“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 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 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. 22% 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.
The results of this survey, specifically these five issues often cited as stressors in marriage, tell us a lot about the state of marriage today. Recognizing and preparing for the challenges that lie ahead can help newlywed couples deal with the issues that they are likely to encounter.
In my opinion, it is crucial for a couple to be properly prepared and educated, not just in the laws of taharas hamishpacha, but in the many areas couples find challenging, such as those described by the OU study. I suggest that these fit the category ofv’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha. 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.
The push for pre-marriage education needs to come from multiple sources. The couple’s parents should insist that this be a prerequisite to the wedding. Parents who have themselves been married for at least eighteen-plus years, know first hand the challenges that their children will be facing. Even if they have had an “ideal” marriage and set the best example possible for their children, the young bride and groom will be facing their own unique circumstances.
The rabbi, especially if he is officiating at the wedding, is the source of advice, guidance and education for the new couple. If he and perhaps his rebbetzin are available, they can be a wonderful resource, and can work with the couple to provide this thorough education. If not, he can and should require the bride and groom to find teachers who will spend the necessary time helping them prepare for all aspects of the marriage. As it seems that the ordinary course of chinuch is proving insufficient to prepare talmidim and talmidot for marriage, it is hoped that rabbeimand Roshei Yeshiva will consider instituting preparation programs, as well.
While a typical kallah spends numerous hours learning the meticulous details ofniddah and mikva, she mustalso learn what it is like to share a home with a man and what she can do to help their relationship flourish. A typical groom will go for achosson schmooze or two, but, just like one cannot become a talmid chacham from attending a shiur or two, a man cannot become a good spouse with such limited preparation. A bride and groom are embarking on the most important and meaningful relationship in their lives. Parents, rabbeim, and chosson and kallahteachers must impress upon the couple the urgency of significant preparation.
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 certainrabbanim (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.
There is wisdom in these models, as all premarital education is necessarily theoretical. A fiancé is practically perfect every time the couple gets together. They each are dressed up, they talk about lofty goals and ideals, reveling in each other’s company and attention. Only after the marriage do they wake up and see what the other one looks like in the morning, clean up after each other’s messes, and share responsibilities for the mundane tedium of real life. That is precisely when they will benefit most from the guidance and education of a rabbi and rebbetzin or chossonand kallah teacher. Such post-marital sessions should be mandatory– not too soon that they don’t yet appreciate how practical it is, but not too late that small, manageable issues have already begun to fester and morph into seeds of bitterness and discontent.
Whether it is pre- or post-marital education, rabbis and teachers need to acknowledge the many challenges couples will likely encounter, and they need to be open and to communicate clearly with the men and women who come to them for guidance.
Some suggestions are:
- Acknowledge that the husband and wife are two individuals, each endowed with their own personalities, tendencies and talents. They come from different homes – perhaps different cultural backgrounds – and may have different expectations of marriage and home life. These differences don’t make one spouse better or worse, but they will likely cause some tension as these varying traits and behaviors clash.
- Acknowledge that (to quote Rabbi Yaakov Glasser) “men are from Prague and women are from Vilna.” Males and females view and experience life differently – they express feelings differently, relate to others differently, respond differently physically, cognitively, and emotionally If a husband or wife did not have much exposure to the opposite sex before dating and marriage, this can be a very difficult path to navigate without some enlightenment about gender differences.
- 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 Hutaught 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 article originally ran in the Klal Perspectives Journal.