This is the fundamental principle of the aftermath protocol; that there is an ongoing connection between husband and wife, even without the presence of children. This is a connection which places upon the divorcing husband primarily, the obligation to at all times have compassion for his ex-wife, and to assure that she never sinks into poverty and despair. Husbands who have divorced their wives may wish the worst for their ex-partners, and would love to gloat over their total failure. But that cannot be the Jewish way, and should not be allowed to become the Jewish way.
If the divorcing couple were blessed with children during their marriage, then the divorce takes on an added dimension of ongoing connectedness, via the children. Like it or not, the husband and wife will thereby be involved with each other on an ongoing basis. They will hopefully discuss such matters as the children’s education, the children’s general welfare, their health, their summer camp schedule, the visitation procedures, and adjustments of the custodial arrangements when one or the other of the divorcing mates may have difficulty keeping to the usual pattern.
If compassion and understanding are the fundamental ethics of the post-divorce situation between the couple, then goodwill and cooperation should be the governing ethics of the husband and wife when it concerns the welfare of the children.
Both husband and wife should be aware that whatever they tell their children will be relayed to the other spouse. It may not be done with precision, but the general tenor of the remarks made by one of the ex-mates about the other will find its way back to the original object of the remarks.
Thus, if a custodial mother complains about the fact that the visiting father is nasty, or does not really care about the child, or was always a rotten husband, her remarks will find their way back to the visiting father. One need not have a vivid imagination to picture what type of downside syndrome this will initiate.
The father who hears that he has been bad-mouthed by his ex-wife will most probably become furious at her (if he is not already). He might also at the same time launch a counter-attack, by badmouthing his ex-wife to his child or children. This negative rhetoric is also likely to follow in a reverse type of custody, with the father the custodial parent and the mother the visiting parent.
The child is inevitably dragged into this ongoing conflict, and may become the carrier pigeon for the invective, as well as the ultimate victim of the long-range missiles hurled by the ex-mates at each other. The ongoing ill-will between the former spouses may result in a renewed court challenge to the original arrangement. Or worse, it may result in the custodial parent shutting the door to the visiting parent, or in the visiting parent taking the child on a designated visiting weekend and disappearing to another locale, even another country. This is the tragic scenario that can result from ill-will, and the unsavory remarks made by the spouses about each other.
Relaying the Good
On the other hand, consider the scenario in which each one of the couple resolves to say only nice things about the ex-mate. This may be hard to swallow originally, at the onset of divorce, but the rewards are well worth it. Each one of the divorcing couple would probably be well advised to rehearse within himself or herself such statements as — you know that your father really loves you; or, I really appreciate the extraordinary steps your father is taking to make sure that he sees you as often as possible; or, you have a very caring mother; or, your mother is really going out of her way to do the best for you.
The more you rehearse these comments, the easier it will be to say them. The effect of these positive comments about your ex-mate can be of never-ending benefit. On the undeniable assumption that whatever you say about your former partner will be carried back to him or her, the nice comments that are made will engender a good feeling by the former spouse, who probably expects just the opposite.
The ex-mate who hears that nice things are said about him or her will in turn more likely say nice things about the other to the child. The child will then once again be a carrier pigeon, the carrier of good words, and will thereby be the elicitor of good feelings between the ex-spouses. Most importantly, the negative impact of divorce on the children may thereby be checked.
The cooperative spirit this can establish will be of benefit not only to the child, but also to the divorcing couple. They will remove the agenda of bitterness from each other, and get on with life in a positive way.
No matter how much one may deny it, by being bitter towards the other and ventilating one’s anger at the other, one does not thereby get rid of it. One is actually rehearsing that anger within the self. The anger will remain, and quite likely intensify.
The biblical advice, to “eliminate anger from your heart” (Ecclesiastes, 11:10), is most appropriate to a divorcing couple. For it is they who are more likely to have anger in their heart, and therefore it is they who must remove it. With bitterness in the heart, one is not likely to find peace of mind.
The biblical phrase, “and eliminate anger from your heart,” is followed by the words, “and remove evil from your flesh.” Indeed, by eliminating anger, you remove evil from your flesh. “Your flesh” may refer to one’s own flesh, or to one’s spouse, who once and always is as one’s flesh. By taking away anger, one removes the potential for a harmful post-divorce relationship.
Maintaining anger will also stand in the way of the embittered spouse linking with another partner. No individual would like to become entangled with a partner who, however attractive as a potential mate, is full of anger, hostility, and bitterness. That is sure to cloud any future relationship, or more probably, forestall the possibility of such a relationship ever developing.
Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka is a pulpit rabbi, author and lecturer. He has written extensively on the issue of Jewish divorce.