Overlooking the Challenges of Marriage

By Bob Garber

As someone constantly learning with Baalei Tshuva and potential BTs, my relationship always seems to end with the marriage of my students. Up until the wedding, I frequently see my students at Shabbatonim, visiting our home for Shabbos, or attending an interesting lecture or program. The wedding is usually an exciting, joyous party with many mutual friends, current and former students attending. The Sheva Berachos are filled with inspiring divrei Torah and dancing, usually in an intimate setting with friends and family.

However, once the festivities end, connections seem to begin to diminish. Of course, we invite the newlyweds for Shabbos, and they come a few times, but even this contact gradually diminishes as the couple begins their new lives together and get involved in their careers and their community. My wife and I have attended numerous such weddings in the past five years, and in almost all cases we have gradually lost contact with former students, rarely seeing them except for chance meetings. I don’t necessarily think that this is a bad thing, as couples develop their own relationship and build their home and family.

Nevertheless, the following pattern has also become increasingly common. I start hearing rumors or innuendos that someone is separated, but of course no one can really speak about it because its lashon hora. Then I hear rumors about a get, and then still later I meet the person (sometimes with a baby) and find out that the couple is in fact divorced. Sometimes the BT also appears to be dressing inappropriately, and later is no longer Shomer Shabbos.

I am very saddened by this pattern. Marriage, instead of being a significant stepping stone to personal and spiritual growth, seems in many cases to have become the culmination of spiritual growth, and is unable to survive the ongoing pressures and challenges that observant couples inevitably face.

Part of the problem is that I don’t think the couple, family, friends and even rabbis and other spiritual guides focus much on life after marriage. The reality is that it’s not easy changing the focus of one’s life when you get married, and the older the chassan and kallah are, the more difficult that transition becomes. Moreover, it’s also not easy to learn to prioritize another person’s needs over one’s own needs, especially when that person is so different than oneself. After the excitement wears off, and the couple becomes entrenched in their routines, sometimes communication and expectations between the parties get out of sync. I also think especially BTs, who do not have observant parents as role models, may become confused as to their spiritual direction both individually, and in relation to their spouses.

The worst part is that I believe the downhill slide is totally preventable. Many couples just don’t know that Judaism has much to contribute to the ongoing relationship, and that learning about marriage and relationships, e.g. Shalom Bayis, may be just as satisfying and important as learning about Shabbos and Kashrus. The Torah has much to say even about the personal relationship skills that each partner in a marriage need to practice and perfect. In addition, there is no reason that inspirational Shabbos and learning experiences should end after marriage. I believe that Kiruv and regular Jewish institutions need to devote more efforts to reaching out specifically to BT married couples and provide them both with the spiritual resources such as classes and learning opportunities, as well as practical and personal resources for handling the stresses of living as a couple and later with children.

16 comments on “Overlooking the Challenges of Marriage

  1. Perhaps, what is described so well as fall out demands a simple requirement and expectation to stay in touch on the would BT and his /her Baalei Hashpaah-maintaining the links and forging friendships by staying in touch, living in the same community , learning and sharing the same shuls, simchos, etc are very important for both sides of the equation.

  2. I think that this issue requires a cheshbon to be made by members of the community in question. Where I live, the first year after a couple is married, they are invited to many homes of established shul couples, often multiple times. There are many, many shalom bayis shiurim offered and widely advertized, some weekly and ongoing. Newly married people attend in great number, but so do people married over ten years. The Rav of our community often creates a chabura of recently-married couples to learn together. They make friends with each other and learn Torah. He speaks about shalom bayis and other marriage-related issues during drashot on Shabbos with great frequently, not just to singles. Rarely do couples entirely drop out of the community unless they have to leave the city for a new job, make aliyah or the like.

    Our community is very growth-oriented. The goal isn’t just to become shomer torah umitzvos or just to marry people off. Those are just steps along a continual path of self-improvement.

    Yes, a couple should select their Rav to whom to address shylos, get support, etc. Yes, they should find a shul and attend regularly, etc. But the COMMUNITY also (perhaps more) needs to be drawing them in, supporting them, building them.

  3. Yaakov,

    I think you have a good point but obviously everyone is different and needs a different amount of time to feel and be properly settled in the way of life they have chosen. It would be informative to hear from the original poster whether he thought lack of stability or settledness was a typical factor in the cases he is talking about.

  4. While stability has real value, stable can sometimes mean spiritually stagnant. Ideally, the married couple continues to progress in tandem.

  5. Shmuel,
    I mean religous outlook, of course. My basis is my own experiences plus anecdotal but the application should be obvious. Becoming a BT is a major lifestyle change. Getting married is a major lifestyle change. Doing too many major changes at once is just usually not a good idea. Would you want your daughter to date someone who was deciding whehter to go to law school in Boston or a PhD program in Los Angeles? Or would you recommend waiting until things settled down a bit and a future path became clearer?
    We all know that not everyone who shows up at a BT program becomes a BT even if they start taking a few steps down that road. Yet it seems to me that shidduchim are proffered almost immediately as a way to ‘trap’ them.

  6. I’m looking forward to hearing how the weekend goes — Brachie is my (second) cousin, but I’ve never heard her speak professionally. (I’m sure my being frum today has something to do with the example my mother’s frum cousins set for me.)

  7. Yaakov –when you refer to BTs being “unstable,” do you mean that they haven’t settled on a religious path and outlook yet, or are you referring to their personalities? Either way, what is the basis for your statement?

  8. To Yaakov #4: IMHO, perhaps ironically that lack of stability is a good thing rather than a bad thing, connoting not flimsiness but flexibility, habits set in fluid rather than in stone. People who are still changing and in flux might be able to change together, as opposed to those who are unwilling or unable to reverse themeselves.

  9. Obviously, BTs (for the most part) didn’t grow up in a home with solid role models for a spiritually focused marriage since parents or even grandparents weren’t observant. Since the 1960s marriage has been largely a “what’s in it for me” proposition in the secular world.

    Also, FFBs have to understand that even if a BT is completely shomer mitzvos, it can be many years before reflexive thinking-styles and unconscious beliefs and patterns of behavior learned in the secular world are shed and that this happens slowly, in layers.

    Overall, BTs, married or not, need more loving support from the frum communities. The goal of some FFBs in kiruv sometimes appears to be “make ’em frum” and then move on to the next challenge. At least some BTs could benefit from a loving, life-long familial relationship with frum families who can help guide them through life cycles including marriage.

  10. Much more likely is that new BTs and potential BTs are just not yet stable enough to get married.

  11. I truly believe that a newly married couple needs to follow the wise advice of Pirkei Avos to “make themselves a Rav.” Not wind up in a situation where the husband davens one place on weekday mornings, another place at night, and a third place on Shabbos. Ideally, every husband and wife should agree before marriage that a particular Orthodox Jewish rabbi will be their Rav and Poseik and the person to whom they will turn if there are any problems to be resolved within the marriage. This is helpful not only for BT’s but also for FFB couples, whose divorce rate has also unfortunately climbed.

  12. “…avoiding the pitfall of letting one’s attempt to live according to the Torah come between one and one’s spouse (“I have to go to Ma’ariv –why can’t you take care of the sick children yourself?!”)

    Big pitfall. Many Torah authorities will tell a man that he is TOTALLY exempt from davening with a minyan anytime the wife is just tired and can’t pay full attention to the kids, and this exemption can last for a very(!) long time. It makes sense and is the right thing. [NOT psak halacha…go ask your Rav and make your wife smile.]

  13. “Many couples just don’t know that Judaism has much to contribute to the ongoing relationship, and that learning about marriage and relationships, e.g. Shalom Bayis, may be just as satisfying and important as learning about Shabbos and Kashrus. The Torah has much to say even about the personal relationship skills that each partner in a marriage need to practice and perfect.”

    True. A related but I think more fundamental issue, which affects many people whether BTs or not, is a failure to fully realize that one’s obligations to or regarding one’s spouse (and the rest of the world, but we’re talking about marriage here) are built-in parts of the same system that requires one to pray, study Torah, keep Shabbos, avoid forbidden foods, etc.

    People sometimes bifurcate interpersonal responsibilities with what they see as “religious” requirements. But they are all religious requirements –being considerate to my wife and praying on a certain schedule are both obligations the Torah places upon us. If properly understood and implemented, this understanding results in two things –(1) proper prioritization of where to be at what time and what to do there according to the Torah’s priorities and (2) avoiding the pitfall of letting one’s attempt to live according to the Torah come between one and one’s spouse (“I have to go to Ma’ariv –why can’t you take care of the sick children yourself?!”) when husband and wife ought to make having a household and family guided by Torah a partnership endeavor.

    As always, guidance from the right rabbi is invaluable and (to me at least) indispensable.

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