The "D" word frightens a lot of people who are seeking the right person to marry. Most of the singles we counsel are reluctant to include it in their list of concerns, but it's at the back of almost everyone's mind. The unfortunate phenomenon of couples who get divorced after a brief marriage is like the elephant in the room -- something everyone tries not to mention even though it's right in front of them.

Some young people tell us they would rather avoid marriage than be divorced. It saddens us to hear, because there are effective ways to select a marriage partner, and to nurture a marital relationship, that can be healthy and enduring.

Three Keys to Marital Success

Here are three keys to a successful marriage:

  • Choose the person who is right for you.
  • Build the foundation for a healthy and lasting relationship before becoming engaged.
  • Nurture that relationship for a lifetime.

The first two keys are intertwined. We can't really know that someone is right for us until we've built a foundation. The building process takes place as a man and a woman get to know each other by spending enough time together to become comfortable with each other's personalities, talking about a wide range of topics, and developing a history of shared experiences.

Unfortunately, many couples cut the building process short. Some become quickly infatuated and decide to get married before they know each other well. Others focus primarily on developing an emotional connection, but do not spend enough time discussing deeper issues that can help determine whether they are truly compatible.

You must develop an emotional connection that incorporates a sense of friendship and trust.

Single men and women regularly ask us if there is a way they can know that the person they have been dating is "the one." In a sense, there is. The prerequisites are common values, compatible goals, and a belief that the other person will make a good marriage partner. A couple who is contemplating marriage should also be attracted to each other, respect each other, and admire some qualities about the other person. While they are dating, they must also develop an emotional connection that incorporates a sense of friendship, trust, enjoyment of each other's company, and affection toward each other. Along with this should come a willingness to accept each other in spite of the imperfections that each has.

Over decades of experience as a matrimonial lawyer and therapist, we've seen that couples who really take the time to know each other by discussing important issues during the courtship period tend to choose the right marriage partner, and tend to stay married longer.

Talk it Over

There are a number of topics that dating couples can discuss to understand each other's value system. When issues come to the fore, the man and woman can evaluate their compatibility. Differences they encounter can become fertile ground for further discussion, accommodation, and compromise. Can they grow and be flexible together about areas of disagreement? Can they can accept and live with their differences? Or are their perspectives so different that they will not make good marriage partners?

Can you grow and be flexible together about areas of disagreement?

Couples who are able to discuss their similarities and differences on all of these topics do more than simply acquire a better understanding of each other -- they lay the framework for the give and take of a healthy relationship and they avoid making incorrect assumptions that they'll discover after marriage.

Many of the conversational topics listed below will come up in ordinary conversation. Those that don't should be discussed over the course of a courtship.

  • Your overall views of life and the world
  • What attracts you to each other
  • What you like and admire about each other
  • Long- and short-term personal goals
  • Ideas about where to live, how to divide household responsibilities
  • Attitudes about money, support, saving, spending, using credit
  • How to make decisions as a couple
  • How to spend free time and vacations
  • Spirituality and religious observance
  • Reconciling differences in cultural and socio-economic backgrounds
  • How to handle stress and points of disagreement
  • Relationships within your own families and each other's families
  • Balancing the time with your individual friends and common friends
  • Ideas about having children, raising them, and caring for them
  • Physical and mental health conditions

Beyond this, it is important to develop an emotional connection and feel attracted to a potential spouse. This emotional connection is not a "click" that some people claim they will sense when they meet the "right" person. It's a sense of friendship, trust, concern, and comfort that develops when two people learn about each other and begin to share a history together.

Causes of Quickie Divorce

What leads to a "quickie divorce"? We present here some of the most common causes. Our goal is not to frighten the reader, but to educate about how to avoid situations that can lead to problematic marriages.

Marrying someone who is not right for them

Some people give in to pressure to marry someone they sense isn't right for them, because: they want to be married and hope things will work out; they feel their options are limited and decide to "settle"; they are pressured to get married in spite of their reservations and are assured that things will work out; or they don't feel a strong emotional connection but are assured that everything will be better once they are married.

To avoid this misstep, a person has to make an objective analysis of compatibility (based on the list of "issues" above). If necessary, an outside advisor (married friend, rabbi, etc.) can help maintain your objectivity.

Not knowing how to "be married."

Many newly married couples with the potential to be successful call it quits prematurely, simply because they don't know "how to be married." Some believe they have entered into a "trial marriage" -- if the first six months aren't wonderful, they'll get divorced. These marriages are doomed to failure from the outset, because the first six months of marriage are almost never idyllic. It usually takes a year or more for newly married couples to make the transition from singlehood to couplehood.

It usually takes a year or more to transition from singlehood to couplehood.

Even people who marry with the expectation that it will last forever are often unprepared for the fact that the first phase of married life involves a great deal of adjustment, with its set of challenges.

It is important for engaged couples to get pre-marital education, to enable them to realize that early difficulties are normal, and that the tools to successfully addressing the issues that are arising between them are within their grasp. With a little guidance, they can be on their way to building a happy and long-lasting life together.

Emotional issues

Sometimes, an individual who needs to resolve a serious emotional issue fails to do so before marriage. This person may have experienced an early trauma or abuse, or have been raised in a very emotionally dysfunctional family, and as a result may not be able to relate to his or her spouse in a healthy way.

While many of these difficulties can often be successfully addressed in therapy, a new bride or groom often does not want to deal with the fallout of an emotionally troubled spouse at the time the two of them should be building their marriage. That is why the discussion topics suggested above are so important, in helping a couple realize that there are problems that have to be addressed before they decide to marry.

Undisclosed medical conditions

Another leading cause of early break-ups is the discovery, soon after marriage, that a husband or wife has a physical or mental medical condition they did not reveal earlier. Even when a condition can be well-managed with medication, a spouse may feel betrayed by the non-disclosure and not want to continue the relationship.

A variation on this "problem" occurs when an individual with a mental or physical condition that can be managed by medication decides to stop taking the medicine now that he or she is married. The new spouse can quickly see the signs of impaired mental or physical functioning and often decides to leave -- because unless the spouse takes responsibility for managing the condition, the marriage will be a constant struggle.

Sexual issues

Some people are readily attracted to the opposite gender, but are not attracted to the person they decide to marry. They are often persuaded that since their dating partner has so much of what they are looking for, attraction isn't that important or will come later. While it's a mistake to become engaged simply because of a strong attraction, it is also a mistake to become engaged on the assumption that this will develop later. Such a mistake can occur when a dating couple reaches a decision too quickly. They may agree to marry because each of them has all of the "right" qualifications, their upbringings or backgrounds are similar, or they get along with each other's friends and family -- even though they don't feel connected or attracted to each other. They may be persuaded by well-meaning but misguided advice that if someone is "right on paper," feelings and attraction aren't that important.

There are also people who lack a strong attraction to members of the opposite gender. They may not realize this until soon after their marriage, or they may hope that they will acquire the attraction after the wedding. Judaism believes (and many mental health professionals concur) that there is a continuum of degrees of opposite-gender attraction, and many people who are only mildly attracted can address this issue in therapy and increase their level of attraction. Needless to say, individuals who feel they may benefit from this type of therapy should work with a therapist who specializes in this field before they begin to date.

Physical abuse

This is the leading cause of quick break-ups. Because of recent educational efforts, many people are more aware of how domestic violence can develop in a marriage, are not willing to stay in an abusive or potentially abusive relationship, and are likely to leave it quickly.

While we cannot always predict who may become an abusive spouse, professionals have identified certain traits that can indicate an individual's potential to become an abuser. Unfortunately, some singles are still unaware of these warning signs, or simply may not spend enough time getting to know their dating partner to see if they are present.

In the Jewish community, the Shalom Task Force (1-888-883-2323; in New York City 718-337-3700) educates the public about these "red flags." This issue is also discussed in books such as our own Talking Tachlis, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski's The Shame Born In Silence, and Dr. Lisa Aiken's Guide To The Romantically Perplexed.

With the right preparation and knowledge, the chance of staying married for a lifetime increase exponentially. Many couples are doing so successfully, and you can, too.