Rabbi Asher Biron
Klal Perspectives, Symposium on Preparedness for Marriage
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Observations of a Chosson Teacher
The great Rav and Posek Rav Eliyahu Henkin, zt”l, is reputed to have claimed some fifty years ago that over ninety percent of the numerous cases of marital discord he addressed were rooted in improper attitudes and actions in the realm of intimacy. Currently, many marriage counselors and educators agree that problems regarding intimacy remain the greatest challenge to marital success. Nevertheless, they point out that other factors now also play a role. Common, significant difficulties include financial strains, the stress of overworked couples – particularly when both must be wage earners – and the attitude of this “disposable generation.”
Rav Henkin was certainly not the first to highlight the crucial role that intimacy plays in a marriage. For example, the Talmud (Shabbos 152a) reports that Rebbe asked Rav Shimon Ben Chalafta why he did not attend the major lecture given that Yom Tov. Rav Shimon responded, “Little hills appear as large mountains to climb, places that were close seem quite distant, and two have become three” (i.e., the walk had become too much. “Two becoming three” hinted at his need to supplement his two legs with a cane). Significantly, however, Rav Shimon added one more cryptic explanation: maysim shalom babayis batel (what brings harmony to the home has been negated). Rashi explains that Rav Shimon was referring to the ability to be intimate. Apparently, the ravages of old age had taken their toll, frustrating his ability to be intimate with his wife. His shalom bayis apparently compromised, Rav Shimon felt it would be wrong to “abandon” his wife in order to attend the shiur, and so he remained home instead.
Similarly, the Talmud (Brachos 62a) quotes Rav Kahana’s position that proper actions in the area of intimacy are no less a part of Torah than any other mitzvah, and must be taught by a rebbe to his student, just as any discipline of Torah would be transmitted. I was told in a private communication with one of the foremost mashgichim of our generation that this instruction must be given “b’Rachel bitcha hakitanah,” i.e, with great clarity and specificity. The importance of a comprehensive and instructive chosson or kallah shmooze should not be underestimated.
Beginning over forty years ago in Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, the concept of a chosson shmuz began to become institutionalized. In this one-on-one, multi session instruction prior to his wedding, a groom would be given marital guidance from a Torah viewpoint, as well as practical advice for a successful marriage. Today, at that Torah citadel, it is almost unheard of for one to arrive at the chupah without such guidance. The chosson shmooze has become widely recognized as a vital component of marriage preparation, particularly in our times, when young men are subject to the impressions of prevalent immodest images and skewed perspectives.
Unfortunately, however, there is evidence that some chosson teachers have not adapted their instruction to this new reality, and are failing to educate their students sufficiently in the realm of intimacy.
Similarly, through anecdotal evidence and conversations with kallah teachers, I have gleaned that, although there has been improvement in overall marital education for kallahs, education in the area of intimacy is sometimes still inadequate. Some kallah teachers feel that their domain is solely the laws of family purity, while hadracha for intimacy should be left to the mother of the bride. Many mothers, however, are uncomfortable guiding their daughters in these matters, and this education is not provided. Other teachers may retain the old approach, believing that intimacy need not be addressed prior to marriage, since the kallah will simply follow her chosson’s lead or will adapt gradually.
Most kallah teachers, however, recognize a new reality in the concerns of present day kallahs. With the unfortunate proliferation of divorce, many brides know of marriages of friends or relatives that quickly disintegrated. Additionally, in our open society, many kallahs hear that mistreatment can exist in intimacy. As a result, young women often enter marriage with an unprecedented degree of anxiety – and occasional mistrust. If she then encounters intimate behavior on the part of her husband that, due to her lack of education, she deems abnormal or unexpectedly inappropriate for her well-respected chosson, she may react in a manner that can set in motion a downward spiral, with potentially disastrous results.
Preparing a kallah in advance regarding the range of what is normal, and what to expect, eliminates many risks, and likely facilitates a much smoother transition to married life. Without this vital instruction, many misconceptions are retained, leading to unnecessary stress in the marital relationship. Lacking guidance, expectations can be either excessive, particularly in the beginning, or too low to allow a healthy relationship in the physical aspect of marriage.
Responsible parents will ensure that their child receives a superior chosson or kallah shmuz. As in any field, there are both good teachers and inferior ones. Though experience of the teacher is certainly a positive attribute, it is not the whole story. Research by parents to select an appropriate teacher should begin with finding one who is culturally appropriate. Some parents may then choose to speak to parents of former students of this teacher. In other cases, their child may choose to speak to former students himself or herself. The following questions should be asked: Was the instruction clear and comprehensive? Was the teacher comfortable responding to questions? Did the sessions leave you with positive feelings toward marriage? Did you bond with the teacher sufficiently to return after marriage with questions? And finally, did you feel optimally prepared?
The Interpersonal Relationship
In addition to the area of intimacy, chosson and kallah teachers must also provide practical hadracha (guidance) for the couple’s bain adam lechavero – their interpersonal relationship. For many young people, inappropriate attitudes complicate adjustment to a new relationship as intense as marriage. One such destructive influence is the pervasive environment of the “Me Generation,” which translates into looking out for “Numero Uno.” This does not bode well for a life of matrimonial bliss. Similarly, dogmatic and rigid attitudes often lead to an inability to compromise, a most essential ingredient in any successful marriage.
Another factor that young people in our community must grapple with is the effect of gender separation through the teen and young adult years. Such segregation is necessary to avoid serious halachic issues, but imposes an even greater need to familiarize a chosson and kallah with the significant differences between the mindsets and expectations of men and women. An effective instructor will clarify differences in interests, perspectives, sensitivities and even yetzer horahs, and provide the tools to deal with them. For example, whereas a wife may be interested in new recipes or shopping, her husband may enjoy following sports or the stock market. While each spouse need not spend equal time on matters that bore him or her, respect and consideration require that each show some interest in the spouse’s diversions, and certainly refrain from deriding their spouse’s interests.
A classic illustration of different perspectives is the scenario of a husband bringing home an old friend for dinner unexpectedly. In the husband’s view, this is simply an opportunity to provide a meal and share old memories. For the wife, by contrast, this situation can be a source of great embarrassment. If she feels that her housekeeping or her meal was substandard at that time, she will assume that the guest has judged her and found her incompetent. By presenting this example, the instructor can emphasize that each person’s perspective is valid, and that there is no point in debating who is right or wrong. Moreover, a young man can be shown that distressing his wife could be avoided by simply calling her to apprise her of his desire to bring home a guest and to ask whether she would mind. This would give his wife, if she is agreeable to hosting, an opportunity to tidy the home. More importantly, it would convey the husband’s concern for his wife’s needs and feelings.
Engaged couples also need guidance vis-a-vis the common occurrence of irritating behavior on the part of their future spouses. Techniques such as positive reinforcement, non-confrontational strategies, and dos and don’ts of direct communication must be taught by their chosson/kallah teachers. As an illustration, the chosson/kallah may be asked to consider a marriage between one who is very punctual and one who is chronically late. The first stage in addressing an irritatingly tardy spouse would be an expression of appreciation when he or she is on time. Obviously, most people react much better to positive reinforcement than to negative rejoinders. If positive reinforcement proves inadequate or the opportunity does not arise, then strategy must be employed. For example, a buffer zone can be created, by which a spouse who desires a prompt 7:00pm departure may suggest aiming for 6:30. This encourages a helpful mindset that may lead to leaving on time.
When neither positive reinforcement nor strategy has worked, a more direct approach and open discussion is necessary. Several categories of statements are taboo when discussing an irritant. These include expressions of exaggeration and hyperbole, such as “You never…” or “You always…” Similarly, while sarcasm may help to get something off one’s chest, it will make the other spouse defensive, perhaps offended and less receptive to change. And most certainly, confrontational language, such as “What is wrong with you?” or “Is it so difficult to…” will invariably evoke a counterattack in response.
A far better approach begins with acknowledging the difficulty of overcoming the troublesome trait or habit. Then the irritated spouse should explain, “I will feel bad if I miss my friend’s chupah,” or “I am embarrassed when I am late for my appointment. Let’s brainstorm together to find a solution.” This method avoids putting the spouse on the defensive. Approaching the spouse for an idea or suggestion conveys a respectful request rather than criticism.
Chassanim and kallahs need to understand that if the techniques they are taught are not successful in conflict resolution, they should not hesitate to seek advice from those who have shown themselves to be wise and calm, such as chosson or kallah teachers, mentors or former teachers. Generally, parents are not a good resource, as they are too close to the situation to provide objective advice. On the contrary, they sometimes inadvertently deepen the rift. There is no shame in seeking guidance, particularly in shana rishona (the first year).
A veteran kallah teacher recently presented a training course for new kallah teachers. She informed her class that, after decades of instructing brides, she had recently revised her first kallah lesson. Rather then beginning with the laws of family purity, she now challenges the kallah to identify a midah that she feels she needs to work on. It may be patience, humility, unselfishness, serenity, truthfulness, kindness or any other good midah. Beginning with this exercise establishes the awareness that the most vital element in creating a positive relationship is good character, and that married people must strive to improve themselves rather than their spouses. Obviously, this concept applies to chassanim as well, and they, too, would benefit greatly from this exercise.
Unrealistic expectations can derail a potentially happy marriage. Again, a competent chosson or kallah teacher can often preempt derailment by raising this issue and presenting typical situations. For example, at least initially, a husband or wife cannot expect a spouse’s loyalty to them to supercede the loyalty they feel towards their respective parents. Relationships with parents, established over the course of twenty years or more, are not swiftly overridden by the newly established relationship of husband and wife. As such, a reasonable level of connection with parents and family must not be stifled. In this regard, children frequently consider themselves extensions of their parents and perceive any criticism of parents as a personal insult. A well-educated spouse is therefore sensitive to the need to avoid speaking ill of in-laws.
In an effort to preempt problems and strife that may emerge shortly after marriage, several communities have recently implemented organized efforts to provide follow-up guidance for young couples. In the Belzer community, an extensive program has been established for post- marital counseling for young men. In Lakewood, New Jersey, one veteran kallah teacher created a system where all new brides are encouraged to attend three group review lessons. The prime focus of these sessions is to afford the young kallah an opportunity to hear again the same ideas that were presented during her engagement period, when the lessons were not yet applicable and may have taken a backseat to wedding preparations. Many a kallah may not have focused on lessons of conflict resolution, as any disharmony with her apparently perfect chosson seemed impossible. Post wedding, when the fantasy of a perfect spouse has faded, the advice is much more relevant and timely.
Clearly, marriage preparation for chassanim and kallahs is vital in all areas relating to married life. Ideally, of course, we should instill in our children from their earliest years the midos that will enable them to be worthy, successful spouses. However, once they have reached the stage of engagement, the crucial factor in achieving marital success is thorough instruction by a capable chosson/kallah teacher who understands the challenges of our times. Follow-up sessions can be extremely beneficial as well. Armed with an understanding of the role of intimacy, educated in the workings of interpersonal relationships and provided with the tools for problem solving, a chosson and kallah can look forward to building, b’ezras Hashem, a home permeated with shalom bayis and joy.