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

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    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 www.JewishMarriageSupport.com.

    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 www.JewishMarriageSupport.com or call 646-428-4723.


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