Rabbi Doniel Frank, M.Ed., LMFT
Klal Perspectives, Symposium on Preparedness for Marriage
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
There are No Shortcuts to the Chupah
Broken engagements and early divorces are the most recent of a list of social challenges facing our community. Less obvious, but also troubling, however, are that many marriages are simply low on vitality, passion, and growth. Stress and pressure are among the factors that prevent families from experiencing close relationships and that can stymie simchas ha’chaim, in general.
As a marriage and family therapist working almost exclusively with singles and couples in the religious community, as well as having been a director of Ohel’s school-based program that serviced more than 25 yeshivas in the New York area, it is my view that the challenges to a healthy and meaningful marriage do not lie in obstacles that can be addressed by simple, short-term solutions. The problems are rather the product of systemic failures in the manner in which much of our youth are being educated and raised. These deficiencies result in deficits in fundamental life skills and attitudes, including those necessary for marriage.
Unfortunately, the prevalent approach in much of today’s childrearing and education results in children being marched to the chupah with inadequately formed identities, the absence of a true self-awareness, weak goals, drives and people skills, and minds often filled with complacency and confusion. Seeking to implement basic, relatively brief pre-marital programs that are intended to address a few skills or attitudes that will ostensibly improve married life is insufficient. The community must consider a far more extensive evaluation of its approach to raising children and implement a comprehensive initiative to properly prepare our youth for marriage and for life.
Developing Life Attitudes and Skill
Reaching the chupah is merely one step in the developmental process of growing up. For a child to fare well, the earlier stages in a child’s life must also be confronted and, with proper training, mastered. These prior stages require the development of self, as well as learning to relate to all that surrounds oneself. This is ultimately achieved by facing, rather than avoiding, the series of challenges that are designed to mold character and refine personality.
As such, the preliminary requirements that parents and educators must follow are:
- Recognize, accept, and work with the uniqueness of each child;
- Acknowledge and address each stage of the child’s development, and
- Offer the child guidance for each stage of his or her development.
Unfortunately, our community has been generally unsuccessful in this regard, often preferring avoidance to responsibility. Many of our children are thus not engaging life’s challenges, and as a result, fail to develop the sense of self, the skills, and the attitudes that such engagement is intended to develop. The prevalence of external influences, such as media and technology, provide a means for children to avoid intimate contact with others and with themselves. Furthermore, we live in an age that is replete with choices and options, offering our youth plenty of ‘outs’ to sidestep challenges that would otherwise force them to confront life and develop strength, resilience, and character along the way. For example, if a teacher, a roommate, or a yeshiva is not a perfect fit, the instinct is to seek an alternative rather than to deal with the accompanying tension.
However, before addressing these significant external challenges, it first behooves the community to address the negative internal influences imposed on our children by the community itself.
Avoidance of the Individual
I have discovered that within our community, one of the risk factors for a successful marriage is when a husband or wife is lacking in basic self-awareness and a sense of who they are as individuals. Counseling these people typically reveals that they are suffering from the expectations and rigid, one-size-fits-all upbringing that is all-too-common in our communities. This simply disregards the nuanced – and sometimes not-so-nuanced – differences among children.
Maintaining a fixed image of how children should be risks stifling their personality, creativity, and, in turn, their happiness. Often, the more accommodating of our youth will adapt by developing a false persona, in an attempt to please their families and schools and, eventually, shadchanim and even future spouses. While some will act as they really are with their most intimate friends, others will retain their imposed veneer even to themselves. This duplicity often surfaces for the first time in the context of counseling, by which time it has already caused much hurt and disappointment.
As hurtful as it is, this duplicitous behavior is usually not deliberate. Many are not even aware of the extent to which they are strangers to themselves and their needs. Because they have not consolidated a healthy self-image, they avoid dealing with it. Unsuspectingly, yet cavalierly, they head towards dating, with human shopping lists in hand, feeling much more comfortable describing what they “want” than who they “are.”
Avoidance of Stages
Another manifestation of our communal avoidance is the manner by which our community chooses to address the life stage of adolescence. Adolescence is a pivotal life stage during which children are supposed to evolve into young adults. For a child, this stage is fraught with confusing social dynamics, physical changes, and emotional evolution. Rather than engaging our children in confronting these enormous challenges, our approach tends to minimize these challenges and focus mainly on our children’s academic and religious experiences. We typically leave adolescents to navigate these turbulent times without adequate and proactive parental or chinuch guidance.
A primary example is the communal approach in guiding teenagers as they confront their newly-developing physical urges. The combination of raging hormones, peer pressure, and unprecedented exposure to media and the Internet imposes an almost impossible battle to remain disciplined, pure, and focused on Torah values.
The Rambam (Isurai Bi’ah, 22:18) describes the temptation toward illicit behavior as the Jewish people’s most difficult challenge – and that was before the Internet. Yet too often, family and school offer little more than prohibitions, punishments, and shaming. A cat-and-mouse game thus tends to play out throughout these critical years, leaving youth to falter and struggle alone. Opportunities to provide meaningful and relevant hadracha are typically forfeited, often sending the message that neither the Torah nor the community has any constructive guidance regarding the issues of life most immediately relevant to them.
Avoidance of Responsibility
Another critical prerequisite to a successful marriage is a mutual sense of responsibility. However, with no assurance that they have developed this level of maturity, many young men and women begin dating simply because they have reached a certain age or stage. Whether they are developmentally ready to choose the correct spouse and to assume the responsibilities of marriage is not considered.
In assessing whether a child has sufficient maturity to seek a spouse, a key indicator is whether they have made the transition from the “teenager attitude” to an “adult attitude.”
“Treat me like an adult… but don’t hold me accountable for my behavior.” A typical teenager will borrow the car, but simply hand the keys back to his parents and walk away despite returning the car with bumps and bruises. When held accountable, however, the teenager will suddenly replace the demands to be treated like an adult with a cowering retreat to childhood.
Developed young adults, by contrast, think differently. They understand that their lives are their own, and that they are at the frontline of responsibility for their decisions – whether regarding choice of lifestyle, career, or spouse. They do not make proposals without also considering their implications. They anticipate possible obstacles and consider contingency plans. They appreciate that relationships inevitably present challenges, and they roll up their sleeves and exert effort to engage the challenges, rather than simply “blame and complain.”
The key hurdle to a successful marriage is thus assuring that the couple getting married has actually advanced psychologically from the stage of adolescence to young adulthood.
Avoidance of Planning
Often, there is a lot of talk during dating about planning and parnassa. For many, however, even addressing such future plans is viewed as a distraction from a focus on Torah study and reflects a lack of idealism and bitachon. While idealism and bitachon are certainly appropriate, young people often take these values far beyond where they are meant to apply. In particular, marriage is dependent on spouses taking responsibility for one another, and maturity is contingent upon deliberate and thoughtful growth. Planning is an exercise that must permeate all aspects of life, and does not extend just to parnassa.
Rabbi Moshe Possick of Torah Umesorah shared with me a conversation he once had with the Philadelphia Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Elya Svei, zt”l. Rabbi Possick had expressed frustration regarding several young, yeshiva men whom he had interviewed for jobs, who had no short or long-term career goals. Rav Svei responded: “You are asking the wrong question. Instead, ask them what their goals are for this year in their learning and in their yiras Hashem. They won’t know that either. Your concern isn’t limited to professional goals, but applies to their entire approach to life.”
Communal discourse on dating and marriage understandably focuses on premarital classes. Compelling arguments in their favor are supported by the findings of clinical studies and professional experience. Such classes tend to be particularly helpful for those who attend voluntarily. For the many couples who have not navigated the developmental stages leading to young adulthood, however, pre-marital classes tend to be neither welcome, nor engaging. For most couples getting married, the expectation that pre-marital classes will significantly enhance their marriage is overly optimistic.
For the most part, premarital sessions should be reinforcing and applying familiar concepts, rather than introducing new ones. For the inadequately prepared chosson or kallah, the paradigm for marital preparedness is so radically different, and the skillset advocated in the sessions so much more demanding than anticipated, that the premarital class is more than likely to be disregarded. As any therapist (or mashgiach) can attest, attitudes and relationship skills require time to master. Young and immature individuals cannot be converted magically into a responsible couple. Nor can last-minute marriage training imbue empathy, flexibility, and resilience. And these are not the types of skills one can assume will develop over time.
Finally, premarital sessions suffer for being presented at wholly the wrong time. During the short period between engagement and marriage, a young couple is often incapable of imagining that mundane challenges could ever threaten their “invincible” bond. They neither focus adequately on the messages, nor appreciate their significance or implications.
A Comprehensive Solution
If marriages are to improve, preparation for marriage must begin in childhood – not during the period immediately prior to marriage. A comprehensive plan must be introduced to train our children to engage each stage of their development, become self-aware, and assume a sense of personal responsibility. And the sense of responsibility must be extended to all aspects of life – not merely marriage. The effort to inculcate these cultural and attitudinal dimensions must permeate the educational and social system of the community, likely beginning no later than their middle school years.
For starters, as our children journey through the various stages of development, they need permission to be themselves. They need to be parented and educated based on who they are, and not on how others would prefer them to be. Beyond that, they need to learn why and how to develop vision and goals, whether for their studies, interests or chores. And, they need to be allowed to find positive expressions for their natural passions and interests. Beyond that, children need to be compelled to take responsibility for setbacks, build meaningful relationships with their family and peers, and make good decisions during their adolescent years.
Simultaneously, parents and educators must be trained to facilitate these skills in children, and to include these skill-training techniques as an intrinsic part of educational and family systems. Parents and educators also must be taught to identify deficiencies in children that may be pathological and require professional help.
In addition, adults – both parents and educators – need to be taught how to serve as wise, open, and empathic guides for their pre-teens and teens, before and during their journey through adolescence. They need to learn what to say and how to say it, how to broach particular topics and how to deal with guilt and rebound from failure. In some cases, the adults need to confront their own challenges in these areas before being a guide for others.
For example, sexuality is an uncomfortable topic to address with youngsters, but discomfort cannot justify its avoidance. Though halacha limits public discourse in this area, neither halacha nor standards of tznius dictate that the issue be ignored and avoided; rather, they impose a greater duty since it is a topic that must addressed privately and with personalized guidance.
And finally, parents of children who are set to date must use whatever parental privileges they have to help them assess their children’s dating readiness, and to ensure their children are able to express coherently who they are, and what their plans are.
The wide scope of needs may seem like an overwhelming task. It is. And as a parent and educator who has taught in a classroom for over ten years, I fully appreciate the variables that make this proposal truly challenging. But organizations and private practitioners have already started working on it. As one example, for close to ten years, our school-based service program has offered skills-training seminars to thousands of students, staff, and parents in Rockland County and Northern New Jersey.
Recently, we have incorporated these programs in an independent, international entity called M.A.P. (Motivation and Performance) Seminars, Inc., which will bring these training opportunities beyond the New York tri-state area as well. We have added an original curriculum to train parents how to guide their children through adolescence, and are currently working on a system by which to assess dating readiness. The latter is a work-in-progress, and we welcome the participation and input of others.
These comprehensive and developmental training opportunities offered by M.A.P. Seminars, Inc.* are available as school- and community-based seminars, as well as on our webinar platform. They include:
- Parent and Staff Adolescent Readiness Training (“Rapid Alert”).Preparing adults to be effective guides for children entering adolescence.
- School-Based Seminars.Prepares junior high and high school students in the following skills:
- Interpersonal Skills (e.g. communication, accommodation, empathy)
- Goal Setting
- Decision Making
In addition, there are seminars that train parents and school staff to reinforce these skills in the home and in the classroom.
- Dating Readiness. Trains post-high school students in dating skills. It applies the skills taught in the school-based seminars to dating readiness, helping singles evaluate themselves and any prospective shidduch based on the criteria described in this article.
- Parent Privileges. Assists parents to facilitate their children’s dating readiness, as well as how to ask the right questions to determine the appropriate readiness of a suggested shidduch.
- Pre-Marital Seminar. This training applies the skills taught in the school-based seminars to marriage and family life. This effort works best when it follows a series of learning experiences that the student has already enjoyed. Participants are, therefore, already aware of the applicable skills and concepts, and their significance.
- Post-Marital Coaching. Helps young couples navigate the many challenges involved in the first year of marriage.
Deficient efforts in preparing for marriage can have devastating consequences, often with little chance for remedies. In some cases, slow starts in marriage can rapidly become fast finishes. Alas, there are no shortcuts to building healthy, long-term relationships.
No one can be expected to be fully prepared for marriage without having experienced it. But one who shows proficiency in the basic skills we have discussed is well positioned to develop a healthy self-concept, relate effectively with people, achieve clarity of purpose, and confidently assert their readiness for dating, marriage, careers and life.
*More information can be found at www.mapseminars.com.