Klal Perspectives, Symposium on Preparedness for Marriage
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
Prologue: The Experiences of a Matrimonial Lawyer
After the Glass is Broken
I don’t read statistics, nor do I rely on them. I don’t need to – I’ve been a practicing attorney for over twenty years, with the majority of my work these days centered in matrimonial or divorce law.
I don’t have to keep statistics. I experience it every day. The divorce rate among the Orthodox is skyrocketing. In fact, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, Rabbi Dovid Weinberger and I are currently working together on a book on this subject, entitled “After the Glass is Broken.” It will focus on the decline of the healthy and intact frum family. I have been asked to submit an article to this issue with a brief overview of some of the themes of our upcoming work.
Understand that divorce is simply the death certificate on a very sick relationship. For every divorcing couple that finds their way to my office and then through the court system, there are tens of marriages that are on life support. So the question is not just why the divorce rate in the frum community is skyrocketing, but why are so many relationships suffering?
In simple terms, I can tell you that the traditional, frum, intact Jewish family is being threatened by a series of “M” words. Some of these threats, all beginning with the letter M, are prevalent throughout society, while others, as you will read, are unique to our community.
In the olden days – by which I mean when I was a child – if I wanted something for lunch, we had to make it from scratch, waiting throughout the entire process. We were well conditioned to the fact that there was no such thing as fast food. The microwave, however, has changed everything – and not just food preparation. Within two minutes, I now can savor a dish that used to take my mother an hour and a half to make. Our entire lives are now lived on fast forward. No one has patience to deal with any discomfort. There is no working through the process. My spouse disappointed me, angered me or, G-d forbid, delayed my gratification? Out with the old and in with the new.
Our brains have actually been rewired to expect instant comfort. The thought of not having everything we want immediately has become unbearable.
While our parents and grandparents repaired, we replace. Instead of working it out, we throw it out. More than one young couple has told me that they entered marriage with the understanding that it was “for trial purposes” and that if things were not smooth sailing, as they say, they would simply move on to spouse number two.
Along with the instant gratification provided by the microwave is the easy life provided by the maids. Many yeshiva boys and their brides to be have never made a bed or washed a dish in their lives. It was simply left for the maid. These young couples are wholly unprepared to roll up their sleeves and sweat – whether in real terms or euphemistically. When one of them has expectations of the other, or children come along with their bundles of needs, there is no maid at the ready to care of it. And so those who do not rise to the occasion either wind up in my office or suffer together in dysfunction. If you want your son to do more for his wife, stop doing everything for him now. Let him do his own work, make his own mistakes, rise, fall and rise again by himself. Today’s children of Israel need to become the adults of Israel.
There used to be a certain mystique to the intimate moments between husband and wife. No longer. The way many women dress these days, and the way men and women flirt, the mystique that was once reserved for one’s spouse is on display for the world to see. When a man wants his wife to dress a certain way, he is a fool if he thinks that other men don’t enjoy the look as well. And when a woman decides to dress that way, she cannot claim innocence. She is telling every man in shul, at the supermarket or at work, “Take a look at me; I am available to you – if not in reality, at least in your fantasies.”
This “M” word destroys relationships in so many ways. I can tell you with certainty that the more money the couple has, the more bitter the divorce. But before the couple even arrives at that point, understand that money is the eternal spoiler. Children that grew up with everything provided by Mommy and Daddy simply cannot think for themselves. They cannot manage money by themselves. They cannot struggle to survive. They use money for dangerous activities that destroy the unity of a family. For this, I blame the parents that cannot say “no.” I have handled divorces for frum people who were compulsive gamblers, compulsive shoppers, alcoholics or porn addicts – all because there were never any boundaries.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the family with no money, struggling to survive in the frum world. For this I blame the “institutions.” The lifestyle of a frum Jew is just too expensive for someone earning an honest living. I’ve seen many families crumble under the pressure of poverty – or of having to keep up with the Cohens – and others who resorted to dishonesty to make a living. Both scenarios are tragic and contribute to the decline of the healthy and intact frum family.
It is difficult to be a loving spouse or parent when one is depressed over the lack of money. It is difficult to be a committed spouse or parent when you never say no to yourself. And it’s pretty impossible to be a spouse or parent at all from jail.
Rabbi Dr. Twerski has opined, and I have seen it in case after case, that there is an explosion of mental illness over the last number of years in our insular community. Whether it’s full blown mental illness, individual mental issues or the inability to deal with the “baggage” of a spouse, the reason for the explosion is not as important as the potential cure.
I suspect that the rise in individual mental issues is tied to the microwave mentality discussed above. The human mind has been so rewired that what starts with impatience and a demand for instant gratification, morphs into narcissism or OCD and then it’s off to the races. The answer? When such mental issues exist, admit them to yourself, disclose them to your intended spouse, and get professional help. Anxiety can be dealt with; deceit is a lot more difficult to navigate. Many marriages can be saved if the spouse would simply continue to take his or her medicine.
I could write an entire book on matchmakers, or shadchanim, as we call them. What training do some of these self-appointed experts have? What questions are they asking and being asked? The divorce rate suggests that whatever they are, they are the wrong ones. I will offer but one example as an illustration.
A shadchan once asked me if a certain boy in Lakewood looked like his mother or looked like his father. I replied that a more appropriate question would be how often does he call his mother and his father. No one seems to be vetting the young man or woman, for example, as to how they deal with adversity. What he “brings to the table” (in character, maturity, responsibility) should be much more important than how and when his mother covers the table. Matchmakers need to consult with therapists more to learn what to ask, how to ask and whom to ask to learn what prospective spouses are really like. The “resumes” I have seen are vague, generic and shallow.
This “M” word has an upside as well as a downside. Women today are not as tied to the house as they once were. They emerge in the workplace, presenting a challenge for them and their male co-workers to “keep it professional.” To be sure, women working as professionals – whether for personal fulfillment, a second income or because their husband is learning in kollel – has its rewards. But the rewards need to be balanced by the inevitable temptations. Unless the young man and woman are made aware of the trap, they will be unable to avoid it.
Another unintended consequence is that, in yesteryear, a woman depended solely on her husband for financial support. Bad as the marriage was, couples stayed together simply for financial reasons. In today’s environment, with more women earning a respectable income, it is easier for the young lady to leave her marriage and still make it on her own. This is a classic case of pick your poison.
Parents-in-law: please stay away. Work on your own relationship instead of meddling in your child’s. Countless marriages get dissolved, or are at least soured, by in-laws who offer free advice. Parents need to stay away and children need to have the strength to tell their parents, “thanks, but no thanks.”
There is no one answer to all of these “M” words, but a good place to start would be with another M word – Mentoring.
Young frum couples should be required to meet with competent rabbis, therapists and other married couples to discuss in detail how to deal with the inevitable conflicts that will arise during a marriage. Those meetings should take place prior to ordering invitations for the grand celebration of a marriage that may not last as long as everyone is anticipating. Simply identifying the above symptoms might lead to a cure – maybe not for the masses, but perhaps for a few brave souls who are not afraid to confront the truth.