Marriage is hard work. I mean it can be really hard. I’m talking about a ‘good’ marriage, let’s not even discuss a ‘bad’ one. We should not be surprised then that divorce rates are so high. According to recent estimations, the divorce rate in the US is 53%. However Europe isn’t fairing much better with parts teaching 60% and Belgium topping out at a whopping 70%.
This isn’t to say that divorce isn’t always the right choice. I know of many couples who put much time, effort and money into making their marriages work. At some point a failed marriage has to end. With that said, I don’t believe anyone walked under their chuppah, believing their marriage would end in failure.
So why are so many marriages failing? I know there are many possible answers to this question, I would like to suggest a few more.
I attended a rabbinical conference a few years ago. At the final session they placed a group of experts in a number of fields onto the stage, so the rabbis in attendance could shoot questions at them. One of those present asked the panel why they believed that so many people can’t commit to marriage, and why so many marriages are failing. Each gave their understanding based upon their knowledge and experience.
A psychiatrist on stage stood up and did a very unusual thing. He lifted the plastic cup he had been drinking from high into the air and loudly declared “This is the reason for the failed relationships we have been witnessing” and then he sat down. I was concerned that perhaps he had been taking some of the drugs he was prescribing to his patients, but then he began to explain what he meant.
We live in a disposable culture. Everything we own, we use and then throw away. We don’t really fix things anymore. If the brakes in your car wear out, the auto guy throws them out and gives you new ones. If your computer gets old and the hard drive fails, you throw it out and get a new one. If your pen stops working, you throw it out and get a new one. You replace your phone every couple of years with no questions asked. So if your relationship breaks, you act the very same way, you throw it out, and get a new one.
One of the beautiful things about the Jewish home is the meaning we invest into physical objects. Whether it’s the shabbat candlesticks, kiddush cup, shofar, menorah or the myriad books. Each of these items and many more are passed down from generation to generation, and adds a permanence to the Jewish home, in opposition to the throw away culture we are surrounded by.
One of the circumstances you hardly would have thought could produce high divorce rates actually does: couples that live together before marriage. Cohabitation before marriage has become very popular. For most young men and women in the Millennial Generation, moving in together is no longer an option, it’s a necessity. Apart from the Orthodox Jewish population nearly everyone else I come into contact with, lives together before they stand under the chuppah. Some may wait till they are engaged, but then they’ll shack up together right after that.
Moving in with your boyfriend/girlfriend may seem like a smart way to figure out whether they are marriage material, but doing so comes with its own set of challenges.
Statistics show that the chance of you marrying the person you live with gives you a much higher probability of married that person. So far so good. However the incidence of divorce among those that live together before marriage is higher. It’s actually much higher, 17% higher.
A second challenge with pre marital cohabitation is that it may not end in marital cohabitation. Couples I work with will move in together before marriage in an attempt to, among other things, “test the waters”. However when those waters become polluted, they break up and one of them moves out. Breaking up after living together for a few years, may have the same psychological affect upon the couple as a divorce. They may not have stood under a chuppah, but that doesn’t make the failed relationship any less painful.
This may be a reason for the higher divorce rate among those that live together before marriage. The thought of breaking up after sharing the same home for so long, is so terrifying, that they would rather take the easier option: get married and see what happens. Not very romantic right? They didn’t consciously decide this is the person they should spend the rest of their lives with, but since they have lived together for so long, the only logical next stage of the relationship is marriage or a break up. The latter option would mean moving all their stuff out, finding a new apartment and for some far worse, starting dating again. This may be just too much to handle.
I mentioned in a previous blog that when looking for a partner, the Torah directs you to find your ‘ezer kenegdo’, the person who will help you become a better person and refine your character by opposing your natural selfish instincts. What I didn’t mention is the conclusion to that idea found a few verses later. The Torah says in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man should leave his father and his mother, and cling to his wife and they should become basar echad”. Leaving aside why the Torah directs the man to disconnect from his parents, as opposed to the woman, what exactly do the words ‘basar echad’ ‘one flesh’ refer to over here?
The sages understand this statement in a variety of ways. One says that by having children you create someone who is a part of each of your flesh. We now know that a child through its DNA reflects both of the “flesh” of its mother and father. This doesn’t answer why it says become ‘one flesh’ rather than ‘have kids’ though.
Another sage takes the ‘one flesh’ to mean you become like the best of friends. You can’t choose your parents, children or siblings, but you can choose who you decide to spend the rest of your life with. So through marriage you purposefully become one.
The last possible answer to the ‘one flesh’ conundrum can be understood with an analogy. Imagine you see someone cutting a piece of meat. In the process they become distracted and slice the hand holding the meat. You then see them slap the hand that was holding the knife. Or you see someone walking down the street and their right foot trips up on a rock. You then witness them kicking their right foot with their left foot in frustration. How ridiculous does that seem? By creating a relationship that has a goal of ‘one flesh’, being angry and hurting your partner is as absurd as slapping your own hand, or kicking your own foot. You are one!
A beautiful story is told about Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who was known as the ‘Tzadik of Jerusalem’ for his tireless work with the poor and needy. The story goes that his wife had been suffering from a terrible pain in her foot. Her husband accompanied her to the doctor for treatment. When the doctor asked what the reason for their visit was, Rabbi Levin answered, “My wife’s foot hurts us.” It wasn’t just her foot, at this point in their relationship it was theirs. That is living proof of a couple becoming ‘one flesh’.
I’m sometimes asked at what point a marriage becomes easier. To answer this let’s look back at the first married Jewish couple, our ancestors Abraham and Sarah. The Torah tells us that Sarah had difficulty becoming pregnant. At the ripe of age of ninety, three angels came to visit her and Abraham to inform them that within a year they would have a child. When they conveyed this information to Abraham they asked him “Where is Sarah your wife?” This is an unusual question for an angel to ask. Wouldn’t an angel know where Sarah was? The commentator Rashi gives an unexpected answer. He explains that the angels knew Sarah’s location, but they wanted Abraham to be reminded that she was in the tent, meaning together with him feeding the passing traveller and returning them to God. This would ultimately increase his love for her.
This Rashi is difficult to understand. Sarah was ninety, and Abraham was one hundred years old, hadn’t they fallen in love with each other sufficiently that they needed angels to help him love her more? The answer is no. Even at that age, and after so many years of marriage, even the great Abraham and Sarah needed help with their Shalom Bayit. How much more so do we need to improve our marriages, no matter how long we have been working at the marriage for.
I’m not going to pretend I have any solutions that can instantaneously improve your marriage, but I do have a couple of suggestions.
Statistically the families that affiliate with a house of worship, and attend on a regular basis have a lower chance of their family breaking apart. This could be a result of feeling a sense of community, but it may also give you a purpose of something bigger and a Divine purpose to your marriage. This may explain why the Hebrew word for marriage is ‘kiddushin’, has the root ‘kadosh’, holy. The person you are married to, should be viewed as a gift from God.
Relationship problems come in many forms, but the one common theme I have seen in nearly all failing relationships, is people not feeling that they are their partners top priority. The Jewish people have an age old remedy for that; Shabbat. Shabbat can and should be used as a marriage builder. Disconnecting from the social media world we all immerse ourselves in during the week can work wonders in reconnecting families in a real way. By eating with your family at least once a week, with songs being sung together, words of Torah shared at the table, and with full involvement with your partner and/or kids, the inevitable consequence is that your family members will feel like they are your number one priority.
Where does the mitzvah to have ‘shalom bayit’ a good marriage even come from? The answer is the Torah verse “You should love your neighbor like you love yourself”. Your spouse is the closest ‘neighbor’ you have. They are right next to you all the time! When you view your spouse as the person you are obligated to love the most, on the same level as yourself, that generates a love that is reflective of your feelings for yourself. Now that’s the highest form of ahava, love.