“How does my husband have time to learn the daf yomi every day, but he has no time to spend with me?”
“Is it right for my wife to share the most private details of our marriage with her mother?”
“Why can’t my husband just listen and sympathize when I have a problem instead of telling me what I am doing wrong and how I should fix it?”
“We both work long hours and still struggle to make ends meet. Is there any way we can alleviate the stress and the toll it is taking on our marriage?”
Time and again, newly married couples grapple with these types of questions. In the best-case scenario, they are seeking advice. Often, however, they are at wits’ end and tearfully or angrily air grievances.
For the most part, such questions come from spouses who are good people and who grew up in healthy families. These types of tensions are not reflective of dysfunctional marriages. Rather, they are simply challenges to be expected when two very different genders and personalities work together to build a shared home and family.
Every couple will have disagreements and confront stress. Problems arise, however, when the marriage begins with unrealistic expectations of achieving “happily ever after” without effort or compromise, or when the couple is insufficiently mature or thoughtful to resolve disagreements in a healthy and constructive way.
The community is increasingly acknowledging that consideration of communal challenges is best explored with the benefit of data and empirical analysis. To this end, the Orthodox Union recently sponsored the Aleinu Marital Satisfaction Survey, which interviewed 5,200 Orthodox Jews. The respondents, ranging from divorcees to the 72% to 74% of couples who considered their marriages good or excellent, consistently identified several common challenges to their relationships. These are the five most cited:
Marital Intimacy. Due to its sensitive and private nature, the accepted practice within many of our communities is to refrain from addressing the topic of marital intimacy with our children until immediately prior to their marriage.
However, our youth are, to differing degrees, dramatically and extensively exposed to various dimensions of physical relationships through the media, literature, and, increasingly, the Internet. Alas, since the community does not “control” the message, teenagers and young adults get a picture that is superficial and deeply detrimental.
While we might wish it to be otherwise, the community can no longer afford to defer guidance in this area until marriage, since by then, our children will have developed illusions and expectations that cannot be easily replaced. Regardless of how sheltered we might perceive our children to be, we have entered an age in which it is vitally important for a young man and woman to get the right message before and after they are married. Their teachers need to be open and clear about the Torah’s approach to sexuality, and to how essential a component of a healthy marriage it is, above and beyond the important mitzvah (commandment) of having children.
This component of marriage is supposed to be pleasurable for both wife and husband, and, to achieve that level, they must learn to talk openly with one another (in a modest way) about their physical relationship. They need to understand that men and women often approach intimacy from opposite sides – men from the physical and women from the emotional – and learn to be sensitive to and accommodating of each other’s needs. In Rabbi Avraham Peretz Friedman’s book Marital Intimacy – A Traditional Jewish Approach (Jason Aronson, 1997), two chapters address the mitzvah of onah (biblically mandated fulfillment of a wife’s sexual needs) and discuss the “nine middos” (thoughts and intentions that undermine intimacy). Rabbi Peretz’s book should be required reading for men both before and during marriage.
Relationships with In-Laws. It is wonderful when children have a close relationship with their parents; such closeness and respect for parents should not end when they get married. However, the relationship does need to shift in such a way that makes room for the spouse, and G-d willing the children, to become the nucleus around which everything else revolves. The couple must become the center of each other’s universe.
Occasionally, a married child or a parent simply cannot bring themselves to cut the proverbial cord, causing potential discord and needless tension. This challenge is particularly acute when parents are supporting the young couple financially.
Parents need to be socialized to the independence they provide their married children, and young couples need to know that it is ok, even necessary, to set boundaries with their parents. Such boundaries should be implemented respectfully, but the needs of the spouse must trump the needs of everyone else, including parents.
Managing Financial Struggles. The combination of today’s economy and the particularly high cost of an Orthodox lifestyle is often crippling. The financial burdens of supporting a family can be a jolting wake-up call to young men and women who have never been financially independent.
Many young couples are naïve in assuming “it will all work out,” unaware that the chronic stress of drowning under financial pressure may take a toll on their marriage. Psychologists have found that marriages can withstand acute crises of a limited duration, but can be worn down by chronic, ongoing stress that does not ease with time. This is why never-ending financial burdens can devour marriages.
Making Time for Each Other. When couples are dating, and during the engagement, they cannot imagine how busy life will get once they are married, managing a home and pursuing careers. When children are added to the equation, the sum of their efforts leave little or no time to invest in their relationship.
Couples need to be aware that, while spending significant time together feels so natural during the pre-marriage stages, doing so once married often requires deliberate planning and commitment. They need to be taught that limited quality time, such as an occasional vacation (though wonderful and a nice memory), does not substitute for quantity time.
Relationships solidify and grow when couples are present for each other day in and day out, in the mundane routines of ordinary life. Twenty-two percent of those interviewed for the survey cited lack of time together as a significant issue in their marriage.
Inadequate Communication Skills. Men and women have different styles of communication, as do those with different personalities or different backgrounds. It is therefore no surprise that a whopping 23% of husbands and wives report frustration with their inability to communicate effectively with their spouses.
Some complain that their spouse talks too little, others that it is too much. Some don’t feel safe opening up to their partners because of judgmental reactions to earlier expressions of feelings.
Communication patterns set in the early days of the marriage often become entrenched and, if counter-productive, are hard to unravel as time marches on. Communication skills must, therefore, be learned before marriage.
In my opinion, it is crucial for a couple to be properly prepared and educated, not just in the laws of taharas hamishpacha (family purity), but in the many areas couples find challenging, such as those described by the OU study. I suggest that these fit the category of v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha (loving your fellow like yourself).
V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha is not an esoteric mitzvah; the greater and more profound the relationship one has, the greater the obligation. It follows, therefore, that the greatest responsibility is to one’s spouse.
While pre-marital education is vital to the success of a marriage, post-marital education is even more crucial. In this regard, certain segments of the Orthodox community can learn from each other. Several Chasidic communities have established a mentoring system in which new couples are partnered with established couples, meeting on a regular basis to deal with the challenges of creating a healthy marriage and home life. Each community should seek to create a similar system, adjusted to the needs and character of its membership.
Another model employed by certain rabbanim, rabbis, (and which happens to be the standard practice of the Archdiocese) is to require couples to attend post-marital sessions at regular intervals after their wedding.
Perhaps the most important message a couple can learn in pre- and post-marital education is that a certain amount of conflict in a marriage is normal, and that being prepared to recognize it and deal with it is the best defense. The strongest marriages are not the ones that have no disagreements, but the ones in which spouses address their differences openly, honestly and constructively, as this brings them closer with every resolution.
As hard as we try to shelter our young men and women, they are bombarded by a culture whose messages fly in the face of our core Torah values. We owe it to our children, our congregants and our students to empower them with the tools and skills they need to succeed at a relationship that the majority of modern society has doomed to fail.
Hakadosh Baruch Hu (the Holy One, blessed is He) taught us that “it is not good for man to be alone” (Bereishis 2:18). It is our responsibility to ensure the next logical step – that it is good to be together.
This has been reprinted from the Klal Perspectives Journal with edits. Klal Perspectives is an electronic journal dedicated to addressing the unique challenges facing today’s Orthodox communities. Each issue consists of a symposium in which a diverse group of rabbinic and lay leaders share their different perspectives on a given topic.
Rabbi Steven Weil is the Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union.