Dating Abuse in the Orthodox World

By Estee Goldschmidt
On February 11, 2010

"Dating is an overture to marriage," says Joseph Ciccone, M.D., a psychologist who practices within the Orthodox community. An overture is a short piece of music that is played by the orchestra as an introduction to a play; if one listens closely, one can pick up on motifs pertaining to the entire concert from the overture alone. Likewise, dating is a prelude to marriage. With care, one can pick up on details and predict what the relationship will look like when it progresses. If one pays attention to the details during the dating process, and recognizes signs that are indicative of abuse, one can prevent the relationship from turning abusive either by terminating it, or by healing it through therapy in its early stages.Many Stern College for Women students are dating seriously or are searching for a relationship. Therefore, the topic of recognizing abuse in dating is particularly important for anyone trying to build a healthy family. Ariella Zirkind is a senior at Stern College and a Judaic studies major who is the current president of the Social Justice Society. "Most daters will probably never interact with full-on abusive relationships," she says. "But there are smaller issues and warning signs that indicate potential for unhealthy relationships." When asking students and recent alumni for interviews, most refused and some preferred to remain anonymous because of the shame and sensitivity involved.

Although physical abuse is easier to identify because of its clear ramifications, emotional abuse is more prevalent in the Jewish Orthodox community, where halakha (Jewish law) prohibits physical contact between members of the opposite gender before marriage. "I think emotional abuse can be even worse [than physical abuse]," says Dana Adler (SCW '09). "Because no one can see the bruises."
Most people are at their best behavior at the beginning of a relationship. Only after some time passes does the "true self" of the person come through. Usually, this happens after both parties are emotionally invested in the relationship.

"Abuse is a battle for power, for control," says Benzion Brodie, who is a rabbi and therapist at the Mental Health Clinic of Bikkur Cholim in Rockland County. "In an abusive relationship the abuser wants to make sure that the victim is under his or her thumb through breaking down the self esteem of the partner, by being extremely jealous," states Brodie. "Therefore, when the victim tries to break free of the relationship, they are at great risk of even death. Abusive relationships are a real danger. The battle can be physical or emotional."

Gila Manolson is a dating coach within the Orthodox community. She is the author of '"Head to Heart"-a guide to dating. "The key to the 'correc' response [from a partner] is respect-for one's independence and your boundaries," writes Manolson.

Neal Davis, (YC '08) has a close friend who was a victim of an abusive relationship. "At first, my friend didn't pick up on it," he says. "But when the teasing turned into ridicule, which then became criticism, she realized that she was being verbally abused."

Talia is a biology major who asked to remain anonymous; she shared her experience of being in an abusive relationship with The Observer. "Looking back now that I am married and know what a healthy relationship looks like makes it very easy to pinpoint the signs of an abusive relationship," says Talia. "When I was dating E. I cut off all communication with my friends, both male and female, depriving myself of a support system that I had prior to the relationship. The reason for this sudden detachment were the projected feelings of jealousy that E. expressed to me, in a rather unhealthy way." Talia remembers what the relationship turned into. "There were constant fights and accusations of me being 'flirtatious and inappropriate' with other guys, with no room for discussion," she says. "Also, he constantly controlled where I was and with whom."

Brodie explains this from the abuser's perspective. "Its an 'If I can't have her, no one can' attitude," he says.
Adler recalls how she knew that her friend from high school was in an abusive relationship. "She no longer sounded like herself, didn't make her own decisions, and the life seemed to drain out of her," says Adler. "That's how everyone knew. Her vibrant personality was completely gone."

Adina Chevins is a senior at SCW majoring in education. "I was dating a certain guy, when he breached the laws of negiah," she says. "I thought that I will lose him if I remained shomer negiah, so I compromised on my values for the sake of preserving a relationship which wasn't healthy in the first place."

Emotional abuse can be overt and covert. Overt abuse is clear, where one person puts another partner down through criticism or even threats. Covert criticism, however, is a subtle form of abuse, that can span from frequent interruptions that make a partner feel insignificant, to excluding the partner and making him or her feel isolated.
Zirkind points out abusive signs she recognizes. "Abusive relationships I have seen have been qualified by uncomfortable comments or behavior that makes the other person feel insignificant or afraid," says Zirkind. "I have seen boyfriends criticize or dictate food consumption, fashion choices, gym attendance, etc. This kind of emotional manipulation quickly deteriorates self confidence and the ability to make independent choices."

Talia adds another trait. "When one partner tries to actively cut the other one off from his or her support system, that is abuse," says Talia, "[as well as] when one uses religion as a tool for manipulation."
Dave Barry is a humor columnist for The Miami Herald. In his column, he stresses the importance of someone being kind not just to the person he or she is dating, but to surrounding people as well. "If someone is nice to you but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person," he writes.

Rabbi Dr. Aharon Fried is an associate professor of psychology and education at Stern College. He relates a story about a young man who showed up for a date an hour late and didn't apologize. Although the young man was extremely bright and had merits, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach discouraged the shidduch from proceeding, because the young man showed disrespect towards the woman he was dating and that character trait was bound to cause pitfalls in the future. "Women feel as if the 'shidduch market' is a men's market, because of the so-called shidduch crisis and upper hand that the men have," says Rabbi Fried. "Therefore, women allow themselves to be stepped upon and allow the men to get away with too much."

Rabbi Fried notes the emphasis seminaries place on finding a zivug (partner) with the right hashkafa (philosophic outlook). "Middot [character traits] are most important," states Fried. "If one sees behavior that shows disrespect and disregard, they should run in the other direction." Rabbi Dr. Fried brings an example from real life to illustrate his point: "A young man had promised to call the girl he was dating; he called only three weeks later and offered some lame excuse. The woman should not have made up excuses for him having finals, she should have hung up the phone."

Often times, partners are too involved in a relationship to walk away. "Only at the point where the arguments started to involve my religious freedom, did I understand that the relationship was abusive," says Talia. "The argument that led to the final break-up involved the question of a woman's role in Judaism. E told me that I should in no way be allowed to take Gemara [Talmud] classes, or else he would break up with me. And so he did," sighs Talia. "Unfortunately, this relationship lasted longer than I wish it had-a year and two months."

Zirkind advises people to have an outsider's opinion to prevent them from getting involved in abusive relationships. "It's important to date with outside input," says Zirkind, "There needs to be someone that you talk to you who can tell you when something doesn't look right. You should never feel that who you are is compromised or that your standards are being negotiated in a relationship." Neal Davis agrees. "Just keep your eyes open, and if something seems off, speak with someone you trust," says Davis.
"Don't ever feel guilty for walking away from a situation if you feel uncomfortable," adds Adler.

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