Orthodox marriages are happier but still have stresses, study reports


NEW YORK (New York Jewish Week) — Orthodox marriages may be happier than their secular counterparts, but religious unions are rocky enough to concern a team of researchers and rabbis who presented the results of their recent study on marital satisfaction at the Orthodox Union.

“Traditional family values and religious values tend to overlap,” Eliezer Schnall, an assistant professor of psychology at Yeshiva University who was responsible for analyzing the data, said here last week. “But there are also those in this community who are not as happy with their marriages.”

Results showed that 72 percent of the men surveyed and 74 percent of women rated their marriages as “very good” or “excellent,” whereas the overall U.S. population has a much lower satisfaction rate of 63 and 60 percent respectively, according to a 2009 General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion.

Only 13 percent of Orthodox couples rated their marriages as “fair” or “poor.”

Aside from a few subjects from the United Kingdom and Israel, the 3,670 respondents were predominantly North Americans who had been recruited through Internet promotions and outreach efforts in New York and Los Angeles synagogues.

Among the most divisive issues for unhappy respondents were infertility, at-risk youth, children with disabilities and use of birth control, according to Deborah Fox, the study’s pioneer and program director of the Aleinu Family Resource Center at Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles.

For some, the results point to the need for more premarital counseling and education.

“A lot of marriages people just jump into — there’s no preparation,” said Frank Buchweitz, national director of community services and special projects at the OU, who was responsible for coordinating the survey.

Overall the data settles into a U-shaped curve, with the happiest subjects being newlyweds and those later on in their marriages, reinforcing the idea that issues with children and other family-life pressures are major stressors on the health of a marriage.

In addition to Fox’s observations, Schnall cites factors such as financial problems, lack of community, conflicts with in-laws, and both sexuality and intimacy as potential catalysts for frustrations. Smaller problems could include excessive time spent on the Internet or visitation to inappropriate Web sites — things more common early in a marriage rather than later, according to Schnall.

Later in marriages also come stressors such as devastating illness within the family or behavioral problems of “off-the-derech” children.

“Those divorced and remarried are more likely to deal with stress from such a child,” Schnall said, adding that baalei teshuvah parents — those who are newly observant Jews or returning to observance — also reported that these problems pose a great deal of stress in their families.

His colleague, YU psychology and education professor David Pelcovitz, also said that children afflicted by “affluenza” — those raised in wealthy households — are three times as likely to submit to alcoholism, depression and other problems that may disrupt their parents’ marriages.

Addressing a roundtable of journalists along with his team of researchers and rabbis, Schnall cited a cartoon he had read in the January issue of Monitor on Psychology Journal, published by the American Psychological Association: “Well, honey, all of our kids are now married, divorce and remarried. I guess all our work is done.”

But for these researchers, the work is by no means done, and they are mapping out strategies for rabbis and instructors to battle marital conflicts preemptively by sitting down with engaged couples and discussing matters such as sexuality, evolving roles of men and women, and financial issues.

Sexuality is a particularly poorly addressed topic among Jewish teachers, according to Pelcovitz, who trains rabbis to handle marital problems among couples of all ages.

“In certain countries priests will not marry a couple till a couple has had a certain number of premarital preparation counseling sessions,” he said, adding that these countries show lower divorce rates than Catholic countries where priests lack such a policy.

Pelcovitz and many of his colleagues hope that Jewish spiritual leaders and teachers will follow suit, providing marital counseling not only before the wedding but on an ongoing basis, even through the healthiest of marriages.

“As we teach mathematics, mental skills should be there also — you’re not buying a used car,” Buchweitz said. “To establish a marriage that can be long lasting is the goal of the OU, the goal of Aleinu, the goal of world Jewry.”

To this effect, he continued, the OU has been sponsoring marriage retreats on both the East and West Coasts for years, where couples convene to discuss their relationships in a group support setting. This year’s retreat will occur in July in upstate New York.

Buchweitz said he recently caught up with a couple — the parents of married children — that had attended a retreat four years ago.

“The last time I saw them they were walking hand in hand, like a young couple in the first days of marriage,” he said. “Dating never stops — it’s a continual process throughout a marriage. Courting never stops.”

The Jewish community may need to focus more attention on marriage preparation, the doctors and rabbis say, but those facing the prospect of marriage should by no means despair and should remember that the results were still overwhelmingly positive.

“It may not just be the shandah [disgrace] factor,” Pelcovitz said, noting that much more than just shame of divorce likely holds religious unions together. “There may be something about the Orthodox community that leads to more satisfaction in Orthodox marriages.”

Schnall agreed, adding, “Wives and husbands are happy to hear that they would do it all again if they could.”

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