In a nutshell, this is what Orthodox Jewish marriages are all about, and this is what the Orthodox Union must keep in mind as it plans a new generation of “Positive Jewish Marriage” programs to further its goal of strengthening the Jewish family:
Overwhelmingly marriages among Orthodox Jews tend to be happy – more often than in society as a whole -- with three-quarters of spouses saying they would get married again to the same person. However, there is a “perception” that the divorce rate is rising, and there is a marital satisfaction “down-period” starting well in advance of 20 years of marriage and leading up to 30 years that may precede an “up-period” in which fulfillment and happiness become more common. At the other extreme, for the newly married, more so than for those married more than 30 years, expectations for marriage are drawn from Hollywood or magazines.
Add this to the mix: Baalei teshuva, those who do not grow up religiously observant but become so later in life, face added challenges in their marriages; more affluent families run a greater risk of marital stress from at-risk or “off-the-derech” children than Orthodox Jews of more modest means; there are special stresses and strains that affect Orthodox marriages; and expanded efforts must be made in areas of rabbinic training and choson and kallah teachers (those who provide pre-marital instruction to the couple: the choson, groom and the kallah, bride) to make these mentors more effective.
These are some of the many findings of the Aleinu Marriage Satisfaction Survey conducted online by the Orthodox Union from January 15-March 31, 2009 and coordinated by Frank Buchweitz, OU National Director of Community Services and Special Projects. There were 3,670 responses, which is both “significant and statistically valid” according to the experts who analyzed it, and is the largest survey of Orthodox Jewish marriages ever conducted. The project of the Orthodox Union was conducted in conjunction with the Aleinu Family Resource Center, a program of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and the Rabbinical Council of California, which conducted an initial survey in March, 2008, receiving 1,500 responses.
OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Steven Weil explained, “The survey provided the tools to help the Orthodox Union gather information leading to a greater knowledge of and overview of the issues that are impacting upon marriage today. This information will help us develop programs and strategies as the Orthodox Union continues to be responsive to the needs of our communities and families.”
The Aleinu Marital Satisfaction Survey expanded the number of questions for 2009, broadening the original survey of 2008. In addition to the original items assessing marriage satisfaction, the impact upon marriage from additional factors – including at-risk children, infertility and birth control – were studied as well as issues pertaining to premarital counseling effects on marriage satisfaction.
The raw data was collected by OTX, a California institute of the behavioral sciences, and analyzed and interpreted by Dr. David Pelcovitz, Straus Professor of Psychology and Education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University; Dr. Eliezer Schnall, Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yeshiva College of Yeshiva University; and Debbie Fox, LCSW, Director of Aleinu Family Resource Center, and author of the Aleinu Marital Satisfaction Survey.
They presented their data at a meeting recorded at OU headquarters on November 23, 2009. An edited version of the meeting is available on the Orthodox Union website, www. ou.org. (This report is based on the video.)
Survey coordinator Frank Buchweitz declared at the meeting, “We are proud that the Orthodox Union has led the way in presenting programs to strengthen the Jewish family, which are now being emulated by other Jewish organizations. The OU intends to use the survey results to create a whole generation of programming within the OU and its community of synagogues.”
For years, the OU has presented “Positive Jewish Marriage” and “Positive Jewish Parenting” sessions to strengthen the Jewish family, with great success across North America. The next marriage retreat, to enrich healthy marriages, is scheduled for July 9-11, 2010 in upstate New York.
The survey results are categorized and summarized as follows:
• 72 percent of the men and 74 percent of the women rated their marriage as excellent or very good, compared to the findings of the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago which reported in 2009 that 63 percent of men and 60 percent of women were very happy in their marriages. These findings are not surprising our experts say, in that they are consistent with research that indicates that couples who participate regularly in religious activities report greater marital satisfaction and may be less likely to divorce compared to their less religious peers (Curtis, K. and Ellison, C., 2002). Only 13 percent checked fair or poor.
• “Satisfaction levels went down over time. Satisfaction was reported as particularly low between twenty and thirty years of marriage, followed by an increase in marital satisfaction after 30 years of marriage.” Drs. Pelcovitz and Schnall noted at the meeting that the decline of satisfaction and its resurgence after 30 years result in a “u-shaped curve,” a factor which should be kept in mind by rabbis and others counseling married couples.
• “A very hopeful finding in light of the drop during the middle years of marriage was the finding that more than seven out of ten respondents said that if they had to choose again, they would marry the same person.
Areas of Dissatisfaction Requiring Strengthening:
• Even in the best marriages, “conflict is inevitable,” with the leading “triggers” being financial stress; communication difficulties; problems with physical intimacy/sexuality; not enough time; and in-laws.
• “There is a need for community education regarding how to manage the inevitable conflict that couples deal with.” Improved communication skills play a major part in negotiating marital concord.
• “Improved pastoral training for rabbis, choson and kallah teachers and high school and post-high school teachers regarding understanding how to educate congregants and students on the core skill set necessary for negotiating conflict in marriage” must be developed.
In the session recorded at OU headquarters, the experts provided additional interpretations of the data and what must be done in the community to incorporate it. Regarding the “u-shaped curve,” Dr. Schnall cited University of Texas sociologist Norval Glenn who declared, “A curvilinear relationship between family stage and some aspects of marital quality is about as close to being certain as anything in the social sciences.” In other words, summarized Dr. Schnall, marital quality is higher both before there are children in the picture, and again after there are no longer children in the picture. The result, Dr. Schnall said, “is a long-lasting dip in marital satisfaction. All is not rosy.”
The U-Shaped Curve:
Also referring to the “u-shaped curve,” Dr. Pelcovitz declared, “Of course our satisfaction dips; it dips for everybody. But that’s part of the beast.” He added, “Wouldn’t it be nice to get that message out to our community that we’re living in an age of shidduchim (introduction of the couple to each other) in which so often what’s guiding us is this totally bizarre view that life is without stress; that somehow we’re going to find a partner in which there won’t be the slightest difference of what goes into a marriage; it will be problem free and made for yourself. In reality,” he added, “marriage is about stress; marriage is about conflict. But if you can only understand that when you’re going through that dip in marital satisfaction, while you’re going through the normal stresses of raising children, with the stress of yeshiva tuitions, put that all together, it’s normal, and there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
Dr. Pelcovitz cited the University of Washington sociology professor John Mordechai Gottman, “These stresses have to happen. If couples don’t fight at all it’s actually a risk factor in marriage. Couples have to fight, that’s the way the inevitable differences come out. What you need to do is to learn how to fight. If we find that problems with communication are among the leading sources of conflict, we know that good pre-marital training programs– well-designed and well-implemented – can really make a difference. “
Regarding sexuality, Dr. Pelcovitz commented, “We see over and over again in the communities, there’s something missing in the job we’re doing in conveying values about sexuality to our children, and somehow there isn’t necessarily a language on sexuality we’re teaching to couples. This is pretty high on the relative sources of conflict.” He continued, “Compared to other groups, Jewish adolescents say their teachers do the worst job of teaching them the sexual values that are embedded in our religion, and it shows in our marriages.” The solution? Enhanced sexual education techniques for the sex educators.
Challenges to Baalei Teshuva:
The survey made clear that baalei teshuva, with their new found religious fervor, face challenges in their marriages. Their stress factors, Dr. Schnall explained, include at-risk children; conflicts regarding education; lack of communication and intimacy; religious differences; finances; and lack of social network. He emphasized that “in large samples, even small differences can be statistically significant -- in other words, while these findings likely did not occur by chance, the absolute differences between baalei teshuva and others regarding these stressors were not huge. The bottom line is that as rabbis and mental health professionals, or even simply as caring neighbors and friends, we need to show heightened sensitivity to these issues that might especially impact on baalei teshuva.”
Regarding at-risk children, Dr. Pelcovitz focused on “affluenza.” He cited Dr. Suniya S. Luthar, Professor of Clinical and Developmental Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, that there is triple the rate of depression, alcoholism and other ills in wealthier families ($100,000 and up). She identified the causes of these pathologies among the affluent as, “The pressures of not being average. Tremendous time pressure in the age of the blackberry – the parents, even when they’re there, they’re not there.” Finally, “affluent children very often were not asked to go beyond themselves to give to others.”
Stars in Their Eyes:
The experts discussed the sources couples draw upon to base their marital expectations. Although noting that younger couples tend more than their elders to emphasize advice from religious figures, they are also more likely to look to the media, including Hollywood and magazines for their guidance. “This may not be the wisest choice,” Dr. Schnall said.
Beware: The Internet and Pornography
Dr. Pelcovitz warned about the baleful influences of the Internet and pornography, adding that choson and kallah teachers in their marriage preparation classes must be educated to deal with “this incredibly powerful force” when dealing with young couples. He also noted the outstanding work that the OU has done in conducting national marriage and parent education programs and in providing resources for participants in those programs.
The Pressures of Time:
In a discussion that followed the presentation, Mrs. Debbie Fox dealt with time pressures. “People are working longer and harder,” she said. “How do you have a healthy relationship at home when you’re working so hard to put food on the table? Are you emphasizing family time at home, or has it lost its importance? Only a family can sit down and really focus on that,” she declared. “We have the opportunity on Shabbat, but Shabbat has become so much more structured, everyone is going places, to shiurim (classes) and so forth, that there is less family time. In our own culture we have to bring back the concept of prioritizing the family. We have to look at rolling back the clock in certain ways – ‘no phone zones’ and prioritizing the family,” she said.
What’s the Next Step?
Now that the data is in, the next step is for the OU to incorporate it in its programming. Frank Buchweitz, the OU Community Services Director who initiated the OU’s practical family education programs, declared, “This data will be used for professional rabbinical training and marital programs and retreats. In addition, we want to address other subjects: What to look for in a marriage. What couples should look for in terms of getting together and their expectations and pre-conceived notions of creating a marriage that will be lasting, beneficial to both parties, and not end in divorce.”
Dr. Pelcovitz declared, “Even with the perception of rising divorce rates in the Orthodox community, the overall message of the survey is quite positive. Sure we have problems, but we seem to be doing something right. Our satisfaction rates are significantly higher than in the general community. Most people are saying, ‘If I had to do it again, I’d marry the same person.’ In a world of so many failed marriages, this is what we’re seeing, but we can make it a lot better, by following up, training rabbis, educators and the community.”
For further information, contact Frank Buchweitz at firstname.lastname@example.org. The video may be viewed at www.ou.org.