Halacha forbids these types of lashon hara, but cognitive dissonance persuades us that it’s okay.
One form that personally tripped me up (and has tripped up a lot of well-meaning people) is thinking it’s okay to confide in a person or allow someone to confide in you under the impression that it’s l’to’elet (for a beneficial purpose) as it allows the speaker to purge pain from his or her heart, hopefully leading to forgiveness or yishuv hadaat or something beneficial like that.
This is a particularly tricky situation because if you’re the speaker, you’re likely in great pain and don’t mean to slander anyone, but simply cannot deal with the overwhelming anguish.
If you’re the listener, you certainly don’t want to add to the person’s pain. Your friend already feels invalidated and devastated—do you really want to make things worse by shutting your friend down?
Possibly, you’re also afraid of your friend not forgiving you or hating you for being holier-than-thou (in their eyes, anyway) and rejecting his or her needs in a time of overwhelming pain.
If we feel like Hashem is a Caring Listener Who Can & Wants to Help, we'll find that it's much more beneficial and halachically correct to pour out our pain to Hashem rather than another person.
But for many people, making the transition from a human confidant to the Divine Confidant presents a big challenge.
So what happens when we can't make the leap, even when halacha insists on it?
The Ongoing Chain of Confidants
And then it’s easy to get into the cycle of needing to turn to yet another confidant after the previous confidant responded incorrectly (or simply not satisfyingly enough)—in addition to the initial need to vent about the situation that upset you in the first place.
On the listener’s side, I slowly began to notice that not only was I not the person’s only confidant (a prerequisite of lashon hara l’to’elet), but I was even one in a long chain (or small group) of confidants.
For long-standing relationship problems with someone unavoidable (a spouse, sibling, parent, parent-in-law, co-worker, neighbor, etc.), the chain of lashon hara seemingly l’to’elet became an unintentional pattern.
Friends, relatives, rabbis, rebbetzins, advisers, and therapists—ultimately, no one could ever help the sufferer enough.
One friend of mine even bragged to me that she’d been to every frum female therapist in Jerusalem and no one was able to help her. Maybe it validated her to know that her husband was so impossible. If he was such a hopeless case, then that absolved her of any responsibility in the marriage.
Frankly, I don’t think she visited every frum female therapist in Jerusalem, but she certainly made the rounds of friends, therapists, rabbanim, advisers, etc. And her husband is certainly so emotionally unhealthy, he is unlikely to ever became a decent husband or father.
However, all her outpouring never provided her with more than temporary relief.
Furthermore, it stopped her from doing the inner work she needed to do on herself (aside from her husband, she had flaws that needed fixing—just like the rest of us). She also didn’t invest in helping her children survive a dysfunctional home.
And unlike a lot of well-meaning people, I don’t automatically think that divorce is always possible or beneficial with an extremely dysfunctional spouse. (It depends.) Nor do I think that a mother is able to totally overcome the dysfunctional influence of the father (yet another well-meaning yet misleading fallacy) despite her best efforts.
But in that friend's case, one after another child has been developing a mental illness (with a couple of them even spending time in a mental hospital), suffering a divorce (or two), going off the derech, etc.
So while a mother can’t completely save her children from their father’s negative influence, she can still give it her best shot and, with Hashem’s Help, prevent them from suffering as much as this particular family is suffering.
In retrospect, as cold as this may sound, I feel like all of us who let her cry on our shoulders not only didn’t help, but may have even tripped her up. Had she had no confidant, she’d likely have turned to Hashem. In fact, I noticed that she loved saying Tehillim and the look on her face as she said Tehillim was very special and inspiring.
(Although to be honest, nowadays people who feel lost tend to turn to long-term medication & not prayer or middot work—although I’m sure that some people taking medication long-term also work on their middot and turn to Hashem in personal prayer.)
A major reason why no one was able to help her was because she wanted validation ONLY. She did not want to do the deeper work.
Compassion & Clarity
(But in cases with a neighbor, an in-law, or an ex-spouse—or a soon-to-be-ex-spouse, there was sometimes an element of wanting to ruin their name, even if that motivation was not obvious. And sometimes the speaker herself wasn't aware of her underlying motivations.)
Also, not to be too graphic, but if the husband is very dysfunctional, then physical intimacy becomes something that destroys a woman on the nefesh-level. Women are more sensitive in that area and their nefesh-pain is very real.
But practically speaking, many people in very painful situations don’t observe the halachos of lashon hara l’toe’let.
And despite all the compassion and understanding of why they feel and respond as they do, I can’t help noticing that there’s no bracha for them in their outpourings.
Is It Worth It?
And that really got me thinking…
Every divorced couple I know (if I know their situation) has traipsed through the maze of shalom bayit advisers and therapy.
I once asked a marriage counselor about her track record. She was a very straight-forward person who had no problem admitting that while she had helped some couples, she'd lost track of the majority (meaning, she doesn’t know if they got divorced or worked things out or are still the same) or else they got divorced.
So the percentage of couples she'd actually helped achieve shalom bayis was small.
Furthermore, all the couples I know who aren’t divorced but aren’t happily married either ALSO traipsed through the maze of shalom bayit advisers and therapy—and they STILL haven’t achieved shalom bayit.
On the other hand, I knew someone who implied that she and her husband used to not get along so well, but they both (especially she) engaged in lots of prayer and intense middot work and now they get along much better. She seems to like her husband a lot now.
I asked my husband about this. (He knows a lot more people and different kinds of people than I do). After mulling it over, he realized that he doesn’t know one couple helped by therapy. And indeed, all the divorced couples he knew had been to therapy or some kind of couples counseling prior to their divorce in an effort to save their marriage.
This includes, by the way, people who regret the divorce later.
Meaning, maybe therapy can help people who really need to get divorced do so more peaceably. But why didn't it help people who ended up regretting their divorce?
Now, maybe you do know people for whom therapy saved their marriage. (After all, the therapist above noted that she had helped several couples.)
But how many?
Between the two of us, my husband and I couldn't even come up with one couple whose shalom bayis was in the merit of a therapist or adviser.
Just shalom bayis. Forget about divorce.
Between the 2 of us, do we know even one couple whose shalom bayis is due to therapy?
Basically, it seems that couples who get along do so on their own. And couples who don't aren't much helped (or helped at all) by outsiders.
Needless to say, there can be legitimate reasons for this. A truly dysfunctional spouse will usually not be helped by any kind of counseling. Abusive people are almost incurable. So the marriage either ends in divorce or just keeps straggling along with no resolution.
And any good therapist/shalom bayit adviser will tell you that they can’t perform magic; the results are really up to the people involved. How much are they willing to listen to constructive criticism? How much are they willing to work on themselves?
And if only one spouse is willing to do the work, while the other spouse refuses?
Sometimes divorce is the better option, sometimes it isn't. It depends.
Also, I don’t know what the prices are now, but back when many people I knew were going for marriage therapy, prices ran between 300NIS-700NIS a session. You could easily fork over your entire month’s salary to a therapist.
And should you? What if the result is simply to discover that your spouse suffers a personality disorder or something else that can't be helped? What if you discover that your only choices are to either continue in an unhappy marriage or to go through a stressful divorce with all that follows in sharing child custody, remarriage, and so on?
Is the investment of 1000s of shekels worth it?
Now, maybe it IS worth it. If it's worth 1000s of shekels, then it's worth 1000s of shekels! Fine & good.
But what if it's not? (And for many people, it seems like it's not.)
Teshuvah, Tefillah, Tzedakah
In addition, talk over your middot and your pain with Hashem. After all, He is the Source of it all. Human beings have blind spots. Your therapist/adviser could easily miss something important or say the wrong thing or offer the wrong guidance.
And the big thing? Toxic shame.
How many times have you heard someone rant over something their therapist or adviser said while you’re biting your lip and thinking, "But it’s kind of TRUE. You DO need to work on that"?
Yeah, sometimes they're ranting because the therapist or adviser was SO wrong and SO off.
But sometimes they're ranting because the constructive criticism hit too close to home--and they don't realize it because toxic shame blinds them to their underlying motivation or flaw.
Yet with Hashem, all you’re doing is saying, “You gave me this ugly middah. You gave me this destructive behavior. It’s from You! Please take it back because I sure as heck don’t want it!”
With Hashem, there’s no need for toxic shame because your bad middot and behaviors don’t reflect on the Real You at your neshamah level—Hashem gave you those tendencies.
Whether He plugged them into your inborn nature or you developed them from your God-given life experiences, Hashem caused all that to happen.
He already knows the truth about you, so you’ve nothing to hide.
And getting back to the original point:
If you really do need to pour out your heart (or listen to someone pour out their heart), then it’s important to be aware of the actual halacha.
(I’m cringing a bit as I write this because it’s so hard when someone is in a lot of pain to even attempt to enforce halachic boundaries—no matter how gently and compassionately you do so. But if you know that you’re not their only confidant and you know that you’re not more than a temporary relief—or maybe you’re even a crutch that they’re unconsciously using instead of turning to Hashem--well then…)
Listening to Lashon Hara to Calm a Spouse (Hamodia)
Can I Vent My Pain to My Sister? (Hamodia)
Emuna: The Only Choice (Dr. Zev Ballen)
The Pele Yoetz on Talking about Various Family Members
Our Latest Research Indicates that Everything We've Been Promoting Based on Our Latest Research...is Wrong!
Insights into Lashon Hara about Yourself
How to Speak or Listen to the Lashon Hara of Hurt Feelings