Divorce’s innocent victims

A Herzliya clinical psychologist releases a new Hebrew book, "The Voices of Children" tackles the traumatic subject of divorce in the words of the child victims.

By
September 5, 2010 03:31
Dr Daniel Gottlieb

daniel gottlieb 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Dr. Daniel Gottlieb, who has listened to children of divorce for 24 years as a clinical psychologist in Herzliya, has now given them a voice. Although mountains of books on divorce have been published, Gottlieb felt he wanted to speak to the youngest victims of family breakups – and to their parents – in the voice of an “intelligent 10-year-old who has the ability to analyze things but still has an innocence about him.”

Born in the US, married and the father of five, the family therapist received his doctoral degree in New York from Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology and his training in family therapy from the Ackerman Institute for the Family in Manhattan. He came on aliya with his family 24 years ago and immediately started working at Herzliya’s Shinui Institute (www.shinui-institute.com) – a private center for family therapy of which he is clinical director.

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CALLED Kolam Shel Yeladim (The Voices of Children), the 92-page hardcover, Hebrew-language book is written almost like poetry, expressing the feelings of youngsters whose families have suddenly fallen apart. The sensitive messages are certainly for the kids, but also for their divorced or soon-to-be-divorced parents, who must learn not to argue constantly, accuse each other or engage in other negative behaviors that makes the child feel terrible. “There are plenty of books on divorce, but they don’t focus on the feelings of the children and the couples,” Gottlieb told The Jerusalem Post in an interview after the publication of his new book.

“I originally intended it for parents,” he said. It began as a column he writes weekly in Hashabbat, a Shabbat handout for the Tzohar organization of moderate Orthodox rabbis. As close friends of his were going through a nasty divorce, he decided to write about the emotional difficulties for adults and children. “It really took me only 20 minutes to write, as I am so familiar with the subject. I appear frequently in family and rabbinical courts as an adviser on custody evaluations and to speak about the children.”

The book didn’t take him a long time to write either. “I was thinking in Hebrew, and wrote it in Hebrew. But I have translated it into English, and I do hope to publish it in that and other languages because it will reach a much larger audience,” he said. “It has a universal message.”

HE HAS received feedback from numerous children who read his book. “I have it on the table in the waiting room of my office. One child, for example, started to read it and asked her mother to buy it. She was affected positively. Children have feelings that they are often unable to express. When they see those feelings on a printed page, they realize there are others in the same situation.”

He stressed that although divorce is described in the book as a very painful subject, he is “not anti-divorce. I have a problem with very bad divorces. Breaking up a family is rarely good for children, but if it’s a very violent or otherwise detrimental marriage, there is no choice but to split up.”



When you fight, I feel like crying.
I don’t know who is right And, to tell the truth, I don’t really care.
When you say not-nice things about each other I feel hurt and confused.
I don’t like hearing bad things about my parents.

And if Dad really is a “low life” and disgusting and other things that I am embarrassed to repeat, what then does that say about me, his son? About a fifth of the family therapy cases he and colleagues see at the Shinui Institute are divorces, which “I suppose is consistent with Israel’s divorce rate of 25 percent, although I don’t know how that’s calculated. In the US, it’s supposed to be 50%, but I don’t know if half of all marriages break up there. In therapy, I try to minimize damage to the children.”

The children may cope well, depending on how the parents get along, Gottlieb said. “If there is constant fighting during and after the divorce, not only do they grow up with a real sense of loss, but they are torn.” Leaving a familiar home, neighborhood, city or even country leaves the children of divorce with great pain.

Whenever I fight with my brother, you want me to compromise and you want us to “get along” – and fast.… but when the two of you fight, you don’t speak to each other for a few days – and sometimes even for a few weeks.
Whenever I argue with my friends, you tell me to speak to the teacher – “she will know how to make peace between you,” you tell me....
but when the two of you are screaming at each other and I say, “Won’t you stop it already!” you ignore me.
Sometimes maybe you stop yelling for a moment… but then you go back to your annoying fights.
Remember when they opened a mediation club in school? You thought it would be a good idea for me to join.… And what about you? Instead of trying to settle your differences, you just talk to lawyers who cause you to fight even more.

Some of children of divorcing couples Gottlieb sees are infants only a few months old. Even adult children in their 20s come for advice about a divorce that happened recently or years ago, said Gottlieb. “I showed the book even to colleagues whose parents divorced, and some said it had a profound effect on them. No matter how long has passed since a divorce and how well adjusted a person is, there still are points of pain that can be reawakened and evoked by a sentence.”

Although the divorce rates among religious and haredi families are still lower than among secular Israeli Jews, Gottlieb thinks it is harder for observant children to cope with the aftermath.

“There is a lot of social stigma and less social support in the event of a divorce, as it is less common. Among haredim, a divorce is often hidden because it can reduce the chance of the children finding a shidduch (arranged marriage), and they may have to settle for a mate who is considered ‘less than ideal.’ ” OVER THE past quarter century, the clinical psychologist has noticed more divorces than there used to be among the religious communities. “They are more exposed to the general culture than before, and women are outside the home working. Also, the leaders of the communities have become more aware of the need for divorce in a very bad marriage. Haredi women,” he continued, “are more educated, out there in an unsheltered world. They may grow intellectually more than their husbands, whom they support and who remain in yeshivot. Expectations change.”

As family life is so important for observant Jews, a divorce can be extremely disruptive. On Shabbat, a young son may be asked by his mother to recite the Kiddush and make the blessing on the halla instead of his father. He becomes the man in the house.

Of course I like being the “man of the house” – helping Mom fix things and sometimes sitting at the head of the festive holiday table.
But Dad still fixes things better than I do, and I really like the special way in which Dad carves the holiday turkey....
Before you got divorced, we always used to eat family meals together.
But now that you’re divorced, I sometimes eat my heart out.
Before you got divorced we would go together to shows and productions.
But since you divorced, sometimes you put on a pretty big production – and an embarrassing one at that.
Before you got divorced, I remember the holiday spirit that used to fill the house.
But since you’ve divorced, all I can remember are the spirited argument you have over where I should be for the holidays.

Children of divorce often feel they could have done something to prevent it or have a fantasy that they can bring parents back together, he continued.

“Even after a terrible marriage and divorce, the children frequently want their parents to get back together. I have seen a few cases in which they actually do get back together after a divorce. The kids are happy, but they are always afraid that they will break up again, just as if one parent dies, the child fears the other will die, as it is much more real.”

The youngsters’ worst feeling is having to choose between their parents, to say which one they want to be with, which one they love more. This is unfair, said Gottlieb.

What do you like better? Your right hand or your left hand? I don’t know, I need both of them.
What do you like better? To eat or to drink? I don’t know. I couldn’t survive without either.
What do you like better? To sleep or to be awake? I don’t know. Both are important to me.

Couples in the process of divorce often have a tendency to see what a child is going through through their own eyes and expect them to take sides, said Gottlieb. “One parent denigrates the other to the child. I see this quite a lot. It could be that these are more serious cases in which the parents are more likely to seek out a psychologist, but I think denigration of the other is quite common.” He added that he wanted the book to take care to understand what is going on in the child’s mind and heart. Children eight to 15 years old tend to blame themselves. Younger kids’s thinking is not so sophisticated, while older ones realize that it can’t be their fault.”

“We know all this. We even understand you.
But to tell the truth, we don’t really care how unfair this divorce may seem to you.
We don’t really care who started and who is at fault.
We know that it’s really important to you to sort out who did what to whom… five years ago.
But please… don’t make us be the judge. Remember, we are the children.
Even if you no longer love each other, we still love you both.

Gottlieb also noticed in his meetings with families that while married, couples rarely argued about money spent on the children. But after a divorce, when their financial situation is strained, they suddenly became pennypinching, trying to avoid expenses and push them off on the former partner. Routines they used to take care of as a matter of course may suddenly become a burden to be avoided. The children notice this readily and feel hurt.

Why is it that before you got divorced, I was always sure that you’d take care of everything for me? But now you fight about who will buy me a notebook for the first day of school, and I have to worry that I may even have to go to school without a notebook because my parents can’t get their act together.
Why is it that before you got divorced, when I was sick I knew for sure that someone would take me to the doctor, and it didn’t really matter to me which one of you did so? But now you argue not only about who should take me but also if I even need to go to the doctor. Sadly, even my getting sick has become something for you to fight about.
Why is it that before you got divorced, when I was sick everyone would ask me how I felt? But now, Dad thinks that Mom is faking when she says I am sick just so that she doesn’t have to send me to him on weekends. Sometimes he even wants her to show him a doctor’s note. Aren’t parents supposed to trust each other??? At least about things like this…

Gottlieb’s next challenge is the writing of a book about parental death in the eyes of children and how to cope with it. Given the sensitivity of the new book, he will likely succeed in slipping into the child’s shoes again.

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