Thoughts for Those With Non Observant Spouses

My marriage since becoming observant has been a very painful reality for me. Don’t get me wrong, I am married to a wonderful man. The painful part is that we don’t share a commitment to living a Torah life.

In the Jewish community, people often talk about the “intermarriage problem.” But marrying a Jew isn’t enough. The ideal situation is clearly to marry a Jew who shares your definition of “Jewish home,” “raising Jewish children,” and “observing Jewish law/rituals/practices” (or at least compatible, similar definition). The problem for BTs is that our definition of all those things has changed, which increases the odds that we are married to someone who isn’t frum and doesn’t want to be.

When I met my future husband, I was moving at a glacial speed towards observant Judaism (I intellectually knew Orthodox Judaism was the only sort of Judaism that rationally made sense to me, but I was living a largely secular life). My husband is Jewish, but never had much of any exposure to Judaism growing up, and our secular lifestyle suited him just fine. But after about two years of marriage, my Jewish glacier melted and became a fast moving torrent of new observances.

Of course, as you might imagine, I tried all sorts of methods to encourage my husband to take up my new found Judaism. I asked nicely, I sent web links, I bought him books, I begged, I bribed, I threatened. None of that worked, but it did bring our marriage dangerously close to divorce. Hopefully, if you find yourself in a similar situation, then you can do as I say and not as I did.

First, you should know that at least in the beginning, you are likely going to be the major (if not the only) source of Yiddishkeit in your home. Instead of bemoaning the fact that your spouse doesn’t act like a husband or wife in a traditional Jewish home, perhaps you can get to a point where you appreciate the opportunity to be such a bright light for your family.

Second, take the time to find out why your spouse isn’t interested in becoming more observant. It may be that there are things that you can do to make observing some mitzvot more comfortable for him or her. Perhaps lack of knowledge, feeling uncomfortable, or the magnitude of commitment a Torah lifestyle requires are stumbling blocks for your spouse. Look for opportunities to help your spouse participate (if he or she is willing). For example, transliterated blessings with instructions on how to light Hanukkah candles helped my husband light a menorah for the first time this past Hanukkah. He was able to do it without my help, so rather than feeling infantilized he felt empowered.

Third, you really do catch more flies with honey. You can’t force your spouse to be observant, but you can show him or her how beautiful and meaningful an observant life can be. I doubt there is a person on the planet who became frum because his or her spouse constantly criticized all the things he or she was doing that were “wrong.” But there are many among us who started becoming more observant because of someone else showing us kindness and compassion.

Fourth, it is helpful to find compromises instead of fights. If your spouse still wants to eat food from a non-kosher restaurant, then maybe you can agree that he won’t bring it into your home. Obviously you don’t want to compromise your own commitment to halacha (or that of your children, if you have them). But it’s important to your marriage that everything is not a fight.

Finally, I’ll end with what is probably my most controversial idea. If you are committed to staying married, then you will have to learn to respect the fact that your spouse may never observe Judaism the way you do. You can pray, encourage and lead by example, but you simply cannot force someone to be observant.

10 comments on “Thoughts for Those With Non Observant Spouses

  1. Hi Fern,

    Just read your comment to my post (post #792 – not sure how to link it to this comment) – I had read a comment you posted some time ago and was hoping I could connect with you. Wow, it really does sound like you and I are “sisters”. I wonder how many other couples there are like us. I also think it’s a different situation when the wife is a BT than when the husband is – there are a slightly different set of issues – so I can relate much more to someone like you.

    May Hashem bless you and give you all the Chizuk you need each and every day, and may He open your husband’s heart to Torah.

    Although I don’t know your Hebrew name I will Bli Neder have you in mind when I daven. I look forward to seeing more posts from you.

  2. Fern,
    I could have written your post, nearly word for word. I met my husband at university, and while we were separated pursuing our graduate degrees I began the process of becoming more observant. When we married I had just started but it quickly became obvious that it was not going to be easy.

    And it hasn’t. But like you, I am married to a wonderful man who is an amazing husband and father. We have many challenges, but he has committed to raising our children in this worldview — however he more or less leaves all the “religion” to me. Our home of course is 100% kosher, but what he eats outside and when he goes to work, I don’t ask. As the kids get older, the issues get more challenging — now that our oldest is in first grade, she knows more than both of us do and has started to ask questions. Why doesn’t daddy go to shul to daven? Why doesn’t he wear a kippa all the time? We take things one day at a time and have good support. He doesn’t like to go to shul, but he doesn’t mind going out for meals on Shabbos/yom tov or having people here.

    Wishing you only hatzlacha and chizuk. May we all be zocheh to have a bayis ne’eman b’Yisroel and children who grow up to be really yirei shomayim despite their parents’ meshugas!

  3. Leah–I had a very similar experience with my family. The interesting thing was that once I backed off a bit, my mother and one of my brothers started showing interest in being more observant.

    Azriella–I apologize for not mentioning your book, I really should have. Your book really helped me focus on “how to make it work” instead of “my marriage is a disaster.” I found the section on compromising especially helpful. I also agree with the points you made here. I found it very unproductive to try and argue about the validity of the Torah with my husband.

    I should have also mentioned Rabbi Lazer Brody’s blog. He had a post a while back that I found very helpful. Essentially Rabbi Brody suggested to be a good spouse and model the positive impact Torah has had. You can read the post here.

    Ora–I’m glad that you got that from the post. I was trying to walk a fine line between making the point that my situation is not ideal, but also showing that you can still have a happy and fulfilling marriage.

  4. Shalom Fern,
    Having a succesful marriage is a huge mitzvah in and of itself. When spouses manage to get along despite differences like the ones you describe, it is extraordinary. I think your ability to love, respect, and accept your husband will make a huge kiddush Hashem, both for him and for all of your non-religious/non-Jewish friends, who will see that Torah comes to bring families together and not chas v’chalilah break them apart. So yeah, there are certain things you might have to give up/compromise on, and I wouldn’t recommend to someone that they deliberately put themselves into such a tough position, but in the end it sounds like you’re going to make the most of your situation and do a lot of good.

  5. This can be compared somewhat to the Jewish nation’s position among the other nations. To be effective in getting the message of HaShem’s sovereignty across, we as a group have to set a clear, obviously good example that will largely speak for itself.

  6. Some of you may be familiar with the book I wrote on this topic, “Two Jews can Still be a Mixed Marriage”, which I wrote when I was the lesser observant spouse. You are doing a lot of things right — especially choosing your battles and being appreciative of the mitzvot he is doing ( and helping him find a way to do them without embarrassment), and looking the other way on mitzvot he’s not ready or willing to take on. One of the most important strategies here is good advice for parenting, for marriage, for workplace relationships — not just for this issue. You notice and praise what is working well, and build on it, and if something isn’t yet working for you, you sometimes voice objection, and sometimes just keep silent. You can unwittingly sabatoge all possible progress that is, or could, occur, by harping on what isn’t happening. There are many points I could add but let me say this one thing for now that I don’t see mentioned. The kiss of death for encouraging your lesser observant spouse- or children — is to try the argument “My way is right because G-d said so.” If your family member does not believe that to be true, that argument will only get you involved in heated discussions of them showing you their evidence that G-d didn’t say any such thing — which just comes from their lack of learning, but you can see why they would say that. Where DOES it say that you can’t eat a cheeseburger? It doesn’t look to them like G-d said it, and when you focus on that, it seperates you further from them and polarizes your position. Also, this argument doesn’t work if they DO believe that G-d wrote the torah, because then you are pushing their guilt button, and they will reflexively fight back and rationalize their behavior — yeah, maybe G-d said so then, but now is a different time, or something like that. It usually backfires when you try to play Rabbi with your family, and it just about always backfires when you try to convince lesser observant family to follow the Torah because you’ve taken the high and G-dly road, and they haven’t. You can communicate to your family that this is what you’ve come to believe, and you are doing what you feel is right, but stop short of lecturing them that they are wrong. No one wants to be close to someone who is accusing them of being bad or wrong. You want this person or persons to feel close to you, and through that love and closeness, there’s a better chance that, when they see that your love for Torah and Hashem is turning you into the kind of person they admire and want to be around, they want what you want.

    This topic is never simple enough to put into a short paragraph or two. So here’s my other advice — be wary of everyone giving you advice! You have to figure out what will work in your own marriage, and maybe a well meaning person will tell you to do x, y, z, because it worked for them, but your intuition tells you that would be a terrible idea! For example, I went for keeping the laws of mikvah from the get-go, but it took me years to fully commit to being shomer shabbos. Maybe in another marriage, mikvah would be the last mitzvah you could ask for, and you’d find your spouse more receptive to starting to keep Shabbos. You know your spouse and children more than anyone, and what they are, and are not, ready for. Do consult with a Rabbi, and with friends, and read good books, and talk on this website. And then, follow your heart and what you know to be true in your relationship, which no one but you can know.

  7. I can really relate to this situation. In my case, I am the one who was getting more Frum over the years. It is not easy, especially when you have kids who are teens. I try to explain as best I could the why/why nots of certain Halachas on Shabbos…sometimes they understand, and sometimes they don’t. But it doesn’t matter, if it is written in the Torah. Which leads me to another thing: I get this question sometimes “Where does it say that in the Torah?” If it is Oral Torah, I sometimes have a hard time convincing my family of certain things. But, for the most part, we are all observant now, but certain things come up sometimes that make the road a bit difficult.

    I suggest, after learning over the years that the hard approach does not work all the time, to go easy, and try to be patient. Everybody goes at his/her own pace in learning. But, to quote Josh Groban’s new song “Don’t Give Up (You Are Loved)”.


  8. I once heard a Rav speak on this topic, he gave a lot of the advice you are giving and also gave this interesting viewpoint:

    The spouse who has become a BT has to realize that s/he is the one who has “changed the rules”. The couple entered the relationship or marriage with a certain set of tacit rules and the BT spouse is now changing those rules.

    While the BT spouse should be praised for making the decision to grow in his/her yiddishkeit, when it comes to understanding and appreciating his/her spouse, they must keep in mind it’s not the spouse’s fault that the rules have changed.

  9. Shalom Fern!

    Tough dilemma, and my heart goes out to you. I can’t imagine anything more difficult than a couple pulling in two different directions.

    You don’t mention kids, which may be for the better for now until you get it sorted out, but I think you came to the exact right conclusion. You’ll have to carry the torch for both of you, and lead by example.

    Maybe he’ll come around, and maybe he won’t, and you’ll probably have to make some enormous decisions down the road.

    This is not a comparable situation, but my family was so adamantly opposed to my choice to become observant and my decision to marry a frum man (hah, and they used to fret that I would marry a goy!), that it was terrible for a while. I really thought I’d have to go my own way and cut off contact with them.

    I finally realized that, at the beginning, I was too preachy and too judging of my family, (BT-itis), and that they were digging into their trenches pretty deeply as a result.

    As soon as I backed off, the tension started to ease up. That’s when I understood that if there is ANY hope of sparking teshuvah for any one of them, my mother, my siblings, and my nephews, it would only be by showing my own commitment, not wavering from my choice, and showing the beauty of a Torah life by making it as pleasurable and as joyful as possible, and as you said, leading by example.

    May Hashem continue to guide your footsteps, and in the merit of your teshuvah, hopefully your husband will one day be walking your same path.

    Leah L

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