Once upon a time, when one heard the phrase, “They got married and…,” an internal cue would prompt the words, “they lived happily ever after.” No more. Nowadays, a more likely reaction would be, “their real problems started.” For first-time marriages the problems might be power struggles over time, money, sex, or in-laws. Usually there is a tremendous block in communication so that good problem-solving strategies are rarely used. Instead we find argument, vituperation, blaming, name calling, and withdrawal, with the result that the situation goes from good to bad, and from bad to worse.
With second marriages, the phrase, “They got married and…,” might be followed with such internal cues as: her alimony stopped and she had to go to work; her husband illegally tried to stop child support because “she married a rich man”; and they had all kinds of problems in court. Other reactions might be: their respective children from previous marriages couldn’t get along; the children had difficulty adapting to a step-parent or to a new set of grandparents; the physical dislocation affected the children’s school work or disrupted their network of friends. Additionally, the reaction might be: “They were happy for a while because they truly loved each other, but they soon discovered that they couldn’t live with each other, getting married was a mistake.”
But if getting married can be a mistake at times, a far more serious mistake is society’s failure to prepare prospective mates for marriage. Essentially we build up the institution of marriage, glorify and romanticize it, make a great big hoopla while planning it, spend a small fortune on a five to six-hour event, and wish the couple good luck while sending them off on a virtual sink or swim mission. At Jewish weddings, many people say “mazal tov” without even realizing that the literal translation of these words is may you have good astrological signs. Perhaps this is the most correct comment to pass to the happy, but unwitting couple because at the rate that marriages go today, among the general American population, their chances of success are only slightly better than their chances at the casinos in Atlantic City. I don’t have statistics on marriages between two Jews, but according to the latest Pew survey, two thirds of Jews intermarry. There is one difference between the couple and the gambler: many casino gamblers understand the odds, many newlyweds do not.
Why do we take for granted that because a couple has reached a certain age they are capable of a successful marriage? Indeed, no one would dare to question a couple’s right to marriage and parenthood. And yet, what training or instruction do the newlyweds have in either of these great and complicated enterprises?
Many people would say that individuals who marry “learn all about marriage in their homes.” Unfortunately, this often boils down to a case of the blind leading the blind. And even in the best of cases with very happily married people, it is the rare parent who invites his children into the inner chambers of the marriage to demonstrate its complexities, problems, and solutions.
Where does this leave the next generation? We offer courses in algebra, ancient history, and computer operations, but we give scant attention to the more important and complicated requirements of what has lately been called “emotional intelligence.” Some would say that such a subject cannot be taught in a formal fashion. Not so. Being a good spouse requires numerous individual skills that can be isolated, highlighted, and taught. All of these skills can then be practiced on members of one’s own family, friends, and classmates. In fact, whatever the child supposedly learns in the informal “at home” process, he can only practice with the same family members, friends, and classmates. I refer here to the development of such basic interpersonal skills as the capacity for empathy, respect for others, compassion, self-awareness and the ability to express emotions—communication skills that form the infrastructure for all human relationships and that are critical for compatible living in one of the most complex of all relationships: marriage.
There was a time when the total education of the young took place at home. Eventually it was recognized that parents make poor teachers. It was further recognized that very few parents had all the requisite skills and knowledge that society wished to pass on to the next generation. We took a step in the right direction by instituting a compulsory system of public education, including such practical courses as driver education and computer skills. Why not courses in “preparation for marriage” for singles or premarital couples, and courses in “marriage enhancement” for the marrieds?
Unfortunately, many people consider a course in human emotions or interpersonal relationships unnecessary, or beyond the bounds of a school curriculum. Well, negative stereotypes such as prudery in sexuality have been changed, so can attitudes about education in human relationships. However, since many people would feel more comfortable about such courses if they were required, and we do require courses in physical health, why not require courses in mental health? If we recognize the dangers of inept driving, why do we not recognize the dangers of inept marital partners?
Understandably, the lecture, note-taking type of presentation would not work. Other formats of instruction can be presented. .Ideas for the type of workshop and education suggested here can be derived from the abundance of experience in curriculum development that derives from the numerous workshops offered by various humanistic schools and marriage encounter groups all over the country.
How long will American society continue to ignore the catastrophic 50% failure rate of today’s marriages? Shall we continue to shrug our shoulders, or shall we do something about it? Blackjack players who wish to beat the odds can always sign up for a course in card-memorization. What provisions do we have for engaged couples and newlyweds?
Reuben E. Gross, Ph.D., is a NJ dually licensed Psychologist and Marriage Counselor. He is a Fellow, Academy of Clinical Psychology and a Diplomate in Psychotherapy A.B.P., and A.B.P.P. Dr. Gross has a private practice in Teaneck, NJ. Comments and questions are invited. To read more articles on related topics go to Dr. Gross’ website: www.MarriageCounselorNJ. com. Questions and comments are invited at: [email protected]
By Reuben E. Gross, Ph.D.