Saturday, July 04, 2020

Many years ago I read an article describing Modern Orthodoxy as wanting it all: To be able to provide our children with the highest level of Jewish and secular education; to enjoy the prosperity of our society while retaining Torah values; to take vacations in Maui with glatt kosher meals while learning Daf Yomi after reading a cutting-edge medical journal or some philosophical treatise poolside drinking a pina colada that has an OU.

The question posed by the author of that article1 is: Can we have it all? Is it possible or just too much to ask for? And is it sustainable for an entire community?

In this sense, I think we view Modern Orthodoxy and Modern Marriages in a similar light: We want it all. And, indeed, that is an admirable aspiration. But it remains a tall order.

We want a relationship rooted in tradition, often (but not always) with traditional roles, yet we want connection and a partnership with our spouse that historically may not be considered so traditional.

While historians suggest that marriages of yesteryear were based on convenience, economic necessity or politics, today we strive to have joyful, loving and intimate relationships—relationships rooted in love. But with partnerships of love comes a fragility and optionality, dependent on sustaining that love.

And while marriage was always a work in progress, no doubt there are options and alternatives today that did not exist generations ago. As one woman, the age of my grandmother, explained: “Back then marriage was much less difficult for one reason. You really didn’t have choices. You accepted what you had and made the most of it rather than to think “if I had something better.” As her contemporary explained, “There weren’t any divorces in our day.”2

In contrast, in the 21st century, we have choices. And while there are tremendous benefits of our current socio-economic reality, including greater opportunities for women, greater life expectancy, and a world of sustained prosperity for many, this new and improved reality imposes many challenges on today’s marriages. Consider some of the following modern conditions that have a direct impact on marriages:

In our consumer economy, living in the microwave and Costco generation, we discard old products for new ones on a regular basis. One day it is a new laptop or iphone, the next day a new lease on a car that you only had for one or two years. Rumor has it that people are lining up to meet their future spouses in Costco, because of their great return policy. (Jokes aside, we know too well the truth of this sentiment.)

The economic prosperity we currently are blessed to have, and work so hard to sustain, imposes great financial pressure on families, particularly when there are yeshiva and camp bills to pay. No doubt this pressure has its impact on the intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics of the home.

The impact of sustained prosperity can also turn a couple’s attention from gratitude and survival to a desire for greater individual satisfaction—a focus on the “I.”

The busy-ness and pace of our day-to-day lives impacts the availability for communication and down time among spouses. And, even when there is such time, how much of it is now being spent on separate devices and separate Facebook accounts, leaving each spouse in his and her corner instead of face to face?

What about the impact from the media and entertainment? On one level, many of us are exposed to Hollywood relationships and People magazine gossip, noting all the break-ups of those we regularly see on the big screen. On a second level, many of us have been raised, and continue to raise children, where romantic relationships are introduced to us not by parent conversations but by Disney. Children (especially girls, it seems) come to idealize relationships with Prince Charmings carrying off princesses into the sunset, presuming they live happily ever after. I am not aware of a sequel to any of the famous Disney productions that show what day-to-day married life is like for such couples, especially after they have children.

We are seeing couples getting married earlier while our life expectancies are much later, such that no previous generation was asked to make such a long commitment as our generation is being asked to make in marriages.

Indeed, it would seem that there is a new normal to marriages. It seems imperative that we remain mindful of these challenges and with the help of communal leaders, rabbis and mental health professionals (not to mention couples
themselves), vigilantly formulate responses and strategies to these modern challenges.

At the same time, the unfortunate reality is that there is a growing frequency of divorces in our community. And parallel to Modern Orthodoxy and Modern Marriages, there is a Modern Divorce in which many divorcing couples want to have it all as well. While divorce is not a goal to strive for in most circumstances, where necessary, having the best possible divorce is the next best thing. As I regularly see in my practice, couples not only seek to maintain the same standard of living for their families, but aspire to separate from each other while each retaining a close relationship with the children. This Modern Divorce paradigm of “wanting it all” sees divorce not as the destruction of the family, but as a transition and reorganization of the family. Through the life lessons learned from the hard knocks of generations of adversarial and litigious divorces, most divorcing couples are looking to do better by their families, if a divorce needs to happen. One recent Hollywood couple of fame characterized this as “conscious uncoupling.” With the right intention, motivation, professional guidance and commitment, I see, on a daily basis, that such outcomes are possible.

With 25 years of experience helping families in conflict and transition reach solutions together in a problem-solving way, instead of against each other in an adversarial way, I appreciate The Jewish Link’s invitation to share my experience and insights in helping perpetuate a more positive outcome under the unfortunate circumstances of a couple’s divorce. I look forward to sharing this experience with you in future columns entitled “Mediating Matters” in the weeks and months ahead.

By Adam Berner, Esq., MA

Adam specializes in mediation and collaborative family law, with offices in Manhattan and Hackensack, New Jersey. As a pioneer in the matrimonial dispute resolution field, he has served as president of the Family and Divorce Mediation Council of NY, Founding President of the NJ Collaborative Law Group and founding member of the NY Association of Collaborative Practitioners. In addition to his private practice, Adam serves as a consultant for the Beth Din of America, is a certified mediation trainer, for the past 20 years has been an adjunct professor at YU’s Cardozo School of Law where he teaches mediation and collaborative law and, on occasion, teaches conflict management for rabbis at RIETS.

1 Undoubtedly, I am embellishing the description of Modern Orthodoxy.

2 Cited from “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage,” by Stephanie Coonz