I think you should just let it go. You’re not going to change her (you haven’t all these years). She’s the oldest and may feel some entitlement in her position. She’s unlikely to accept rebuke from her younger siblings. Whatever the reason or psychology, again, she’s not going to change. She’s probably late to business meetings and doctor’s appointments as well. It’s part of her personality and her strategy for living. I’m not saying it’s a positive character trait but it is what it is. You’ll all be happier if you lower your expectations – and just order your dinners whether she’s there or not!

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