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Foreword to Summer 2012

Klal Perspectives, Symposium on Preparedness for Marriage

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

The magnitude of the phenomenon of early divorce (i.e, within two years of marriage) and broken engagements within the Orthodox world has not yet been fully documented. Nevertheless, no one involved with young couples – batei dinim that deal with gittin, rabbis who provide counseling, chosson and kallah teachers, Orthodox health care professionals – doubts that the rates are growing rapidly.

Talk to your marriage-age children and each will know one, and usually more, contemporaries who are already divorced. That would not have been true a generation ago. A 21-year-old married woman from a major Orthodox community recently applied for a course preparing kallah teachers and was asked why she was interested in kallah teaching so early in her own married life. She responded that she already had six high school classmates who were divorced.

The Gemara (Gittin 90b) describes the Altar as shedding tears over every divorce. Yet the perception of divorce as a terrible tragedy is declining. In his article in this issue, Shaya Ostrov, an Orthodox marriage counselor, relates how he was told recently by someone he was counseling, “So what if I get divorced? Most of my friends already are, and they’re waiting for me to join them.” And this from a young kallah: “I’m not thrilled by his looks, and I don’t see why I should settle. Most of my friends have broken engagements and seem to be doing just fine.” Just as with intermarriage, the diminishing stigma attached to divorce is both a reflection of the growth of the phenomenon and a cause of its further acceleration.

On the one hand, early divorce is a subset of the larger issue of rising Orthodox divorce rates in all age groups. On the other, it is distinct in many ways. According to Rabbi Weinberger, a shocking percentage of the young divorces are over “trivialities,” not triggered by the serious issues that typically compromise marriages of middle-aged couples, such as familial trauma, unremitting financial pressure, or an affair. As an example of such “trivialities,” Shaya Ostrov cites a young kallah from a “heimish” background who decided her chosson was too boring because he did not fully appreciate her love of bungee jumping.

IN RESPONSE TO THE RISING RATE OF DIVORCE among young couples. Klal Perspectives’ Summer 5772 issue focuses on how young couples are being prepared for marriage, and offers various proposals for improving the marital preparation currently being provided. The authors’ proposals fall into two broad categories. The first group of writers addresses ways to improve the marriage preparation currently offered chassanim and kallot and to avoid pitfalls in the shidduch process itself. The second group addresses the lack of maturity of many young couples – in terms of missing life skills, lack of self-knowledge, unrealistic expectations, and a general unwillingness to take responsibility or work hard on the marital relationship.

The first area comprises the bulk of the issue, and yields many concrete suggestions that could be implemented relatively quickly and with the expectation of immediate results. Examples include expanding the scope of chosson and kallah classes, improving the training of chosson and kallah teachers, instituting marriage preparation classes for couples in such areas as communication skills and money management, and creating a formalized structure of follow-up with young couples after marriage.

But, as Rabbi Doniel Frank points out, all these proposals come with an important caveat. For those couples who have not navigated the developmental stages leading to young adulthood, expanded pre-marital training will be neither welcome nor engaging, and is unlikely to have much impact. More and more of our young people have not passed those stages. In an era in which social scientists speak of a period of “emerging adulthood” (which resembles an extension of the teenage years) into the late twenties, it is hardly surprising that the Orthodox community should have been adversely affected, and with particularly tragic results due to the societal norm of comparatively early marriage.

As noted by Dr. Yitzchak Schechter and others, too many Orthodox young people enter marriage with unrealistic expectations of instantaneous bliss and without any commitment to the hard work necessary to build and sustain a marriage. They have never had to work hard for anything in their lives or been forced to deal with situations outside of their “comfort zone.” David Seidemann, a matrimonial lawyer, currently finishing a book together with Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski and Rabbi Dovid Weinberger on rising divorce rates, After the Glass is Broken, terms this expectation of reward without any corresponding effort the “microwave effect.”

Shmuli Margulies, the founder of MESILA, an organization that trains individuals and families in issues connected to money management, points out that even the basic principle of financial education – a person’s spending is determined by his income – is unfamiliar to many young couples.  Spending decisions are dictated more often by what their friends and neighbors have than by what they can afford. His presentation includes numerous suggestions about how parents can inculcate proper attitudes towards money in their children.

But the problem goes deeper than that many of our children are spoiled and overprotected, argues Rabbi Frank. Many Orthodox young people have never adequately developed a sense of their own individuality (Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky once described every yeshiva as, to a greater or lesser extent, a “S’dom bed,” in which students are cut to the needs of the institution). And this lack of self-knowledge is expressed in deficits in their ability to make decisions, set goals, establish priorities, and plan for the future – all of which are crucial to a successful marriage. When it comes to shidduchim, they have long lists of what they want but a much weaker sense of what they have to offer a spouse.

As summed up by Dina Schoonmaker’s title “Marriage Preparation Begins at Age Two,” there are limits to the impact of any marriage preparation process that does not begin until shortly prior to the chupah. Qualities such as empathy and emotional resilience develop over a lifetime; they are not instilled in short courses. Children must learn early in life that their emotional state need not be determined by whether they attained some desired object or not, and taught techniques in controlling their emotional states.

NEVERTHELESS, despite their relative youth compared to the general population, the vast majority of Orthodox young couples do stay married. Orthodox divorce rates remain far below those for the general population. And the major Orthodox Union study on marital satisfaction, reviewed in this issue by Rabbi Steven Weil, while identifying areas in need of improvement, found that Orthodox couples report a higher level of marital satisfaction than the general public.

It must be assumed, then, that most young couples possess a sufficient level of maturity to build a successful marriage, and that enhanced preparation to facilitate the adjustment to married life is an important societal desideratum. The contributions that follow offer numerous concrete and useful suggestions on how bad shidduchim can be avoided and marriage preparation made more effective (Better preparation not only helps prevent early divorce, but enhances the marital satisfaction of the vast majority of couples who stay married).

By all accounts, the classes offered to kallot and chassanim today are far superior to those offered to their parents’ generation. For kallot, the instruction today is almost all individual, as opposed to the group format of a generation ago. Most kallah teachers and some chosson teachers undergo much more formal training than in the past.

In yeshivos, the chosson is much less likely than formerly to receive only a one-time chosson shmuess to supplement his study of the relevant halachic material. More often, he will meet at least four or five times with an experienced teacher to discuss the non-halachic aspects of marital intimacy and other topics related to successful married life. For example, such subjects as a woman’s emotional changes during pregnancy and possibility of post-partum depression are much more likely to be covered. Students in Ner Yisrael in Baltimore flock to the ten-part series about personal growth in the marriage relationship offered by Rabbi Shraga Neuberger, who has contributed an article on the subject to this issue.

At the same time, improvements in chosson and kallah teaching may not be uniform across the Orthodox spectrum. And there is evidence of room for further improvement. Dr. Steven Friedman, who treats sexual dysfunction, cites expressions of dissatisfaction with their chosson and kallah teachers by many of the couples who came to him for treatment. Since nearly half of those in his study of 41 couples also showed signs of other psychiatric issues, however, it is not clear how representative his sample was. But every contributor who addressed the need for preparation for marital intimacy stressed the importance of clear, explicit physiological information.

Physiological information, however, is only part of what is sometimes lacking. Dr. Schechter, the director of a large behavioral clinic serving the Orthodox population, points out that Orthodox youth are subjected to primarily negative messages about the opposite sex as they grow up, and those messages can continue to inhibit open expression in the marital context.

A good chosson or kallah teacher must be sensitive to the ways in which lifelong messages about tznius can be internalized in ways that impede marital intimacy. They must draw freely on the rich rabbinic literature stressing the importance of mutually satisfying marital intimacy for marital harmony. In this context, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, zt”l, used to explicate the verse, “kol kvuda bas melech p’nima (Tehillim 48:14) by pointing out that the language of kavod (honor) always has an aspect of revelation. That which the couple conceals from the outside world is revealed in the context of marital intimacy, becoming that much more powerful by virtue of the total exclusion of everyone else from that realm.

Even as the preparation of chassanim and kallot has improved dramatically, the challenges facing chosson and kallah teachers are also greater. An ever larger percentage of our young people – likely more men than women – have been exposed to sexually explicit images, in which there is an absolute divide between the mechanistic aspects of sexual relations and the emotional aspects of marital intimacy. As a consequence, they may enter marriage with totally unrealistic fantasies and a very distorted view of the emotional bond and caring necessary for fulfilling marital intimacy. Rabbi Asher Biron decries the fact that “some chosson teachers [and kallah teachers as well] have not fully adapted to this new reality and are failing to educate their students in the realm of marital intimacy.”

Numerous contributors stressed the need for follow-up with couples after marriage, when the information they were taught prior to marriage is no longer theoretical, citing favorably the formalized post-marital mentoring established in the Syrian community and in Belz and other Chassidic communities. As pointed out by Shifra Revah, Shira Hershoff and Sara Tendler, mentors can help to nip in the bud incipient tensions before they fester, and the mentor can also serve as a “first responder” in the case of serious problems. Each mentor needs to have a ready list of competent professionals to whom to refer the couple, if the need should arrive.  The kallah and chosson teachers are the most likely figures to provide that follow-up, which means that the selection of a kallah teacher with whom the kallah can establish a deep rapport is crucial.

THIS ISSUE OF KLAL PERSPECTIVES also highlights a relatively recent development: formalized pre-marital workshops for couples, designed to supplement their individual instruction with their respective chosson and kallah teachers. Such workshops provide opportunities for couples to work on communications skills, including role-playing exercises, learn some crucial rules for managing the inevitable marital conflict, and gain vital information on subjects like financial management and budgeting.

Dr. Schechter points to pre-marital courses for couples as an excellent way of pricking some overly idealistic balloons about the perfect bliss that awaits them, where never is heard a discouraging word and the children all sit happily at the Shabbos table with radiant smiles on their faces. They also offer the opportunity to discuss the ways in which the style of communication that may be appropriate to the “wars of Torah” between chavrusos in yeshiva can prove disastrous if employed with a wife, whose communication style is inevitably more consensus-oriented, not based on upshlugging (refuting) one’s study partner in the pursuit of truth.

Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, the executive director of Shalom Task Force and a trained marital and family counselor, describes the thinking behind the pioneering eight-hour S.H.A.L.O.M. Workshops (Starting Healthy and LOng-lasting Marriages), and the extremely positive feedback from participants in the program. Dr. Chani Maybruch, herself a veteran kallah teacher, cites statistics from her doctoral thesis on the impact of well-developed marriage preparation courses for couples on subsequent marital satisfaction.

As an alternative to such workshops, Dr. Neil Weisman, an Orthodox therapist, outlines a three-session pre-marital program that he conducts with couples, which helps them, inter alia, identify the communication styles and marital models in their respective families and consider the potential impact they may have on their own marriages. Shmuli Margulies focuses more narrowly on the issue of financial preparation for marriage, and Dr. Steven Friedman on preparation for marital intimacy.

NO DISCUSSION OF EARLY DIVORCE can ignore the process by which spouses are chosen, especially if, as Lisa Twerski states boldly, many of the early divorcing couples were simply unsuited for one another from the start.

There are certain inherent limitations to the shidduch process. The qualities that make for an enjoyable date may have little to do with the sustainability of a lifelong relationship. Rabbi Moshe Hauer notes, for instance, that during a shidduch meeting, each party’s attention is focused exclusively on the other. Marriage, however, requires the ability to always keep one’s spouse in mind, while attending to a hundred other matters.

Rabbi Hauer and others suggest that many of the qualities most crucial to a successful marriage – supportiveness, responsibility, honesty, empathy, physical and emotional strength – are often not the ones being emphasized in the shidduch process (Some may not even be ascertainable until put to the test). Too often, both parents and those dating fall into the superlative trap and are beguiled by qualities that may have little to do with the future relationship – the best learner, the brightest, most beautiful, richest, most meyuchasdik – and may come with a downside as well, in the form of a sense of entitlement.

Rabbi Hauer provides parents with six “conversations” to be had with their children before dating, during the shidduch process, and after the engagement to ensure that those involved are focused on what is most important. Parents must understand that their task is not just to escort their children to the chupah, but to prepare them for a successful marriage. As an important example, those who refuse to consider treatment for their children’s emotional issues out of fear of the impact on shidduchim or who conceal important information during shidduchim are not doing their children any favors (On the other hand, Dina Schoonmaker argues, even a condition requiring medication need be no barrier to a happy marriage, as long as it is disclosed appropriately during the shidduch process).

In at least one area, however, Lisa Twerski calls for less parental involvement. Rather than interpreting the “events” of dates for their children or trying to allay all their concerns, parents should encourage their child to address the concerns directly with the one they are dating, as a valuable tool to explore their emotional compatibility.

EACH ISSUE OF KLAL PERSPECTIVES is no more than an effort to stimulate communal discussion and the search for solutions to pressing communal problems. And this one is no exception. There remains an obvious need for empirical research – first, to determine how widespread is the phenomenon of early divorce, and, even more important, to ascertain the major factors in early divorces. We also need to know whether the issues discussed apply equally to the various Orthodox sub-communities, and how and why they differ. Dr. Schechter eloquently describes the need for more empirical research, and points out reasons why such research might actually be easier in the relatively close-knit Orthodox world.

Some relevant issues not addressed or dealt with only in passing include: the special problems confronting ba’alei teshuva in shidduchim and later in establishing Torah homes, without any models of what such a home looks like; means for identifying in the dating process those with the potential to be physically or emotionally abusive; the impact of parents and in-laws on early marital stress.

We encourage readers to address both the issues raised and those left unexplored in our expanded letters section.

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

To view the responses to this issue, CLICK HERE.

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