The following excerpted article by Tamar Snyder appears in today’s Wall Street Journal:
My husband and I celebrated our first anniversary earlier this year. This occasion marked the end of our shana rishona, the yearlong “honeymoon” period. It’s a time of solidifying the relationship, learning to compromise, and adjusting to a spouse’s idiosyncrasies. A new survey indicates that, over the long term, Orthodox Jews have happier marriages than the general public.
According to the Aleinu Marital Satisfaction Survey-an anonymous online study conducted by the Orthodox Union in conjunction with a program of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles and the Rabbinical Council of California-72% of Orthodox men and 74% of Orthodox women rated their marriages as excellent or very good. By contrast, only 63% of men and 60% of women in the public at large told the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, that they were very happy in their marriages.
The Aleinu results are consistent with previous research indicating that couples who participate regularly in religious activities report greater marital contentment and are less likely to divorce. Still, I was surprised. While there are no official statistics, there exists an overwhelming perception in the Orthodox community that divorce rates have gone up, particularly among younger couples. The undertaking of the Aleinu survey attests to some level of worry on the part of Orthodox leaders that the sacred bonds of marriage have been weakened.
To its credit, the Orthodox Union, at a press conference last month, highlighted the top stressors to Orthodox marriages. Lack of communication, not enough time together, and conflicts with in-laws-common complaints of couples religious and not-are on the list. But also on it are special challenges, at least some of which will be familiar to people of other faiths and traditions that favor private schooling, early marriage and large families.
Major financial strain was a top complaint, even among those with above-average incomes. “Day-school tuition-we call it the Orthodox tax-is the most significant factor we’re dealing with,” says Rabbi Steven Weil, the OU’s executive vice president. This tuition, considered nonnegotiable despite its hefty price tag, ranges from $8,000 to more than $20,000 per child. “Once you have kids, you’re in for two decades worth of that added expense,” says David Pelcovitz, a psychology professor at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, who interpreted the survey results for the OU. “With large families, that’s a bulk of a person’s married life.”
Among younger Orthodox couples, several stress factors come into play.
With all the added pressures Orthodox couples face, how is it that they report happier marriages?
Perhaps the Orthodox approach marriage with different expectations. “There’s a very strong valuing of family as the center of one’s life, which may override individual needs,” says Prof. Pelcovitz. “This probably has people weathering storms that in other couples might lead to divorce.” Despite the difficulties inherent in raising children, this family-centeredness gives couples a sense of satisfaction, says Rachel Pill, a Lawrence, N.Y., clinical social worker with a primarily Orthodox clientele. “They feel they’re part of something really important.”
Mental health professionals often advise couples to schedule a date night. For Orthodox Jews, the Sabbath “is a built-in time to reconnect with one’s spouse, without the distraction of TVs, BlackBerries or the Internet,” says Eliezer Schnall, a psychology professor at Yeshiva University.
Ms. Snyder is a staff reporter at the Jewish Week in New York.