Klal Perspectives, Symposium on Preparedness for Marriage
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
Marital Preparation Begins at Age Two
An oft-suggested response to the increasing reports of marriages that do not survive the first year is premarital counseling and education. In this article, I would like to propose that marital preparation must begin many years before children reach marriageable age. In fact, in some respects, we can begin preparing our children for marriage as early as their toddler years.
Another issue I will address is the manner in which parents manage the mental health of their children and how easily the wrong approach, even before dating begins, can lead to severe marital problems that could be avoided.
There are several skill sets that are especially important for marriage that parents should ideally be teaching their children from a young age: Independence in problem-solving, “self-regulating” their emotions, resilience and emotional giving.
Independence and Problem Solving
The frum super-mom may find it counterintuitive to allow a child to work out an argument with a friend, for example, or solve a problem in school without her intervention. Many parents have the misconception that simply fixing their child’s problems whenever they can is an expression of caring. The reality is that managing a child’s problems for them can be deeply harmful in the long term, since children can receive the unspoken message that they are incapable of managing their own problems and that when challenges arise, someone else is supposed to step in and take over. As a result, they lose the vital opportunity to develop the problem-solving skills, strength of character and self-reliance that is necessary for them to become independent.
This tendency on the part of parents to take care of things for their children can be particularly problematic in the shidduch process, with many unfortunate consequences. Too often, parents assume responsibility to create the “wish list” (usually, of what they are looking for), direct all the shidduch inquiries and do all the research. Some parents will even provide the shadchan with feedback about the dates – as if they can describe what transpired better than the one who actually went out!
The shidduch process must be treated as an essential step in preparing an individual for marriage. Children should be encouraged to compile their own “wish list,” including a limited number of non-negotiable needs, as well as the more negotiable preferences and ideals . Children should be encouraged to individualize their list, adding adjectives that are more descriptive than the generic “good middos” and “yiras shamayim.” When children “take ownership” of the process, at least as much as their parents, they become more invested in the relationship and learn to assume responsibility for their marriage, as well.
Children should, therefore, be encouraged to communicate directly with the shadchan. A healthy marriage relationship certainly requires good communication skills, including the ability to articulate feelings and ideas in a nuanced way. Encouraging the child to hone these skills through describing to a shadchan their aspirations, concerns and reactions to a date is an obvious opportunity that should not be missed.
This approach continues even after the couple gets engaged. For example, it is traditional for an engaged chosson and kallah to exchange gifts, ideally as an expression of personal affection, but also to increase their bond to each other. Unfortunately, these gifts are typically selected by the respective parents, depriving the couple of the opportunity to build their own relationship. It is, therefore, not surprising when the pattern continues even into marriage, with parents choosing a young couple’s living arrangements (often in close proximity to them!), decorating the home and, in many cases, managing their finances.
If children are to develop the confidence to succeed independently, parents must empower them to do so, and this effort must begin at a very young age. Studies show that even toddlers are sensitive to parental cues regarding their ability to explore and master their environment, and they respond accordingly. Children who have enjoyed rewarding experiences of handling situations independently at every stage of their lives are better prepared to navigate the adjustment to marriage.
Self–Regulatory Skills vs. the “Quick Fix”
Controlling one’s emotions is especially challenging to children and teenagers, but it is also a challenge for many adults. For example, many individuals allow their emotions to express themselves immediately in their behavior, without first “regulating,” or processing, a deliberate response. They react to their circumstances spontaneously without attempting to understand and process their emotions. The failure to regulate one’s emotions often has dire consequences. In the most extreme examples, people quit their job, sell their house or terminate a relationship, without fully considering whether such decisions are truly warranted or will be regretted after the emotional reactions have subsided. In no context is the importance of regulating emotions more important than in marriage.
Emotional regulation is not just the ability to control one’s behavioral response to an emotion, but also the self-interpretation of one’s own feelings. For example, in early stages of marriage, one must understand that one’s emotional state at any given time should not be taken as an indication of whether or not one’s choice of spouse was a good one, or of whether their spouse is a good person, or a kind person or a generous person. During this period of change and transition, when adjustments are difficult and emotions are intense, self-regulation is a vital process through which emotions can be placed in context and greater perspective can be achieved.
Preliminary steps in learning how to regulate one’s emotions begin with (1) learning how to recognize the onset of a strong emotion and intervening before the feeling escalates to the point at which it is unmanageable, and (2) focusing on changing the emotion rather than the circumstances.
One of the greatest gifts that a parent can bequeath to their children is the ability to “self regulate” their emotions, and the time to begin giving this is in early childhood. How do parents teach this skill to children? The first step is for parents to recognize this task as an important component of their parenting role. But, in the busy home of a frum family, even committed parents are often tempted to turn to “quick fixes,” at the expense of teaching emotional self-regulation.
For example, a mother pulled in multiple directions will be inclined to mollify her toddler’s tantrum by acceding to the demand for candy or a toy an older sibling is using. Alas, such “quick fixes” encourage emotional exploitation, teaching children that they will get their way by becoming emotional. Instead, parents should teach their young children to self-soothe. In these scenarios, the child’s feelings of disappointment should be validated (teaching the name of the negative emotion), but then they should be shown how an alternative, such as music, a favorite book or taking a bath, can assuage their disappointment and help them move past it. While these steps are time-consuming and require deliberate effort, a child that has many such experiences learns that reaching a state of calm is not dependent on getting his way.
This approach works equally well when applied to school-age children. When a child demands to have her class or teacher changed due to an unpleasant interaction, or demands the replacement of a broken toy, or pleads for a parental note excusing him from a difficult exam, the child would benefit greatly from being taught how to work through these strong feelings and confront unpleasant challenges. They must learn that strong emotions are a part of life, and that there is a safe process for addressing them without acting out. As children grow up and enter adulthood, they should know that managing emotional challenges intelligently and effectively can be deeply gratifying.
As a child matures, the skills and tools for emotional self-regulation can be expanded to include engaging in tefila, chesed, exercise, or other effective means of soothing himself, such as repeating a possuk or a mantra or imagining a peaceful nature scene. Some adults have told me that psukim like b’rogez rachem tizkor (remember compassion at times of anger – Chavakuk 3:2) or, when feeling anxiety, im lo shivisi vdomamti nafshi k’gmul aley emo (I was calmed like a nursing baby being held by his mother – Tehillim 131), have become self-regulating mantras that have done wonders for them.
Resilience and Emotional Giving
Resilience and emotional giving are also marriage skills that should be developed from a young age. For example, thinking of the needs of others can be introduced through after-school and vacation-time volunteer work. Children grow through exposure to less fortunate people, who live their difficult lives with bravery. In addition, by undertaking physically and emotionally demanding activities, children learn to extend themselves beyond their comfort zone. Though initially difficult, over time, children associate this “stretching of self” with true happiness. Selflessness leads to a sense of satisfaction, in knowing that they have become better people in the process. Providing our children with chessed opportunities is a powerful antidote to society’s ever-present narcissistic mantras “you deserve the best,” and “it’s all about you” that accompany our young couples into marriage. Moreover, when such a person confronts the inevitable bumps in the road, they will not be inclined to overreact, because they will know that discomfort and a need for hard work is not a sign that something is inherently wrong.
The best lessons are those learned by example. Children who observe their parents functioning as a unit are more likely to appreciate the model that is expected of them as a spouse. For many children, even those whose parents enjoy true shalom bayis, there is little opportunity to observe healthy marriage dynamics on a regular basis. During the week, parents are often consumed with working, learning, attending simchas and home responsibilities. On Shabbos, when much of these distractions are reduced, guests often capture much of the attention. As a result, children rarely observe their parents sharing with each other details about their day, laughing together or simply bringing each other a drink. Parents may want to consider tailoring their schedule, if possible, to enable them both to be at the dinner table for at least a few nights a week .
It is a tremendous source of comfort and security for a child to know that his or her parents deeply care for one another. Parents should not shy away from displaying affection for each other in front of their children. A special smile, a gesture of consideration, a compliment and a kind word all serve to prepare children to have a healthy attitude toward marriage. Though some people may naturally feel uncomfortable showing emotional closeness in front of children, this discomfort should be weighed against the realization that a child entering marriage will be more comfortable being emotionally expressive to his spouse if he has observed such behavior in a healthy, natural way at home.
PART TWO: MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
Much of this discussion assumes that both spouses enter the marriage without any conditions that affect their mental health. Unfortunately, our community is not spared the mental health pathologies that afflict members of every segment of society. In preparing children for marriage, the community must learn to address these realities.
First, distinctions must be noted among three types of situations. There are those who enter marriage with mental health issues that have been diagnosed, addressed professionally, and have been adequately disclosed to the prospective spouse at the right time. Among those who have conditions that are not disclosed, however, are two types: some understand the conditions and are treating them but simply keep this important information concealed prior to marriage (and sometimes even through the wedding), while others suffer from conditions that have simply never even been diagnosed.
Those who have both adequately treated and disclosed their challenges actually enjoy a wonderful opportunity for a successful marriage. By contrast, those whose conditions are secretively hidden as a source of shame, and certainly those who have conditions that have not even been acknowledged and diagnosed, are likely candidates for a severely challenging marriage .
Parents who take responsibility for their children’s mental health, commencing treatment or medication despite fears of stigmatization, are taking vital steps toward a happy marriage for their children. Aside from providing a stable foundation for their future, taking “ownership” of the situation – while following rabbinical guidance about when and how to share information with shadchanim and prospective spouses – is an important expression of both integrity and emotional health . Addressing the issue with honesty also reflects on the solid hashkafa of the family. By contrast, hiding a relevant condition leads to an array of problems, including an added level of pathology that results from the hiding of the issue, itself. A veteran therapist once commented that “people are as sick as their secrets.”
Certain problems, tragically, may remain undiagnosed unintentionally. Occasionally, parents may simply lack the psychological sophistication to recognize a child’s issue and know how it should be properly addressed. Unfortunately, some parents may be reluctant to seek therapy for their child for fear that family members, or even the therapist, will blame them for the child’s problem.
In light of these concerns, it is imperative that teachers, rabbeim and menahalim play a role in observing the psychological health of their students. Educators must become familiar with the array of emotional health issues from which children may suffer, and must be mindful to spot these tendencies and assist parents in seeking the requisite assistance. Occasionally, educators may even find themselves to be the sole source of aid to children whose parents cannot, or will not, help them.
Ideally, educators should seek to develop a trusting relationship with the parents in a gentle attempt to get them “on board,” perhaps emphasizing the importance of addressing these issues before the child reaches the age of dating. For example, it is not unheard of for a seminary teacher to be approached by a student seeking guidance and help regarding such a challenge. I know of students who had their own fears of carrying an issue into marriage but had never been in therapy because their parents would not allow it.
In conclusion, parents play a vital role in preparing their children for marriage, even from early childhood. Ideally, parents should focus their child-rearing efforts on enabling their children to develop the midos, skills and perspectives they will need to build their own homes. This includes encouraging independence, teaching problem-solving skills and emotional self-regulation and resilience and modeling a successful marriage. In time, such efforts will eventually lead to the ultimate nachas of children’s happy marriages.
Dina Schoonmaker has been teaching in Michlala Jerusalem College for over 20 years and gives vaadim for married woman. She runs an alumni hotline, giving advice regarding dating and marriage and lectures widely on these and other personal development topics.
To view the other responses in this issue, CLICK HERE.
 There is an additional reason that this practice is valuable. Sometimes, a child has a certain emotional or spiritual need that his or her parents never recognized or appreciated. The child deserves the opportunity to seek this in a spouse. Absent the child’s input, the parents, who did not appreciate it before, are certainly not going to include this need on the shidduch wish list, now.
 There is a prestigious kollel in Yerushalayim that has tailored its schedule to allow men to be home at dinner and bedtime. The amount of time spent learning is the same as other kollelim, but the breaks are designed around the priority of avoiding a “Shabbos Abba” phenomenon, in which children only see their fathers on Shabbos. This goal can be attained by individuals who choose a kollel or work office close to home that enables them to be home for meals and/or for bedtime.
 Parenthetically, parents are often misled not only by the withholding of negative information but also when they are blinded by positive information, ignoring even obvious warning signs because of one outstanding quality. When there is some superlative asset, like unusual levels of wealth, beauty, yichus or intelligence, one may fail to investigate the compatibility of the shidduch. A therapist once told me that she is often picking up the pieces in marriages where, for example, a boy ended up marrying a “beautiful witch.”
 There is a famous psak from Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, z’tl, allowing one to not disclose an issue to shadchanim or to the person one is dating until a basic rapport is established and the issue can be viewed in the wider context of the person’s positive attributes. It is important that this disclosure not be postponed to a stage at which there is a strong emotional connection and one’s judgment may be impaired.