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Chani Maybruch, Ed.D

Klal Perspectives, Symposium on Preparedness for Marriage

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Bringing out the Best in Couples: Empirical Research on the Benefits of Marriage Education

Over the last few decades, our expectations of marriage have changed considerably.[1] In contrast to previous generations, in which marriage tended to revolve around comparatively well-defined male and female roles, today’s couples often share these roles in a variety of ways. Married life is now less predictable and less stable, with many new options to negotiate and decisions to make.[2] In addition, increasing numbers of couples aspire to an idealized level of marriage, expecting to feel that they are married to their “soul-mate.”[3]

To meet these and other challenges, today’s couples require an enhanced appreciation of the principles and necessary skills involved in commitment, communication, conflict management, and intimacy.  Fortunately, to aid the community in addressing these challenges, there is increased empirical research about the attitudes and practices that contribute to marital satisfaction and on the effectiveness of various forms of pre-marriage education in preparing couples for married life.

Investment, Self-Sacrifice and Commitment

Modern innovations have the potential to shape our expectations of marriage. For example, from microwaves to instant messaging, we have become accustomed to instant gratification, which influences the expectations we have from our relationships as well. , Research indicates, however, that a significant component to happier marriages is the willingness of the parties to invest in the relationship with the understanding that results and satisfaction will not be immediate, and may well involve self-sacrifice.[4] Couples who have positive attitudes towards sacrifice were found to be less likely to become distressed than couples who were not so inclined.  These findings suggest that when each individual places their relationship first, at the expense of their immediate self-interest (colloquially referred to in Hebrew as “being mevater”), he or she contributes to their spouse’s sense of safety and security, something that is essential for the couple’s marital satisfaction.

In his Kuntras HaChessed, Rav Eliyau Dessler notes that the root of the Hebrew word for love – ahavah – is “hav,” which means “give.”[5] Rav Dessler explains that love flourishes when each partner focuses on giving to the other and to the relationship. The research thus suggests that educators and mentors of dating and newly married individuals should encourage couples to explore their expectations, assist them in developing the willingness to invest and sacrifice for the sake of their relationship.[6]

Communication and Conflict Management

Another key facet of successful relationships that has become increasingly challenging with the advent of modern technology is communication. Ironically, with an unprecedented myriad of ways to communicate – including text messaging and the use of online social media – technology can act as a barrier to connecting in relationships, making communication more difficult.   Personal narratives from some of my clients highlight how technology is often used to avoid more direct, personal conversation. Both men and women have complained that their dates will text or e-mail them to let them know that they do not want to continue dating. Some couples text back and forth to hash out an argument while others have “conversations” using Facebook (even though it is a public forum). While technology can be useful to help people connect,[7] these examples demonstrate how it can also be used to avoid deeper, meaningful conversation.

One of the cornerstones of successful relationships is effective communication.[8] Couples can, and should, be taught general communication skills and effective strategies for de-escalating and negotiating a conflict.[9],[10] Gottman and his colleagues have discovered that couples who generally show high levels of positive affect (expressions of emotion), and particularly during conflict, enjoy higher levels of marital satisfaction and stability during at least the first five to ten years of marriage.[11] It is thus increasingly important to teach young people about the centrality of basic communications skills in a successful marriage, and to train them in the art of communication.

For example, couples should learn how to better respond to each other’s bids for emotional connection in daily interactions.[12] When a husband listens attentively to his wife’s recounting of her day rather than turning away to read the mail or consult his Blackberry, or when a wife laughs good naturedly at her husband’s joke rather than rolling her eyes, each is investing in an emotional bank account which can be drawn upon during times of conflict.[13]

Another dimension of communication that research has evidenced to be critical is conflict management. Research consistently demonstrates that the ability to manage conflict well is the greatest predictor of marital happiness and stability.[14] For example, the creators of the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), the most widely researched and empirically proven premarital education program in the world,[15] suggest guidelines for how to safely discuss difficult issues:[16]

  • Couples should communicate at a mutually decided time, when they are both ready to discuss the issue.
  • During their conversation, each spouse should use active listening techniques which gives an opportunity for each partner to share his/her feelings while the other listens and reflects back what he/she has heard. And above all –
  • Both partners should look for the best in one another to understand how what may seem like a negative behavior may actually derive from good intentions.

These guidelines for effective communication and conflict management can be applied in face-to-face, phone, and digital communication, keeping in mind several considerations. [17] Since communication is more than a mere exchange of words, nonverbal cues are essential to help the listener understand the meaning of the message. Facial expression and tone of voice can make the difference in the same phrase being interpreted as a joke or as an insult. Speaking in person or even by phone can make it easier to convey nuances in meaning. On the other hand, an advantage to digital communication, particularly in a conflict, is that one can select and edit one’s words more carefully than in synchronous conversation. There is a need for more research on the advantages and drawbacks of digital communication in relationships to gain a better understanding of how to teach couples to use technology beneficially and avoid its pitfalls.

Emotional Aspects of Intimacy

Emotional intimacy, which can be shared even between friends and family members, is often described as a feeling that develops when two people feel they can disclose their vulnerable beliefs, expectations and needs to one another, and trust their partner to respond with understanding and empathy.[18] When applied to physical intimacy in marriage, emotional intimacy refers to a couple’s ability to discuss their expectations and needs in this area of their relationship.[19] Couples taught to communicate about physical intimacy enjoy the opportunity to deepen their mutual trust and become more sensitive and responsive to each other’s needs, thereby increasing their mutual satisfaction.[20]

Tragically, the understanding and expectations of adolescents regarding intimacy are deeply affected by the prevalence of images, ideas and values about intimacy to which they are exposed.[21] There is, therefore, an increased urgency for the community to introduce more intensive efforts to design and promote Jewish marriage education geared towards assisting young people in filtering and assimilating what they are exposed to in the media, and replacing these influences with core Jewish values about intimacy.[22] This effort is particularly important regarding the emotional aspect of physical intimacy.[23]

Influence of Kallah and Chosson Premarital Education

One of the primary ways the Orthodox Jewish community provides formal preparation for marriage is by providing kallah (bride) and chassan (groom) classes to those who have become engaged. Premarital education at this time is generally based on the rationale that individuals will be most receptive when the content is immediately relevant.[24]

A rich literature of research within the general population has confirmed the effectiveness of premarital education, including several meta-analytical studies that have reviewed previous research and described several beneficial outcomes.[25], [26], [27], [28] Yet until recently, no scientific research had been conducted to study premarital education in the American Orthodox Jewish community, including its actual and potential influence on marital satisfaction.

Recent empirical research of approximately 600 newly-married, North-American, Orthodox Jewish individuals found that the topics most frequently taught were taharas hamishpacha (Jewish laws that pertain to intimacy), Jewish values about marriage, and basic anatomy, physiology and the mechanics of intimacy.[29] This research also found a positive correlation between kallah and chassan classes and marital satisfaction; those who reported learning more from kallah and chassan teachers also reported greater marital satisfaction. In addition, learning more about the Jewish laws and different aspects of physical intimacy predicted greater marital satisfaction, indicating that education in this area significantly influences and enhances marriage. These classes, therefore, play an important and beneficial role in marital preparation.

Research participants indicated, however, that several areas believed to greatly influence marital satisfaction are not being taught. The top five areas cited by the participants, in order of rank, were:

  • Communicating expectations
  • Conflict management skills
  • Setting personal, couple and family goals
  • Emotional aspect of the intimate relationship, and
  • Determining roles and responsibilities.

The areas of communicating expectations, conflict management, goal-setting and the emotional aspect of intimacy are included in empirically evaluated and proven premarital education programs.[30] While determining roles and responsibilities has not been evaluated in research on marriage education, it may occur as an outgrowth of communicating about expectations. Based on the findings of the empirical study described above, I recommend that premarital education for the Orthodox Jewish community include discussions and exercises around these five topics.

Challenges of Premarital Education

Notwithstanding the value of kallah and chassan classes, their effectiveness is limited in certain respects. First, the ideas and practices being discussed are mostly theoretical for the engaged couples, who have yet to encounter the actual experiences themselves. As such, the lessons are not fully appreciated, and there is no opportunity to request further clarification based on personal experience.[31]

Second, research on premarital education programs has found that couples who were within two months of their weddings were hesitant to talk about their issues or to acquire new skills.[32] Perhaps these couples feared that such behavior would derail their wedding plans or upset their relationship dynamic.

Third, in the Orthodox Jewish community, as opposed to the general population,[33] these classes are typically taught to the bride and groom separately. While this approach accommodates concerns of modesty, and allows gender-specific issues to be addressed in a sensitive manner, such segregation precludes a couple from having the benefits of a shared and interactive learning experience.[34]

Premarital Workshops

One way to respond to this last limitation is to have joint couple workshops – in addition to separate kallah and chassan classes – during engagement. For example, the S.H.A.L.O.M. Workshop, under the aegis of the Shalom Task Force, is provided to one couple at a time, and is designed to help them develop communication and conflict-management skills under the guidance of a skilled facilitator.[35] Couples can also be encouraged to express their values, goals and expectations for their life together. One study found that a benefit of this process is that couples sometimes realize that they are not suited for each other before they have already been married.[36]

Research on the most empirically-proven skills-based workshop of this kind, the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), has shown that program participants have reduced negative communication, increased positive communication, and lower levels of marital violence compared to a control group, based on longitudinal studies of four to five years.[37] Additional studies found that couples who took the PREP workshop have greater relationship satisfaction,[38] greater satisfaction with intimacy,[39] increased problem-solving skills and increased spouse confidence in the relationship.[40] PREP seminars are led by instructors such as clergy and lay leaders who have no specific credentials, yet receive training at a two or three-day workshop.[41] Research demonstrates that these instructors can be successfully trained to produce positive results that are measurable even at a one or one-and-a-half year follow-up.[42] It is therefore highly recommended that a cultural sensitive version of PREP or a similar training program be developed to teach mental health professionals, kallah and chassan teachers, and rabbis and rebbetzins how to provide premarital education to couples.

Post-Marriage Mentoring

Nonetheless, the majority of the limitations of premarital education described above only underscore the need for ongoing marital education.[43] Issues surrounding intimacy are uniquely practical and relevant only after a couple is married. In my experience as both a kallah teacher and a rebbetzin, I have found that many questions arise at predictable stages during newly-married life. Although I have encouraged kallahs to keep in touch, I found that many reached out only when they had a pressing question or a need for intervention. It is thus critical for kallah teachers, and others playing a mentoring role, to proactively call kallahs (and presumably chassanim) during these post-marriage stages to pre-empt issues that they may be uncomfortable raising themselves. Predictable junctures include two weeks after the wedding (to address issues about consummating the marriage), six months after marriage (to discuss their reflections on the realities of married life, including intimacy, and at one to two years post-marriage (to address, as appropriate, infertility, pregnancy, impending childbirth, the transition from couple to family with baby, or childrearing). A kallah or chassan teacher who maintains a post-marriage relationship can provide a safe and trusted forum in which their newly-married students can ask questions, share feelings, receive validation and get support.

Another model for post-marriage mentoring that might be considered is pairing trained mentor couples with those who are newly-married. Mentor couples can serve as confidential sounding boards, reflective and empathic listeners, who validate and “normalize” a newlywed individual’s feelings, and provide a perspective that comes from experience and training.[44] Also, a mentor couple from within one’s own community is more likely to be contacted for questions or advice than a mental health professional, for example, since many associate a stigma with consulting a therapist.[45] In fact, mentors can help a couple become more receptive to therapy in cases in which it is needed.[46] Given the benefits of pairing newly married couples with mentor couples, this option deserves serious consideration by the Orthodox Jewish community.

Implications for Future Education

The recent empirical study on the influence of kallah and chassan classes on marital satisfaction demonstrates the benefit of our current premarital preparation. Yet, it also indicates that there is a gap between what is currently learned and what needs to be learned to further improve marriages in the Orthodox Jewish community. Married men and women who have participated in the research or have heard about it have generally been very enthusiastic about the efforts being made to improve premarital education and to create new mainstream venues for post-marriage education.  This encouraging receptiveness and support is the first step to ensuring that future developments in these areas will not only prevent the divorce of distressed couples but will make good marriages even better.

Dr. Chani Maybruch is a relationship educator and coach and the co-founder of

To view the other responses in this issue, CLICK HERE.


[1] Hiller, D. V., & Philliber, W. W. (1986). The Division of Labor in Contemporary Marriage: Expectations, Perceptions, and Performance. Social Problems, 33(3), 191-201.

[2] Amato, P. R., & Booth, A. (1995). Changes in Gender Role Attitudes and Perceived Marital Quality. American Sociological Review, 60(1), 58-66.

[3] Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L. (2010). Fighting for Your Marriage: A Deluxe Revised Edition of the Classic Best-Seller for Enhancing Marriage and Preventing Divorce. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

[4] Stanley, S., Whitton, S. W., Sadberry, S.L., Clements, M. L., Markman, H. J. (2006). Sacrifice as a Predictor of Marital Outcomes, Family Process, 45(3) 289-303.

[5] Dessler, E. E. (1988). Strive for Truth: Michtav Me-Eliyahu, vol. 1. New York: Feldheim.

[6] Stanley, S. M. (2001). Making a case for premarital education. Family Relations, 50(3), 272-280.

[7] Hu, Y., Wood, J. F., Smith, V. and Westbrook, N. (2004). Friendships through IM: Examining the Relationship between Instant Messaging and Intimacy.  Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(1).

[8] Halford, W. K., Markman, H. J., Kline, G. H., & Stanley, S. M. (2003). Best practice in couple relationship education. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 29(3), 385-406.

[9] Bradley, R. P. C., Friend, D. J., & Gottman, J. M. (2011). Supporting Healthy Relationships in Low-Income, Violent Couples: Reducing Conflict and Strengthening Relationship Skills and Satisfaction. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 10(2), 97-116.

[10] Carroll, J. S. & Doherty, W. J. (2003). Evaluating the Effectiveness of Premarital Prevention Programs: A Meta-Analytic Review of Outcome Research. Family Relations, 52(2). 105-118.

[11] Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., Carrere, S. & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 60, 5-22.

[12] Gottman, J. M. & DeClaire, J. (2001). The Relationship Cure. New York, NY: Crown.

[13] Gottman & DeClaire, 2001.

[14] Lawrence, E., Pederson, A., Bunde, M., Barry, R. A., Brock, R. L., Fazio, E., Mulryan, L., Hunt, S., Madsen, L., Dzandovic, S. (2008). Objective ratings of relationship skills across multiple domains as predictors of marital satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25(3), 445–466.

[15] Jakubowski, S. F., Milne, E. P., Brunner, H., & Miller, R. B. (2004). A Review of Empirically Supported Marital Enrichment Programs. Family Relations, 53(5), 528-536.

[16] Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg (2010).

[17] Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication research, 23(1), 3-43.

[18] Greeff, A & Malherbe, H. (2001).  Intimacy and Marital Satisfaction in Spouses. Journal of Sex & Marriage Therapy, 27(3), 247-257.

[19] Markman, H. J., Floyd, F. J., Stanley, S. M., &, Storaasli, R.D. (1988). Prevention of Marital Distress: A Longitudinal Investigation, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56(2), 210-217.

[20] Markman et al., 1988.

[21] Hawkins, AJ, Carroll, J. S., Doherty, W. J. & Willoughby, B. (2004). A comprehensive framework for marriage education. Family Relations, 53, 547-558.

[22] Hawkins et al., 2004.

[23] Maybruch, C. (2012) Relationship Education for Modern Orthodox Jewish Adolescents as a Factor of Marital Satisfaction: A Quantitative Study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration.

[24] Silliman, B. & Schumm, W. R. (1999). Improving practice in marriage preparation. Journal of Sex and Marriage Therapy, 25(1), 23-43.

[25] Carroll & Doherty, 2003.

[26] Halford et al., 2003.

[27] Jakubowski et al., 2004.

[28] Silliman, B. & Schumm, W. R. (2000). Marriage Preparation Programs: A Literature Review. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families,8(2), 133-142.

[29] Maybruch, C. (2012) Relationship Education for Modern Orthodox Jewish Adolescents as a Factor of Marital Satisfaction: A Quantitative Study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration.

[30] Bowling, T. K., Hill, C. M., & Jencius, M. (2005). An Overview of Marriage Enrichment. The Family Journal 13(1),87-94.; Carroll & Doherty, 2003.

[31] Silliman & Schumm, 1999.

[32] Silliman & Schumm, 1999.

[33] Hawkins et al., 2004.

[34] Hawkins et al., 2004.

[35] S. Silverman, personal communication, December 21, 2011.

[36] McMamus, M. & McMamus, H. (2003). How to Create an America that Saves Marriages. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 31(3), 196-207.

[37] Markman, Renick, Floyd, Stanley, & Clements, 1993.

[38] Halford et al., 2001.

[39] Markman, Floyd, Stanley, & Storaasli, 1988.

[40] Jakubowski et al., 2004.

[41]  Pleasant, N. D., Markman, H. J., & Stanley, S. M. (2006). Disseminating a Marriage Education Program: The PREP Experience. The Behavior Therapist, 29(5), 96-101.

[42] Jakubowski et al., 2004.

[43] Hawkins, et al., 2004.

[44] Silliman & Schumm, 1999.

[45] Pleasant, Markman & Stanley, 2006.

[46] Stanley, 2001.


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