New York – Analysis: Responding To The Rising Divorce Rate In The Orthodox Community


    New York – Is our community responding effectively to the rise in divorce in the Orthodox world?

    There have recently appeared several statements from prominent leaders who have begun to respond to the crisis. One of our esteemed rabbeim, Rabbi Mendel Epstein, has even proposed a “Bill of Rights of a Jewish Wife” that would protect women. This is indeed a step in the right direction, but as a marriage therapist in the frum community, I believe we need to deepen the discussion as to why more couples are moving toward divorce than ever before, and to formulate a “Plan of Action” of marriage education to stem the tide.

    Overall, the Jewish community has always fared better than our neighbors in regards to keeping the family unit intact. There are many reasons why this has been so, but the most important factor has been the Torah’s focus on family life. We have been given a plethora of mitzvos that focus our lives on the importance of the family. Keeping Shabbos, Kivud Av V’Eim, getting married, and having children, are just some of the mitzvos that have kept Jewish families together more than the average American household. But despite our historical advantage, emerging challenges are now becoming “game changers” and if we don’t prepare ourselves, we may soon be facing the divorce rates seen in the secular world.

    Here are the six reasons why divorce is rising and what we need to do to stop the bleeding:

    1. Lack of comprehensive marriage education

    The number one reason the divorce rate is on the rise is due to the lack of marriage education.

    Traditional chosson and kallah classes are not preparing young couples for the reality of married life. They may learn about issues pertaining to taharas misphocho but few ever learn about the emotional and physical issues surrounding intimacy. Especially in a world where children are finding out about sexuality via the Internet we need to prepare them to understand the importance of giving to one another and to learning how to communicate more effectively.

    Recently, a heimish couple came for marriage counseling and reported suffering from sexual dysfunction and a lack of communication. After a few sessions it became apparent that neither was aware of what would be considered a healthy sexual relationship. The husband was expecting things from his wife that he had witnessed on the Internet while his wife was experiencing sexual pain due a physiological problem that could easily have been treated by a competent physical therapist who specializes in pelvic floor disorders. Unfortunately, due lack of education and with no one to turn to for help, this couple had suffered in silence for years.

    Most Orthodox couple whom I have counseled and countless others would benefit greatly from comprehensive marriage education that addresses such issues as: talking and listening skills, self-awareness, expectations, stress styles, decision-making, caring behaviors and financial awareness, and most importantly, the basics of healthy intimacy and recognizing when to call for help.

    Another problem is that chosson and kallah teachers do not teach the couples together and are unable to see how they interact in a systemic fashion. Marital education is a dynamic and interactive experience, where both chosson and kallah learn how to communicate with each other and to practice what they have learned in the classroom. Without seeing the couple together, little relational information can be detected. Witnessing firsthand how the couple relates to each other provides important feedback for the instructor to modify or highlight certain communication exercises that can be tailored to the couple’s needs.

    Training religious and lay leaders such as rabbis, rebbetzins, Chasson and kallah teachers, and yeshiva rabbeim, to deliver marital comprehensive education also needs to be a priority. With widespread acceptance among the rabbinical and yeshiva communities, any stigma surrounding marriage education would disappear.

    Parents can also play a major role in educating their children about intimacy in the same way that they teach them about the importance of personal hygiene and recognizing signs of medical issues that need treatment. I am aware that many parents may feel uncomfortable about talking to their children about issues pertaining to intimacy, but they should feel they have an obligation to make sure they have the proper tools to enter into marriage.

    Comprehensive marriage education may be the most important way to reduce the divorce rate and to build more healthy and successful marriages. Without a community-wide effort we may not be able to avoid the growing tragedy of divorce in our community.

    2. The Internet

    Technology has presented great opportunities for people in their lives. Web sites present an expansive and safe forum for people to do business, go shopping, research important medical issues and stay in touch with loved ones. Skype and other high-tech forms of communication allow couples to interact across hundreds or thousands of miles.

    Unfortunately, technology also frequently plays a key role in separation, divorce and other related issues. Just like any form of communication, technology and the Internet have potential for spousal misuse and at worst, addiction.

    What may not be covered as equally is the impact Internet use is having on the divorce rate. Recently, the United States Senate heard testimony concerning Internet pornography usage and its effects on divorce and custody determinations. Dr. Mary Anne Layden of the University of Pennsylvania indicated before a hearing relating to internet usage in 2005 that 40% of people addicted to the internet will lose their spouse, 58% will suffer several financial loss and 27%-40% will lose their jobs or profession. Worse, psychologist Janice Abrams has noted an explosion of online extra marital affairs due to its accessibility and anonymous nature. More than half of the population uses the internet and 20-33% go online for these pursuits.

    Misuse of the Internet is not just another “problem” we are facing but an existential threat that may be affecting our community faster than anyone can imagine. We need to respond to the misuse of the Internet with a community-wide program to educate children and families to the persistent dangers we face and ways to avoid more damage.

    3. Women’s roles have changed

    If one were to turn back the clock to previous generations, we would see that the financial structure of Jewish families has changed dramatically. Before the Second World War, most women were considered “stay-at-home” moms. It was the husbands who were seen as the bread winners. During the war this began to change as women started working in factories and entering the work force to replace their husbands who were off supporting the war effort abroad. However, post war, women remained in the work force and due to the changing attitudes in society began to pursue careers that were traditionally filled by men.

    Today in the frum community it is the women –and not the men – who tend to pursue academic careers and who have become the central breadwinners. Whether a function of Kollel life, necessity, or due to the cost of living, women’s roles have changed, and with this ominous transformation, women have begun to expect more out of their relationships than ever before.

    Psychologist and marital therapist Terrence Real notes that, “Women have changed in the last twenty-five years–they have become powerful, independent, self-confident, and happy. Yet many men remain irresponsible and emotionally detached. They don’t know how to respond to frustrated spouses who just want their mates to show up and grow up”. Real explains that women by nature are more relationship-oriented. Now, empowered by their careers –and financial power- they expect that their husbands will comply and give them the type of relationship and intimacy that they expect. If not, they now have a career – and enhanced financial ability- to get divorced and take a chance that they can temporarily make it on their own and remarry a person more suited to their needs.

    4. Mental Health Issues

    Mental health is not a secular issue, but part of the human condition which we need to face more openly. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. When applied to the 2004 U.S. Census this figure translates to 57.7 million people.

    Orthodox Jews are not immune to mental illness. As a marriage therapist I frequently see couples with untreated conditions such as depression and bipolar disorders that often destroy marriages. Statistically, mental illness is not something “out there” but something that affects most families. Mood Disorders including major depression and bipolar disorder affect around 30 million American adults; 40 million American adults have an anxiety disorder; approximately 2.4 million American adults have schizophrenia; 6 million American suffer from panic attacks; and ADHD, one of the most common mental disorders in children and adolescents, affects an estimated 4.1 percent of adults, ages 18-44, in a given year.

    This means that the likelihood of marrying someone with some form of mental illness is 1 in 4! Meaning, that many married couples will face some form of mental illness during their lifetime and need to pursue therapy for treatment.

    I believe that our community is still reticent to pursue therapy out of fear of being stigmatized or suspicious of “secular” mental health professionals. According to a recent study by Eliezer Schnall, only about a quarter of Orthodox Jews who seek mental health professionals are referred by their rabbis, which is a potential area for improvement, since rabbis often are the first person congregants turn to for advice.

    This means that we need to educate rabbis to more effectively identify mental illness and refer individuals to mental health professionals. In short, mental illness will not simply dissolve if people are left alone without help and too many individuals go undiagnosed in our community.

    5. Awareness of abuse and molestation

    It has taken a few prominent cases in the media to uncover that the frum community has its fair share of abuse and molestation. Due to the Internet and greater awareness of these issues, most individuals now know that frum families also suffer from physical and sexual abuse experienced in school, in camp and at home. Some striking statistics even maintain that 1 in 4 individuals will experience some form of abuse during their lifetime.

    Although Orthodox news outlets have done well at publicizing this information, our community is still far behind in terms helping the victims heal and reducing the stigma –and shame- faced by those who expose the perpetrators. As a marriage therapist I see firsthand the devastating impact of adults who may suffer depression, anxiety and sexual dysfunction after experiencing physical or sexual abuse, yet many victims never go for help.

    Without significant intervention, including individual and marriage counseling, many victims, unable to deal with the trauma of their abuse, may end up in highly conflicted relationships and conclude that the only way to resolve their pain is through divorce. Unfortunately, there are only a few Orthodox professionals I know of who can effectively treat sexual trauma, and those who are rated as competent in this field are hard to get appointments with. Some of my clients have even reported that there are 2-3 month waiting lists to receive an appointment for sexual trauma. We need to train more frum Mental Health professionals to respond to this growing need.

    6. Society’s values have changed

    It would not be an understatement that our society places emphasis on the empowerment of the individual and on the need for instant gratification. Although the Orthodox community has been given access to education and wealth, many are still not prepared to deal with the media-led onslaught by those professing individual empowerment over the need for self-restraint and inner growth. People and relationships have become objectified and the main question of American life has become “what do I get out of it” as opposed to “what can we achieve together.”

    In short, couples need to know that marriage is going to take work, and at times it will seem that the task is too great and the struggle too much to bear. But those who work at it and persevere often derive the benefits of married life.

    Our throw away culture has crept its way into frum homes and many young people I counsel struggle with unrealistic expectations and often don’t see the need to modify their own lifestyles to create a durable and long-lasting marriage.

    In order to help Orthodox couples, a free download of Rabbi Schonbuch’s new book, Getting Closer-Understanding and Treating Issues in Marital Intimacy: A Guide for Orthodox Couples, is now available for a limited time for vin readers at

    Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, MFT, is a marriage and family therapist practicing in New York. He is the author of Getting Closer -Understanding and Treating Issues in Marital Intimacy: A Guide for Orthodox Couples, First Aid for Jewish Marriages, and At Risk-Never Beyond Reach. For free videos on marriage and parenting and for appointments visit or call 646-428-4723.

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    10 years ago

    Rabbi did it occur to you that the community is almost doubling every ten years or so, also that the standard of who is orthdox got lowered to..

    10 years ago

    Very informative article, at least it doesn’t claim stupidly that one particular gender is always at fault, as did the article by Rabbi Epstien.

    10 years ago

    As long as girls are being thought and brainwashed for 20 years in an extreme fashion, and boys are naturally being self educated and more aware and open minded, when these two creatures get together based on a shadchens good mazel…. what do you expect

    10 years ago

    An excellent article with a cogent and concise summary of important issues for the heimeshe community. These are matters that most rabbonim and rebittzens are NOT really competent to advise about and having experts such as Rav Epstein provide this information is a great servcie to the tzibur. His book should be required reading, not just for girls attending kallah class but for every bochur contemplating kiddushin. Obviously, its also important for married couples experiencing stress in their relationship

    10 years ago

    I would ventor to say mental illness is the balme for divorce more than the cause. Is mental illness a new sickness? Beacuse we blame all our problems on mental illness it allows us an excuse to get divorced. Take for example my grandparents who were nervous people because of the Holocaust. They were happilly married for 50 + years despite always being nervous. Today that would be OCD on steriods and grounds for divorce. It sounds much nicer to say oh we are getting divorcedbecause my spouse has OCD then to say he is a nervous person. Plus the physcologists mix in and know how to screw things up. They start making a whole issue oh the spouse has OCD. You can’t live with such a person Bla bla. Years ago a professional would say ok so he is a nervous person nobody is perfect move in don’t dwell on it.

    10 years ago

    Great article!

    100% truth

    10 years ago

    Beautiful article with NO solutions….Most heimishe boys have NO secular education which causes them to get jobs for $400-600 a week…With rents over $2000 and bills there is NO way they are making ends need which causes a major strain on Shulem Beis and causes machloykes ..The girl works for $300-500 a week with NO savings from before marriage because her father made her pay for all her chasene expenses.
    We need to get away from living in those expensive neighborhoods and start living with a budget life…

    10 years ago

    Alas taiveh and gaiveh are more esteemed than people. Let’s not make this the crisis of the month, though. We have disposable everything and convenience is prominent and important. We are vacuous and our middos and our ben Adom l’Chaveiro is totally dependent on how much we have to expend ourselves for it. Don’t look to those in the midst of this issue and making money off of it to find a solution or even a credible eitzah to ward off divorces.

    10 years ago

    Marriage problems begin at the very beginning, when the boy is in shidduchim. Instead of looking for a girl with fine middos, he is seeking a bank account to support him for as long as he can get away with it. Before a shadchan even knows his name, they already know the number of years he wishes to learn. This is what boys are looking for. Money, not a relationship. When will the system change? When will boys grow up and see that there is going to be a family who depends on him, bills to pay? Looking for the wrong qualities in a shidduch is a recipe for a doomed marriage.

    10 years ago

    I think more people are getting divorced because the stigma is not as strong as it used to be and people are no longer willing to stay in abusive or un-loving relationships the way they used to generations ago. Women no longer rely on the “man” to support them, so they no longer feel trapped. Another side is that this is a disposable society. Everything is thrown away so easily, dishes, cutlery, even electronics can be replaced for little cost. Why work on repairing a marriage when you can throw it away & get a new one

    10 years ago

    Rabbi Schonbuch raises many valid points regarding issues facing couples in distress.

    Today, as opposed to yesteryear, Kallah teachers (of which I am one) and Chosson teachers have become much more open minded in discussing sexual issues as well as marital dynamics and problems of abuse. Of course, there are exceptions. As a sex therapist, I get many calls from Kallah teachers questioning what to do with information they have gleaned from their students.

    Shalom Task Force offers pre-marital courses for couples if they wish to avail themselves of them.

    Contraception in the first year of marriage is now being discussed among Rabbonim, to allow young couples to navigate the first months of marriage, should they need the time.

    Referrals by Rabbonim, Chosson and Kallah teachers to sex and marital therapists such as myself and my husband, Norman Fertel, MD, give the couple permission to seek help for the issues that confront them. Most importantly, dealing with an unconsummated marriage at the outset, as opposed to allowing it to erode a new marriage, is most advantageous.

    There are many reasons why there are problems. There are no easy solutions. But there is help.

    10 years ago

    Very honest and well-written. If we had more people like this writer in leadership positions our community would be much healthier than it is today.

    Having said that, there are two additional issues that are as critical if not more critical than those described in the article:

    1. The new irresponsible norms concerning men’s earning a living. Widespread Kollel, negative attitudes towards college and secular education generally has created a generation of husbands incapable of fulfilling their family responsibilities…this is what is showing up so strongly in the “women’s expectations” section. Sure women’s roles have changed, but men in our communities have also gone from being responsible college educated breadwinner to immature boys.
    2. The cost of being frum. The pressures are enormous and the tolls on marriages and divorce rates are evident. We need to stop blithely insisting on the ever expanding “unfunded mandates” imposed by our yeshivos, seminaries, camps and those who would blindly impose chumros in kashrus or other areas of forum life.

    10 years ago

    The seminaries really mess up the girls. They are in a fantasy world when they come back. They think they can have a 5-10 year learner, while maintaining the lifestyle they are accustomed to: a home with all luxuries, fully loaded honda accord with leather seats, ski trip or Miami in the winter, summer home, restaurants on a credit card that she and her husband does not own and do not have to pay, outfits for herself and the kids that would get them in a fashion magazine….. I would like to see the old fashioned type who is willing to live within their means – a one-two bedroom apartment, bare necessities for appliances, no eating out, old jalopy that’s dented, hand me down clothing for the kids, modest (non killer) dress for the wife, sheitel for under $1500 (just because you got a $3,500 sheitel doesn’t magically make you frum) , a suitably safe baby carriage moderately priced, husband does not dress and act like he’s an investment banker.

    10 years ago

    Very good article -marriage education in terms of roles and expectation should begin before engagement, in the schools. Guys who are looking for bank accounts and women who are raised to think they are entitledt tO a certain lifestyle and getting their own way must change.

    10 years ago

    This was a wonderful article which I am printing out

    That being said, I agree with everything that you said, except I would like to venture my own opinion. You mentioned mental illness. What is mental illness? OCD? Nervousness? Idiosyncrasies? I don’t believe any of these should be a reason for a divorce UNLESS it’s any kind of physical/mental abuse (mental abuse–translate as threats, name calling such as being called stupid or you’re a fat pig etc) While sometimes this can be corrected with therapy, a spouse or child will always live in fear that the threats will come true or name calling that can make a person have such low self esteem that they themselves may C”V commit suicide (we’ve seen too much of it in our society–yes OUR society). Abuse in any form is a good reason to say “Bye Bye”. Especially so if it is against one of the children who has no way to protect him/herself.
    Men need to work–even Yaakov worked–AND he sat an learned. Do both! Too much pressure on the wife who is the working partner

    Unfortunately our community tends to walk around with blinders-it’s high time to throw them away–cornering ourselves more into a ghetto is not going to solve any problems.

    10 years ago

    The main two reason for the EXPLOSION of divorces in the frum community are:

    1) The Internet.

    2) Rabbis/Rebbetzins over stepping their boundries.

    10 years ago

    Although the article is a good start, it really looks to shoehorn modern marriage therapy into the Orthodox life, without actually analyzing applicability.

    For example: “The husband was expecting things from his wife that he had witnessed on the Internet while his wife was experiencing sexual pain due a physiological problem that could easily have been treated by a competent physical therapist who specializes in pelvic floor disorders. Unfortunately, due lack of education and with no one to turn to for help, this couple had suffered in silence for years.”

    90% of the problem in that paragraph is the husband “discovering” his expectations on the internet, irrespective of his being addicted or not. But that apparently is too trivial to mention. It is that departure from Orthodoxy that was at the root of their marital problems. Not just the expectations, but the lack of sensitivity it breeds. Yes, it does get some indirect mention later on, but really that doesn’t cut it as it is focused on the addiction question.

    10 years ago

    Reasons #1 , #4 and #5 have always been around. They can’t be reasons why the divorce rate is *rising*.

    10 years ago

    Just a few points. Each side is demanding more. I want to learn for 20 years or I want him to learn for 20 years. He can not because of money or he can not because of burn out. The other side is disappointed If it was her parents he is mad at her. If he gets burnt out she did not get the learner she expect. She loose respect and find fault. If people remember Hashem put us in these situation to grow; we will get the help and start to build greater understanding between each other. People don’t realize divorce creates a greater set of problems. Also parent say wrong things about our spouse. Keep quiet. We all expect too too much; fancy houses, cars, vacations, prams, clothes,mini vacations, restaurants, and take out foods. How many guys are told to bring Shabbos regularly?

    10 years ago

    Do you know how mnay working guys demand a shver that will pay their way through medical or law school or put money down for a house? It has nothing to do with kollel. Yes there are some that abuse the kollel system. But unlike in Eretz Yisroel the majorty of young couples in the USA are responsible people who realize that as long as its affordable I will learn and then I will earn a respectfull parnasa. (While a bit of a struggle these days you can become an accountant in less than 2 years.)
    The real probelm is a broad problem amoungst all sectors of judiasm. Its the es kumpt mir altitude. That my wife or shever has to pay my bills whatever I do.

    10 years ago

    I’m ready to get divorced, ASAP I might add!
    I’ve been married for over 20 years now. The marriage started off pretty good, the problems began, in my opinion, maybe her opinion is different, everytime we disagreed on some stuff she always waited for me to come and ‘mefyas’ (apologise) her, which I was ok with, but every little issue took days and days for her to even bring herself to forgive (grudgingly). Eventually, days became weeks and even months and got to the point where I didnt bother to try patching things up because I knew it would be weeks etc for any results, if any at all.
    But truth be told, I’m stuck in my marriage because darned if Ieave (the kids) and darned if I stay. So much for the magnificent (asylum) institution, marriage!
    Sometimes I wonder if this is HASHEMS joke upon the human race!

    10 years ago

    Tsk tsk tsk – you are all missing the major issue – what is the path of a young man or women in any of the Hareidi world
    Elementary School yeshiva
    high school yeshiva
    year or two in israel then back to the states
    Then the shiduch process 1 2 or three dates shoin this is the one
    The parents provide EVERYTHING instead of letting the young couple survive alone –
    – well from the looks of it – it doesn’t work
    I am a baby boomer and our generation seemed to have a better understanding of life and marriage.
    We are raising a generation of Children – rather then work out the issuses they run home to mammy and shoin no more marriage –
    Yes all the issues raised are not new – but let the couple go a little longer – let them get to know each otrher –
    Bottom line – GROW UP –

    10 years ago

    Also, the pressure to marry young is so great that divorces now happen to couples who might never have married in the first place without the pressure. Divorce is never good but is sometimes the least bad option.

    10 years ago

    Divorce rate and concurrent metropolitan rates such as currency exchange rates intertwine, and always show prudence when calculating polygallactic venues. His side is right her side is wrong. Not Guilty !!! So goes the old adagism, not to be confused with botulism. Hurray!! Hurray!! Mazel Tov!! Says the man to the woman of his dreams. When she knows the ventriloquist, she is in trouble. As they say in Spanish “mucho rapido”!!!!

    Noble Member
    10 years ago

    So there is an exponential rise in Divorce in past few years – just after the Shidduch Crisis seems to have drastically increased in past few years… perhaps they are connected?!
    I think it all boils down to a completely skewed understanding of yiddishkeit, especially in relationships; erosion of moral values – which has just absorbed from the world we live in, with an education system that doesn’t address these changes in society and how to apply it to yiddishkeit.

    10 years ago

    Why a re we beating around the bush? People that are molested still don’t get the proper help and that is the base for most of the problems. They grow up with plenty of issues and the marriage suffers. twist it anyway you want but until you address that issue to the point, nothing will change

    No guts no glory!

    10 years ago

    If you believe that one out of 4 is diagnosed with a mental illness I have a bridge to sell you. I can’t stand it when the quote these dumb statistics.

    10 years ago

    No reason why anyone gets married before they have a job or going to school to get a good paying job in the future.
    Why are these young immature kids getting married without knowing the basics in what it takes to live in America in the year 2013.

    10 years ago

    What I want to understand (and I think o some extent I do) is why is it, given the reasons for increased rates of divorce identified in the article and some of the comments, modern (like to call themselves) orthodox, who presumably get better secular education, have much more access to each other while dating, dating and being engaged for loooooooong periods of time, etc., divorce at the rates much closer to secular Jews and goyim than to our, still boruch H’ very low, divorce rates?

    Now, I know secular go-to answer: groups with low divorce rates are composed of people prepared to live miserable lives. We know better, so don’t bother, I will not be mkabel that childish response.

    10 years ago

    One obvious point that wasn’t addressed is the maturity (or lack thereof) of the couple. The frum community tends to marry young, period. It’s reflected in how we refer to the people who are looking for a spouse – boy & girl. These “boys and girls”, who are barely out of high school, are not ready for marriage. Many have no clue how to run a household or keep a budget, let alone deal with the pressures of a marital relationship. Relying on Mommy & Daddy is not the answer.

    10 years ago

    I don’t get the molestation reason. Years ago when noone was open about molestation how did all the victims survive? I fail to see the connection between molestation and “RISING” divorce rates. What happned years ago when noone was open about it? If anything rates should go down because at least the community at large is more acceptable and open about this problem than years ago.

    10 years ago

    The main problem is that every boy thinks they need to be in kolel and that is just not the case. Some boys are Smokey phonies. They learn for a few minutes then go out for a smoke then go out for a call.

    1. solution, test the boys. If you’re making a career of learning then you better be a doctor of your trade. If you can’t pass tests then you’re wasting everyone’s time. And the kolellim should be accountable to provide normally distributed test scores, not everyone gets an A. If they start testing these boys then there will be a natural erosion of the poor performers, which may not be a bad thing. Maybe they will find themselves more interested in a medical career, or as a stock broker or computer programmer. Not everyone is cut out to be a rabbi

    9 years ago

    Noe you’re cover is blown, what a moron.