Dear Rosie & Sherry,
My fiance and I are both in our twenties. We both come from divorced homes, and so many of our friends who have tried marriage are finding it difficult to succeed.
We are determined to break the cycle. Rather than make our own mistakes and learn the hard way, we want to get some good guidance beforehand.
What are the pitfalls we need to be aware of? What are the best books/seminars/counseling that you can suggest for us before getting married? We want to be as prepared as possible.
First of all, we want to wish you mazel tov on your engagement. You and your fiancée are wise to want to prepare yourselves for the biggest transition in your lives – before it actually happens. Even though the real understanding will only come once you actually live together as husband and wife, the tools you acquire beforehand will make the adjustment much smoother than it might otherwise be.
Because marriage is such an ancient convention, many people mistakenly assume that it’s “natural” and therefore they don't think about preparing themselves emotionally for this new stage of life. They focus a tremendous amount of time, energy and money on the wedding celebration itself, and on the furnishing of the home they plan to share – while assuming that after the wedding the relationship will fall neatly into place.
The first year of marriage can be a rollercoaster ride.
Why is it that no one – not parents, not married friends – tells them that the first year of marriage is a bit of a rollercoaster ride? They can move from feeling content to overwhelmed, ecstatic to frustrated, secure to unprepared, thrilled to terrified – then back up and down again. It's all part of the process of transitioning from the flurry of activity surrounding the engagement and wedding to a regular life routine; getting accustomed to each other's rhythms, habits, outlooks, and ways of doing things; and learning how to balance each person's individual needs and wants with those of their partner.
Couples who understand that the first stage of marriage involves significant changes and challenges, and prep themselves with the tools to help adjust, will inevitably have a smoother transition. Interestingly, Judaism has a built-in mechanism to help ensure this. The Torah (Deut. 24:5) exempts a new husband from military duty for the first year of marriage, to enable the new couple to focus on strengthening their emotional bond. Judaism uses the term "shana rishona" (the first year) to reinforce the special character of this "honeymoon" year, and continues to call them bride and groom as a way of encouraging them to treasure their newlywed status.
Why do people diligently prepare for other major changes in their lives, but don't prepare for married life? Someone who's scheduled to relocate to another country for work will study that language, culture and social mentality. High school seniors usually don't blindly apply to colleges – they pour over brochures, visit campuses, speak to students and teachers, and explore courses and majors. And have you ever looked at the nightstands of a couple who are about to become parents for the first time? They're piled high with books about pregnancy, childbirth, and the first year of a baby's life.
So what should a man and woman “study” in order to prepare for married life? One area involves reasonable expectations – about what marriage is and what they can expect during their first year together. Often, each person comes into marriage with the sense that their lifestyle until now is the way things "ought to be." And yet, each person has a different approach to waking and sleeping cycles, meals, household responsibilities, gender roles, handling frustration, dealing with finances, resolving problems, communicating needs, etc. The challenge, therefore, is for the couple to appreciate their separate approaches and integrate them in a workable way. Spouses who come from dysfunctional families face an added challenge, because they don't want to emulate many aspects of their upbringing, and they may not have the skills for implementing an alternative approach.
The days of “enjoying time together with no responsibilities” are gone.
Another misconception: Many couples expect that after marriage, they'll relate to each other pretty much the same way they did when they were dating – i.e. enjoying their time together with no real responsibilities. And while they will always want to make “enjoyable time” a central part of their marriage, it’s not always easy to maintain amidst a daily routine of chores, bill-paying, laundry and meal-preparation. They also need to juggle relationships with in-laws and balance their personal space, interests and friends with their husband-and-wife relationship.
In all these areas, marriage education can help new husbands and wives learn how to address these changes and adapt more easily to the realities of married life.
Many marriage educators think of marriage preparation as a form of insurance that can do more than just help new couples get a good start together. Because marriage education helps them develop healthy relationship skills early on, the result is typically a stronger, happier, and more enduring marriage. They acquire different perspectives and skills, needed encouragement, and the reminder that what they're experiencing is part of the normal transition to married life.
We've also found that many engaged people feel less anxious about adjustment to the "great unknown" when they take advantage of marriage preparation resources.
So, where does an engaged couple get started? We suggest enrolling in a marriage education course that addresses topics such as communication, roles and responsibilities, conflict resolution and decision-making, financial management, intimacy, and in-laws. Most are open to engaged and newlywed couples. Some of the programs we're familiar with are Prepare and Enrich (Known as Choices of the Heart in Israel) or the Shalom Task Force workshop in New York.
Judaism also has a longstanding tradition of marriage preparation classes. Customarily, brides and grooms are taught the laws of Jewish family purity, as well as optimal ways to treat each other and develop their relationship on emotional and physical levels. Rebbetzin Fayge Twerski's article, “The Intimate Road,” offers a good overview of these laws and their origin. Today, the best teachers devote a lot of time to discussing the emotional and practical aspects of a spousal relationship, because couples often don't learn about it elsewhere. These classes are often taught one-on-one, and they usually compliment, but don't replace, the range of topics covered in most marriage education workshops.
There are a number of excellent books to read during you engagement – and review again in the months, and years, following your wedding:
- The River, The Kettle, and the Bird – by Rabbi Aaron Feldman
- What Did You Say? – by Rabbi Simcha Cohen
- The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say I Do – by Susan Piver
- The Garden of Peace – by Rabbi Shalom Arush (for men)
- Women's Wisdom – by Rabbi Shalom Arush (for women)
- In The Beginning – by Rosie Einhorn and Sherry Zimmerman
Bear in mind that each of these books suggests slightly different ways for couples to attain marital harmony, and it's a good idea for the two of you to discuss what you think will work best for you. Once you're married and begin to experience life together, you can adapt the approach that best fits your relationship.
Some engaged and newly-married couples prefer to work privately with a therapist who specializes in marriage education. They may prefer the one-on-one aspect, or feel that these private sessions are a better way to address their particular concerns and needs. Bear in mind that many capable marriage educators are trained to present a particular workshop, but may not be qualified to work privately on issues that are beyond the scope of their training. So it's a good idea to ask about the experience and credentials of anyone you plan to see privately.
We commend you for giving this the serious attention it deserves. But even after you have settled into a comfortable and successful marriage routine, it’s good to nurture your marriage and make it even stronger. Some organizations sponsor Jewish Marriage Encounter and marriage enrichment retreats.
We hope this information gets you started on a joyful journey together.
Rosie & Sherry