As we enter wedding season, many families are blessed to be busy planning the final details in the weeks and months leading up to the big event. So much time and money goes into each wedding, from the caterer, band, flowers and everything in between, and it is both beautiful and important to invest in celebrating special occasions. One important detail that too often gets neglected is investing not just in the wedding, but in the state of the marriage that only begins on the night of the wedding.
Although many assume, based on certain data points, that the state of marriage in the United States is at an all-time low, the research suggests a more nuanced conclusion. Indeed, the divorce rate across the country is at an all-time high, but that may be because our expectations of marriage have never been higher. Unlike any generation before us, people getting married today are looking for their romantic partner, life partner and best friend. The bad news about setting the bar so high is that more marriages than ever are failing. The good news, however, is that the marriages that succeed are probably among the most fulfilling marriages in history.
In our Orthodox Jewish community, it would seem, and my own clinical experience confirms, that in some respects, the state of marriage can be even more fragile due to immense financial pressure to live in Jewish communities, including paying exorbitant tuition bills. As a result, given the time devoted to generating income, couples may have even less time to spend together and have compromised “emotional bandwidth” when they do have time. What can we do about this significant problem?
A number of years ago, when I was working at the Yeshiva University Counseling Center, several engaged couples came to our office to take advantage of the “free therapy” that our department was offering, and used it specifically for focused, premarital education. As the only trained marriage therapist on staff, I was assigned these cases but, ironically, I was not trained in managing couples that were not in conflict. As a result, I worked to create an educational curriculum for these couples and combined experiential learning with clinical components for the limited negative interactions that the couples were having.
Fast forward several years, and I have now been fortunate to have worked with many couples immediately before and after their weddings. I have also started using a formal curriculum developed by two Emotionally Focused Therapy clinicians specifically designed for premarital education. The results have been quite rewarding. During these sessions, in a private and safe space, we work on preparing for marriage. Specifically, we work on identifying generally triggering topics of conversation as well as the couple’s personal triggers, and learning how to have honest and effective communication. We discuss navigating physical intimacy (especially challenging in the early stages of marriage), and we work to create shared rituals that the couple can take with them throughout their marriage.
Many couples come for all of the suggested three sessions, but sometimes they only come for one or two. From the feedback I have gotten directly from the couples, they appreciate and are grateful to have this space to actually focus on their relationship, while so much of their time is otherwise spent on the many details of their wedding day. One couple recently emailed me offering to pay for another couple’s session because of how grateful they were for the opportunity and takeaways that these sessions provided for them in starting off their marriage.
Perhaps the most rewarding part of this process has been the not-so-uncommon case of a couple returning after their wedding in crisis. Sometimes one spouse learns something new and troubling about their spouse after the wedding. Other times, an external crisis places pressure on the new couple. Often, many couples simply learn that marriage is not easy. Whatever the specific reason, when they return, I have consistently found that, as opposed to other couples who may wait years before dealing with these issues, in these cases only a few sessions are necessary to resolve the issue at this stage of their marriage. I assure the couples that had they waited 10 years to address the issue, it may have taken many months to resolve, instead of just a few sessions. Additionally, because of our premarital sessions, they do not need to feel stressed or uncomfortable finding a therapist on their own, or having awkward conversations with their parents to help them find someone.
Marriage today is among the highest risk, highest reward investments a person can make. With a little boost, that investment can be set up for long-term success. As you prepare the details of making the most beautiful wedding, please do not miss an opportunity to make the most beautiful marriage as well.
Dr. Avi Muschel is a clinical psychologist specializing in relationship issues, working with young men and women who are dating, engaged and newly married. He has also appeared on popular podcasts and presented at conferences about relationships. For any inquiries, he can be reached at 845-232-1177 or via email at [email protected].