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Shaya Ostrov, LCSW

Klal Perspectives, Symposium on Preparedness for Marriage

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE. 

The Menuchah Principle in Engagement and Marriage

Evidence of the Growing Crisis

It is conspicuously evident in my own practice – counseling dating, engaged and married couples – that there is a growing crisis in our community of broken engagements and early divorces. A quick scan of my most recent meetings with married and engaged couples revealed that over half had been previously married or had broken engagements. It appears that we are witnessing the fabric of many precious young lives unraveling and being thrown into a tragic abyss, touching every individual and family in Klal Yisroel.

The primary aim of this article will be to demonstrate how this growing phenomenon is the direct result of our immersion in the culture of contemporary, Western society. Though on one level, this society has given us the carte blanch freedom to express ourselves externally as Jews, it has also usurped, and laid claim to, our ruchnius. This has had a negative impact on the ability of a growing number of young couples to develop a mutual commitment of love and closeness, which is so essential to engagement and marriage.

This article will explore the dynamics of how this challenge confronts our young couples, and will discuss how the teaching and cultivation of menuchas hanefesh can guide them through the overwhelming confusion and turbulence they experience throughout the process of engagement and marriage.

Before I share my insights and observations as to the causes, as well as models for prevention and education, I feel it is essential to first present a few descriptions of the couples and individuals I have seen, and the nature of their distress.

Four Relationships in Distress

1. Ari is an articulate and intelligent young man from a well-respected, “yeshivish” family. While only twenty four, he was preparing for his second marriage, his first marriage having ended just six months earlier.

“Beginning with the first days of our sheva brochos, my first marriage was a nightmare that never endedFrom the beginning, it was a tragic mistake and I couldn’t wait to get out.

“I met my present kallah a few months after the get, and thought she was everything my first wife could never be. But now, as the wedding is getting closer, I’m experiencing the same feelings of anxiety, anger and hurt toward my kallah that I felt toward my first wife. Everyone told me my first wife was to blame. But now I’m beginning to fear that I also had a lot to do with killing the marriage and that I’m running headlong into a second tragedy.”

Ari was overwhelmed by his confusion and fear of another impending disaster. He was seriously considering breaking the engagement.

2. Bracha’s wedding was just two weeks away. She was about to call off the wedding but her friend pressured her to consult with me before she alerted her parents or her chosson. She confided in me that all her life she dreamed that her engagement would be accompanied by a sense of excitement and that she would “really be into” her chosson. Alas, those feeling are absent. She feels “pareve” and uninspired. “This is not how I want to live my life. I’m scared that I’m throwing my life away,” she explained, emphatically and tearfully.

3. While still in their shana rishona (first year of marriage), Malkie and Shimon have been experiencing an ongoing crisis that began shortly after their wedding when Shimon asked Malkie to lose weight. Malkie never thought of herself as overweight, and was deeply hurt and upset. For the sake of the marriage, Malkie decided to accommodate Shimon’s request, joining a gym, and going on a diet. In fact, she soon began to look and feel trimmer. Shimon, however, then began to obsess over other features of Malkie’s appearance, and she began to experience a deepening sense of depression, along with low self-esteem. “I just can’t trust him any longer. How can I live with someone I know is unsatisfied every time he looks at me and finds something else he dislikes? I never fathomed that I would ever want a divorce, but I finally feel the impossible has happened and I want out.”

4. Pretty and expressive, Shaindy is a twenty-one-year-old speech therapist. Over the past two years she has dated about twenty boys and was finally introduced to Yaakov, to whom she became engaged after eight dates. Shaindy’s vort was scheduled for the very evening of the day that she called me. “My vort is tonight and I simply can’t go. I thought I liked him, but now just talking to Yaakov makes me nervous.” Shaindy is obviously overwhelmed by anxiety. She describes her shortness of breath, an upset stomach and an avalanche of contradictory and insecure thoughts and emotions that leave her feeling paralyzed and debilitated. “I feel like I’m losing my mind.” She intended to tell her parents that she can’t go forward and to ask them to call off the vort.

The Interrupted Life Cycle

These brief descriptions can help us appreciate how the plethora of confusing emotions and symptoms can transform the lives of young people who, prior to approaching marriage, had been functioning competently in the critical spheres of their lives. By all indications, Ari, Bracha and the others should have progressed through the life-cycle events of dating (or meetings), engagement, wedding and marriage with relative competence and success, just as every generation has in the past. However, the challenges of engagement and marital commitment have exposed personal weaknesses in their ability to adjust to their new roles of chosson and kallah.

Observing the interactions of these couples, one might conclude that their problems can be attributed to troubled thoughts, emotions and behavior that have spun out of control. These may include feelings of hurt, betrayal, anxiety, deprivation, depression, loneliness, jealousy and insecurity, as well as other contributing factors related to finances, parental relationships and medical or psychiatric issues.

Such issues, however, are not new, and they cannot account for the widespread struggles being faced in making the transition to married life. Instead, I understand the primary cause to be the infiltration into our communities of a foreign value system that is antithetical not only to Torah but to the institution of marriage. Our children are struggling because they are being influenced by a very different set of values than in the past.

Consider the following two statements I heard during recent counseling sessions: “So what if I get divorced. Most of my friends already are and they’re waiting for me to join them.” In another interview, a young kallah told me, “I’m not thrilled with 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.” And finally, a young yeshivah man called me in distress the day after his vort and said, “I looked around after my vort and saw girls prettier than my kallah. What am I going to do?”

These statements reflect how the shifting of values away from marriage and family life in general society is invading the heart of our community. This trend is quite evident in a culture in which at least 50% of first marriages, and 67% of second marriages, end in divorce, and in which fewer and fewer people are getting married at all. New York City has approximately 2.8 million singles, which is about 30% of its adult population – about double the percentage of singles in 1960.

The profound influences of the surrounding culture on the lives of our young couples are seen in many ways. First, there is an increased acceptability of contacts between men and women outside the marriage, such as through Facebook and other online social networking sites. Furthermore, my contacts with young singles and couples reveal changing preferences in clothing, music, cars, home designs and the use of alcohol (and other intoxicating substances), all following the influences of a surrounding culture that is super-saturated with narcissism and gashmius. I was recently taken by surprise when a young kallah from a heimish” background told me why she was breaking her engagement: her chosson was boring because he didn’t appreciate the thrill she felt in bungee jumping at the amusement park. This may sound like an absurd exaggeration; I wish it was.

This young woman’s attitude reflects an inability to distinguish between the noise and chaos of the outside world and the experience of a meaningful life within the tranquil and clear center of a discernible self. Too often, people in this generation experience “self” through outside stimuli, such as thrills or acquisitions.  We confuse the essence of self, which is pnimiyus (within), with all things chitzoniyus (external), such as our iPhones, late-model cars, careers, Facebook friends, shopping venues or favorite wines. Ironically, we satisfy ourselves that, on the surface (in chitzoniyus), we are scrupulous in continuing to maintain our appearance as Torah Jews, while dismissing our pnimiyus as boring and empty.

This illusion, which is not new, has its roots in the challenges of our avos. Chazal teach us that the Sar of Esav who struggled with Yaakov was dressed like a talmid chochom. Perhaps this is a warning that anti-Torah values can sometimes present themselves in the trappings of holy appearances. The danger is that our neshama, which connects with life’s subtleties and with ruchnius, will be deceived and overcome by a non-Jewish culture masquerading as a “talmid chochom.” It is clear to me that this properly attired Sar of Esav has now invaded our offices, tables, shuls, bedrooms, weddings and even our botie midrash. I recently quipped to a Rosh Yeshivah that it’s almost as if Esav purchased a Borsalino hat and sat himself down in the middle of the bais medrash. The Rosh Yeshiva responded, “He’s not in the middle, he’s sitting on the mizrach vant.” 

At the Heart of Our Equilibrium and Continuity

What makes the Torah’s intended marital relationship unique is that it is based on the cultivation of the tzelem Elokim within each individual. Chazal view the neshama/deeper self of the Jew as something unique in all creation. Rav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, in his sefer Daas Torah (Parshas Metzorah), refers to a Medrash which describes our neshamas  as a silken and delicate spiritual center that, from our earliest life experiences, develops and emerges through moments of quiet intimacy and that continues to evolve through healthy and loving family experiences as well as through Torah education.

Rav Chaim Freidlander, zt’l, in his vaadim on menuchas hanefesh (Midos V’Avodas Hashem, Vol. II), quotes the Alter of Kelm, who refers to a posuk in Tehillim to describe the essence of closeness, trust and inner security for which we yearn throughout our lives: “I swear that I stilled and silenced my soul like a suckling at the side of his mother, like a suckling child is to me my soul” (131:2). The essence of this message is that all our meaningful experiences with Hashem and with those closest to us are founded on our ability to cultivate a relationship rooted in a quiet and trusting center of our selves. While the initial experience emerges through the trust and closeness of the mother-infant relationship, it grows and expands to form the basis of all meaningful relationships. The ability to develop this of love and trust within marriage is at the very heart of sholom bayis, as well.

Yet this concept is alien to us in this digital age. As we become more ensconced and entrapped in technology, the gentleness of our deeper selves and our closest relationships is lost, along with the sacredness of our relationship to Hashem. Texting replaces meaningful dialogue, internet addictions replace love, alcohol and substance abuse replace profound human experience, and career – along with the pursuit of money and acquisitions – replaces the cultivation of our deeper human sensitivities. The result is that our innate yearning to experience a life of depth and significance has been swept away by  powerful waves of shallow times, leaving so many to merely cling to the external symbols of a Torah life that is sadly devoid of meaning and maturity.

The Forces within Conflict

This struggle between our chitzonius and our ruchnius, so poignantly confronted by young couples at this time in our history, actually echoes a battle between two forces which Hashem has placed in our world. It is the battle between chaos and turbulence on one side and inner calm and equilibrium on the other. Chazal describe this as the struggle between menuchas hanefesh and pizur hanefesh.

Rav Yerucham Levovitz, zt”l, (Daas Torah, Beraishis, p. 146), quotes the Navi Yeshaya, who says, “haresha’im k’yam nigrash” (the wicked are like troubled seas – Yeshaya 57:20). He interprets the navi’s words to mean that life for resha’im is an ever-turbulent and stormy sea, where chaos and turbulence reign. We see this so clearly in our own culture, which has spawned a world saturated in violence, excitement, incessant images of erotic stimuli, and struggles for power, money and fame. Many in our own Torah world celebrate and even revel in this culture, as it is expressed through its media, sports, politics, entertainment and even the battle for parnossah. Its rhythms are focused on the sensory gratification of self and never on the development of modesty, fidelity, loyalty and all the other midos that emerge from our deeper selves. It is in this world that relationships of love and tenderness are replaced by narcissism and self-gratification.

Rav Yerucham defines the inherent link between the menuchah experience, personal relationships and Shabbos. All are integrally bound within each other, as he writes, “the ability to love all creation emerges from the quality of menuchah. Giving emerges from menuchah. Without menuchah it is impossible to love or to give.” For Rav Yerucham, menuchah is the state of mind that leads to our ability to care, to love, and to maintain our inner peace, emotional equilibrium and security. Hashem placed menuchah within the essence of Shabbos and we are urged by Chazal to experience its gentle ambience after each week, and then carry it within us throughout the following week. Chazal refer to tzadikkim as “Shabbos,” as their true greatness is reflected in the inner peace that they draw from Shabbos, and which they maintain and radiate from one Shabbos to the next. In my own experiences I have always found that true gedolim are able to maintain a sense of equanimity and calmness throughout the many trials of their lives, which enables them to guide and give chizuk to others.

Through the menuchas hanefesh we experience on Shabbos, we return to the core of our deeper selves, solidifying the bonds between husband and wife, parents and children and between each of us and both Hashem and His Torah. It is our task to translate this core experience into every facet of our lives, including learning to be more patient, caring, loving, tolerant, flexible, thoughtful and to develop every other mida that enables us to share a marriage and family life that is receptive and inviting to the Shechina itself.

In my professional work, the single most important concept I attempt to teach every individual or couple who requests my guidance is to incorporate menuchas hanefesh into every dimension of their lives. Through a series of meditative, walking, communications and focusing activities, couples learn to cultivate a deeper sense of inner balance and sensitivity and the ability to experience and share loving feelings as they develop an evolving sense of security.

In its absence, there is a vacuum that is filled with the drumbeat of the yam nigrash – the stormy sea of Esav. Through this clearer sense of self, couples can see through the fog and chaos of the culture, its self-serving distortions of love and romance, its obsession with erotic stimulation, the lure of the internet, media, texting, substance abuse and even the “thrill of the bungee jump.” Which couple would ever want to yield life’s most precious gift – a secure, loving and healthy state of mind that brings us closer to our deeper selves, Hashem and to those we so dearly love?

The effects of this approach on married, engaged and dating couples has been empowering and transforming. Each of the individuals and couples I cited at the beginning of this article was able to utilize these concepts to navigate successfully through the challenges they faced. Menuchas hanefesh enables us to sense that, at every moment, Hashem endows us with the innate ability to discover our inner strength, stability, balance and wisdom.

Because of its ability to empower, I have written two books on this concept: The Menuchah Principle in Marriage and The Menuchah Principle in Shidduchim, Dating and Engagement. They contain the current level of my understanding of how this gift from Hashem can be internalized into every dimension of our lives. 

Defining the uniqueness of Menuchas Hanefesh

Before I describe my own initiatives toward teaching menuchas hanefesh, it is crucial to make a distinction between menuchas hanefesh and other approaches that promote experiences of inner peace that have their roots in secular methodologies and even Eastern religions such as Zen or Buddhism. Mindfulness, meditation, reciting mantras, breathing techniques and learning to live in the moment-to-moment experience of life are all widely accepted as enhancing inner peace and tranquility. It is understandable why these approaches have proven effective in treating symptoms related to anxiety and borderline personality disorders, as they promote inner calmness and security.

Cultivating menuchas hanefesh, however, is not a therapeutic approach. It is learning to access a state of mind that creates a comprehensive and deep, inner alignment between our neshama and Hashem, in a personal relationship that connects us to loved ones, to the meaning and experience of mitzvos, to Torah study, and to every other aspect of Torah life. It radiates though all our interpersonal experiences and expressions of Torah life. Menuchas hanefesh enhances marriage and relationships because the essence of our Jewish selves is guided by its quiet and gentle influence.

There are two more thoughts that should be cited. The state of menuchas hanefesh is not acquired as a consequence of a natural process. It a gift of love which is given to us through our profound faith that Hashem cares for, and watches over, each of us with an unfathomable love. This is the clear message in the tefilah for Shabbos minchah, when we recite, “ki me’itcha hee menuchosom” – menuchah comes directly fromHashem.

The second thought is that when we acknowledge in this tefilah that menucha is a gift of love from Hashem, we immediately recite the next and perhaps most important of all concepts: “…and through their menuchah, [Yisrael] sanctifies Your Name.” When we learn to cultivate a lifestyle that enables us to receive and experience this gift from Hashem, our very sensitivity, tranquility and care for others enables us to become a true kiddush Hashem. This, in essence, is the purpose of our existence. Torah life and marriage cannot maintain their beauty and kedushah without this, leaving them vulnerable to the chaos from without. 

Two Model Programs

Over the past six months, I have initiated two programs in teaching menuchas hanefesh, which may be models that can offer a significant contribution toward stabilizing and strengthening young, marital relationships.

The first is a one-year training program for women who are experienced working with kallahs, students and shalom bayis issues. The group presently meets weekly and is progressing through successive phases of training, including learning the concepts related to menuchas hanefesh in their own lives and preparing programs to teach menuchas hanefesh to groups of kallos and couples. After the one-year program is completed, each participant is expected to work both independently and in pairs to assume active roles in teaching these principles to appropriate populations within the Torah community.

The program covers the following training format:

  • The Experiential Difference between Menuchas Hanefesh and Pizur Hanefesh in Marriage and Relationships.
  • The Five Dimensions of Self: Thought, Feelings, Physiology, Behavior and the Self in Relationships
  • Transformation and the Tools of Transformation
  • The EMBERS program for Relationship Building: Expressions, Moods, Behavior, Enjoyment, Ruchnius and Sensitivity
  • Developing Approaches to work with Groups and Individuals.
  • Ongoing Peer Supervision

The second program has been named the Menuchah Circle. Young, single women meet on a regular basis, and also work in pairs, to help one another acquire the understanding and skills that will enable them to build relationships rooted in menuchas hanefesh. There are presently two Menuchah Circle groups and, since their inception, four members have become kallahs. Each of these young women has expressed how learning these principles has had a decisive effect on their ability to maintain the emotional equilibrium and clarity so crucial in building the relationships that led to their engagement and marriage.

Over the past three years, I have grown in my appreciation of the meaning of menuchas hanefesh and its enormous potential for helping young couples ground themselves in a deepening sense of security and stability that will, BE”H, enable them to build the marriages and families they all deserve. It is my experience and belief that the more we learn to incorporate Chazal’s brilliance into our lives, the more we imbue our marriages with Hashem’s gifts of true love and fulfillment.

One final program which is still in its planning stages is Shabbos Menuchah, a Shabbos retreat (or local community event) that immerses couples and individuals within experiences that enhance the understanding and experience of menuchas hanefesh. B’ezras Hashem, with these and other efforts in this direction, we will make significant contributions toward enabling our younger and even mature couples to rediscover the beauty of sholom bayis that Hashem desires for us all.

Shaya Ostrov, L.C.S.W., maintains a private practice in Far Rockaway, provides lectures and workshops on relationships and is the author of The Menuchah Principle in MarriageThe Menuchah Principle in Shidduchim, Dating and Engagement (Judaica Press) and The Inner Circle: Seven Gates to Marriage (Feldheim Press).

To view the other responses in this issue, CLICK HERE.
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