Teshuvah, Marriage, and Revelations of the “Past”

By “Michael”

My wife and I are both ba’alei teshuvah, although I grew up in a religious environment and she comes from a secular background. We made the decision to get married based on a brief, romantic, and miraculous period of very “frum” dating. We were both mutually inspired by and committed to what we saw as a true opportunity from Hashem to rebuild our lives together. Marriage has certainly had its inspired and beautiful moments, and of course still offers its luminous potential to give both of us the opportunity to raise a Jewish family (iy”H) that we so desired. We both continue to feel that we are meant for each other and that this marriage is in fact a gift from above. However, there has been this one issue which has from the beginning threatened to derail us, and I was hoping that others might comment on this from their own experiences. It is the issue of the past, and in particular its role in our life together.

While I was dating my current wife and throughout our engagement, I was never counseled by any of my religious advisers to inquire too much about my wife’s past. I allowed myself to internalize the idea that her past was irrelevant, and all the more so if I wanted to be able to put my own mistakes behind me. Yet two important factors made that all but impossible: I am an extremely curious person and my wife, G-d bless her, is the proud owner of a big mouth. This combination of her “slips” and my curiosity has led to the revelation of a host of unpleasant discoveries about her life (the details of which are of course not relevant here) which, although she has solidly put them behind her, threaten to erode my level of respect for her as a person and comfort with her in this marriage. To further complicate things, I neither want this to be the case nor do I feel the “right” to be bothered by the past, yet the feeling just seems to come up in all kinds of situations whether I want it to be there or not, the feeling that there is something unsavory about this person who I love and am committed to. I spend a great deal of my emotional and intellectual resources trying to overcome this feeling of revulsion or antipathy, convincing myself that teshuvah renders all these things irrelevant, that people change, that my own past has been less than stellar… but the underlying feelings persist. For a time I resented her (and the Rabbis and counselors who advised us before our marriage) for the fact that I couldn’t make an “informed” decision before we got married. But I have come to accept and understand that we are soulmates and that if any of these revelations were made before marriage they probably would have given me second thoughts and if not prevented the marriage altogether, at least distorted my frame of mind and not allowed me to enjoy it.

So here we are, married and with a kid iy”H on the way, and I am more or less stuck in this limbo state, accepting on an intellectual and religious level that my wife as a ba’alat teshuvah is not the container of her past experiences, but on a psychological and emotional level being mostly unable to deal with them. I am trying to find coping strategies that will work for us because I do not want these issues to be present between us once our children iy”H are in the world. I want to be able to see my wife solely as they will see her, as a proud, intelligent, committed, and beautiful frum wife and mother, and as nothing besides.

I’m writing this in public (anonymously, of course) because I can only imagine that there must be other ba’alei teshuvah struggling with these issues of the proper understanding of the past, whether one’s own or that of someone close to them and especially as it relates to marriage and the need to get on with our work down here in this world and not be chased down by ideas or images from long ago. I hope that this will lead to an honest and productive discussion. B’vracha..

26 comments on “Teshuvah, Marriage, and Revelations of the “Past”

  1. When I first got married, a lot of things about my spouses behavior annoyed me. Then I read a “vort” about a certain Breslover hasid. He married a woman who turned out to have serious problems with her mental health. They had a daughter who also had psychological issues. The author mentioned that in fact, he could have had this marriage annulled due to his wife’s failure to disclose her mental illness prior to the chasuna. This hasid spent a lot of time caring for his wife and daughter. One year, on erev Yom Kippur, someone asked the hasid, wasn’t he upset that he wasn’t able to study Torah so much, since he had to spend so much time caring for his wife and daughter. He replied that caring for his wife and daughter IS Torah.
    So since you know that Hashem put you and your wife together for a reason, realize that Hashem wants you to get over it. Plus, if we were to ask your wife, I am sure there are things about you that she doesn’t like so much :)
    Best of luch and Chasima Tovah.

  2. Michael

    i don’t have any advice – this is between you and G-d and you and your wife.

    i just wish you both every bracha and blessing, and that Hashem will help you both to grow old together in emuna, harmony and happiness.

  3. I want to thank those who took the time to respond, especially those patient and sensitive enough to catch the subtleties of the problem and share their own experiences and observations. For those more concerned with speculation or sarcasm, there are many good reasons for not getting into the specifics, not least of which is that this issue of teshuvah and the “past” affects all of us and it’s best to keep track of what we have in common rather than get sunk in so many particulars. The truth is that although anyone with a Torah perspective will tell you that teshuvah “erases” or “elevates” the past, and that one’s own past and kal vachomer that of another person does not matter, most people offer very little practical advice for how to overcome or elevate the past. Believing in principle that teshuvah has this cleansing effect and living and breathing it are very separate things. Especially as Hashem has not seen fit to erase our memories outright nor obviously transform our physical beings to remove traces of this past. We are meant to do this work on our own power, and it’s imperative that we all understand what this transformation really requires of us.

    There is also the even less pleasant fact that many in the FFB community do not practice what they preach with regard to teshuvah. They’ll counsel you to accept ba’alei teshuvah as they are and then find some reason why the same BTs are not good enough for their own sons or daughters..

  4. We commenters may also be falling into obsessive speculation based on very limited information.

  5. Well, IJ, there are issues of what First Amendment lawyers call “time, place and manner,” y’know. Nuff said on that. What I find intriguing is that bank robbery probably would bother him less than what is getting under his skin.

  6. Men always want to be a woman’s first love – women like to be a man’s last romance.
    – Oscar Wilde

    I’m also reminded of what my Rosh Yeshiva told me, “do you like the girl enough that you’ll be able to handle the suprises? …And there will be suprises, I assure you!”

  7. Oh, big whoops, she ate some lobster and had a boyfriend or something. Unless she was a bank robber, it’s in the past. Let it go.

  8. Liz Phair (not a BT) sings: “I can’t believe you had a life before me / I can’t believe they let you run around free / just putting your body wherever it seemed / like a good idea.”

    On some level, I think everyone wishes his spouse had no “life experience.” It’s not only BTs, or even Jews. It’s a real emotional need.

    By raising our children according to the Torah’s values, we are giving them the opportunity to experience that security and exclusivity if they choose. But most of us don’t get to reap that particular benefit of observant life. BT spouses come with pasts.

    I agree with a previous poster that this is an emotional struggle, not an intellectual one. I think individual counseling might be helpful.

  9. It’s possible that your wife’s slips are a (possibly subconscious) way of checking that you truly love and accept her, all of her. On the one hand, her past is not what you are married to — you are married to the person she is now. And of course the person she is now is wonderful. On the other hand, her past is part of *her*. She needs to know that your love for who she is now is unconditional, that it doesn’t matter what she was.

    You seem to recognize this, but it is difficult for your feelings to follow your head. Why? Why do you think you are so disturbed by things your wife did before becoming religious? Why does it bother you?

    I echo what others said that a counselor might be helpful. Perhaps it would also help to focus on the present more. For example, you could build up a collection of things you admire in your wife. Then if she “slips”, you could remind yourself of her stellar qualities and offer her more genuine love and acceptance than you might have been able to offer until now. Chasing away the negative feelings by purposefully filling your head with positive thoughts might help.



  10. Here’s some food for thought: your wife was raised without any Torah knowledge, she did the “bad” things in question at a time when she didn’t know any better. She must have a wonderful neshama to overcome so much. But you said that you were raised “religious,” which leads me to believe you had at least some knowledge of Torah and mitzvot, and yet you turned away from your upbringing for a time. Don’t you think you are blessed to have found a wife who doesn’t hold your past against you?!

    I think you should focus on the many blessings Hashem has bestowed on you in the form of the shidduch He made for you. By obsessing about your wife’s past and getting angry at your counselors you are second guessing Hashem and His wisdom.

  11. Shalom Michael,

    You married your wife for who she is now, not who she was. Her life’s experiences, both the bad and the good, contributed to the woman, wife and soon-to-be mother she is today, and that’s all that matters.

    Is she a good wife? A good partner? Does she set the right example? Does she do what she is obligated to do as a Torah observant Jew? Will she be a good mother?

    These are the only things you need to concern yourself with.

    If she dwells excessively on her past and “inflicts” you with it, you need to have a talk with her. Help her to understand that it bothers you. You may need outside counselling.

    But please be more forgiving if she “let’s slip” things on occasion that may upset you but are ancient history. You can’t exise her memories. They are part of her.

    We all make mistakes, but isn’t it really up to Hashem to judge us? That’s why we make teshuvah.

    Best wishes,


  12. It seems that you perhaps have an easier time “forgiving” yourself than “forgiving” your wife.

    The putative comparative weight of your respective infractions may not be what you think.

  13. I’m reminded of Yehoshua, who married Rachav — a convert who had been a prostitute, and Rabbi Akiva, who married the converted wife of the Roman governor. Not to mention Reish Lakish, who had been a bandit before becoming a talmudic sage. I’m sure there are endless other examples of people who transformed themselves after living unsavory lives.

    Rabbi Twersky writes about a young man who was still pining over a failed shidduch after two years. In the midst of counselling the boy, Rabbi Twersky had a dream that he was a boy who wanted to go out in a row boat but was not allowed by his parents to go. So he went out when the boat was tied to the dock and rowed to his heart’s content.

    Rabbi Twersky’s interpretation of his dream was that sometimes we “tie” ourselves to some problem or another as an excuse not to move forward.

    Michael, you sound like you have a wonderful wife who has been very patient putting up with a lot while you try to sort things out. It would be tragic to allow a past dead and buried to undermine such a marriage. And I would warn that your wife’s patience may not be endless.

    At the same time, if your wife wants the past to remain dead and buried, she should be more careful not to resurrect it.

  14. Wow. This post socks one in the face and gut. Want to comment but too pressed for time right now. I will offer a prediction though: Before it’s over it will top 150 comments.

  15. “Michael” – I applaud your willingnes to be so honest with yourself, and with us, in your very personal post. We all could see ourselves in either you, or your wife, at some point in our marriages. I was on the other side. The new wife of my husband, who had been with another woman for 15 years in a marriage before ours. It has taken me years, really years, to get over feeling jealous of the life they had together before ours. But my pain about it did eventually fade over time, a long time.

    Your post brings up an additional interesting question for all BT’s to contemplate. What happens — and it will — when your frum from birth children ask their bt parents, mom, ( or dad), (or ima or tatty), when you weren’t religious did you?. . . fill in the blank. . . have boyfriends, eat lobster, and so on. Now here’s what is interesting about that. I find, with my children, that they are so solidly sure of who I am now — a frum mother — that their questions about my past are merely curiosity and fascination and when I give them a very short answer, they are satisfied and the topic changes.

    So the question I would ask you to consider is this: Are you sure about your wife’s current commitment to a frum life with you? Are you worried about her past, or resentful about it, because you don’t trust that it is only in her past, and not part of her future? Ask yourself whether you are stuck in this place because of who she was in the past, or who you are worried about she might be in the future. And then, I’d ask you a second question to consider. How are you so completely sure that you would never, have never, wouldn’t consider ever, doing anything that would also disgust her? Marriage is often about learning how to love one another in the midst of the flaws, despite the flaws, even because of the flaws, and you know what? It’s really really really hard work — which is why Hashem made sure that we get married if at all possible!

  16. If it is really a question of slipping, than your wife needs to learn to discipline herself and learn to say absolutely nothing to you about past relationships. If it is not so much a result of her big mouth but more from a woman’s need to share verbally in order to feel conected and accepted by you, than she should speak to a counselor to vent those feelings and to learn appropriate ways of channeling them.

  17. Michael: Your posting, and the comments following it, are very instructive and I want to thank you for sharing this personal story.
    I’m wondering about your own views as to the importance of delving into your wife’s past, at the time of the shidduch. If it mattered a lot to you, but you just accepted the advice of your counselors as to ignoring it, then I would submit that this is a bigger issue among the klal concerning how and whom is advising young, vulnerable people about their future marriages and shalom bayis. I also think it would have been up to you to clarify with your counselors how important you felt knowing the background was.

    On the other hand, if you didn’t feel it was so important, and easily accepted the advice to ignore her background, why has it suddenly become so important? If this is the case, I’m guessing that the feeling of having been deceived is more the issue now, than perhaps her actual deeds, which you say she has done teshuva for.

  18. I have learned a valuable thing from Rebbetzin Jungreis. It is “not everything has to be said”” and certainly not all together. I personally am not a big fan of let it all hang out and tell all and everything to your mate. I am sorry your mate has had “slips” and I am sure she is not so happy with herself that she did since it leads to obvious pain and wondering for you. The true fact is this information is not valuable to you in any way. Can you change it? Does it add to your married life? Nope, all it can do is damage and regardless of whose “fault” that it, one for “slipping” the other for “grudge holding” the fact is that this information is worthless. How she is today and how YOU act today is what is important. Get your head out of your calendar and into current life. I know it seems like I am coming down rather hard on you but it is true that the only one that can change their behavior to a more healthier outcome is the person currently doing the behavior. That person Sir is you. You are facing a beautiful part of your life. A loving committed wife, a new child k’h’. Why let your yetzar hara ruin this for you? You have much more work in the world to do for Hashem. START.
    Blessings to you…

  19. “Michael”:

    Resentment is an insidious poison that can damage any relationship. While you may have it in the container right now, issues may erupt further on down the line that could open the old wounds. I would add my voice to the chorus that are suggesting you find a way, through counseling, or whatever means you find comfortable for you, to deal with the resentment.

    I would also suggest that as baalei teshuvah we would be best advised to stifle our curiosity and put a lid on our big mouths; and I imagine that’s good advice for any relationship–especially in regards to past relationships. I don’t remember the exact quote, but Chazal say something to the effect that when a man marries a divorcee there’s three people in bed. No sense in intensifying the problem.

  20. “MIchael”, the fact that your wife was willing to drop hints about this and to discuss it should be encouraging.

  21. I’m in the opposite situation from you. My wife was raised orthodox, I was the secular one with a… background. When we were getting serious, I gave her a brief rundown of my past so she would know about it beforehand, so if there were any issues, we could get them out of the way, or if they were insurmountable, then go our seperate ways. Fortunately (for me!) she was able to accept my past and we continued on. On occasion, she does ask me about if I would have done things differently knowing what I know now. I’ve pointed out that who I was, and my life experiences had led me to being who I am. If I hadn’t had the life I led, I could have been someone completely different and we may not have been a match for each other.

    You stated your wife has had “slips” in coversation. And the slips have caused your curiosity to lead “to the revelation of a host of unpleasant discoveries about her life.” I hate to sound like “Dear Abby” but you might want to get a little bit of marraige counseling to help resolve both of your feelings. My wife and I have done this twice when things were getting over our heads (once before marraige, and once afterwards). Nothing too intensive, and both times were just a one time visit. It’s just that sometimes having a trained ear listen and make some comments can help to give you a different perspective that, being too emotionally involved, you can’t see just yet.

  22. You’re young, but eventually you’ll see that most of us reinvent ourselves several times during our lifetimes and marriages. Each time one or the other partner does this, it challenges the strength of the marriage, as in some ways you will be married to a different person that you didn’t bargain for.

    If this hadn’t happened because of the past, then eventually it would have happened with something else in the future. Neither you, nor she, will have been the same people you were/are 25 and 50 years from now. She just took the first turn at reinvention.

    The ikkar is how you deal with it, and later, how she does. It could very well happen that your wife will one day return the favor for the kaf schut that you’ll give her now. You can’t imagine that now, but the large aspect of commitment in marriage is to level out the valleys and peaks so that the relationship is strong enough to provide a context for both of your growths as people, within the context of the family you share.

    It doesn’t always work out. Lots of people remain unhappy in their marriages, unfortunately. Whether you become one of them depends on both of you (one isn’t enough). But if you’ve got what it takes, you’ll see your spouse for the gift he/she is as an ezer k’negdo. You must try to realize that the emotions you are feeling now are meant to be there because there’s a certain kind of “stretching” you have to do that you haven’t done yet, maybe you can learn to appreciate these challenges as whispers from G-d. That’s the k’negdo part. Nobody promised you things would be easy, because it’s not SUPPOSED to be. :-)

  23. Firstly as an aside , I think that Full Disclosuring Friday is an emotionally exhausting holiday weekend that should generally be celebrated before the actual marriage ceremony,i’m not sure why hasty marriage advisors/frolicking in frumkeit promoters /rabbinic matchmakers would suggest otherwise, global shidduck crisis warming concerns notwithstanding.

    Second, the following random thought process’s are perspectives that are based on personal, originally secular by choice and subsequently sometimes teshuva-ing happenstancings and may not be entirely applicable given that i’m not married and a female……..

    Since you havent been that specific with the revelations that keep on giving, its a little hard to judge the spouse judging in a negative or positive light (not that I would ever judge anyone being that i dont subscribe to the judgy judaism branch of holier than thou). Though “big mouth” is not really up there on top 10 most flattering terms for talkative wife list. So Is it the fact that you werent privy to the fun facts before you did the marriage thing/ or is it possible motivational factors that ure worried about.
    Or are you just questioning the whole teshuva thing and is it really the kind of life altering choice that keeps on changing.

    Some of your points on teshuva-ing seem to imply that those who become secular by choice and those who were born secular have mutually exclusive levels of “past” happenstancings to deal with in terms of full disclosuring friday holiday weekends.
    I’m not sure why that would be true other than you were being “your story” specific on that implication or there is no implication.
    Other than the no “tinok shenishbah” loophole availability to fall back on, the sky’s the limit in terms of possible “past” would love to delete and or turn back time happenstancings, generally unhampered or facilitated by that initial religious upbringing depending on the circumstances……..

    Also, i’m not clear on your definition of teshuvah and how it relates to emotions and mind.
    Decisioning always has that element of emotion even if driven mostly by will.
    If a person is able to use a given set of emotions, the mind and free will and do a complete 360, the spiritual personal growth and discipline levels involved must be unfathomable.

    I’m not sure why this would not completely overwhelm any doubts your harboring unless you havent listened to your wife’s whole story yet.

    Also, just cuz one has declared themselves frum and lovin it, this doesnt render past happenstancings as deleted /stripped of rhyme or reason and or just some feelings of long ago that need the occasional regulating to stay hidden forever under the wigs and skirts.

    Unless your talkin neuroscience, there are many options from the deleting unpleasant memories to this fascinating concept I just chanced upon in scientific american mind by sandra and matthew blakeslee on mind/body connections, according to Arthur “Bud” Craig, the right frontal insula is the place where mind and body meet.He considers this focal point the basic foundation of emotional intelligence. The point that connects the state of body to the state of mind and where bodily sensations are mapped in the human brain and turned into thoughts feelings/ motivations/pain, he has lots of profound stuff on mind/body connections but for the sake of brevity i’ll segue straight into intended modesty analogy….
    So dragging the material modesty is of utmost importancing into this mind/body regulating we can probally program those spiritual emotions to be right in sync with extra layers of materials for the perfect frolicking in frumkeit experience all covered in skirts and wigs and no worries about the past peeking through……..

    Anyway my point is that “past” happenstancings however colorful have everything to do with yesterday/ today and tommorrow, and thats a good thing, how could it not be ?
    Its really not the wiggy wigs/skirts and taharas hamishpachah and tanach classes and your good to go.

    Your past is the reason for your present which will shape your future ,any which you shake it or like it.

    Its not like you can just do away with that trite rusty outdoor message board and spent message named past.
    Teshuvah doesnt come along with a whole new outdoor weather resistant message board replete with a whole new package of 1/2″ gothic letters, so you can neatly re-arrange the message of the day without the previous messaging having any say in the matter.
    Last decade’s “When life gives you lemons make lemon drops and drink until you dont know the difference between spent faith and spent effort” becomes Yesterday’s ” The grass patch is always greener and smaller when confined to small circular metal spaces for decorative purposes only”,
    And will have everything to do with Todays “Tis the season for Teshuva Tsking /Tasking and Asking” should one decide its the song of the day. Its a cumulative home coming thing mostly.

    You dont really need not so fond of “frum” and secular loving jaded topaz to tell you that the fact that your “frum beautiful wife” was able to use her past happenstancings to shape her present state of frolicking in frumkeit , this fact should assure you that she’s the stuff good characters are shaped out of.
    And, if your of the predestination persuasion everything is predestined , combine that with the popular nothing is coincidental/the limitations on free will and the there is a reason for everything, you can conclude that your wife had to experience whatever she experienced in order to accomplish what she was created for.

    I would never give up past happenstancings, and neither should your wife ever.
    She should be able to celebrate any part of her life and talk about anything /anytime as often as she wants to.

    No preachy undertones intended, its just that I’m not sure you’ve fully listened and or understood your wife’s story yet. And i’m sure once you listen to the whole story from beggining to end, unadulterated understanding will overwhelm the doubts that are niggling you.

    My longwinded point, real listening is underrated.

  24. Michael:

    I hope what I say isn’t trite: if it comes across in that way, please excuse me.

    If I understand what you have written: you not only love your wife but your also like and respect her for who is now.(If you did not respect your wife for her devotion to Ha-Shem, her kindness and her integrity, then I would not go further with this posting.)

    As you have made clear, you want to make this marriage work but you are afraid of the past and that such might psychologically affect you. I can only take your own statement as to what you want and repeat it to you in other words: do your best to be focussed on making this marriage work; everything else is not relevant to your goal and merely self-defeating. This isn’t the time to indulge in useless afterthoughts that are really just compulsive.

    Share love of Ha-shem and the many beauties of his world including the beautiful gift of spousal love and companionship – and don’t kill that great gift of spousal love – rather do all of the little things that will encourage it to grow and deepen.


  25. Michael,

    I think you are far from alone in this situation. Just about all of us have done things in the past that we regret, but we also grow as people and are no longer the same younger versions of ourselves that committed the regretful acts. My guess is that this is an issue to some degree or another in almost every marriage, and the solution, in my opinion, is to not worry about these aspects of your wife’s past, but instead to just focus on all the good things about her here in the present.

  26. Wow – powerful post! I have some thoughts for “Michael,”, but I think ultimately you should go speak to a rabbi with extensive experience counseling BTs, or a professional therapist. It seems as though you have worked through these issues intellectually, and any “ideas” or “thoughts” you already know. How to integrate them emotionally is the crux, and is beyond any one or many posting.

    Having said that, I have two comments:

    1)You mentioned that you came from a “religious” background, and your wife came from a secular background. That is a very big difference; you were raised, presumably, with strong ideas of right and wrong, good and bad. What you must know by now is that in the secular world, including among “good” families,there has been an eroding to the point of zero, of concepts of “good,” except, perhaps with regard to stealing, killing, etc. I would say that most if not all of the “good” Jewish kids I grew up with did the following: had multiple intimate relationships with others, including one night stands; took a variety of drugs, some even sold them; ate all sorts of traif foods, including snails and shrimp,talked very obnoxiously to one’s parents, etc. I could go on. Although it may seem hard to believe, since everyone around you did it, it just didn’t strike you as bad! Especially if you got good grades and were basically a nice girl or guy. So if your wife did any or all of these things, she wasn’t bad, brazen, or in any way abnormal. In fact, it is quite possible that if she didn’t do these things, she would have stood out as abnormal and would have been shunned. So it is unfair to judge her by a standard which was alien to the circles she grew up in.

    2) I have seen many times, when it comes to shidduchim and marriage, Hashem allows you to hear ONLY those things about your prospective spouse that He wants you to. There are many stories where spouses (or parents of kids recently married) have said “if I would have known X, Y, or Z about my spouse (or my child’s spouse) I never would have gone forward.”

    And, it is important to note, that virtually everyone discovers the “bad” side of one’s spouse only after married for some time. While dating you think this person is close to perfect. And when you discover otherwise, Whoa! You can come crashing down to reality. It is important to realize that your spouse may be having (or will have) the exact same feelings about you ! What you must realize is that I think ALL or MOST married couples go through this stage of discovering the faults of their spouse, but because of their commitment to marriage, and by focusing on the reasons you married this person to begin with, people get over the hump.

    Again, I wish you the best and that you should have a blessed marriage, you seem to be a sensitive, striving person, and with Hashem’s help, and perhaps the help of a Rav/therapist, you will arrive at a place of loving acceptance.

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