When there is a failure to individuate, there may be resistance to transitioning fully into adulthood by one or both members of the couple. In our religious communities, where couples often marry young, this is a most serious predicament. It is exacerbated when couples rely on parents for financial support. As I once heard it not so comically expressed, “yesh meah, yesh deah” or not as subtly, “the one who pays, says.” Despite these challenges, the couple must understand that their goal is to move toward adulthood and independence – both emotionally and financially. Another challenge for the newly married couple is building trust. Young women in particular often confide in their mothers, sometimes numerous times a day. The husband must feel that his confidences are being preserved and that his mother-in-law doesn’t know every detail of his married life. The same is true vis-à-vis the young man with his parents.
Even as a couple establishes their independence from their families of origin, they still must come together and form a dynamic “dyad.” There are two components to this process. I would posit that it echoes the maxim “sur mayrah vaseh tov,” avoid evil and attempt good. I don’t mean that the family of origin is “bad,” rather that the former child, now adult, must ensure that there is nothing, not even family, intruding on the new relationship.
Removing possible impediments is necessary, but not sufficient. The next step involves breaking selfish patterns of behavior and the exclusive focus on self. Rav Yosef Soloveitchik zt’l introduced a beautiful formulation for the concept of parallel constructs in prayer. There is the individual model as well as the communal model. His formulation is “Tefilla B’tzibbur” and “Tefilat Hatzibbur.” We pray individually within the framework and context of community and we then repeat the prayer as a communal offering, one representative on behalf of the whole. Similarly, a newly married couple must have individual space for themselves, while at the same time bringing that nurtured self into the couple to create something bigger. Each marital decision must reflect this model of balancing personal needs and what is good for the marriage. One spouse may prefer to spend a holiday with family, but the marriage would be better served spending it at home or with the other’s family. That’s why marital therapy is more complex than individual work. The client is the marriage as a whole, rather than the two individuals. This tension sheds light on an idea I heard many years back in the name of Rav Shlomo Volbe zt’l. The first year of marriage, which is of great legal and philosophical religious significance, is not a distinct quantitative period, but rather a conceptual qualitative experience that may take many years to complete. This reflects the dual nature and challenge of marriage; letting go of the past and reconstructing it to coincide and overlap with one’s future as a married couple.
I will end with a word of advice for parents. Not every parent treats a child-in-law like an actual child. It isn’t uncommon for in-law children to be confounded by what to call their new parents. Ideally we should try to make a child’s spouse feel as comfortable as possible. This includes showering the same love and kindness one would provide to one’s own child. Parents need to be sensitive to the critical role they play in the formative stages of their children’s marriages. They have the ability to lend support and to give space or to be intrusive and domineering. There is no doubt that parents may have mixed emotions about their child transitioning to this new stage in life, but they need to be cognizant and self-aware. I would humbly suggest that parents as a whole need to have more confidence in their parenting skills. They must trust they have done an adequate job instilling within their child good sound judgment. If their beloved child has made this selection, it is most likely a reflection of insights gleaned from the family of origin during many years of profound influence, sensitivity and exceptional caring, preparing them for the transition to adulthood.
Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen, Esq. has served as the Rav of the Young Israel of the West Side in Manhattan for the last 5 years. In this capacity, he uses his master’s degree in counseling to help many newly married couples. He is also the Director of the Honors Program at the Lander College for Women in Manhattan. His lectures can be found at www.yiws.org and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.