Klal Perspectives New Issue – Early Marital Breakups

Klal Perspectives (KP), Summer 2012, is now available for free download. It addresses the perception that there has been a tragic upswing in the numbers of early divorces with our community. KP assembles an impressive and diverse collection of opinions from several disciplines.

Previous issues stimulated much discussion throughout the Orthodox world, and the Editorial Board (of which I am a member) remains more committed to the notion that the first, crucial steps in finding solutions to community problems are awareness and exchanging ideas. We hope that we are making a contribution.

In an undisguised attempt to bait readers to read more, I reproduce below a truncated form of the issue’s Foreward, which describes the expertise of each contriburor, and what he or she offers us.

Shaya Ostrov, an Orthodox marriage counselor, relates how he was told recently by someone he was counseling, “So what if I get divorced? Most of my friends already are, and they’re waiting for me to join them.” And this from a young kallah: “I’m not thrilled by his looks, and I don’t see why I should settle. Most of my friends have broken engagements and seem to be doing just fine. According to Rabbi Weinberger, a shocking percentage of the young divorces are over “trivialities,” not triggered by the serious issues that typically compromise marriages of middle-aged couples, such as familial trauma, unremitting financial pressure, or an affair. As an example of such “trivialities,” Shaya Ostrov cites a young kallah from a “heimish” background who decided her chosson was too boring because he did not fully appreciate her love of bungee jumping.

Rabbi Doniel Frank points out [that] for those couples who have not navigated the developmental stages leading to young adulthood, expanded pre-marital training will be neither welcome nor engaging, and is unlikely to have much impact. More and more of our young people have not passed those stages. In an era in which social scientists speak of a period of “emerging adulthood” (which resembles an extension of the teenage years) into the late twenties, it is hardly surprising that the Orthodox community should have been adversely affected, and with particularly tragic results due to the societal norm of comparatively early marriage.
As noted by Dr. Yitzchak Schechter and others, too many Orthodox young people enter marriage with unrealistic expectations of instantaneous bliss and without any commitment to the hard work necessary to build and sustain a marriage. They have never had to work hard for anything in their lives or been forced to deal with situations outside of their “comfort zone.”

Shmuli Margulies, the founder of MESILA, an organization that trains individuals and families in issues connected to money management, points out that even the basic principle of financial education – a person’s spending is determined by his income – is unfamiliar to many young couples. Spending decisions are dictated more often by what their friends and neighbors have than by what they can afford.
But the problem goes deeper than that many of our children are spoiled and overprotected, argues Rabbi Frank. Many Orthodox young people have never adequately developed a sense of their own individuality (Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky once described every yeshiva as, to a greater or lesser extent, a “S’dom bed,” in which students are cut to the needs of the institution). And this lack of self-knowledge is expressed in deficits in their ability to make decisions, set goals, establish priorities, and plan for the future – all of which are crucial to a successful marriage. When it comes to shidduchim, they have long lists of what they want but a much weaker sense of what they have to offer a spouse.

As summed up by Dina Schoonmaker’s title “Marriage Preparation Begins at Age Two,” children must learn early in life that their emotional state need not be determined by whether they attained some desired object or not, and taught techniques in controlling their emotional states.

NEVERTHELESS, despite their relative youth compared to the general population, the vast majority of Orthodox young couples do stay married. Orthodox divorce rates remain far below those for the general population. And the major Orthodox Union study on marital satisfaction, reviewed in this issue by Rabbi Steven Weil, while identifying areas in need of improvement, found that Orthodox couples report a higher level of marital satisfaction than the general public.

By all accounts, the classes offered to kallot and chassanim today are far superior to those offered to their parents’ generation. For kallot, the instruction today is almost all individual, as opposed to the group format of a generation ago. Most kallah teachers and some chosson teachers undergo much more formal training than in the past.
In yeshivos, the chosson is much less likely than formerly to receive only a one-time chosson shmuess to supplement his study of the relevant halachic material. More often, he will meet at least four or five times with an experienced teacher to discuss the non-halachic aspects of marital intimacy and other topics related to successful married life. For example, such subjects as a woman’s emotional changes during pregnancy and possibility of post-partum depression are much more likely to be covered. Students in Ner Yisrael in Baltimore flock to the ten-part series about personal growth in the marriage relationship offered by Rabbi Shraga Neuberger, who has contributed an article on the subject to this issue.

At the same time, improvements in chosson and kallah teaching may not be uniform across the Orthodox spectrum. And there is evidence of room for further improvement. Dr. Steven Friedman, who treats sexual dysfunction, cites expressions of dissatisfaction with their chosson and kallah teachers by many of the couples who came to him for treatment. Physiological information, however, is only part of what is sometimes lacking. Dr. Schechter, the director of a large behavioral clinic serving the Orthodox population, points out that Orthodox youth are subjected to primarily negative messages about the opposite sex as they grow up, and those messages can continue to inhibit open expression in the marital context.
Even as the preparation of chassanim and kallot has improved dramatically, the challenges facing chosson and kallah teachers are also greater. An ever larger percentage of our young people – likely more men than women – have been exposed to sexually explicit images, in which there is an absolute divide between the mechanistic aspects of sexual relations and the emotional aspects of marital intimacy. As a consequence, they may enter marriage with totally unrealistic fantasies and a very distorted view of the emotional bond and caring necessary for fulfilling marital intimacy. Rabbi Asher Biron decries the fact that “some chosson teachers [and kallah teachers as well] have not fully adapted to this new reality and are failing to educate their students in the realm of marital intimacy.”
Numerous contributors stressed the need for follow-up with couples after marriage, when the information they were taught prior to marriage is no longer theoretical, citing favorably the formalized post-marital mentoring established in the Syrian community and in Belz and other Chassidic communities. As pointed out by Shifra Revah, Shira Hershoff and Sara Tendler, mentors can help to nip in the bud incipient tensions before they fester, and the mentor can also serve as a “first responder” in the case of serious problems

THIS ISSUE OF KLAL PERSPECTIVES also highlights a relatively recent development: formalized pre-marital workshops for couples, designed to supplement their individual instruction with their respective chosson and kallah teachers.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, the executive director of Shalom Task Force and a trained marital and family counselor, describes the thinking behind the pioneering eight-hour S.H.A.L.O.M. Workshops (Starting Healthy and LOng-lasting Marriages), and the extremely positive feedback from participants in the program. Dr. Chani Maybruch, herself a veteran kallah teacher, cites statistics from her doctoral thesis on the impact of well-developed marriage preparation courses for couples on subsequent marital satisfaction.

As an alternative to such workshops, Dr. Neil Weisman, an Orthodox therapist, outlines a three-session pre-marital program that he conducts with couples, which helps them, inter alia, identify the communication styles and marital models in their respective families and consider the potential impact they may have on their own marriages. Shmuli Margulies focuses more narrowly on the issue of financial preparation for marriage, and Dr. Steven Friedman on preparation for marital intimacy.

NO DISCUSSION OF EARLY DIVORCE can ignore the process by which spouses are chosen, especially if, as Lisa Twerski states boldly, many of the early divorcing couples were simply unsuited for one another from the start.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer notes, for instance, that during a shidduch meeting, each party’s attention is focused exclusively on the other. Marriage, however, requires the ability to always keep one’s spouse in mind, while attending to a hundred other matters. Rabbi Hauer and others suggest that many of the qualities most crucial to a successful marriage – supportiveness, responsibility, honesty, empathy, physical and emotional strength – are often not the ones being emphasized in the shidduch. Rabbi Hauer provides parents with six “conversations” to be had with their children before dating, during the shidduch process, and after the engagement to ensure that those involved are focused on what is most important.
In at least one area, however, Lisa Twerski calls for less parental involvement. Rather than interpreting the “events” of dates for their children or trying to allay all their concerns, parents should encourage their child to address the concerns directly with the one they are dating, as a valuable tool to explore their emotional compatibility.

Dr. Schechter eloquently describes the need for more empirical research, and points out reasons why such research might actually be easier in the relatively close-knit Orthodox world.

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21 Responses

  1. Shloime says:

    Wow. I was amazed while reading this how many of these observations so accurately described my experiences and struggles after getting married. For example:

    1) “too many Orthodox young people enter marriage with unrealistic expectations of instantaneous bliss and without any commitment to the hard work necessary to build and sustain a marriage” – I don’t know where I got this impression from, but as a single guy I just assumed that all problems and frustrations just magically go away once we get married, and everything just works out easily. I was totally unprepared for the many challenges of family life.

    2) “the basic principle of financial education – a person’s spending is determined by his income – is unfamiliar to many young couples. Spending decisions are dictated more often by what their friends and neighbors have than by what they can afford.” Precisely. I just looked around and saw people getting married and managing, so I figured, “Hey, how hard can it be.” I never thought about it mathematically in terms of income and spending.

    3) “And this lack of self-knowledge is expressed in deficits in their ability to make decisions, set goals, establish priorities, and plan for the future” – I just figured I’d be a good yeshiva boy like I was taught to be, and everything will fall into place. I was never forced to take initiative and chart a real course for the future.

    B’H’ I’ve more or less overcome this ill-preparedness for marriage (thanks largely to my wife’s amazing patience and midos), but it’s certainly very important for us as a community to address these problems so our young people are better prepared for the challenges of adulthood.

  2. joel rich says:

    I was struck by your closing sentence (as I have posted previously about the need for data in order to make informed choices and our community’s seeming lack of desire to gather anything that could lead to identifying less than stellar performance, especially amongst competing subgroups) and turned immediately to Dr. Schechter’s contribution.

    Naturally I was thrilled with his 1st paragraph on data :
    “As suggested by many commentators, including authors in the
    first issue of Klal Perspectives, a responsible approach to
    communal challenges must be premised upon meaningful
    research and data. As a maturing and increasingly sophisticated
    community, it is critical that we evolve from reliance solely on
    intuition-based models of decision making to an emphasis on
    empirically-based models that can inform leadership’s decision

    I really didn’t understand his second paragraph:

    “Reliable research should not be confused with the arcane
    number crunching taking place in the sterile halls of the ivory
    tower of irrelevant academia; rather, research must be an
    accessible engine that can revitalize the hallowed institution of
    marriage. This requisite investigation can create, through
    comprehensive needs analysis and careful diagnosis, a real-life
    action plan for couples in our community.”

    I’m sure he didn’t mean that using validated data gathering means and analytical tools was inappropriate (then we may as well go back to gut feeling methodology which has served us so well). Perhaps some expansion on what is to be avoided and what is to be done will appear in a more expanded proposal?

    Then his third paragraph on the topic:

    “Given the cohesive and organized nature of our community,
    prospective research and its translation can be exceedingly
    powerful. For example, through using the interconnectivity of
    the community and its many touch-points (e.g. yeshivas, kollel,
    mikvah, kallah teachers, shuls, schools/pre-schools, and
    community organizations), we can create a marriage-wellbeing
    surveillance and support network, akin to the best of what the
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has done for
    health. Empirically-developed questionnaires that are simple
    and focused can be used as a newlywed screening system to
    test for the stress fractures in marriage, leading to quick
    intervention when necessary. This is one way our tight-knit
    communal network can actualize its function of areivus and
    mutual support”

    I hope he is right, as I noted above the community has not seemed willing to much data gathering and I wonder where the $ will be reallocated away from to support such an intensive effort.


  3. Allan Katz says:

    A divorce is a successful end to an unsuccessful marriage. Better earlier than later. The real problem – the unsuccessful marriages. Today you have to be wealthy in order to divorce , not everyone can afford it

  4. CJ Srullowitz says:

    My belief is that the problems described in this issue, and all past issues of Klal, can be boiled down to the “Entitlement Crisis” that Klal Yisrael is facing. Beginning sometime in the 1980’s, the attitude of “es kumt mir” – “I have it coming” – has taken root in the community. The shidduch crisis, the tuition crisis, the marriage crisis, even to a large extent the OTD crisis all share this common thread: people have a false sense that they are “owed” something.

  5. lacosta says:

    since ‘why they got divorced’ is usually rumor and innuendo, any actual hard data is appreciated. we have all heard of the stories of causes related to unresolved abuse issues, intimacy issues [ eg he’s gay and now realizes it ] blackmail [6 mo later he refuses to work , let your daddy pay] etc
    but anecdotes are not statistics….

  6. Tal Benschar says:

    Many of the anecdotes related can be boiled down to one factor: lack of maturity. You have to be an adult to get married and have a succesful marriage, not a big child.

    Which brings us to one of my pet peeves. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the frum world is pressuring people to get married younger and younger. Where I live, girls have to start dating at 18, and if not married by 20 they are in a panic. (For boys, you can add on two to three years to those numbers.) To my mind, that is crazy. While a few are mature enough at that age, it seems to my limited daas that most people are simply not mature enough to get married — meaning to build a home, relate to a spouse, and deal with all the difficulties of life — until they are a bit older.

    I wonder if the increase in early divorces has any correlation with the phenomenum of younger marriages.

  7. Shades of Gray says:

    Like usual, a thought-provoking Klal Perspectives issue with a wide range of perspectives.

    A few of the authors broached the idea of either parents or yeshivos taking a more proactive approach in discussing sexual developmental issues. This sounds ambitious and requires training. Sarah Diament, explaining why she wrote the first book on the subject, wrote in an 10/28/09 interview on Hirhurim, “many people, even mental health professionals, are very uncomfortable with the topic”. If professionals have a discomfort to be overcome, how much more others! Be that as it may, training is important in being skilled, and I have read of recent efforts to train mashgichim in both Eretz Yisroel and in America on a wide range of chinuch topics.

  8. L. Oberstein says:

    Since we are in the week of sheva brochos for our daughte.my perspective is positive. I totally agree with CJ Srullowitz that the sense of entitlement that is prevalent in our culture has a lot to do with failed marriages.
    Tal Benschar doesn’t understand early marriages. If you have daughters wilting on the vine, you would understand the desperation and fear that she will be passed over and left single. The fact is that boys can choose from girls of a wide range of ages,e.g. a 25 year old can go out with a 19 year old girl or a 27 year old girl,but a 25 year old girl won’t be set up with a 19 year old boy.The deck is stacked against the girl.
    Then the falsity of the resume and shiduch system which forces obfuscation and concealment of issues can lead to big problems later on. Our whole dating system is designed to force girls into early decisions after meeting the boy only a few times . You tell them not to talk to a boy and then you tell them to meet him 3 or 4 times and spend the rest of her life with him..Something is wrong with this picture.
    I can’t say that American dating practices are better, the non frum have worse shiduch problems, so many don’t get married . The non frum Jewish community is dieing out due to lack of marriage and intermarriage and so few children. If I had to choose, our messed up method is still better. Adt least our children want to get married and do.
    By the way, we love our new son in law and think it was a match made in Heaven. I wish all of you the same nachas we feel.

  9. Jewish Observer says:

    “Tal Benschar doesn’t understand early marriages. If you have daughters wilting on the vine, you would understand the desperation and fear that she will be passed over and left single”

    – I believe that is precicely Tal’s point. We have created a culture in which a woman not married by 20 is, as you termed it, “wilting on the vine”. As we say in talmudese “al zeh anu danin”

  10. YEA says:

    From David Holzer’s “The Rav Thinking Aloud”, page 128:

    [David Holzer:] The Rambam writes that the way of baalei dayah [intelligent people] is to establish a parnasah for himself before marriage, while tipshin [fools] get married first and then worry about how to support themselves. Don’t we seem to follow the tipaish path nowadays?

    [The Rav just smiled and gave no response.]

  11. Tal Benschar says:

    “Tal Benschar doesn’t understand early marriages. If you have daughters wilting on the vine, you would understand the desperation and fear that she will be passed over and left single. The fact is that boys can choose from girls of a wide range of ages,e.g. a 25 year old can go out with a 19 year old girl or a 27 year old girl,but a 25 year old girl won’t be set up with a 19 year old boy.The deck is stacked against the girl.”

    L. Oberstein, I get all that. I have had it explained to me many times. The point I am making is that the fear is pushing people to get married earlier and earlier, and that leads to immature people getting married. If the norm was girls got married at 21, say, instead of 18, then no one would panic until they hit 23-24.

    The flip side of “the desperation and fear that she will be passed over and left single” is the prospect of marrying young and ending up a divorcee. We know someone like that — got married at 19, he at 21, then a couple of years later, he decides he does not want to be frum. BH he is a mensch, gives her a get. She is now a 25 year old divorcee. What prospects does she have now?

    (And BTW, people do get married older. My wife was very friendly with a family that had several young ladies in the parsha at the same time — they ended up making three weddings within 7 months! The oldest was 27, and in a panic until she met her chosson. It is now 13 years later, they are very happily married with several children.)

    In short, I well understand the fear. It is not irrational by any means. But it is leading to an overreaction that has other negative consequences.

  12. Tal Benschar says:

    “[David Holzer:] The Rambam writes that the way of baalei dayah [intelligent people] is to establish a parnasah for himself before marriage, while tipshin [fools] get married first and then worry about how to support themselves. Don’t we seem to follow the tipaish path nowadays?”

    Of course in some circles, they claim to have a parnassah in the form of a PhD. Also known as “Papa has Dough.”

    (That was the joke when I was dating — “I want a girl with a PhD.”)

  13. Dr. E says:

    I look forward to reading the various articles in the new issue of KP in their entirety. But, based on the observation above that many break-ups on based on “trivialities”, this is not at all surprising. After all, the Shidduch System which many view as sacrosanct, is often predicated on trivialities. So, some degree of “soseir al minas livnos” (loosely translated as “blowing it up and starting over”) might be in order.

    I did skim Rabbi Frank’s piece and he had an excellent point which I would make even stronger. “Avoidance of Stages” is one of the casualties of the status quo. The rush and pressure to get married or for parents to “marry off” has essentially robbed young women of what would naturally be a “critical period” in their development. They have not had the opportunity to grow socially, emotionally, or academically, as what might have been a window of 4 or 5 years a generation ago has been compressed into about 2. Missing out on this critical period can have permanent consequences, as one cannot turn back the clock and regain those years of development. Until the chinuch system (and parents who are complicit) can muster up the courage to say (and really mean it) that “it’s perfectly OK for a young woman to be single for a couple more years”, there is still trouble on the horizon. The short-term consequences described in this issue as well as the long-term consequences which will catch up with people down the line, will continue to be prevalent.

  14. Joe Hill says:

    A couple of points:

    There are no statistics, though anecdotal I can say the couples that marry younger have a significantly lower divorce rate by far. So if there is any effect, it seemingly is getting married later results in a higher risk of divorce.

    Also, not that long ago in most of the frum community (in pre-war Europe), fathers would make shidduchim for their children when they were, often at the latest, 17 years of age. The divorce rate was negligible. And couples were happy. It worked.

    Some things to think about.

  15. DF says:

    Promoting early marriages is tied to promoting pre-marital abstinence between the sexes. As I don’t think it wise to tinker with the latter policy, I dont see how its possible to change the former. Some blame the divorce problem not on pre-marital abstinence [which everyone agrees with] but on the lack of even basic social mingling between teenage boys and girls. Maybe, but I dont see the modern orthodox world being immune from the divorce (or shidduch) problem either.

    Bottom line, there are many diffrent approaches to dating. The sages equated dating to the splitting of the sea, and the sages also said the sea split into twelve different paths. Basically it means that no matter which path you take – yeshivah style, sit-ins, modern-orthodox style – it’s difficult.

  16. G says:

    @Dr. E
    There are those who believe that couples who marry young mature together, and develop social and emotional awareness as a couple. I’m not saying this is preferable. I’m pointing out that no one disregards the fact that teenagers are not yet adults.
    @Joe Hill:
    Like you, I’ve heard of no statistics linking age and divorce rate. However, what I’ve heard (like you again, anecdotally) is that couples who marry at a slightly older age are more satisfied with their marriages, possibly because they have more realistic expectations; I’ve also heard of young divorcees stating that their big mistake was marrying ‘young and dumb.’ (That’s a quote I’ve heard repeatedly from divorcees who married young; no offense to the young and wise.)
    Comparisons to pre-war Europe need to include the whole picture – including women’s education or lack thereof, men’s vocations, marrying within one’s geographic community, etc., – to be meaningful. I also wonder what basis we have to say that couples were happy in pre-war Europe.

  17. shlomo zalman says:

    I am almost amused at the oft-repeated claim that pre-war European marriages were blissful, as evidenced by the extremely low divorce rate. In reading how shidduchim were conducted in Europe, at what ages, under what stipulations (tena’im) and social conditions, it is clear that the expectations and sense of fulfillment in marriage were radically different than our present time. Simply put, marriages in Europe were not expected to be blissful, only functional. Divorce was rare because there wasn’t going to be anything better out there, nor were there any expectations of the sort.

    Were men expected to spend significant amounts of quality time with their wives? No. Did the wives expect or insist on it? No. Did couples make significant family/social/religious/financial decisions as equal partners? No. The following facts of European life should suffice to dispel the “happy marriage” myth.

    1. The couple, especially among the chassidim, often did not meet even once before the chuppah.
    2. Differences of decades between the respective ages were common.
    3. Early death of a spouse, necessitating second and third marriages out of social and financial necessity was common.
    4. For business or religious reasons (visiting the Rebbe for a few weeks/months, separation of the couple was very common.
    5. Shidduch selection was often based on yichus, money, and simple availability, hardly a recipe fopr a “happy marriage”

    To be sure, post-holocaust couples often married becuase there was nobody else left. These unions produced children, thank God, but were hardly happy marriages.

  18. Tzvi says:

    According to Shaul Stampfer, the divorce rate in 19th Century Lithuanian Jewry may have approached 30%. He attributes this to the very young marriage age (often 15 years or even less.)

  19. Steve Brizel says:

    Klal , along with Chakirah, deserves a huge Yasher Koach for being able and willing to tackle the issues that confront our communities. The current Klal issue should be mandatory reading for parents and their teens, rabbonim , mchanchim and anyone who claims to have expertise in shidduchim.

  20. DF says:

    If you read his work, Stampfer actually produces little evidence to support that number. What he does show is that divorce did occur in Europe. Of course, everyone but the most uneducated [who believe that Europe was some sort of magical wonder-land where everyone trembeled at the mere mention of the word “Ellul”] already knows that. Fron biblical times on, divorce has always been part of Jewish life, including religious life and [later] chassidshe and yeshivah life.

  21. Mindy Schaper says:

    Thank you for producing this issue of Klal Perspectives. I have read most of this issue and will be reading the rest. As someone who plans to be a marriage and faily therapist, I am highly interested in the opinions and activities of people already active in the field. Kol Hakavod on your excellent publication. I might be producing a thesis of interest to your publication over the next year and half. Will notify if relevant when completed.

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