Just Married

No Longer 'Just Married'

By Simi Lichtman

Claudio Papapietro
Simi and Jeremy

Editor’s Note: This is the concluding post in Simi Lichtman’s blog exploring her first year of married life as a young Modern Orthodox woman. Simi will still be writing for the Sisterhood blog and for the Forward. You’ll be able to find Just Married in Forward.com’s archives.

Jeremy and I watched a movie recently in which a couple getting married is told, “If you can make it through the first year, you can make it through anything.” Aside from that being just about the worst thing to tell a couple at their wedding, it just didn’t ring true. Is the first year really the hardest? About 10 months in, Jeremy and I are worried about the coming years, about what the future will hold, whether we will make it through challenges as yet unknown. But this year? We are in our honeymoon phase, aren’t we?

I posed this question to someone who got married about a year before me, and she responded, “We also thought that. But now that our first year is over, we realize just how much happier we are.” She pointed out that the first year is a time of settling in together, learning to live with each other and learning how to fight the right way. After thinking about it, I realized that even over the course of our first year, Jeremy and I have grown more comfortable with each other. We’ve rounded off each other’s sharper edges, or we’ve learned to accept them. We fight less because we know each other better — or because every fight we had at the beginning was resolved so we didn’t have to fight about those things anymore.

We’ve nearly made it through our first year. We’re more of a team now, more so that married couple who know each other so well we can communicate with our eyes across the dining room table (sorry, guests). But we don’t know each other so well that we’re bored. We’ve gotten through the hurdles of figuring each other out, but we haven’t really been faced with an outside challenge, with the bigger problems that life may hold for us. The first year is ending, but that just means there are many more years of relationship building and testing to come. We have decades of happiness and love to look forward to — but also to prepare for.

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Learning To Pray Every Day

By Simi Lichtman

A friend of mine posted a crowd-sourcing question on Facebook one day: “What are things you try to do every day?” I’m not sure the reason for her question — though she is a cognitive psychology student studying morality — but it stuck with me, mostly because it was something that seems to capture a person’s priorities in a simple glance.

I answered: read, run and write. If I answered today, four months later, I would add “pray.” That was something I was doing every day on the train, but on days when I didn’t go in to work, I was letting that fall by the wayside; these days I’m making a more concerted effort to daven every day, in part inspired by Jeremy’s commitment to the same thing and in part because I felt the need to work on myself and chose this act in particular while sitting in front of the Kotel this summer. So these days I maintain a concentrated effort to read, run, write and pray.

Claudio Papapietro
Simi wants to make praying into an everyday activity, like making dinner.

Saying the daily prayers wasn’t always a priority in my life; there were months in years past when I wouldn’t daven at all, only saying them if I happened to go to shul on Shabbat morning. I had many justifications for why I didn’t take the time—I was too busy, I didn’t have to as a woman, I could feel connected to religion and God without them—but the truth was, in hindsight, I just didn’t want to.

Occasionally, when I did daven on Shabbat or a holiday in shul, I would find myself uplifted by it, enjoying the tradition and communal aspects, the words and the songs and their meanings. But for the most part, I just ignored that particular responsibility. No one else had to know. Maybe that’s why I was okay with skipping it; I might have to deal with the guilt of passing up on prayers, but at least no one else would know, whereas my decisions to follow Jewish modesty laws, to keep Shabbat and kosher, were about as public as they could be.

But here’s the main reason I think I avoided praying: I came to resent all the requirements of Jewish law that were expected of me that I didn’t particularly see a reason for. I sort of started over with my Jewish observance halfway through college. I made a change where, instead of keeping all the laws I’d been keeping forever simply because I’d been keeping them forever — and was expected to continue doing so — I thought about them. I embraced Judaism for the first time out of choice rather than out of habit.

It was a slow process. I abandoned a few things while keeping others. I was trying to find my own personal way within Judaism, a Judaism I could feel connected to and find meaningful; otherwise, I wasn’t sure I could maintain a lifetime of commitment to something simply placed on me. Prayer was one of the first things to go. Instead of saying it every now and then, I barely tried. But as I made my way through my self-discovery, I took on more and more of what I had dropped, able to find meaning in Jewish practice now that I was thinking about what it meant. Prayer came back late.

About a year ago I started davening on train rides, since I had time anyway. A few months ago, I’d started feeling like I hadn’t made much personal progress in my religious observance — continual progress being something I felt was important to my understanding of religion — and I looked around for something to work on. Sitting at the Kotel this summer, saying mincha because prayer is just what you do at the Kotel, I realized: I was feeling guilty about not davening every day, but wasn’t making a change. So why not make the change?


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Where's Nuance in Mental Illness Rhetoric?

By Simi Lichtman

Once again, a mass shooting tragedy has captured the nation’s attention. Once again, the question everyone wants answered is: Why? What drove Aaron Alexis to do something so awful, so incomprehensible, and seemingly so senseless? We all want to know why he did it because we want to know if there’s something we could have done to see it coming — something we can do to prevent it from happening again.

Claudio Papapietro
Simi Lichtman

And once again, the first answer is: Mental illness. It’s a reassuring answer, perhaps because it means that evil doesn’t exist, simply illness. It means there are warning signs to look out for in others.

But what does “mental illness” really mean? For the first time, hearing this answer scared me instead of reassuring me. For the first time, watching the news on TV, it occurred to me that I was one of those people who fall into the nebulous category of having a “mental illness.” Suddenly I wondered if that’s how people view me and other people with mild mental health problems. Were I to be accused of something one day, would the prosecutors, the media, the public, bring forth my “mental illness” and cite it as a reason to suspect me?

Yes, this particular man heard voices and thought his microwave had a message for him that went seriously beyond the readiness of hot food, but most articles about the incident don’t include a step-by-step account of his psychological deterioration; instead, the articles simply posit that this man shot people because he was mentally ill.

Obviously, I think warning signs are important to watch out for. But I also think it’s dangerous territory to label “mental illness” as a catch-all warning sign. Mental illness is too large a category and it encompasses so many subcategories as to be almost meaningless. There’s a vast difference between someone who has insomnia and someone with schizophrenia. A simple phobia of a snake is miles away from oppositional defiance disorder. All of these are categorized as “mental illnesses” as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. And all of these should be considered in the context of whether the sufferer is actively seeking treatment or not, and whether the person is even capable of receiving help.

An article I came across in the New Yorker put this much more eloquently: “Very few people with mental illnesses commit crimes, and it is misleading and unhelpful to suggest otherwise.” As the author, Andrew Solomon, points out, it is the stigma created by such insinuations that lead people to avoid treatment, creating a vicious cycle of untreated mental health issues and the rare resulting crime.

Not all mental health issues follow a straight arrow toward hyper-publicized mass tragedies; in fact, very few do. People with eating disorders, like the one I had, tend toward self-affliction, and often go out of their way to avoid harming others.

Instead of demonizing all mental illnesses, we need to educate ourselves about them, and encourage treatment. We need compassion for those who are stricken with mental illness, and perhaps a little more nuance in our “mental illness” rhetoric.


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Why Read Marriage Announcements?

By Simi Lichtman

As I’m sure you know — or maybe you overheard some girls weeping recently and weren’t sure why — Andy Samberg got married to his girlfriend songwriter Joanna Newsom in California last weekend. But he’s not the only Jewish star to get married recently; a somewhat less-famous member of the tribe, Cornelia Griggs, was married the same day, on the other side of the country. Don’t recognize the name? Maybe you’ll recognize her mother’s: Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times.

Even if you hadn’t heard of Griggs, or read about her marriage in — you guessed it — the New York Times, you’re probably mildly interested in learning more. Let me fill you in on the scoop: Basically, she and her equally good-looking husband were both educated at Ivy League universities, went to top-tier medical schools and are currently surgical residents.

Getty Images
Andy Samberg and Joanna Newsom

But why did any of that interest you? Why did it interest me when I saw the story? I’ve never met any of the key players in the story and likely never will. I could chalk it up to the usual fascination with fame that drives the sales of millions of glossy magazines, to the curiosity about how the other half (or, to use more current terminology, the 1%) live. Or maybe it’s the interest in one of my own, in the story of another Jew. But it’s not just any story that interests me — it’s her marriage, her husband, their story together.

Wedding stories have an entire section dedicated to them in many newspapers, not to mention the various columns dedicated to weddings in the New York Times alone (Vows, Weddings & Celebrations, Field Notes). Like obituaries, the stories of strangers become interesting once they’re summarized pithily in newspaper columns. Unlike obituaries, the people getting married are rarely major players in our lives or our news. Whey are we compelled to read about the details of their marriages, where they went to school, how they met?

Marriage is a unique milestone in life. I think that, as much as we expect it of ourselves and others, we’re still, on some level, mystified by it. What draws two people together? What compels them to decide to form an entirely new life together, to give up their independence and personal space to let another person in? In a sense, this is a question about love, but marriage is a unique aspect of love that seems even more curious — the public act of declaring it, and swearing to it in a court of law. Why do we do it? Jeremy recently told me about his evolutionary explanation that says something about change in status so we know who we can’t sleep with… but about 1/8th of the way through his explanation I decided I liked my mystery more and stopped listening.

I think marriage really is a question that people cannot fully answer, and that’s why we write and read stories about it. Death is one big question surrounded by a collective fear, and so it makes sense that we write endlessly about death, about those who’ve died. Marriage, too, is a question with its own fears, and that, in the end, is why we’re so fascinated by it.


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Lena Dunham Wore the Right Dress

By Simi Lichtman

As the Forward’s Anne Cohen said this week, Lena Dunham’s dress at the Emmys was “awful.” I’ve never watched an awards ceremony in my life, but looking at the red carpet collection the next day is always something to look forward to. Oohing and aahing over stunning ensembles I could never afford is like treating myself to visual candy, and judging horrible choices allows me to indulge in my less-than-admirable love of criticizing. Enter Lena Dunham, celebrity idol to this writer, and lover of flashy outfits that never, ever flatter her.

Getty Images
Lena Dunham at the Emmys.

Of course, I gasped in horror like the rest of America when I saw her dress. Fun pattern, happy colors, and oh-so-horrible fit. Now, Lena Dunham is not skinny. She’s probably about average, which makes her enormous compared to everyone else sashaying down the red carpet with their bony bodies. But I’ve met Lena in real life — I have an embarrassingly eager selfie with her to prove it — and she is by no means as “fat” as she pretends she is on “Girls,” where she clearly wears unflattering outfits to accentuate her imperfect — by American standards — body. In fact, when I first saw her at the ball I attended specifically to see her (have I mentioned I love her?), I didn’t recognize her. I expected someone much heavier. But she’s actually quite stunning. So why the unflattering dress?

Perhaps the point is exactly what we’re all missing: Wearing an outfit isn’t necessarily about looking as skinny as you possibly can. Perhaps attending an awards ceremony where you’ll be photographed by every member of the paparazzi in the country is about feeling good and having a good time — and wearing something you love. We all assume clothing should be worn to flatter our figures, we’re all questioning why Lena didn’t conform to this expectation, but maybe clothing is just a way to cover ourselves in something we enjoy looking at. Maybe our expectation is wrong.

Of course, there’s no way to know if Lena loved her dress. One would imagine that spending the money on a Prada dress for an event with 17 million viewers would mean that you did indeed love the dress. But then again, I’ve never been in that particular position so it would be hard for me to say. Either way, perhaps Lena wore exactly the right dress the other night.


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Baby Photos Don't Belong on Facebook

By Simi Lichtman

Clearly, I like to share. Some would say I over-share. I post on Facebook daily, I have a Twitter account in case I get bored of Facebook and if that weren’t enough, I have this blog, where my job is to share personal stories, thoughts and opinions. Maybe it’s too much. But at least I’m only sharing about myself.

When I mention a friend or family member on this blog, I ask for his or her consent first. My husband, who has been featured in, oh, one or two of these blog posts, reads every piece before it’s sent to my editor. It’s my belief that access to the Internet doesn’t entitle anyone to publicize details of others’ lives without their consent. Which brings me to the topic of baby photos. Babies can’t give consent.

Claudio Papapietro

There’s been a spate of articles recently about what the proper practice is with regard to posting pictures or stories of your children online. Some say you should never, ever post anything about your child. It’s a safety issue, they say. Or else’s it’s a courtesy issue — why post images and stories that your Facebook friends have no interest in?

I myself have a very clear opinion about what’s right: A child will one day be an adult and at that point can decide what you and they can post. It’s a question of respect for the child’s privacy and personal boundaries. Until the child is able to make decisions about publicizing his or her life, no one should post about the child without his or her consent. Plus, if you post something embarrassing now, your kid will probably find a way to get back at you later. So just leave the kiddies off Facebook, off your mommy blog, and out of the public eye.

Sometimes, however, reality intrudes. I have the two most objectively adorable nephews in the world, and I love seeing their pictures on Facebook, sharing their 2-year-old life philosophies and posting videos of them dancing in their pajamas. Logically, I don’t think I should be posting these pictures. But it’s just so hard to resist! They’re so darn cute. I have no doubt it will be a million times harder to resist when it’s my own kids telling me that the meaning of life is raisins. I wonder if, in fact, I’ll be able to resist.

Even though I have no issue telling the world details of my life from the mundane to the (almost) private, I want that information to come from me — and I want to show my children respect by giving them the same option. The Torah tells us that respecting your parents is paramount. But even though there’s nothing in there that says a parent needs to respect his or her kids, I don’t think respect is a one-way street. Sure, parents are in charge, but a child deserves to be treated as an adult — or as someone who will one day be an adult. If nothing else, I don’t want to give them any more fodder than they will inevitably have to tell their future therapists.


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Coming Out of the Orphan Closet

By Simi Lichtman

It’s the beginning of another Jewish year, holidays are bookending each week, and death is in the air. Two of the Yizkor prayers — the mourner’s prayer, which is recited on four different holidays throughout the year — are said this month alone. If that weren’t enough to put death on my mind, my father’s yahrzeit falls right between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur every year.

My father died when I was three. I was young enough that I didn’t really know him, and yet old enough to have a string of unconnected and almost meaningless memories of him. I remember him folding his tallit in my parents’ bedroom, reminding my siblings and me to chew with our mouths closed and helping us feed Cheerios to the ducks that lived in our bushes.

Claudio Papapietro
Simi Lichtman

I’ve held on to these memories tightly, reviewing them in my mind enough times that I’ve started to wonder if I actually remember them anymore or just remember remembering them. It’s hard to miss someone you barely knew, and harder to mourn someone you only knew for three years — years that you were barely cognizant — even if that person did help bring you into this world.

As much as I can’t emotionally connect to my father, it’s still my responsibility in Jewish law to mourn him, five times a year at least: once on the anniversary of his death, and four times a year in shul, surrounded by other mourners to recite Yizkor.

Though technically I have been a mourner for most of my life, my mother allowed me to skip out on the Yizkor service until I was bat mitzvah age. Maybe she thought it was cruel to make a child stand in the midst of all the old women crying into their tissues, or maybe she just didn’t think it would resonate with me until I was older. Now, at the age of 24, I’ve been saying Yizkor for 12 years. Yet I still feel as awkward as I did those first times I stood in synagogue on the holidays and stared down at the pages of my siddur, silently repeating my father’s Hebrew name to make sure I didn’t forget it when it came time to say it aloud, and hoping no one was staring at the preteen and pitying her.

In almost every synagogue I’ve been to, just before the Yizkor prayer the rabbi gives some sort of speech on mourning dead loved ones, and then everyone who hasn’t lost a parent shuffles out of the sanctuary to stand in the hallway and chat while the unlucky ones stay inside to sniffle and promise to donate money to charity in the memory of their loved ones. Tradition has it that if people who aren’t mourning stay inside the sanctuary, the mourners would see these non-grievers around them and resent them for their luck.

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Of Meds and Marriage

By Simi Lichtman

I spent years learning how to be happy and healthy — to take care of myself, pay attention to my own needs, see a therapist and take anti-anxiety meds — before I met Jeremy. By the time we got married, I was two years out of my eating disorder with no relapses. It seemed I had finally figured out how to live a balanced, healthy life, and I was able to enter our marriage with relative confidence that life would continue in that positive direction. So when I ran out of refills on my anti-anxiety prescription and no longer had access to my college’s free psychiatry service, I figured I would be fine. It had been such a low dose, anyway, the lowest possible, and I was much better at handling difficult situations. Plus, I was in a happy marriage and loved my job. I had nothing to be stressed or anxious about, so I pronounced myself graduated from medication.

I was terminating therapy after three years — my therapist and I both agreed I was ready — and didn’t want to mess that up, so I didn’t tell my psychologist that I had stopped taking my meds as well. I didn’t want to be questioned for my choice, so I didn’t tell anyone else either. Including Jeremy.

I had no problem taking medications. I had mostly gotten over the stigma associated with psychiatric pills, but was relieved that I wouldn’t have to be on them for life. And it was fine, for a few weeks at least.

I had pretty much forgotten that anything was different when Jeremy and I both noticed our fighting was changing. I was becoming much more sensitive to everything, and took every innocent statement as an attack. I read into things and ended fights in tears because I was so upset — both about whatever we were fighting about, and because I knew that I was responding incredibly disproportionately to the scale of the disagreement. One particularly bad Sunday, I realized what I’d started to suspect must be true: I needed my meds back. I told Jeremy that I’d stopped taking them and, with his full support and not one recrimination for keeping it from him, found myself a new psychiatrist. I’ve been taking my pill every day since.

I learned a few lessons from that rather emotional period. One, of course, was to actually heed medical advice to never stop taking meds without a doctor’s approval. The more important lesson, though, was that if I wasn’t healthy, my marriage couldn’t possibly be healthy. Had I not attended to myself, had I not sought a new psychiatrist and paid attention to my mental state, the situation could have easily gotten much worse. As it was, it wasn’t a very fun month in our marriage.

Though I didn’t get married to become happy, there was a time in my life that I might have. What I know now is that a relationship can’t make anyone happy; it takes two healthy people to form a healthy union.


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Finding Potential in an Anti-Climactic New Year

By Simi Lichtman

Last year this time I sat on the brink of something incredible. Sitting in shul at the beginning of a new year, I was facing marriage, college graduation and the start of a new job. Nothing in life is certain, but the upcoming year still held considerable promise, more so than any other in my life. Sitting on either side of me were my sister, my mother, and my grandmother; across the mechitza, my fiancé sat with my father and brother-in-law. I felt blessed.

This year, I face a slightly different sort of New Year. Nothing promises to change, at least not considerably. I’ll still be married, still have a job, and still be a college graduate (though now with the diploma to prove it). These are all good things, but instead of feeling as if the year holds ample potential, with exciting new changes, I feel the year stretching out ahead of me, a vast unknown with nothing to mark one month from the next.

Claudio Papapietro
Wedding Album: At this time last year, Simi and Jeremy were preparing for their upcoming nuptials.

Then I’m reminded: This is the way most of life is. There were years in my life where all that would change was the grade I was in. The classmates were the same, the teachers often ones I’d already had. Every few years there was the promise of an entirely new setting, like the year I started my program in Israel, or the year I started college. But for most of my life, sitting in shul on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the only things I expected to change were internal. I sat and meditated on how I would change in the upcoming year, what flaws I would work on and which ways I would improve my relationships with friends, with family and with God.

Last year I counted down the months to my wedding, to my graduation, to the beginning of my job. My glittering new ring would catch my eye and I would look across the room for a glimpse of the man who gave it to me. But perhaps all those things were also a distraction from the ways in which I could change myself, the ways I should improve on my own character.

A wise woman once told me that no matter where you go, you’ll always be with yourself. You can travel or start a new job or move to a new community; whatever your setting, you can’t escape yourself. This, after all, is what the Jewish New Year is all about — it leads directly into the Day of Judgment, because as much as the passing of each new year marks new beginnings in our day-to-day lives, it also marks another year of growth inside ourselves. Rosh Hashanah might say, “Celebrate! You have a new, blank year ahead of you, full of wonderful potential and endless opportunities!” But Yom Kippur is around the corner, waiting to say, “What will you do with that blank year? How will you be a better person than the year that just passed?”

This coming year may not herald any significant life changes for me, or at least none that I know of right now. But with it comes the opportunity to improve on myself, work on my relationship with Jeremy, with my family and with my friends, new and old. Those changes, in the end, may be more significant than a new job or graduation from college.


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Sharing Responsibility for Birth Control

By Simi Lichtman

The other night at 9:00, Jeremy’s phone alarm went off. He looked down and glanced back up at me. “It’s time to take your pill,” he reminded me. Despite three alarms on my own phone, I have a tendency to forget to take my birth control at the same time every day.

A friend was surprised and impressed when she heard that Jeremy sets an alarm for me. “That’s so cute that he has an alarm for you!” she said. And it’s true that it’s both sweet and helpful. But more than that, it’s the way it should be.

Birth control is not a woman’s responsibility. Unfortunately, at this point in time, the pill version of birth control — and, according to many rabbis, one of the only halachically acceptable versions of contraceptive — is available for women only. But that doesn’t make fertility a woman’s-only issue. I would be the one who would get pregnant, but it would be our child. Ultimately I’m the one swallowing the pill, but he can and should be just as responsible for reminding me to take it.

Thinkstock

Leading up to marriage, this thought didn’t occur to me. I simply added the pill to my daily regimen of meds, and took it on time as often as I could remember. The pill was mine; it didn’t even cross my mind that Jeremy would take it on as an equal responsibility. When acclimating to the new hormones made me an emotional wreck, I felt terrible for Jeremy; he shouldered the burden of his new, crazy fiancé and told me I shouldn’t have to go through the process alone, that he wished he could do it for me. Then when I started forgetting to take it at the right time — and then when I kept forgetting, and it became clear that I needed help remembering — he didn’t hesitate before setting an alarm on his phone.

Unfortunately, the fact that the contraceptive is usually taken by the woman — at least when it’s not a condom, which for Modern Orthodox women it usually can’t be — means that the entire responsibility of birth control often falls to the woman. That might make sense when the woman is not in a committed relationship, when she might actually end up being solely responsible for raising any resultant child, but in a marriage, birth control should be equally shared by both spouses, as much as that’s possible. The child belongs to both, why not the responsibility for birth control?


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Why Modern Orthodox Choose Children Over Chilling

By Simi Lichtman

Despite my oath to myself to not write another blog post about babies, the recent TIME article about women and couples who have made the conscious decision not to have children struck a chord with me, too.

A running theme in the article is the constant expectation these people come up against that eventually all women will want children. I’ve always known I want to be a mother, and whether that’s because of a societal dictate or not, the desire hasn’t wavered. Jeremy, too, has always wanted kids. Yet since I’ve been married I’ve noticed just how consistent the expectation to have children is within the Orthodox community. Each time I encounter this expectation, I wonder, “How much would this annoy me if I didn’t plan on having kids?”

Claudio Papapietro
Simi and Jeremy plan on having children, just not yet.

I don’t know of a single Modern Orthodox couple that has chosen to remain child-free, or at least none that would say it out loud. Marriage in Judaism is inherently in service of the ultimate goal of procreation; in fact, it’s the first Biblical commandment given to mankind. Be fruitful and multiply. So to tell someone in the community that he or she will have children one day is like telling a little girl that she’ll get her period one day; barring any medical issues, it will happen. That might sound weird to someone outside the community. But I would wager that to most Modern Orthodox couples, it’s weird to read about people who would choose not to have children.

When Jeremy and I read articles about the falling birth rate in America, about women and men who make the decision not to have children, our first thought is, “Why wouldn’t they want children?” We grew up with the knowledge that we would have children one day, possibly more so than the average American. But when we think about it, when we consciously step away from the instinctive acceptance of becoming parents, it becomes more complicated. Why do we want children? Why is it so obvious to us that we will be parents one day? Raising children is hard and draining. Babies are demanding. They’re expensive. You get little to no sleep. Study after study has shown having children actually decreases happiness. Whiny children are really, really irritating. Yet every time we raise these points with each other, we ultimately conclude with, “Yeah, but I really want children.”

As far as I know, the lure of the childfree life hasn’t reached the Modern Orthodox community. The TIME article emphasized the ease and simplicity of such a lifestyle, with pictures of relaxed couples on the beach, the lack of children painted clearly across their blissful smiles. Yet even as one in five American women in her 40s is childless — twice as many as there were 40 years ago — Modern Orthodox Jews continue to choose children over chilling. What is it that keeps us reproducing? The easy answer is the commandment, but in all the discussions Jeremy and I have had surrounding children, that issue has never been raised.

It may be societal, it may be because we were raised that way, but no matter what, Jeremy and I both look forward to having kids. No matter how much pause it gives me when a stranger expects us to have children, it’s an accurate assumption. We can’t explain it, but that parental instinct is just burning inside us both. If nothing else, babies are really, really cute.


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Judging a Hasidic Marriage Against My Own

By Simi Lichtman

I was on the plane home from our summer vacation when I saw something disturbing. After landing, the lady across the aisle from me began throwing up into a plastic bag. Fine, so she gets sick from turbulence.

The disturbing part was how her husband responded: he didn’t. While she sat hunched over her bag, everyone around her darting looks of pity, her husband stood in the aisle staring straight ahead, waiting to take down the overhead luggage.

I had the sniffles throughout the flight, and my husband was practically fawning over me, jumping up to get me tissues when I sneezed and checking in every so often to make sure I was doing alright. That was how I would expect any husband to react to a vomiting wife. Why wasn’t he comforting her, offering her water or tissues?

Claudio Papapietro
Simi

At this point, you might be thinking, “Gee that husband is a jerk.”

Or, if you tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, perhaps you’re thinking, “Maybe he didn’t notice she was hurling.” (He did.) Or, “Maybe she likes to be left alone when ill and he was simply respecting her privacy.”

But what if I told you that they were both Hasidic? That her skirt went down to the floor and his beard and peyes reached his chest? Would you, as I did, jump instead to the conclusion that his lack of response was a result of them being Hasidim, because their marriage was likely arranged and they may hardly know one another?

I saw this all take place, and my knee-jerk conclusion was, “Of course he’s ignoring her. This is what happens when you don’t know your spouse until you’re married, when you don’t marry for love, when the only point of marriage is to bear children, not for companionship.” I pitied the woman and harshly judged the husband. I felt superior since I am Modern Orthodox and not Hasidic, since our kind marry for the right reasons and theirs the wrong ones. In the course of five seconds, I zipped through a hundred unoriginal prejudices, smugly concluding that those who claim marrying will lead to love even if it doesn’t begin with it are just lying to themselves. Hasidim are backwards, I decided.

And then I realized what I was doing. I pulled back. I was using one incident, to which I was an outside, uninformed viewer, to judge an entire group of people. The same situation could have easily taken place between a secular, or even Modern Orthodox, couple, and I wouldn’t have judged them in the same way. Jeremy, after hearing my reaction, gave it a fancy-pants psychology name: “out-group homogeneity effect,” the tendency people have to see members of other groups as all the same while seeing members of one’s own group as diverse.

This is something people do instinctively, but it’s completely irrational. Maybe she really does like being left alone. Maybe he gets violently ill when he sees vomit, and she’s okay with him ignoring her. Or maybe, yes, they do have an unloving marriage —not because they’re Hasidic but because sometimes that just happens. I have no doubt that there are many Hasidic couples out there who love and care for each other.

And what if, as I initially thought, their marriage is more about halachic obligations than love —that they were in niddah, and therefore wouldn’t touch each other? Maybe they’re very strict about it. Maybe he wouldn’t even bend down next to her because that would lead to a comforting touch, which they perhaps believe is forbidden. Just because I wouldn’t want my husband to take the obligation of niddah more seriously than my need for him to tend to my feelings doesn’t mean that living a highly halachic life is a bad choice. They might see love as secondary to the Torah. Does that mean I’m right and they’re wrong?

It’s easy to judge a group of people based on one person — but I wouldn’t want to be responsible for representing all Modern Orthodox women, or all young people, or even all Jews. Why should I place that responsibility on others?


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Heels Versus Flats as a Married Woman

By Simi Lichtman

As a woman, being married is usually not enough to keep a man from looking at you; there’s no obvious sign that I carry around with me that signals my status as a taken woman. I wear a ring, of course, but that’s not noticeable, especially not from afar. I wear a hair covering — usually a hat — but to most men that is not an especially important symbol, except perhaps of being a hipster.

Claudio Papapietro
Is wearing a head covering enough of an indication that one is ‘taken’?

But as a married woman, I often don’t want the attention, especially the kind I seem to get when I’m gussied up and out and about in New York City. So when I went out for a bachelorette party the other week, I picked out an outfit that seemed to strike the right balance between pretty and sexy. It all came down to the shoes.

As a teenager, I viewed high heels as fancy, grown-up shoes. My sense of what was sexy, as I grew older and started to understand the concept, was shaped much more by Modern Orthodox Jewish culture than American society. Tzniut, or modesty, helped me understand the difference between what was sexy and would call attention to my body, and what was pretty within the bounds of propriety. It wasn’t all clear cut. For example, very tight clothing is not forbidden in Jewish law; however, tight clothing and clothing with inappropriate wording on it violated the spirit of the law, my teachers and parents said. High heels, though, were never mentioned.

Yet I’ve come to realize that perhaps the single most important factor in how much male attention I get is not how long my sleeves are or whether I wear a skirt or pants, but which shoes I choose to put on that day. If I wear heels, I get checked out a lot more often.

Since I’ve been married, I’ve paid much more attention to this. Until now, a little bit of male attention was a welcome thing, even if I ignored it. (Allow me to clarify that getting whistled at, yelled at, or honked out, has never once been something I have welcomed.) But now it matters much more to me what my outfit says about me. If I can’t wear a sign that says, “I’m married, back off!” at least I can wear an outfit that doesn’t scream “Look at my booty!” And the best way to do that is to wear flats.

I went into the city that night wearing flats, a conscious decision that was made to hold off male attention. I wanted to enjoy a night out with my female friends without feeling like I was advertising any sort of availability. Then I got to the city and regretted my decision. I didn’t look the bachelorette-party type. I was going to look dowdy next to everyone else, all the women around me looked so much better than I did. So I put on heels. It may have been in my head, but immediately I felt like I was drawing more eyes my way. There’s nothing wrong with attention, I simply didn’t want it; so I switched back to flats and, finally feeling confident with my decision, I went to the party and had a great time.

I don’t think women have a responsibility to dress a certain way so that men won’t look at them. I certainly don’t think women are at fault when they get unwanted attention from men. But there’s the unavoidable fact that wearing heels gets me more attention than flats, and that night, I didn’t want that attention.


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Choosing My Husband Over Israel

By Simi Lichtman

For many years — for most of my life, in fact — I wanted to live in Israel. My elementary school was so successful in teaching its students to be Zionists that it eventually had to close down; too many of the students and families moved to Israel. I myself was a convert to Zionism, and since my parents did not intend to make aliyah anytime during my childhood, I set about planning my own life around my eventual move to Israel.

My family visited Israel often, so that by the time I was in high school we were no longer doing the “touristy” things — we had already done them all. When I did my gap-year Israel learning program, I picked the one that was run and attended by Israelis so that I could learn Hebrew and acclimate to the culture. I took the Israel college entrance exams so I could apply to universities there; I decided if I waited until after college, it would only get harder to make such a big move.

Claudio Papapietro
Simi and Jeremy

Israel, in my mind, was home. It is the Jewish nation and the Jewish birthright. It is the holy land, but more than that, it is a land where a Jew could be comfortable being a Jew. Davening on the bus wouldn’t make me stand out as a strange girl muttering to herself; I would be one of many girls doing the exact same thing. Israel has the right values, I determined, a place where children can walk to the supermarket alone and be safe. And if I was killed in a terrorist attack, well, at least I would die in Israel.

Clearly, though, I did not live out my dream. I live in New Jersey, not Gush Etzion on the West Bank as I planned. When I got sick during my two years of learning in Israel, so sick that I had to come home halfway through each year, I decided I couldn’t attend university so far from home. What if I got sick again? But I assured myself that America was only temporary. I was committed to my plan, even if everyone told me how hard it was to live in Israel.

But then I met Jeremy. Previously, I had tried to only date men who also had a dream of making aliyah, or at least claimed to, knowing that I only wanted to be with someone who would move with me. But with Jeremy it was different — we sort of fell into dating, and by the time I realized it was looking like marriage, it was too late. I loved him, and I didn’t want to lose that. Jeremy had no such dream of living in Israel, and even if he did, he was on a path to graduate school in America. He promised to be open to the idea of moving there, but it would be years before he would be ready to move, and by then the chances would be even slimmer. There was a pivotal moment in our relationship in which I took a weekend to decide: Jeremy or Israel? I chose him.

The truth is, I don’t know that I would have made aliyah either way. By that point the dream was starting to feel like a burden, a promise I made myself and everyone else that I had to keep, rather than a fire that burned within me like it originally had. I loved Israel, sure, but did I really want to live there? There were a great number of challenges to living in Israel, challenges that I had always known about but seemed surmountable when I had a passion for the dream. Now the challenges loomed before me, and when I chose Jeremy over Israel, there was a certain relief: I didn’t have to make aliyah, and I had good reason.

As I write this, Jeremy and I are preparing to go to Israel together for the first time as a couple. I haven’t been there since my sister’s wedding a year and a half ago; for Jeremy it’s been almost two years. A year and a half ago my sister lived in Israel, I still had a vague plan of moving there someday as well, and I hadn’t yet chosen Jeremy over that plan. When I travel this time it will be to a land that will almost certainly remain a travel destination for me and nothing more; my sister has moved back to the United States, which has made me even less motivated to move there.

Israel wasn’t originally the focus of our trip. We were planning to visit Greece, and Israel is so close that it just made sense. But now that the trip is actually approaching, now that I’m thinking about seeing the cities I used to know as well as my hometown, walking the familiar streets, I find that I’m as excited to see the land I’ve seen a hundred times before as the famous islands of Greece that until now have only existed for me on the pages of travel magazines.

I may never live in Israel, and I may never think of it with the undiluted fervor of an elementary school student, taught that Israel is the good guy and the rest of the world the bad one. But Israel will always be my homeland.


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Huma Stayed for Love

By Simi Lichtman

Huma Abedin is, depending on which papers you read, suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, hanging in with her husband, Anthony Weiner, because of her future political aspirations, a product of a Saudi Arabian childhood, or under the delusions caused by Nice Jewish Boy Derangement Syndrome.

These are just a few of the reasons suggested for why a woman would stand by her sexually shamed husband. I offer a simpler reason: Love.

Getty Images
Huma Abedin

It’s a naïve suggestion, maybe, and no one can know what goes on inside another couple’s marriage, but it’s the only reason that makes sense to me. When Jeremy and I watched the clip of Weiner explaining himself and, along with most of America probably, completely ignored whatever he was saying to watch Abedin force smile after shaky smile, I thought, “I can’t imagine being in her position.” I couldn’t imagine being married to such a well-publicized shmuck, whose brainlessness about the whole lewd scandal was even more disturbing than the acts themselves, and having to stand next to him, smile blithely and, even worse, go home with him after.

But then I thought about it and I realized I could. I could imagine being in her position. Not because, God forbid, I can ever imagine Jeremy doing anything of the sort, but because I can imagine standing by him, no matter what. Perhaps it’s not the most flattering aspect of my personality, but it’s true: I would stand by Jeremy before my principles. My love for him — our relationship — is the single guiding aspect of my life. Without our marriage, I would flounder, and I can’t say the same about anything else in my life at this point.

Isn’t it possible, then, that Abedin feels the same way about her husband? Isn’t it possible that she simply loves him and doesn’t want to leave him because, whatever else he his, he’s her husband and the man she married, presumably out of love? Not to mention the fact that they have a child together, which I would imagine makes a marriage even harder to break. Is it really so ridiculous to think that this is the reason for her loyalty?

No, I’ve never been in her position, and no, I have no reason to think that my outsider’s opinion is any nearer to the truth than anyone else’s. But, were I ever in her position, I think I might make the same decisions that she had. I know that I would put my love for Jeremy before so many other things, possibly even including bizarre sexual proclivities. I love him; it’s that simple.


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A Man's Feminism

By Simi Lichtman

Usually, when gender equality is discussed, it’s often in the context of how women can obtain equal rights and opportunities in society and in the workforce as men.

I’m married to a man who wants that, sure, but his objections to gender inequality go further: Jeremy wants a world where men get the same opportunities as women. Where men are not held to a standard of masculinity, where they hold equal sway in the home and in child-rearing.

Claudio Papapietro
Simi and Jeremy

As a child, I declared myself an ardent feminist and took the whole women-are-equal thing to the next level: I decided women are actually better than men. I enjoyed the holier-than-thou feeling of finding sexism and outing it: Letters should be addressed “Mrs. and Mr.,” not the opposite; women should propose to men instead of giving in to social expectations of the reverse; women should be able to lead various blessings that are so often presumed to be the man’s domain, and so on.

These were all fairly peripheral and unsophisticated concerns, but my righteous indignation matured with my age. I read articles about the pay difference in America, lamented the brief length of maternity leave in America. At a certain point, my focus on feminism faded in passion and simply became something I would be interested in discussing if raised in conversation. But until I was married, I never found real reason to challenge the notion that despite all the advances in modern society, women are still handed the short end of the stick.

Then, of course, along came Jeremy. While he would consider himself a feminist, and believes in gender equality, he began pointing out to me the unfairness that sometimes comes with being a modern man. While women have the right to demand not to be seen in a certain way simply because of their gender, men should be able to do so too. Sometimes we would get into philosophical discussions about gender equality that would make me think from his perspective; other times it was Jeremy’s own desires, so different from what I expected a standard husband to want, that showed me that women aren’t the only ones handed unfair expectations.

It started as early as the wedding. I, of course, despite my avowed feminism, had incredibly princessy ideas of what my wedding should be. I would get a pretty gown, pick out pretty flowers, and my husband would show up under the chuppah. Instead I got stuck with the one man who actually cared about all the decisions that go into making a wedding. Jeremy wanted to be involved in every step of planning the wedding, from flowers to tablecloths; he thought his tuxedo should be just as personalized and unique as my gown was, that, at the beginning of the wedding when bride and groom are separate, the room he’d be in should have an equally extensive selection of food as I did in my room, though that’s usually not the case. Why, he insisted, should a wedding be all about the bride? Why is that fair? I didn’t have a satisfactory answer for that, other than I wanted it to be that way.

Suddenly, the excuse “because I’m a woman” didn’t hold the power it used to. If you want equality, Jeremy’s determined attitude taught me, it has to go both ways. Paternity leave should be just as equally available as maternity. The husband should get a say in decorating the apartment, picking out wedding pictures, all the things I thought I would hold natural dominion over as the wife. Sure, I cook, but he cleans. He does the laundry.

Being married to someone like Jeremy has not only affected how our marriage works, but has also made me more open to the notion of reverse sexism in larger society. When I read an article about how being a stay-at-home dad can be so difficult, I no longer roll my eyes and think, “Whatever, it’s way harder being a woman.” Instead, I give the theory some weight. Feminism is a necessary movement, but paying attention to gender equality — equality that goes both ways — is just as important.


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Why I Married Young

By Simi Lichtman

Jeremy and I both read the recent New York Times article on women in college — well, at Penn — and their approach to sex and relationships.

When we discussed it, we realized we both found one of the quotes from a woman in the piece troubling: “I’ve always heard this phrase, ‘Oh, marriage is great, or relationships are great — you get to go on this journey of change together.’ That sounds terrible. I don’t want to go through those changes with you. I want you to have changed and become enough of your own person so that when you meet me, we can have a stable life and be very happy.”

Claudio Papapietro
Jeremy and Simi at home.

I had also always heard that phrase. You meet someone you love, you marry, and you change and grow together. And while that sounded a bit intimidating — what if we didn’t grow together but apart? — it never sounded terrible. If scary, it was also sweet.

Over the years, as I thought about it more, I realized something important: I don’t think I’ll ever stop growing or changing. And if I waited to marry someone until they’ve stopped growing or changing, I’d never get married. Inevitably, we would have to change together.

Since we’ve been married, we’ve already both come to recognize changes in ourselves and each other. Some of them happen naturally, like his growing comfort with morbid humor or my acclimation to philosophical discussions, and some have taken time and effort and many conversations and even a few arguments, like his comfort with my publishing a blog about our personal lives, or my slow recognition that disagreements don’t have to be fights. Though we’ve been married less than a year, we’re already changing and growing together.

We also both agree that, while it certainly isn’t for everyone, getting married young has helped us specifically because we can both still change and adapt so well. As similar as we may be in some respects, there are still moments of friction, little contentions that have to be ironed out so that we can live happily together.

If we had gotten married years from now, we might not have been as willing to accept, or as capable of reorienting our comforts and discomforts around another person. We might be too stuck in our own ways—a definite downside to marrying someone who’s already changed to become his or her own person.

It’s possible that I’m wrong, that eventually people do stop changing and growing and can thus get married without worrying that the spouse will ever change any part of themselves; but that’s not what I’ve heard. And perhaps even if they do stop growing, they can readjust to another person in their lives, intruding on the space that they’ve become accustomed to being just theirs.

Having gotten married young, it’s impossible to know what would be otherwise.


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Tisha B'Av, Take One

By Simi Lichtman

If you’ve been raised by Orthodox parents, attended only Orthodox schools and camps, and spent two years in Israel studying Jewish topics, it can be a bit embarrassing to realize that after 24 years, you have to check Chabad.org to remember all the rules of Tisha B’Av.

But until now, I didn’t need to remember — I had my parents to remind me. My mother would cook a big meal on the eve of the fast, my father would make sure we all got dressed and ate the last meal in time to get to synagogue and we were always told what sort of things constituted “mourning” — for instance, watching a sad Holocaust movie as opposed to reading a lighthearted novel to pass the long hours of the fast.

Claudio Papapietro
What is the appropriate kind of book to read on Tisha B’Av?

This year, Jeremy and I not only had to remind ourselves of all the rules, but also decide for ourselves how we would spend the day. I had the day off from work and Jeremy was off from school, so we had hours of not eating, not drinking,and generally not being happy — which, when you take the not eating into account, shouldn’t be all that challenging. But we didn’t have our parents around, pushing us to go to synagogue for the nighttime reading of Eicha (“Lamentations”) or to take the small chairs out so we don’t forget to avoid sitting up high (when we mourn, we sit low down, as during the days of shiva, the official Jewish mourning period after a death). In other words, instead of being told how to commemorate the fast day, we had to figure it out for ourselves for the first time.

The more obvious and direct laws we would, without question, follow: fasting, not wearing leather shoes, not engaging in “marital relations,” as our teachers had called it. But now that the option of skipping synagogue was in our hands, we had to grapple with our own feelings toward the tradition and make our own decisions. We had to decide for the first time whether we think it’s inappropriate to read a book on Tisha B’Av or whether we’d been watching sad movies all those years simply because the other option wasn’t available to us in our parents’ houses.

When we make these decisions, we find ourselves exploring more than just the decisions at hand, but also our own connections to Jewish law, Jewish tradition and the Jewish community at large. Until now, it sometimes seems, we’ve been instructed and guided: Now we are to choose our own paths. That we have each other for support and advice makes it that much more manageable and that much more complex. It’s easy to get caught up in: What will we teach our children? How will we tell them to observe such days as Tisha B’Av? But for now we first need to strike out on our own, take some time to try out different things, explore our own approaches. One day, maybe, we’ll have it all figured out, but for now we need to do the figuring out.


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Giving Thanks, For Selfish Reasons

By Simi Lichtman

There’s an episode of “House” that Jeremy and I watched recently. In it, a doctor on House’s team is trying to thank him. When he avoids her, she says to him, “Do you know why people pray? Do you think they pray to him and praise him because they want him to know how great he is? God already knows that.” House responds, in his usual House-y way, “Are you comparing me to God?” She then explains, “I thank you because it means something to me. To be grateful for what I receive.”

Claudio Papapietro
Simi and Jeremy

It’s something I was taught in day school, as well. There are hundreds of answers Judaism can provide for why prayer is important, but one of the most repeated ones throughout my education was that prayer exists to teach us to be grateful. It’s not so God is told daily by millions that he’s so fabulous, but so that those praying to him remind themselves of how fabulous he is. I was always partial to that answer.

And while I don’t think of my husband as a deity or my lord — though he has tried to get the moniker “My Lord Husband” to stick (he claims it’s from a book) — I’ve come to realize how important this lesson is when applied to marriage as well. Though I thank Jeremy as often as I can for everything he does for me in part because I want him to know I recognize his efforts and appreciate them, and in part to subtly train him to do more good things for me, I’ve also discovered that in doing so, I’m able to feel more grateful and to love and appreciate him more.

Back when we were engaged, Jeremy started a tradition, inspired by his sister, that we’ve kept up every week since. On Friday nights, between kiddush and washing for challah, Jeremy and I take a moment to tell each other one thing that we appreciate about each other. Usually it’s something the other has done or said that past week, though sometimes it’s a personality trait we value in the other. It’s precious, it’s a personal moment sandwiched between Jewish traditions, and best of all it makes our guests or hosts nauseated by us.

When we first started doing this I thought it was sweet because it would give me a chance to show Jeremy how much I cherish every little thing he does. It would make him feel good for being as wonderful as I know he is. But lately I realized something: as the weekend rolls on, it’s easier for me to recall what I’ve told him I appreciate than what he’s told me he appreciates about me.

When I first realized that, I was unnerved. Am I so wrapped up in my head that I can’t even remember what Jeremy tells me? As I thought about it, though, I understood the analogy to prayer: Telling Jeremy that I love how he bought me flowers or was especially sweet to me when I was upset is just as rewarding for me to say as it is for him to hear. It helps me focus more on how lucky I am to be with him. As I recall the past week each Friday night, trying to pick out a memory that stands out, I discover that I’m grateful for so many things that it’s hard to choose. It’s important that Jeremy knows how much I appreciate him, but it’s just as important that I know that.


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My 2% Divorce Dilemma

By Simi Lichtman

Claudio Papapietro
Simi and Jeremy

I was talking to a friend once, a woman who’s been married for a few years, and she said, “There will be times when you’ll think to yourself, ‘Why did I marry him? Did I make a terrible mistake?’ And that’s okay.” Out of relief, out of gratitude for her speaking so honestly, out of communion, I hugged her on the spot.

Having been married for less than three months at the time and having experienced similar fears already, hearing that other married couples had those thoughts too was the most reassuring thing I could imagine.

The Huffington Post published an article a few weeks ago on tips of a successful marriage. Surprisingly, I found it enlightening. Usually these articles tend to repeat the same ideas without any new angles, but this one — written by someone who’s never been married, but was editor of both the Divorce blog and the Marriage blog on the site — made me think. While stressing the importance of being “married to your marriage,” the article also reassured readers that it’s both okay and completely normal to think about divorce. Doing so does not mean your marriage is at stake.

Ninety-eight percent of the time I’m blissfully happy about marriage, that disgusting walking-on-clouds sensation that is so irritating when it’s not you. But there’s still that other 2%. Those times can be as extreme as a fight between the two of us — especially those momentous fights where we don’t agree on seemingly crucial matters, like a certain way of raising our children, or how we understand Jewish law. At those times, I worry that disagreeing on such consequential matters means we aren’t right for each other, or won’t be able to work past this. Other times it’s as simple as not feeling connected; for no apparent reason I just won’t feel a bond between us. In these moments, I worry that maybe we’re not communicating well or that the chemistry between us is only temporary.

In other words, 98% of the time I’m happy, but 2% of the time I’m terrified we’ll get divorced because of irreparable differences. These thoughts don’t follow the line of “I want a divorce,” but more something like, “Shoot, I wonder what this means. Does this mean we’re incompatible, does this mean we’ll have to get a divorce?”

As unnerving as these thoughts are, it was just as scary telling Jeremy about them. After reading the Huffington Post article, I felt secure enough to let him know that I occasionally worried about divorce. In turn, Jeremy assured me that while he didn’t have those thoughts, it didn’t concern him too much that I did.

Still, it’s a horrible thought, to be married for less than a year and wonder if maybe you made a mistake, especially if you think you’re the only one with that worry. People don’t talk about those thoughts, so you start to think that it’s only you and therefore there’s something wrong with you and with your marriage. Which is why when people do talk about it, whether it’s a friend or a stranger in the Huffington Post, it’s such a relief.

I’d still rather be blissfully happy than doubting the biggest decision of my life thus far. But it’s good to know that the occasional doubt does not plunge my marriage into the depths of destined-to-be-divorced relationships.


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