This column usually focuses on the issue of teens at risk and finding ways families can become closer to their children. This week, I turn my attention to one of the most important stages before parenthood: the critical period when couples are engaged.
It’s a fact of life that many young couples are unprepared for marriage. I’m not talking about matters of Jewish law that couples learn about with their Chasson and Kallah teachers before they get married. What I’m referring to is the lack of knowledge of effective communication skills needed to make marriage successful and relationship-building tools that can enhance feelings of love and camaraderie.
Couples now face more demands than ever before. The typical complex marriage – managing two careers while rearing children – really requires that couples have very strong, well-established abilities to communicate, resolve issues, maintain mutuality and set goals. Without this foundation, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by stress and time pressures. 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.
Overall, we need to give our young couples better skills to become successful in their marriages. Unfortunately, couples spend very little time learning about the art of Shalom Bayis before they get married. And, unlike other professions such as law and medicine that test and certify their graduates, marriage – the most important and longest profession anyone can enter into – doesn’t require any specific training for certification. Couples may start a marriage unprepared to meet the challenges that occur on a daily basis such as child rearing, facing financial pressures, and spending quality time together.
Think about it- a person spends around 12 years in school preparing to enter college, which takes four years to complete. But how many years do people train to get married, which is supposed to last lifetime?
To take the analogy one step further, if marriage would be placed side by side with other professions, how would it rank? Current statistics do not paint a very rosy picture. According to a study called The Effects of Divorce on America “in 1935 there were 16 divorces for each 100 marriages and by 1998, the number had risen to 51 divorces per 100 marriages.” In addition, “over a 20 year period the number of divorced Americans rose from 4.3 million in 1970 to 18.3 million in 1996.”
I am aware that our community does not share these discouraging statistics. Yet many readers may believe that the divorce rate seems to be rising in the Orthodox world, and divorce appears to be more common than ever before.
All of this points to the need to respond to the challenges facing young couples and begin the process of pre-marital education. Couples need to learn marital skills and develop realistic expectations before the marriage takes place. Only then will they be prepared to cope successfully with the inevitable ups and downs of marriage.
Recently a new program called the S.H.A.L.O.M. Workshop (Starting Healthy and Long Lasting Marriages) has begun to teach engaged couples the skills needed to have a successful marriage. Run by the Shalom Task Force, the workshop teaches engaged couples practical tools to achieve a healthy marriage and to effectively meet each other’s emotional needs.
In just one or two sessions, the Chassan and Kallah cover important issues such as:
Increased understanding and sensitivity to each other’s feelings
Communicating effectively through a sense of mutual respect
Promoting self confidence in each other
As their literature describes, “The S.H.A.L.O.M. Workshop teaches specific, easily learned methods for successful communication and effective problem-solving.” The goal is that participants will emerge with a deeper self-knowledge and the tools to build a happy, successful and long-lasting marriage.
It’s important to note that this workshop in no way replaces traditional Chassan and Kallah classes; rather it enhances the knowledge learned by practicing easy-to-use and practical tools that can make marriage more enjoyable.
During the workshop, a couple will learn how to actively listen to one another, express their feelings in a healthy way and negotiate a power structure for making key decisions in their lives.
One participant from New York who took the workshop commented that, “As I am getting married very soon, I think that my future husband and I will greatly benefit from the workshop. Taking the time to listen and let the other person know you are listening felt very validating, and actually enabled us to do something we both were too subjective to suggest doing with each other on our own.”
It’s time to expand the scope of educational programs offered to engaged couples to improve their chances of having a successful marriage and build a Binyan Adei Ad. A pre-marriage program like the S.H.A.L.O.M. Workshop is just the place to begin.
To find out more about programs like S.H.A.L.O.M. Workshop, you can visit their website at www.shalomworkshop.org.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch is the executive director of Shalom Task Force and the author of a new book about parenting teenagers called At Risk – Never Beyond Reach: Three Principles Every Parent and Educator Should Know. He maintains a practice in family counseling and is a popular lecturer on parenting and relationships. You can visit Rabbi Schonbuch on the Web at www.neverbeyondreach.org or e-mail questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.