It happens all too often now. A couple in the first year of marriage comes to see me because they can’t seem to make their relationship work. The pain, frustration, anger, and fear are palpable in the room. They begin to describe the challenges of their relationship, sometimes demonstrating full-blown arguments within the confines of the therapy office. They are afraid that they are headed towards divorce and it is a destination that they never planned for. Fast-forward several sessions later and we see a major turnaround, u-turn if you will. We have normalized the feelings, reframed some of the frustrations, and the two of them have learned important communication skills. These skills allow them to refocus on their relationship instead of their expectations. After this process they usually ask, “Why don’t they tell us this stuff before we get married?”
I don’t believe that divorce is ever taken too lightly. Each couple I have worked with who eventually ended their marriage, made that decision with great difficulty. I believe divorce is sometimes the only solution available. However, I do believe that marriage is taken much too lightly.
We send young men and women down the aisle and onto the road of life with few skills and practically no understanding of what marriage requires. Some couples are no more than strangers to each other. Sometimes they may as well be an entirely different species, one they have never encountered before in such close quarters.
What makes parents decide their children are ready to marry? Is it an arbitrary age? If all of their friends are getting married should they marry as well? Once the process of finding an appropriate match leads to a proposal that is answered in the affirmative, does that in itself cause him to understand that a wife will want to be heard, understood and validated about things that are superfluous to him? Does she then innately understand his need to feel successful in making her happy even in the face of challenges? Will he be perceptive enough to see that for her physical intimacy comes from an emotional connection? How can she discern that his physical desires are normal?
You may tell me that this is what chassan and kallah classes are for. However, there are two problems with that answer. Firstly, we are asking a couple to choose the person they are to spend the rest of their lives with before we provide them with the insights as to what a positive relationship between a husband and wife really looks like. Secondly, a few classes during the time a couple is so focused on their wedding preparations are hardly sufficient to provide them with enough tools to help them with their marriage. Premarital classes provide only intensive instruction on the laws of purity. How to be a good spouse is a different curriculum, one that should not be relegated to a month long class. This is not just information, but a philosophy and an openness that allows for a life-long learning experience.
We are misleading our children about marriage in the very language we use to talk about it. From when they are young they hear us talk about how to “get a good shidduch.” How often do we talk to our children about what it takes to be a good shidduch? An often-expressed statement of “Don’t do that or you won’t get a good shidduch,” teaches our children that it’s not about who you are, it’s about what you appear to be to others. I regularly have discussions with young men and women in the dating scene who are delaying making life decisions or even discussing the desire for such life decisions with perspective mates because of the fear of not marrying someone of higher shidduch caste. These discussions underscore the larger issue: the need for emotional honesty and integrity while forming relationships with others for the purpose of marriage. Blatant dishonesty about what and who one wants to become undermines the very root of the marital relationship: trust.
Marriage is a relationship, it requires finding someone who can understand and respect the person that you are, despite your flaws. If we hide what we perceive as the less flattering parts of ourselves during the dating process in order to snag the best deal, so to speak, we shortchange ourselves and our spouses from having a real relationship with our unique and human selves.
When I go to conferences on marital therapy they often speak about reviving the love a couple had for each other when they got married. In our community, for the most part, couples are just beginning to develop a relationship when they commit to each other, and then they up the ante by quickly establishing households with children. A lot of the work that I do with new couples is reducing the damage that the array of stressors cause them so that they can develop a love for each other for the first time.
I am not advocating long relationships before engagement. In fact, one glance at the secular world’s divorce rate will reveal that long premarital relationships do not guarantee successful marriages. Dating is a process that helps people find out if they can work with the other person. The couple should learn what they have in common and what their differences are. More importantly, they need to understand how to work through disagreements and how to understand each other. Couples who never disagree before their wedding have a rude awakening ahead.
The other day I went to a sheva brachos and heard something unusual. The chosson’s father spoke and concluded with a bracha to the couple. With love in his eyes, he looked at his wife and said, “Son, may you be as happy, as in love, after thirty years of marriage as I am today.” How many of us can say that we want our children to be as happy in their relationships as we are in ours? How many of us secretly feel our happiness is not enough and we want more for our children? If we don’t have the skills to better our relationships where will our children get them? Let us start with making positive changes to all of our relationships in order to promote better and more fulfilling marriages for our families, our communities, and our future.