Ki Setzei 5772 -- Are Our Kids Ready for Marriage?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 29, 2012
The summer issue of the on-line journal Klal Perspectives (on whose editorial board I sit) is now available, and the subject is not a happy one: the rising rate of early divorce in the Orthodox community. Each of our marriage age children knows someone who was already divorced. That would not have been the case a generation ago. Shaya Ostrove, a therapist in the Five Towns, reports being told by one young client, "So what if I get divorced? Most of my friends already are, and they're waiting for me to join them."
The bulk of the Klal Perspectives issue deals with the period immediately surrounding marriage – from shidduchim to post-marital mentoring. It includes suggestions on how to better assess emotional compatibility on the basis of dates that bear no resemblance to actual marriage and discussions of various forms of premarital training for couples, which go beyond the scope of traditional separate classes for the chassan and kallah.
I have no doubt that these suggestions will help prevent some early divorces and enhance marital quality for many young couples. But I'm afraid that they will come too late for many of our young for whom the challenge of marriage is primarily one of emotional immaturity.
Where that maturity is lacking, all the communications workshops in the world will be of little help, and will likely even be resented by the young couple. Dina Schoonmaker, a frequent contributor to Mishpacha's Advice Line, summed up the challenge with her title "Marital Preparation Begins at Two."
Rabbi Doniel Frank, who runs marriage and dating seminars, told me some months ago that when he asks young men, "How do you know you are ready for marriage?" they almost invariably respond in terms of external markers – e.g. two years of beis medrash, followed by a year and a half in Eretz Yisrael, and then six months in the "freezer" in Lakewood – rather than in terms of personal development. Unfortunately, neither that timeline nor chronological age is by itself an indicator of preparedness for marriage. In an era when psychologists speak of a new stage of "emerging adulthood," basically an extension of the teenage years into the mid-to-late twenties, it is hardly surprising that our young have also been affected, and with particularly serious consequences due to the comparatively young age for marriage in the Orthodox world.
Over-indulgent and over-protective parenting contributes to that lack of maturity. A recent cartoon, entitled Then and Now, nicely captures the new ideal of parenting as protecting our children from every form of adversity. In the first frame, a terrified child stands before his father's desk, while the father waves a report card and demands to know, "What is the meaning of this report card? In the second frame, two parents, brandish a report card, in front of a cringing teacher and demand to know, "What is the meaning of this report card?" Their child stands smirking behind them.
A rav heavily involved with marital preparation and counseling of young couples, pithily shared with me his assessment: Our kids are spoiled. As an illustration, he offered a dispute between two sets of parents as to whether their new couple should be budgeted for $4,000 per month, or forced to make due on only $3,000, during their first year in Israel. Even the lower sum would be viewed a small fortune by many Israeli kollel families of ten. Even the most basic principle of financial management – expenses must be in line with income – is unknown to many young couples, writes Shmuli Margulies, the founder of Mesila, an organization that trains individuals and families to deal with money management. What their friends have -- not what they can afford -- is their guide.
The consequence of overly indulgent and protective parenting is that it leaves its products totally unprepared to deal with the vicissitudes of life – and every marriage has its ups and downs. They enter marriage with fantasies of instantaneous and permanent bliss, and when it does not materialize or the first argument takes place, they are ready to call it quits. They end marriages or break engagements over trivialities. Another of Shaya Ostrove's clients decided her chassan was boring because he did not appreciate her love of bungee jumping.
Because they have never been pushed outside of their comfort zone to do anything that was difficult for them or involved hard work, they are unprepared to work on their marriages. The very idea that everything precious in life requires effort – l'fum tzara agra -- is often utterly foreign to them.
THE FOREGOING IS, OF COURSE, A PARTIAL CARICATURE, and it does not begin to explain all -- and perhaps even most -- early divorces. Unrevealed and unaddressed emotional issues are another frequent cause of very early marital breakup, and internet addictions and the distortions they introduce are another.
And the problem of immaturity goes far beyond being spoiled. Another crucial aspect is lack of self-knowledge. That absence is reflected in the fact that many of our young people begin dating with a long "wish list," but very little concept of what they have to offer a prospective spouse.
Rabbi Frank, who is also an educational psychologist, developed, under the auspicies of OHEL, a curriculum for Monsey schools stressing the development of various life skills – e.g., empathy, decision-making, setting priorities, self-knowledge. Where these skills are lacking, particularly in the male, problems are likely to follow. In the Maharal's classic formulation, the male provides the tzura (form) within which the home develops, and the woman uses her special attribute of binah to realize the ideal form in the world. If the man, however, does not know himself, cannot make decisions, or set priorities, he is lacking in any tzura himself and cannot provide it to the marriage. And that failure will be felt by his wife.
Qualities like self-knowledge, decision-making, establishing priorities can be developed, but they do not happen automatically. Rabbi David Sapirman of Toronto has written eloquently for Torah Umesorah of the ways in which many yeshivaleit today are on a conveyor belt with respect to issues of emunah. As long as everything is going well, and they do not have to confront any challenges to their faith, they experience no emunah issues. But, in his words, they "neither believe nor disbelieve."
Similarly, it is possible to go from yeshiva to kollel without ever developing one's individuality in any way by simply conforming with the norms of one's particular yeshiva. As Rabbi Yaakov Kametsky put it, "Every yeshiva is to some extent a S'dom bed – cutting each bochur to the shape of the particular institution in which he finds himself."
Even the finest lamdan and masmid has not necessarily been forced to leave his comfort zone. He is doing what he loves and excels at. But his achievements in learning do not predict how he will deal with adversity, or accommodate the different needs and communication style of his spouse. Nor does it ensure that his sense of self is strong, and exists independent of the admiration that always accompanies him in his days in the yeshiva.
As Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, has written recently, the emphasis of yeshivos today is on teaching bochurim how to learn, not on their full development as human beings., The dominant figure in many of the greatest European yeshivos was a Mashgiach whose mission was the personal growth of each talmid: the Alter of Kelm, the Alter of Slabodka, Reb Yerucham Levovitz in the Mir. No comparable figure exists today.
What are the consequences of this new reality? For one thing, parents cannot abdicate responsibility for helping their sons develop the personal qualities so crucial to marriage and everything else in life. One cannot send one's son to yeshiva – even the finest yeshiva – and expect that he will thereby emerge a fully formed individual. Parental input remains crucial.
Parents must ensure that their children, particularly their sons, face challenges that are not easy for them. Bein hazemanim is one opportunity. Rabbi Reuven Leuchter, a leading talmid of Rabbi Wolbe, stresses that bein hazemanim should not be viewed as a continuation of the zman, at a slightly relaxed pace. Rather it is an opportunity to explore and develop aspects of oneself that one cannot during the zman. Chesed activities, such as participating in a SEED program or helping other young Jews suffering from chronic illness, are just one type of activity that can help a bochur develop different sides of his personality.
That too is a crucial component of the preparation for marriage that begins at two and ideally doesn't end even with marriage.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Jewish Ethics, Social Issues
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