Amidst all of the crises the Orthodox Jewish community is facing—the shidduch crisis, off-the-derech children, substance abuse and internet addiction—no one is talking about the elephant in the room that might actually be a game changer in reducing many of our other challenges. This is what I call the divorce crisis. While most of us are aware of the increase in divorce rates in the frum community, how bothered are we by this problem and what are we doing about it? What was once taboo has become an acceptable solution to most problems.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not naive to the reality of abuse, addictions and other horrifying situations that may warrant divorce. There is a reason the Torah has a provision for divorce. Yet, divorce is an option when needed and not something to be taken lightly, as R’ Elazar concludes the Talmudic tractate on divorce (Gittin 90b) by stating that “Anyone who divorces his first wife, even the altar sheds tears over him...” This article is not meant to make people feel guilty for getting divorced; rather, the point is to explore the issue as a community and open a conversation so that our marriages can be more fulfilling.
I am often asked why we suddenly seem to have more shalom bayit issues. Is it because people were less aware or they just swept it under the rug and stayed together for the family? It is a little of both and then some. There’s a theory in psychology called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which basically lists a person’s most vital and basic requirements in order of importance. At the foundation of the pyramid are things like food, water and the ability to breathe. Love is at the very top. Throughout the generations we’ve always had to deal with basic survival.
But in modern times, many of those immediate fears have fallen away, and as we no longer have to worry about them, the higher items on the list, like love, become more primary. That is one reason we are seeing a greater focus on a need for satisfying and loving relationships, not just in the Jewish community but in society at large.
On a Kabbalistic level, we are living in the sixth millenium, which parallels the sefirah of Yesod. Yesod is all about relationships and connection. Whether it is our relationship with our spouse, with our children, or with Hashem, our community in general is struggling in this realm. This is the work that brings Moshiach—working on developing real, connected relationships. We can avoid it all we want, but we have a unique opportunity to work on this now.
Finally, we live in a disposable society. We are constantly upgrading our computers and phones. There’s less commitment in relationships, and we don’t feel the need to work on them. So while we have all these devices, which are all about becoming more and more connected, our interpersonal connections still need to be worked on. This lack of commitment is a huge problem. Relationships are not designed to be easy. Looking back to the first couple, Adam and Chava, we see the concept of the ezer kenegdo, “the helpmate against him.” It is the opposition in the relationship that serves as the force to stimulate both interpersonal and intrapersonal growth. Conflict is not a liability but a force to be harnessed for growth and connection.
The problem is no one knows how to do that, and many of those who are helping struggling couples, be it clergy or even therapists, are not necessarily equipped either. So we are stuck in a situation where couples are struggling, they are not able to work through their issues, and the pain increases until it’s unbearable.
Couples who are committed don’t see the rough times as a reason to leave. Yet, they still need to be provided the hope that there is a better way. As many of us ourselves in the helping profession don’t know a better way for our own marriages, how we can inspire confidence in others?
What needs to change? Premarital education is a must. Would you let your child drive a car without learning how to drive? While premarital education is a challenge because starry-eyed couples typically don’t anticipate marital trouble, if they can learn valuable concepts such as the stages of relationship, how conflict is inevitable and is an opportunity for growth and healing, it will better prepare them for the ups and downs of marriage. In addition to effective listening and general relationship skills, such a mandatory program could help head off many issues from the get-go. A mere chatan shmooze is not enough.
Recognizing that support is needed after marriage, it is important that first responders be trained in how to best help couples. Many well-meaning clergy, family, friends and even therapists can do more harm than good. If the couple or one spouse in the relationship is coming to you for advice, it is crucial to learn how to respond in a way that supports their relationship. There are many normal, everyday relationship problems that can be treated. If not dealt with for what they are, conflict can snowball to the point where there is little desire to salvage the relationship.
It would also be helpful to have trained marriage mentors who young couples could turn to in the early years as a source of support. Some people are afraid to ask for help. Having skilled mentors, perhaps even their chatan/kallah teacher, continue to serve as a resource after marriage will help prevent problems from being ignored.
Unfortunately, there are many young couples with children getting divorced for no better reason than they are sick of their spouse. While not belittling the pain they are experiencing, people don’t seem to understand the amount of work it takes for a relationship to succeed. Even if you tried therapy and it was not successful, are we too quick to throw in the towel? If you were given a terminal diagnosis, would you give up or would you get a second or third opinion? How much do we really value marriage, and do we really understand what it entails?
Part of the problem is that we can’t see a better way. We are hopeless and don’t believe our spouse can change. If we could get out of the conflict and see the bigger picture, the unique reason we are struggling, and what we can do to have a better relationship, couples would be much more committed to putting in the effort. That’s why it’s crucial to get the right help early, gaining from an approach that doesn’t blame or pathologize but helps both people take ownership and responsibility for their contributions to the conflict and helps them see that these challenges can truly be the greatest exercise in tikun hamidot and personal growth that they will ever encounter.
I hope this is an opportunity to start a discussion about this topic and brainstorm together possible solutions. I would love to hear from you personally or in the letters to the editor so we can put out this fire and create a better future for our families.
By Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin,
Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, MS, LCPC is a certified imago relationship therapist (advanced clinician) who works with couples via intensive marriage retreats and online “Marriage School.” To learn more about our private and group retreats, visit www.TheMarriageRestorationProject.com.