The wedding season is upon us, and along with tending to the details of invitations, dresses, flowers and music, many engaged couples prepare for marital life by attending private or group classes with a premarital instructor. In addition to teaching the laws of family purity and mikvah (the ritual bath), many instructors provide some sexual education and instruction and tips for ‘shlom bayit,’ which literally means ‘a peaceful home’ but refers to marital harmony.
I have great respect for these kallah (bride) and chatan (groom) instructors, who devote themselves to the task of preparing young brides and grooms for marriage. Many young people, particularly in Orthodox society, do not receive much, if any sexual education, and may not feel comfortable discussing sex, or even possess the language or tools to ask for specifications or clarifications. Typically, Kallah teachers provide important information as well as emotional support and speak freely and comfortably about sex, thereby easing the apprehensions of their students
However, as a number of kallah instructors have admitted, some kallah teachers are un-intentionally sending incorrect, and possibly damaging messages The impact of negative sexual messages or misguided information, can last several years into marriage, as I have learned from my clinical practice as a couples and sex therapist. Following are examples of problematic statements that some kallah teachers have said, as relayed to me by my clients:
#1: “Marriage is a re-birth. From now on all you will need is your husband.”
“Malka,” (all names are fictional) 19, married for 3 months, cried in my office. “I don’t know who I am supposed to be now. I look different, and I miss my friends and my family.”
Marriage should not entail loss of family, friendships, or identity. You still are who you are. Do not expect your partner to be everything to you- lover, best friend, confidante and study partner. Spending time together and sharing common interests is great, but focusing on your own interests also is healthy.
#2: “Never talk about your husband to your parents.”
While individuation and separation are important to a healthy marriage, messages like these can be taken to an extreme. “Sharona” spent years in an abusive marriage before finally confiding in her parents, who helped her seek the appropriate resources.
#3: “Men want sex, but women want intimacy.”
The message that sex is primarily for men ignores the natural sexual drive of women. In investigating the observance of the laws of niddah (family purity), Dr. Naomi Marmon-Grumet of the Eden Center found that young men received the implicit message that sexual desire was healthy and natural (but was to be fulfilled only in the context of marriage) whereas young women reported that female sexuality was downplayed or not addressed. Yes, men like sex, but so do women; humans crave intimacy, which is about human connection and closeness.
#4: “Always give your husband sex when he asks. Do what he wants, when he wants it.”
While some educators emphasize the Torah obligation for a man to satisfy his wife, many Kallah instructors underscore the importance of women being available to their husbands when they desire sex. Sex is not something you ‘give’, but is an experience to be enjoyed together. If you are tired, not in the mood, aren’t enjoying, or are too upset with him to have sex, talk honestly and openly about your feelings. Communicating your feelings and feeling free to make boundaries, creates vulnerability and authenticity, which are key factors in building intimacy.
#5: “Mikvah night sex is non-negotiable, even if you are having a fight.”
Firstly, sex is always negotiable. Secondly, all couples fight, and the challenge is learning how to navigate out of power struggles and create a path of mutual understanding. Tensions can run high, particularly when couples do not touch during the niddah. How about reframing ‘mikvah night’ as an opportunity to confront a possible conflict with the goal of looking forward to some make-up sex?
#6: “Don’t engage in physical intimacy unless you are willing to have intercourse. It’s not fair to your husband and may make him sin.”
Messages such as these can be destructive because a, they remove a woman’s autonomy and make her anxious about displaying affection and initiating hugs, and b, they imply that men have no control over themselves.
#7: “Your husband will know what to do.”
The ability to commence a healthy and satisfying sexual relationship depends on receiving accurate sexual information. Yet, according to results of a study that my colleagues and I conducted on women who observe family purity laws, 40% of the subjects in the study stated that they felt insufficiently prepared for the wedding night. If your Kallah instructor did not speak openly about sex, don’t depend on movies and the Internet. One can learn much more by reading a pre-marital guide such as Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld’s and Dr. David Ribner’s book “Et Le’ehov”. Resource such as Merkaz Yahel which provides sexual education and instruction, are also valuable.
#8: “‘Get it over with’ on the wedding night, even if it hurts.”
New couples may be nervous about first intercourse and making it sound as exciting as undergoing a root canal doesn’t help. Sexual intercourse need not be painful, if both partners are sufficiently aroused. For many couples, particularly ones who have not even held hands before marriage, the shift from complete abstinence to sexual intercourse can be overwhelming. Take your time. If there is persistent pain with intercourse, that is not normal, and should be checked out by a competent physician.
#9: “Wear something sexy and don’t let on that you are nervous.”
It is common in certain Orthodox circles for engaged girls to go to Victoria’s Secret with their mothers to purchase provocative sleepwear. While it may be an exciting and positive source of inspiration and be confidence boosting for some, many young women find this experience to be mortifying. It’s better to be honest with your feelings, and if you are more comfortable in a t-shirt and pajama shorts on your wedding night, go for it. It’s sexier to be you.
#10: “Strive for simultaneous climax during sexual intercourse”
Sex is about pleasure, emotional intimacy and connection and it doesn’t make any difference that achieves orgasm first, or how you get there.
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A few additional points: Sex should not feel like a test you must pass, or a goal you must accomplish. Sexual intimacy is a journey that you and your new husband will take together. It takes a lot of communication and patience, and it helps to have a sense of humor. Consummation can take several ‘tries’ and the ‘first time’ is not necessarily a singular event but a process. Don’t think that if it doesn’t go well, God is punishing you for ‘breaking shomer’. That will only cause your sexual arousal to be associated with guilt and conflict, and that’s no fun. Having fun, delighting in one another, and experiencing pleasure should be the focus, rather than performance
To the season’s brides and bridegrooms, Mazal Tov on your new lives together.