Dear Rabbi Bernath,
Hatan and kallah classes help people understand Jewish law, as it relates to marriage, but do you recommend couples meet with marriage counsellors or therapists before getting hitched, in order to understand communication styles, “love languages” and other key elements of living together and understanding each other successfully?
Thanks for your question. Yes, I do recommend pre-marital counselling.
Well, it’s been nice everybody, I’ll catch you next month …
OK, OK you got me. This question is way more interesting than a one-word answer would warrant.
For couples, it’s really simple: if you’re going to get married, you should do some counselling beforehand. That’s the easy part.
The hard part is: where do you go?
Every city has a few counselling centres that offer the pre-marital help you’d be looking for. And I wish this was the right answer for everyone, I really do.
But there are a few roadblocks for young couples looking to go this route.
The first is stigma. People associate counselling centres with unhappy life events: addiction, delinquency, divorce and the like. They’re not the first place that starry-eyed young couples generally think of spending their time.
The second is cost. While some young couples might be able to pay the fees that professional therapists command, I know that many cannot.
But most importantly, for better or worse, right now, it’s just not an organic part of the marriage script. Maybe it should be. Imagine it went like this: get the ring, meet the parents, make a counselling appointment. This just doesn’t have the same ring to it (if you’ll excuse the pun).
But we know that pre-marital counselling is important. Right now, I’m working with a couple who are on the brink of divorce. Their problems started small and got worse with time, stress and children. They were all totally preventable conflicts, though. I dare say that with some intervention early on, they wouldn’t be where they are today.
The point is that if young couples aren’t going for counselling, it’s not really their fault, as no one is telling them to do so.
Here’s how I want to change that: I want rabbis to lead the charge on pre-marital counselling.
When it comes to marriage, rabbis are very good at a lot of things: we make sure the ketubbah is properly written, with the correct spelling of the couples’ names; we ensure that there are two kosher witnesses to the ceremony; and we ensure that the bride and groom are indeed Jewish. But we often don’t check to see if the couple is a train wreck.
I’ve performed a lot of weddings and I’ve gone through the exacting training and testing to do it properly (and even then, with supervision from the local rav). But at some point, I decided that I would not perform a wedding if I could not truly bless the union. And in order to do that, I started getting to know the couples a little better.
That evolved into picking up some pastoral counselling credentials and I now refuse to perform a wedding without meeting a couple around five to 10 times for counselling.
It’s my dream for this to become standard procedure whenever a couple hires a rabbi to do their wedding. To that end, I’ve decided to start a team to develop a training program to give rabbis the skills they need to integrate pre-marital counselling into their weddings – training that is based on authentic Torah values and solid psychological research.
A rabbi who’s uncomfortable with doing this type of counselling can foster a relationship with a therapist who can see the couples, perhaps at a reduced rate (with a fund to help the really needy).
Laypeople can help, too. Get the conversation started with the rabbi in your life. Together, we can all make marriage sacred once again.