Major Marriage Challenges

I must thank the wonderful people who dedicated much time and effort to bring the OU sponsored Aleinu Marital Satisfaction Survey and its findings to fruition: Frank Buchweitz, OU national director, community services and special projects; Deborah Fox, director of Aleinu Family Resource Center at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles; Dr. David Pelcovitz, Straus professor of psychology and education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration; and Dr. Eliezer Schnall, assistant professor of psychology at Yeshiva College. They all invested a tremendous amount of time and concern into this extraordinary project. I would like to particularly acknowledge Deborah Fox for the vision and insight to initially create this survey.

We often have the tendency to look for the “tzuris.” There certainly are enough problems to go around, and because the negatives tend to tug at our heartstrings and play into our fears, they become our focus and preoccupation. Fortunately, the recent OU-sponsored Aleinu Marital Satisfaction Survey has given us something very positive to focus on: the state of marriage in our communities.

The OU survey attracted 3,670 respondents, over 2,000 more than the original survey conducted in March 2008. (As mentioned in the previous article on the study, the OU survey expanded upon an initial survey conducted by the Aleinu Family Resource Center, a program of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and the Rabbinical Council of California.)

The most positive finding of the OU survey is that 72 percent of Orthodox Jewish men and 74 percent of Orthodox Jewish women rate their marriages as “excellent” or “very good.” This is especially significant when contrasted with the overall US population where only 62.9 percent of men and 59.5 percent of women say they are happy, according to a General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. Nearly 80 percent of Orthodox Jewish men and women feel that their spouses meet their expectations of marriage, and over 70 percent would marry their spouses again knowing what they know now.

All of this is wonderful news. The foundation of a strong and vibrant Jewish community is neither the shul nor the yeshivah (though both institutions play a vital role); it is the family. The fact that a majority of marriages in the Orthodox community are rated “excellent” means that our foundation is sturdy and secure.

However, challenges exist even in excellent marriages. When analyzing the results of both surveys, it becomes apparent that there are six significant stressors in Orthodox marriages. Each of these stressors was identified as being significant by more than 20 percent of the respondents. Interestingly, both divorced and happily married respondents identified the same issues as being obstacles in their marriages.

In this article, I will attempt to analyze the six stressors from the perspective of a pulpit rabbi working with couples and families. My goal is to raise awareness about the issues that strain Orthodox marriages. While I offer some helpful pointers and advice, I am fully aware that these challenges are serious and complex. Thus, the tips I offer are not meant to be one-size-fitsall solutions; they are meant to be practical suggestions for navigating the immensely rewarding relationship known as marriage. Finally, I must add that although I am neither a therapist nor a mental health professional, the following analysis was corroborated by such professionals who have worked extensively in the Orthodox world.

Couples who took the survey say that keeping the laws of taharat hamish pachah is not necessarily a guarantee that the physical component of their relationship will be free of challenges. Men and women are physically, psychologically and emotionally different from each other, and these profound differences often manifest themselves in how both husband and wife view their intimate relationship. Men by nature tend to view the physical relationship as just that—physical—whereas women do not compartmentalize the physical and the emotional. This discrepancy causes challenges during the time the couple can be intimate with each other, when the husband may be very attentive to the physical needs of his wife, but not necessarily sensitive to her emotional needs. It also can cause strife during the time the couple is not allowed to be together.

A marriage is the totality of an intellectual, emotional and physical relationship, and couples in a healthy relationship will be actively developing all three of these components. Obviously, during the time that the wife is a niddah, the physical dimension of the marriage is put on hold, but the expectation is that the rest of the marriage should not be. Unfortunately, all too often, we find that during the period when intimacy is forbidden the husband may spend more time working late or putting in longer hours at the beit midrash. The message communicated to the wife, perhaps unintentionally, is that his interest in her is purely physical and that she is an object, rather than a thinking, feeling person with whom he wants to engage in a relationship.

Rebbi Meir’s well-known statement in the Gemara that keeping the laws of niddah will keep a couple as dear to each other as the night that they got married is predicated on the fact that the couple spend time with each other even and especially when they can’t be intimate. Paradoxically, it is the time they spend together not being physical that creates the deep and subtle bonds in the marriage, and ultimately enriches the intimacy and makes it both satisfying and meaningful.

Couples also reported problems with differences in religious observance. It can be assumed that when couples marry, they are familiar with and accepting of each other’s level of religious practice. What cannot be assumed is that two, five, ten or twenty years down the road both husband and wife will still be in the same place religiously. People grow and change, and the individual one marries may become more or less religious over the years.

These diverging paths create real gaps and vacuums in a marriage, because the food we eat, what we do on Saturdays and which schools we send our children to are serious issues that require some level of agreement on the part of both husband and wife. Needless to say, when parents do not convey a consistent message to their children, the children will likely be stressed and confused about what is right and wrong, and what is expected of them. Couples who are not “on the same page” religiously tend to have a lot of resentment (“How could you change the rules?”) and to act disrespectfully (“I thought you were a more spiritual person”) towards each other, which obviously affects the health and functionality of the marriage. A couple may not agree on everything, but they must have house rules with regard to issues such as Shabbat, kashrut and other areas, or they risk creating “a house divided.”

We love our parents and grandparents; they add much to our lives, but sometimes they can unintentionally contribute toward an unhealthy dynamic.

We all know some good mother-inlaw jokes, but the negative effect intrusive in-laws can have on a marriage is no laughing matter. This is especially challenging for Orthodox couples because frum society places such a strong value on family ties and honoring our parents.

Grandparents should certainly be an integral part of our and our children’s lives, but our immediate family—children and spouse—is our nucleus. The immediate family is the sun around which everything else revolves. When the grandparents become part of that nucleus, and everyone else must revolve around them, this could result in unhealthy family dynamics as well as tension and stress. This problem arises either when the adult son or adult daughter is unable to cut the proverbial cord, or when the mother or father refuses to let it be cut. Either way, the delicate balance of the family is offset, and all members of the family are affected by the stress. Within a marriage, the priorities must be clearly defined. The Torah teaches “Al kain ya’azov ish et aviv ve’et imo v’davak beishto—therefore, one must leave his/her father and mother and cling to his/her spouse.” If one wants a healthy marriage, clear boundaries must be drawn.

Financial struggles, especially in this day and age, are common. Human beings for the most part are incredibly resilient. We can respond to a trauma, crisis or tragedy and usually find a way to bounce back. What breaks us is a chronic condition, one that presents a constant, unending anxiety that we have to confront day in and day out, without respite. Economic hardship, for the most part, is a chronic condition.The cost of living in the United States is high, and it is especially high for an Orthodox Jew. Between day school tuition, high-priced homes, making Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and weddings and supporting children in learning or graduate school, frum families, even those with dual incomes, often find it is a struggle to make ends meet.

The chronic stress of drowning under financial pressure can take a toll on a marriage.

Unfortunately, the issue of not having enough money is not a short-lived crisis; save for winning the lottery, it does not usually go away. The chronic stress of drowning under financial pressure can take a toll on a marriage.

Sadly, there is no magic cure-all to financial woes. The past few years have been tough for many and global or individual circumstances ensure that at some point or other, there will be families facing economic hardships. Couples must be aware of this painful reality and agree to ride out the tough times together. What this entails will vary on a case-by-case basis, from cutting out certain luxuries to the more drastic move of relocating to a community more within one’s means. (Incidentally, there are some very fine Jewish communities in the US outside of major metropolitan areas that are well worth investigating. Housing and tuition costs in these communities tend to be far lower than they are in many major metropolitan areas.)

Couples admitted to having problems with either the lack of, too much of or the wrong kind of communication. It is obvious that in order to have a successful marriage partnership, there has to be good communication. To run a home, manage a family and build an emotional relationship, couples have to be able to talk to each other, hear each other and understand each other. If the communication breaks down, the whole system is liable to collapse.

A lack of communication may stem from a lack of time (see section on quantity time), a lack of interest or the different approach men and women generally have towards communication. Men tend to act to resolve an issue and avoid talking about it, whereas women will address an issue repeatedly to figure out the best approach to dealing with it. This can also contribute to the problem of too much communication.

The wrong kind of communication happens any time one spouse speaks to the other as if she or he were the same gender. A man should not talk to his wife as if she were one of the guys and a woman should not expect to engage her husband in conversation as if he were one of her girlfriends. The Torah says, “ko tomar lebeit Yaakov vetageid lebnei Yisrael”; Moshe was instructed to address the men and women differently, in the manner most appropriate to each gender.

A couple establishes communication patterns early on in a marriage, and once a practice becomes a habit, it is much harder to break. Being aware of the differences men and women have in their communication styles is a good first step in improving communication with one’s spouse.

A final stressor that emerged from the survey is the lack of time couples spend with each other and with their children. Couples reported that the stresses of life prevent them from properly investing quantity time into their marriages. People legitimately need to put a certain number of hours per week into their jobs. In addition, they need time to devote to the mundane activities of homemaking as well as time to volunteering for the school and the shul or the tzedakah organization. With such full schedules, many are simply exhausted by the end of the day and have little time or energy left to give to their families.

We have created a myth that if we spend some good quality time together with our spouses and children, we can make up for the time we have not been available. This is false.

Quality time is wonderful, but it cannot serve as a substitute for quantity time, just simply being there on a regular basis.

Our grandparents did not know psychology. They didn’t have books explaining the differences between men and women. Yet they seem to have had happier, more fulfilling marriages than our “enlightened” generation. Their secret? Quantity time.

Our grandparents worked hard, but when the workday was over, they came home, ate dinner as a family and spent evening after evening with their loved ones. They didn’t have the array of distractions and diversions that we have; they had their living rooms, where parents and children talked about their day and where husbands and wives shared their goals and dreams with each other. A marriage is like anything else: The more we invest in it, the greater its value.

We need to cut out the extracurricular from our lives. Do we really have to attend every wedding we are invited to? Do we have to participate in every fundraiser or social event? Make family time a priority. Quality time is wonderful, but it cannot serve as a substitute for quantity time, just simply being there on a regular basis.

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Despite the various stressors and challenges respondents identified, the overall picture the OU survey provides is rosy, with a significant majority of people happily married. This survey has granted us at the OU a better picture of the issues and challenges couples face in the twenty-first century, enabling us to focus on providing the right kinds of services and education to address these needs. Going forward, we hope to be able to better serve, engage and prepare our community to help all marriages reach a level of ahavah, achvah, shalom v’reiut–a love born of giving, unity, completeness and the pinnacle of friendship.

Rabbi Steven Weil is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.

This article was featured in the Summer 2010 issue of Jewish Action.
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