Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, M.A.
Klal Perspectives, Symposium on Preparedness for Marriage
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
The Need for Premarital Education
Are we doing enough to prepare our children for marriage in an era when divorce is becoming more common in the Orthodox Jewish community? I’m not talking about the halachic pre-marital preparation couples undertake with a chosson or kallah teacher before they get married. What I’m referring to is the knowledge of a set of effective communication and relationship skills and basic financial management tools necessary for a successful marriage that have been shown to enhance marital satisfaction and longevity.
Consider the case of a young couple who recently came to my office for counseling. They had been married for just four months and were experiencing considerable marital distress. Within a month of their wedding, the young woman had become pregnant, but wasn’t sure she wanted to continue with the marriage. The husband, who was learning in kollel, reported significant financial conflict with his wife’s parents and that he found himself unprepared to deal with his wife’s “erratic” emotions. I also quickly learned that, due to the nausea the woman was experiencing, they had not had any physical relations in the prior three months.
I am aware that this may be an acute example of a young couple learning to adjust to their new lives, but I have seen many cases with similar or more complex problems presented by young Orthodox couples who were not prepared to deal with the relational or the financial issues that commonly arise in marriage.
There is no question that today’s young couples are facing many complex pressures. The typical marriage – managing two careers while rearing children – requires that couples have very strong, well-established skills to express their feelings, to communicate, to clarify their expectations and to resolve issues. Problems can intrude much more easily than most couples realize. Marriage preparation can function as an immunization that boosts a couple’s capacity to handle potential difficulties.
Premarital education may be the “silver bullet” that our community needs to enable young marriages to thrive. Such education would provide knowledge and skills-based training. Topics to be covered should include: talking and listening skills, self-awareness, expectations, stress styles, decision-making, caring behaviors and financial awareness.
Premarital education is important for several reasons. First, it helps couples assess potential conflict areas stemming from different views or expectations concerning issues such as finances, work and children. Second, it gives couples a sense of confidence that if and when a problem arises they have a set of skills that can help them resolve their challenges. Third, by participating in a premarital education program, couples are demonstrating that they are committed to collaborating together to solve problems that may arise.
Recently, there has been significant research in the field of premarital education, all of which demonstrates convincingly that it is effective and useful in relationships. One study, entitled “Self-Directed, Therapist-Directed, and Assessment-Based Interventions for Premarital Couples,” found that premarital education programs are especially effective for improving communication processes, learning conflict management skills and enhancing overall relationship quality (Busby et al, 2007). Another study, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Premarital Prevention Programs: A Meta-Analytic Review of Outcome Research, concluded that many premarital programs significantly improve relationship functioning and help couples maintain high levels of satisfaction. Furthermore, researchers found that premarital education encourages couples excited about their engagement simply to slow down and to talk about major areas of their relationship, and to hear about their future spouse’s perspectives on life and marriage (Carroll and Doherty, 2003).
The S.H.A.L.O.M. Workshop
Shalom Task Force is an organization that was founded to promote healthy and peaceful marriages. In 2007, they recognized the paucity of premarital education in the Orthodox community and launched a new program called S.H.A.L.O.M Workshop (Starting Healthy And LOng lasting Marriages) that was designed to help prepare young couples for marriage.
The S.H.A.L.O.M. Workshop, which has been presented to over 1,000 couples, is an evidence-based, scientifically-validated program designed to teach core relationship skills focusing on the centrality of bonding (attachment) and to develop a unique understanding of the logic of love and emotions. Offered in various locations across the metropolitan New York area by a team of trained, Orthodox presenters, S.H.A.L.O.M. Workshop exercises are delivered to couples in either a private or group setting. The three- to four-hour-long program can take either one or several sessions to complete. Couples learn practical, immediately-usable skills for improving interpersonal communication and understanding emotions. They learn how to navigate conflict and differences, uncover hidden expectations and assumptions that can otherwise sabotage close relationships, and identify “emotional allergies” they each may have, and what may trigger strong reactions.
Results of a customer satisfaction survey indicate that the most valued components of the program are the interactive exercises designed to increase bonding, build self-awareness, and improve communication and conflict resolution skills. The couples most valued each of the following components:
1. Stress Styles of Communication: a graphic presentation designed to build awareness of their own typical reactions to stress. They learn how stress impacts on their style of communication, creating emotional distance rather than closeness and understanding.
2. Daily Temperature Reading: an exercise tool meant to promote healthy habits, such as looking for and expressing appreciation to one another, keeping up with developments in each other’s lives, and expressing concerns along with specific requests for change.
3. “I Talk” vs. “You Talk”: an exercise in which couples practice framing critical messages and complaints in the language of “this is how I feel because of abc” rather than “abc is what you are doing wrong.”
4. Good Talking and Listening Skills: an interactive discussion that promotes awareness of non-verbal communication, which helps couples (1) become both more effective speakers, by recognizing the messages their spouse may actually be receiving from them, and (2) become more effective listeners, by recognizing the message their spouse is actually trying to convey to them.
5. Talking Tips: an in-depth exercise designed to give couples a structure they can use to practice effective listening and speaking skills while confiding in their partner about a complaint. The Talking-Tips exercise leads the couple through a range of intentions, including objectively noticing a behavior, expressing hurt, frustration or worry, stating a specific request for change, and ending with positive appreciation and hopes.
6. “Care Bank”: a practice that reinforces the importance of couples building and storing positive feeling towards one another through regular actions and through words that promote feelings of appreciation and love. The Care Bank helps each person articulate what uniquely makes them feel cared for.
7. “Emptying the Jug:” a technique for identifying and expressing pent-up emotions and helping couples get in touch with each other rather than attack each other. This exercise stresses the importance of always ending an interaction with an expression of mutual appreciation – to the speaker for using the process of “emptying their jug,” and to the listener for being present and for listening with empathy and respect.
Participant feedback generated through self-reporting pre- and post-tests was overwhelmingly positive, and revealed that:
• 98% said that they were better able to talk about their true feelings.
• 96% said they were more sensitive to each other’s feelings.
• 93% said they had more realistic expectations about building a healthy marriage.
• 93% said they learned how to talk more respectfully.
• 93% reported that they learned how to become better listeners.
• 93% said they learned some valuable communication tools that they can use to discuss difficult issues.
• 93% said they learned how to express their opinions and ideas more clearly.
• 92% learned how to resolve their differences more effectively.
It is important to note that the positive data from these pre and post-tests only reflected participants’ attitudes at the time they took the workshop, either while they were engaged or shortly after marriage. However, clearer evidence of the long-term efficacy of the program was revealed in 2011 by the results of a groundbreaking study on relationship satisfaction and pre-marital education, conducted by Dr. Chani Maybruch, of Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration (See Dr. Maybruch’s article in this issue). The study reviewed the relationship education that was being offered in the Orthodox community, examined the state of marriage relationships and considered what steps could be expected to have a positive impact. Over 2,750 respondents participated in an online survey, 91% of whom were married for the first time. The online survey included questions on relationship education, including high school and premarital education for engaged couples. The Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS), modified for Orthodox respondents, was used to measure the level of marital satisfaction (Maybruch, 2012b).
Eight hundred and thirty-two S.H.A.L.O.M. Workshop graduates where invited to participate in the online survey; 74 individuals (8%) completed the survey. A statistical test was conducted to determine whether or not there were differences in marital satisfaction as measured by the DAS between those who attended the S.H.A.L.O.M. Workshop for engaged couples, another premarital workshop, or no premarital workshop. The difference in marital satisfaction between these three groups was statistically significant (that is, greater than would occur by chance).
According to Maybruch’s study, those who participated in the S.H.A.L.O.M. Workshop had the highest overall level of marital satisfaction, which was higher than both those who participated in another premarital workshop, and those who did not participate in any premarital workshop (Maybruch, 2012a).
Considering how effective premarital education has been for Orthodox couples, why don’t more couples take advantage of it? The primary reasons that have been identified are stigma, communal structure and time constraints.
One of the greatest impediments to increased participation in premarital workshops is the perceived stigma associated with attending. Couples may fear that participating is a sign of weakness or that attending such a workshop may be viewed as a public admission that they are somehow in need of “help,” or that their engagement is “in trouble.”
Moreover, many Orthodox Jews are suspicious of mental health professionals in general. Some even view mental health professionals as representatives of the unchaste and decadent secular world from which they try to isolate themselves and their families (Schnall, 2006). They assume that these professionals will challenge their values or encourage them to compromise religious beliefs pertaining to marital behavior and religious standards. When premarital relationship education is confused with therapy, it further reinforces the misimpression that the S.H.A.L.O.M. Workshop is for people “in trouble.”
In recent years, the vast majority of couples are being married not by the rabbi of their shul but by their rebbeim in yeshiva, who also provide them with pre-marital guidance. As a result, young men generally receive chosson classes that are designed within the context of their yeshiva. These classes tend to focus primarily on issues concerning taharas hamishpocho (halachos of family purity), generally do not teach communication and relationship skills and are less open to marital guidance that is not sourced in rabbinic literature.
Additionally, chosson and kallah teachers do not teach the couple-to-be together and are unable to see how they interact in a systemic fashion. Premarital education is a dynamic and interactive experience, where both chosson and kallah learn how to communicate with each other and to practice what they have learned in the classroom. They have the opportunity as a couple to ask instructors relevant questions pertaining to their unique style of interaction. Without seeing the couple together, little relational information can be detected. Witnessing first hand how the couple relates to each other provides important feedback for the instructor to modify or highlight certain communication exercises that can be tailored to the couple’s needs.
The relatively short amount of time between the engagement and the wedding leaves a small window of opportunity for premarital education. During this period, young couples – who are usually attending yeshiva, pursuing an academic degree or working – are overwhelmed with wedding preparations, seeking living accommodations, and negotiating details with parents and in-laws. This dizzying period in a couple’s life is simply not conducive to the deliberate and focused process of developing the emotional foundation of their relationship.
Since 2011, Shalom Task Force has trained over 75 Orthodox religious and lay leaders to present premarital programs in their communities. What is now needed is a community-wide response to combat the rising rate of divorce and to properly educate young couples on how to have a healthy and long-lasting marriage. For over twenty years, the South African Jewish community has mandated that all couples wishing to get married in a synagogue must complete a skills-based, premarital education program. This process now needs the full support of the rabbinic leadership in the U.S., who can collectively institute premarital educational programs for all young couples.
Additionally, training more religious and lay leaders such as rabbis, rebbetzins, chosson and kallah teachers, and yeshiva rabbeim, to deliver premarital workshops needs to be a priority. Overall, religious institutions and mashgichim in yeshivas who traditionally prepare their students for marriage are likely the best candidates to deliver premarital education. With widespread acceptance among the rabbinical and yeshiva communities, any stigma surrounding marriage education would disappear.
Finally, broadening the concept of premarital education to the first year of marriage, shana rishona, will give more couples the opportunity to take a marriage preparation workshop while their relationship is still in its formative stages. This is a step Shalom Task Force took this year when it opened the S.H.A.L.O.M Workshop to both engaged and married couples.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, is a Marriage and Family Therapist, and is the Executive Director of Shalom Task Force.
To view the other responses in this issue, CLICK HERE.
Busby, D., Ivey, D., Harris, Ates, C. (2007). Self-Directed, Therapist-Directed, and Assesment-Based Interventions for Premarital Couples. Family Relations 56.3 (2007): 279-290.
Carroll, J., and Doherty, J. (2003) Evaluating the Effectiveness of Premarital Prevention Programs: A Meta-Analytic Review of Outcome Research. Family Relations 52.2 (2003): 105.
Maybruch, C. (2012a). [Data from a survey on premarital education in the North American Orthodox Jewish community]. Unpublished raw data.
Maybruch, C. (2012b). Relationship Education for Modern Orthodox Jewish Adolescents and Marital Satisfaction: A Quantitative Study. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Yeshiva University, New York, NY.
Schnall, E. (2006). Multicultural Counseling and the Orthodox Jew. Journal of Counseling & Development, 84 (2006): 276-282.