A recent article in The Jewish Link entitled “Unconsummated” addressed the prevalence of unconsummated marriages in the Jewish world and some of the reasons that contribute to this unfortunate start to new marriages. In reading the article, what becomes evident is that proactive intervention is critical both to preventing the issue from happening to begin with and to resolving it quickly if it does occur.
While some of the reasons the author outlines have medical origins and need to be addressed medically, many (as the article points out) can be resolved through education and honest and healthy communication between a husband and wife. If young couples, prior to or immediately following their wedding, learned how to productively and effectively communicate their needs to each other, many sex-related issues in marriage – including issues with consummation – could be mitigated. Inability or discomfort talking about what each person expects, wants, likes or dislikes (prevalent in all communities and certainly an understandable reaction in young adults who have grown up in the Orthodox Jewish world) perpetuates behaviors and feelings that have proven to interfere with satisfying and loving intimacy.
Of course, in general the relationship between husband and wife is often the victim of poor communication, even outside the realm of the bedroom (although we know that the state of the relationship in general impacts what happens in the bedroom and vice versa). The most challenging aspect of a new marriage is the transition from living separately as two single adults to living together as a couple. While people get married because they feel they have much in common – especially the “big things” – what often gets couples in trouble are the ‘little’ things that don’t come out until they are living together: different priorities, different expectations, different ways of dealing with upset and anger, different ways of asking for help, different ways of expressing oneself. These challenges of communication have the potential to cause upset, disappointment and discomfort, especially as a marriage is starting out and a young couple is truly getting to know each other.
When working with a couple whose relationship has encountered difficulty, a marriage or family counselor will spend significant time helping the couple resolve misunderstandings and poor expressions of needs and wants.
“I didn’t know you needed me to clean that!”
“How am I supposed to know you wanted me to say ‘thank you’?”
“I hate that you give me the silent treatment when you get angry!”
Communication is an art that is learned and poor communication skills can lead to unhappiness, anger, emotional distance in a relationship and, unfortunately, feelings of being unloved. And these issues can, in some circumstances, lead to divorce. Healthy communication within a relationship is so vital that major Jewish institutions have created programming to help give members of our community these necessary tools. The OU sponsors an annual Marriage Enrichment Retreat where happy and healthy couples of all ages can learn how to improve their communication skills in pursuit of more satisfying and more fulfilling marriages. YU Connects, a division of the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University, has focused much of its energy and resources on workshops, literature and meetings aimed at helping young singles and couples learn how to be aware of and communicate their own needs and understand the needs of the ‘other’ in a relationship.
Learning how to communicate expectations, needs and wants in a healthy and productive way – and learning how to be open to the other person’s perspective – can help a couple negotiate issues that come up early in marriage and as a marriage progresses, not only around sex and intimacy, but also around finances, child-rearing, families of origin and so on. As a psychologist working with couples and family in crisis, I get daily confirmation that communication is at the heart of relationship and that knowing how to communicate in a productive, effective manner can make the difference between a happy marriage or family, and an unhappy one. Investing time and energy in acquiring good communication skills prior to or early in a marriage can have tremendous positive impact on a couple’s long-term happiness within their marriage and should be on every couple’s marriage to-do list.
Dr. Alex Bailey is a licensed school and clinical psychologist with a private practice in Teaneck, NJ. He works with teens and their families, adults and couples. He also provides psychological testing for ages 6-16; private pre- and early-marriage communications skills workshops; and workshops and lectures on communication for couples, parents and teachers. Dr. Bailey can be reached at [email protected] or 201-357-2277.
Dr. Alex Bailey