The Life of a Divorced Dad

Although everyone agrees that divorce is tough, it often seems that single mothers and their kids have the better half of the deal. Divorced men tend to be overlooked in our family-oriented society. Want to know what a divorced dad contends with? The following article from the Jewish Press will give you a glimpse of life on the other side.

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In the ten years of Menashe L.’s marriage, his wife had accused him drug peddling, refused to attend therapy, and claimed that he was the one with issues. When the situation deteriorated to the point where she was physically abusive, he walked out. Yet three years later, his ex-wife has the sympathies of their community, who view her as an abandoned single mom, while he’s left struggling to combat the poison she feeds the kids about him.

“I’m the one who had to leave, yet she comes out looking like an angel,” he sighs in frustration.

Challenges Ahead

Although everyone agrees that divorce is tough, it often seems that single mothers and their kids have the better half of the deal. There are support groups, resources, and programs to help them get back on their feet after the breakup. Not so with divorced men, who tend to be overlooked in our family-oriented society. Yet men too are severely impacted by divorce, as they may be cut off from family life, lonely, and uncertain about their future.

For men as well as women, notes Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky, founder of FrumDivorce.org, divorce means being alone in a community largely made up of couples. “Being an Orthodox Jew usually means that you’re part of a community,” he explains. “That has so much to do with our daily lives. When you’re divorced, you almost automatically fall out of that cycle. Even school events like PTA and dinners are more difficult when you’re alone. Why would I want to go to a dinner on my own when everyone else is there as a couple?”

Loss of identity is a huge factor that affects divorced men just as it does their female counterparts. “Getting divorced meant cutting off a part of my identity,” says Aryeh H., a father of four who separated from his ex-wife six years ago. “I lost a piece of myself. Now I have to fill in that loss and re-identify myself as a full person, and live that new identity.”

This loss can be compounded by a potential feeling of failure. “Men generally have an instinctive pride in being a provider  for their wife and family,” explains Rabbi Dovid Greenblatt, an askan in the Five Towns who serves as a resource for single mothers and others. “In shul with peers, divorced men may feel that they are the ones who couldn’t provide and couldn’t keep their wife and family. If they feel that the wife is the one who wanted the divorce, they may resent her for putting them into this situation.”

Finally, there is the uncomfortable sense of vulnerability that is the inevitable result of being alone. “Generally, women are more comfortable with being dependent and vulnerable,” notes Dr. Mark Banschick, author of The Intelligent Divorce series and a New York–based child and adolescent psychiatrist. “Women by and large are able to have friends and family that they can share with, whereas men often have a hard time with vulnerability.

“It’s important to reach out,” he explains. “A person may need to call a friend, a sibling, a therapist. They need to get grounded. Women by and large are able to do that, but men, as a group, will say, ‘I’m fine, don’t worry,’ and end up not getting the support they need.”

Access to Children

Besides the emotional impact of being single again, many divorced fathers have less access to their children than they had previously, seeing them perhaps once or twice a week rather than daily, which impacts the relationship on many levels.

For Aryeh H., being out of the house meant creating a new kind of relationship with his children, which he calls “a ‘father for a few hours a week’ relationship.” “When the children are in my house, they have to follow our rules of derech eretz, manners, respect for a parent, and so on. When they’re in their mother’s house, my role is just to be a relative who is interested in their well-being,” he says. “It’s not simple. Not everyone can handle the co-existence of two roles.”

In general, a father who no longer lives in the same house as his children can still be in touch with them on a regular basis and show that he loves them. “You can send texts, e-mails, faxes,” says Dr. Banschick. “Even if you only see the kids every other weekend, you can still arrange with your ex that you call the kids twice a week, at a set time, to ask how their day was. That way you let them know that you care about them, even when you’re not there physically.”

While his time with his children may be limited, a father can focus on quality time over quantity time. “We sit and talk over dinner, and bedtime is much more of a ritual,” says Cantor Benny, a father of three. “I always make sure that there’s a plan for the time that I have with my children. If you do this, you can still have a very significant hashpaah on the child.”

Yet some divorced fathers find themselves dealing with emotional distance as well. “Since our separation, my ex-wife has fed my children a lot of lies about me,” says Menashe L., a father of two. “I see them twice a week, but her subtle remarks have left their impact and have created a lot of hostility towards me. Even so, I try to make sure they enjoy their time with me, and I make sure never to say anything against their mother despite what she says about me.”

Overcoming Baggage

Many divorced men would like to move on, reentering shidduchum in the hopes of having better luck the second time around. But a remarriage, which entails time, effort, and overcoming of baggage to succeed, needs a lot more than just luck.

“When you go out with someone who’s divorced, you have to go through all the history first,” says Cantor Benny. “You’re walking in with a story. While this is tough, it also has a lot of advantages, since once you start off with your story, the other party already has a picture of who you are. My radar is so much sharper than it was 20 years ago. The sort of questions I ask someone today are very different from the questions I asked the first time. It’s much more real, more tachlis oriented.”

Another crucial component is using one’s time alone to grow and to learn from past mistakes. “We’re all biased — we have difficulty seeing how others view us,” notes Rabbi Greenblatt. “By investing in self-growth, possibly guided by a capable therapist, one can learn how to make the next marriage more successful.”

Analyzing the previous marriage and one’s own part in its failure is a crucial forerunner to building a new relationship. “You have to own your story,” says Cantor Benny. “If you haven’t put closure on your history, you can’t move on. You’re opening a new chapter; you need to make sure you know what your priorities are.”

While it’s legitimate to date and a wonderful thing to look for love again, a divorced man should allow time for healing – his own and his children’s. “Don’t bring a new woman into your children’s lives until you’re sure that this is a person you’re serious about,” says Dr. Banschick, who suggests that divorced men wait a year for the dust to settle before introducing a potential partner to their children. “You don’t need the children to develop divided loyalties when they’re still trying to come to terms with the changes in their lives.”

Towards a Better Future

Any serious breakup is traumatic, and all the more so when years have been invested in the relationship, as well as hopes for the future and shared happy times. After a period of recovery and rebuilding, can a divorced man look forward to light at the end of the tunnel?

Absolutely, says Cantor Benny. “If you’re able to shake off what you’ve been through, there’s a tremendous amount of hope out there. I’ve seen many people who made significant mistakes in their marriages and got their act together afterwards. Sometimes that’s what you have to go through to get to a better place.”

There’s never room for hopelessness or despair, no matter how bleak one’s situation may be. “The Torah teaches us to always see G-d’s light, no matter how dark the tunnel is,” says Rabbi Greenblatt. “Rav Hutner zt”l has a beautiful letter on accepting failure as a step to growth. Every moment of life can and should be used to see and receive G-d’s light — and to do our best to give light to others.”

It’s possible to have a good marriage the second time even if it didn’t work the first time, as long as a person does the work he needs to do, adds Menashe L. “There were times when I felt like giving up, that there was no hope for the future, but once the divorce was finalized I began to hope that I would remarry, that I would find someone who would help provide a stable home for myself and my children. Baruch Hashem, I was able to make the decisions that led me to a happy second marriage.”

Even while single, a person can still live a meaningful life. “Embrace your reality,” says Cantor Benny. “Everybody has challenges. Do you think your neighbor’s life is any better than yours? They might not have gone through divorce, but their life isn’t necessarily better. I want my children to see that even though we went through very hard times, we got over it and we’re moving forward, rebuilding our lives and the fabric of our homes.”