Nothing quite inspires such feverish joy and cause for lavish celebration as the announcement of an engagement. The jittery excitement and euphoric anticipation not only infuses the couple themselves but somewhat irrationally extends far beyond the immediate family fold, from great Aunt Hilda to cousin Yanky alike.
Frenetic preparations get underway and every waking (and unconscious) moment is consumed with the imperatives of cake designs, colour schemes, floral arrangements and menu options, entailing strategic planning and precision as though the couple’s lives depend on the font size and paper texture of an invitation that will most likely soon end up in its recipient’s rubbish bin.
And all for an occasion lasting less than 24 hours in what should be a lifetime spent together; hardly a significant episode in the grand scheme of things. And yet, why is it that, invested with more enthusiasm and expense than ever before, marital breakdown has reached such alarming levels? The Office for National Statistics revealed in its 2012 survey that 42% of marriages are expected to end in divorce.
Divorce in the Jewish world is rapidly on the rise, although the stigma has yet to be shed. The announcement of my divorce was met with shock and extreme discomfort, with one not-so-distant relative indignantly proclaiming, ‘this will be the first divorce in the family,’ the underlying implication being of course, that my inconsiderate ill-advised actions have brought shame and opprobrium on all our family.
‘It didn’t work out’ is the all too familiar refrain most people will use to explain away their ‘failure,’ hoping the least said will diminish the scandalous, intrusive gossiping and the whole unhappy saga can be hushed up and dispensed with as quickly as possible.
Yet perhaps it is time we took the daring step of finally confronting the elephant in the room and submitting to the painful question of what’s really going wrong. In so doing, perhaps we can avert the very real threat of a dysfunctional, unstable society. The prevalence of strings of marriages and extra-marital affairs, children born out of wedlock, children from different marriages finding themselves half siblings in a recent phenomenon dubbed the ‘patchwork family,’ are all contributing to the extreme emotional imbalance and self-doubt affecting our most vulnerable members – our children.
Before I got married at the tender age of 22, I was, as per Jewish custom, given kallah (bridal) lessons educating me in the minutiae of family purity laws, detailing bodily fluids and inspections which, frankly, I found distasteful and off-putting.
What these lessons failed miserably to prepare me for, however, was marriage itself. I soon discovered, like most twenty-somethings, that I was grossly ill-equipped to handle the major relationship issues that arose and lacked the understanding and vocabulary to even articulate the problems.
While relationships may fail for any number of reasons, domestic violence is an all too common cause. Domestic violence affects one in four households. While we in the Jewish community would like to believe we are superior, sheltered from such offensive taboo topics, the sad truth is, we like everybody else, are not immune.
Domestic violence can take different forms and occur to varying degrees, including physical, psychological, verbal and financial abuse, but severe disorientation, bewilderment and loss of control are experiences that unite all of its victims.
‘If anyone so much as lay a finger on me, they’d be kicked out the door!’ so many unaffected people say so flippantly. Yet the perniciousness of domestic abuse is the way it creeps up by stealth, lurking in the relationship like a spare but ever present part. It is such a subtle form of manipulation and crazy making that even close family members may not have the slightest inkling of what is taking place behind closed doors.
It’s a vicious cycle. The more victims are belittled and humiliated, the more they may be overcome with self-doubt and guilt to the extent that they feel worthless and even deserving of the pain and punishment meted out to them.
Then there is the denial on the part of the abuser that the abuse even took place, ridiculing and reproaching the victim for imagining and exaggerating such ‘trivialities.’ It is a terrifying and soul destroying trap from which it is hard to escape.
Domestic violence is not restricted to gender, class or intelligence. Statistics have shown highly qualified professional men and women trapped in abusive relationships for years, through fear and trepidation, unable or lacking the confidence or resources to break free from the perpetrator’s emotional and psychological grip.
Jewish Women’s Aid provides a lifeline to many victims but much more still needs to be done. Whilst marriage counselling and therapy are fundamental in addressing problems, surely the focus should be shifted to recognising potential problems early on, before they have a chance to manifest themselves and before children are brought into the equation.
Acceptable and unacceptable behaviour within marriage is no longer a given. Not everybody has their parents’ role model to follow in today’s age of separation and divorce. Workshops and training in relationship building, respect and tolerance should be mandatory for young couples wishing to make an eternal commitment to one another.
Although a comedy, the movie License to Wed makes solemn observations about preparedness to marry. Reverend Frank (Robin Williams) refuses to wed the couple until they have taken his prenuptial course. Problems gradually begin to develop between the couple during the course and the question arises whether they are really as ready to tie the knot as they first believed.
The prenuptial Agreement was a massive breakthrough in helping to prevent recalcitrant husbands from withholding the get (Jewish divorce). Prenuptial courses in marriage preparation, beyond the rules of family purity, could also prove worthwhile.
After all, a wedding is about much more than ensuring happiness and success on the day itself.