Steven Friedman, Ph.D., ABPP
Klal Perspectives, Symposium on Preparedness for Marriage
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
Preparing the Couple for Marital Intimacy
This issue of Klal Perspectives raises the question of whether newly married couples across the Orthodox spectrum are experiencing increased marital difficulties, as manifested in sharp increases in the rates of divorce. A number of possible factors have been cited for this increase. One view is that the Orthodox community needs to introduce additional marital preparation efforts in the area of marital intimacy because of young people’s increased exposure to popular culture, books, media and the Internet. This increased exposure may have created false and dangerous expectations, as well as contributed to compromising a couple’s ability to relate to each other as real people. In addition, the idea was raised that post wedding communal guidance and mentoring programs be established to address the many challenges currently confronting young couples. This article will address the issue of whether there is currently, in fact, adequate preparation of newlyweds for “marital intimacy.”
Research of all sorts has been sadly lacking in the “frum community.” As a psychologist who has specialized in the treatment of marital and sexual dysfunctions, I find that the paucity of research and empirical data on marriage in the Orthodox community limits our understanding of our community’s particular difficulties. Even the widespread assumption that the divorce rate has increased sharply among newly married couples is merely anecdotal, and not well documented or understood. And if the divorce rate is actually rising, is this increase due to unprecedented challenges? Or is it due instead to the willingness among today’s generation to end their marriage when they find they are not compatible and the economic capability they have to do so? Are couples more rapidly divorcing because their marriages are worse than in prior eras or simply because of a reduction in the stigma of divorce? In the absence of empirical data, arguments tend to be made from one’s own limited experiences, biases, and prejudices –hardly the basis of responsible communal decision-making. For example, assertions that increased Internet usage is linked to poor marriages are quite likely overly simplistic, or just plain false.
Understanding what contributes to a “good marriage” or to “satisfactory marital intimacy” is extraordinarily complex. Only with thorough assessment and empirical research can recommendations be made that may be helpful.
The comments below draw upon my experience in private practice for over thirty years in treating sexual and marital difficulties in the Orthodox Jewish community. Orthodox Jews, of course, comprise a spectrum of distinct subgroups, each with their own culture and beliefs, as well as distinct attitudes towards marriage, sexuality, reproduction, modesty and the openness to counseling and/or mental health treatment. These comments and suggestions are unlikely to apply equally to all subgroups.
Couples Currently Seeking Help
There have been a small number of clinical papers over the years (Ostrov, 1978; Ribner, 2003; Ribner & Rosenbaum, 2005; Blaise and Faber, 2001) that have studied the issues presented by Orthodox Jewish clients seeking help for sexual problems. These papers were written for a mental health audience and were intended to educate non-Jewish and/or non-religious professionals about the particular nuances of working with Orthodox couples. One of the consistent findings of these clinicians was that the overwhelming majority of cases related to difficulties in physically consummating their relationship. Orthodox couples rarely seek treatment relating to a lack of enjoyment.
Halachically, both spouses to a marriage are responsible for ensuring the other’s desire for intimacy. The mitzvah of onah, translated literally as “time,” refers to a husband’s obligation to provide sexual satisfaction to his wife on a regular basis (with the frequency depending on the rigors of his occupation). My professional experience is that many young Orthodox couples are simply unaware of this dimension of the marital relationship. They are often unaware that there are many components to the mitvah of onah, such as giving the wife pleasure through foreplay.
Preparation of couples for intimate contact after marriage falls upon chosson and kallah teachers, who prepare the groom and bride, respectively, for their upcoming marriage. Typically, the focus of this preparation is on the halachic aspects of intimacy, often with only minimal discussion of its practical and psychological aspects. Moreover, there appears to be little communal management of the selection or designation of these teachers. In some Hasidic groups, they are clearly chosen by the Rebbe and/or communal leaders; in other subgroups, individuals are simply self-designated, often being referred simply based on the reputation they may have developed. Some Modern Orthodox communities rely on the rabbi of the community to prepare the couples. In either case, there is often minimal training for playing this critical role, and the teachers are most often not prepared to address the more subtle dimension of the physical and psychological aspects of intimacy.
In preparing a recent paper (currently under review), I reviewed forty-one consecutive Orthodox Jewish couples whom I had evaluated and treated for issues of marital intimacy. This data warrants a brief summary because it represents important implications for how Orthodox couples are prepared for marriage. Eighteen of the couples were of Hassidic background, sixteen were “Yeshivish” and eight identified as Modern Orthodox. Prior to their being counseled, the length of each couples’ marriage ranged from three months to eight years (with an average of 2½ years of marriage). The men’s average age was 25, ranging from 19 to 42, and the average age of the women was 23½ years old, ranging in age from 19 to 39. Twenty-nine of the forty-one couples were referred by rabbinical or community leaders. Only seven were referred by physicians, while five were referred by other mental health therapists.
Consistent with the studies referenced above, the primary presenting problem for twenty-seven of the forty-one couples was for an “unconsummated” marriage. The average length of the marriages with this issue was close to two years (ranging from three months to four years). The other fourteen couples who presented with sexual problems or dissatisfaction but had consummated their marriage had been married for an average length of four years – ranging from eight months to eight years.
In nearly all the cases, the couple identified their problem as primarily attributable to the husband. Interestingly, upon completion of my assessment and evaluation, it became apparent that in roughly half of the couples, both partners actually had some difficulty in intimacy issues. Another significant finding was that the brief psychiatric assessment that I conducted revealed that many (twenty-three of the forty-one men, and fifteen of the forty-one women) suffered with additional psychiatric difficulties that existed prior to marriage. These findings highlight some important issues. In the frum community, couples generally refrain from seeking guidance for intimacy issues from either rabbonim or mental health professionals, unless they are having trouble consummating the relationship. Even in such cases, the delay until they actually seek professional mental help can be quite long.
The primary reasons cited by these couples for the long delay was that they did not feel comfortable discussing their intimacy issues with their chosson or kallah teachers, thereby delaying their referral. Those who did discuss their problem with their teachers often believed that they were given inadequate advice on how to proceed and that the teacher took too long to refer them for competent professional help.
Couples seeking my help have confided that they were very reluctant to disclose their difficulty to their chosson or kallah teacher due to a sense of shame and embarrassment. Those with an unconsummated relationship felt that they were the only “couple in the frum world” to experience this difficulty. A limited number did consult their chosson or kallah teacher, who shared some suggestions. When the couple found the suggestions unhelpful, it left them only more confused. Even when they reached out to a teacher, the couple never met with the teacher together. In fact, it became apparent that the chosson and kallah teachers were not adequately prepared to address the intimacy issues that arose.
Once problems are encountered, the young couple, especially the husband, may also turn to their Rosh Yeshiva or Rav for further guidance. It is not clear whether these rabbanim and/or Roshei Yeshiva are adequately equipped to serve the role they are often called upon to play. Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshiva who counsel young couples – especially those who continue to be a primary mentor for their former students – would benefit from specialized training on issues of marital intimacy.
Courses must be introduced to assist chosson and kallah teachers in including certain additional dimensions of intimacy training in their lessons. The community has undertaken training efforts to raise the sophistication in their field of others playing critical communal roles, such as rabbeim and teachers, and the same needs to be introduced for chosson and kallah teachers. These courses must train these teachers in a basic understanding of human (both male and female) physiology and “normal and abnormal” sexual responses.
In addition, it would be helpful to establish a standard protocol in which all couples are routinely called by their chosson and kallah teachers after marriage. These calls, at perhaps one month and again three months after marriage, should inquire as to how the couple is doing and should be fashioned in a way that would reduce the shame and embarrassment of any problem they may be confronting. These teachers should also be prepared to refer couples to professionals, if and when appropriate. Of course, this training should train teachers in distinguishing between minor issues that should be worked out among the couple and those that require professional intervention. This type of specialized training should be made available to rabbanim and Roshei Yeshiva as well.
Explaining what is “Normal”
Prior to marriage, young couples must be taught what is considered “normal intimate behavior” in a newly married couple. While the message delivered may vary among segments of the community based on different standards, each community must seek rabbinical guidance as to what couples should be taught is normal.
In every community, it is essential that couples receive guidance about how to communicate with each other about intimacy, and about basic physiology, including how to please each other. Discussions should be broached regarding the range of frequency at which intimate contact is appropriate. And of course, teachers must teach the relevant halachos, including which behaviors are clearly permitted, which are clearly forbidden, and which, if any, may be frowned upon though not forbidden or avoided by those seeking greater holiness.
As noted above, today’s youth often have extensive exposure to intimacy-related ideas before marriage – and often from non-Torah sources. As a result, it is common for couples to have discrepant ideas about intimacy. Chosson/kallah teachers must prepare the couple for this possibility.
Teachers must also be trained to understand that many young people may be reluctant to admit that they do not truly understand the new concepts and ideas being conveyed. Many of the young men and women that I have seen over the years are confused regarding intimacy issues. They frequently mislabeled body parts or acts, and are even unable to describe their own experiences and sensations. Teachers must be provided with language that is appropriate for frum Jews, yet sufficiently clear and descriptive.
As part of this training/education, some use of simple explicit drawings, such as rabbinically-approved schematic line drawings (while avoiding explicit pictures or videos), may be helpful. Various approaches may be unacceptable to certain segments of the community while fully appropriate for others.
Psychological and Social Challenges
As referenced above, it is inevitable that some students of chosson and kallah teachers will be suffering psychological difficulties prior to their marriage. Often, those with these challenges manifest particular issues in the realm of intimacy. Chosson and kallah teachers need to be trained to identify these individuals and they must either be capable of addressing the extra needs of these students, or of referring them to those qualified to do so. Some individuals simply need more help than the average chosson or kallah class can provide. Identifying young couples at risk, and offering additional guidance and help before marriage, would be helpful in limiting problems after marriage.
Many men, especially from the Hassidic spectrum, have had limited social contact with any members of the opposite gender. In fact, they may never have related to women outside their immediate family at all, especially if they did not have any sisters. These issues need to be adequately addressed prior to marriage.
There is a subgroup of couples who do present for help in enhancing their pleasure. Some of these couples have complained that the positive aspect of marital intimacy was never emphasized to them. They often experienced their premarital preparation as a series of “don’ts.” There is another subgroup of couples (how frequently this occurs is not currently known) whose difficulties may be due to “unrealistic expectations” that they have absorbed through exposure to popular culture and the Internet. Couples need to understand that intimacy can be pleasurable but that it also carries the responsibility to be considerate of their partner’s desires, wishes and fears. Perhaps teaching young couples that “intimacy” begins before the “mitzvah,” through warm words and gestures (that help people feel closer to one another) should also be part of chosson/kallah classes.
Effects of Therapy
My own experience, consistent with that of other therapists who specialize in intimacy issues in the Orthodox Jewish community, is that when the presenting problem is for an unconsummated marriage, the overwhelming majority of couples achieve this goal successfully. Results for other intimacy issues can respond to many treatment options.
Couples with intimacy issues should seek out help and not be content with an unsatisfactory intimate life. While this paper is based on my own experience in treating a wide spectrum of Orthodox couples in the New York City area, I look forward to hearing other contributors’ experience, as well as the give and take on these issues that may develop.