Young couples at Beth Am are heading back to school—for a crash course on relationship success.
“The divorce rate in this country hovers somewhere between 40 and 50 percent,” said Rebecca Barr, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “The Jewish divorce rate is almost the same. It’s usually around 30 or 40 percent.”
Although these figures are widely known, they are still shocking. Think about it: nearly half of all married couples will someday be divorced. Even more disturbing is a study by University of Texas sociologist Dr. Norval Glenn, which found that only half of married couples that stay together are happy. Combine those two statistics and the future looks grim—newly married couples have only a 25 percent chance of finding lasting happiness. Yikes.
So what is a couple gearing up for a walk down the aisle to do? How can they start their nuptials on the right foot and beat the improbable odds to make their marriage a lasting one? Fear not, Congregation Beth Am can help! The Congregation is the first in the area to offer a counseling class used throughout the country called Making Marriage Work (MMW). The course, for newly engaged and newly married couples, teaches skills to develop better communication techniques and tips on how to build a working and blissful Jewish life together.
“So many people engaged to be married spend a lot of time planning the actual wedding, but they don’t spend any time planning the marriage itself,” said Barr.
According to Barr, the MMW program is one of the oldest and most trusted marriage counseling courses in the country.
Congregation Beth Am began offering the program last year and has already gone through three sessions with a grand total of 16 couples graduating from the program.
The 10-week program consists of six once-a-week group therapy sessions with Barr, two weeks of sessions with Beth Am’s Rabbi, David Kornberg, one week with financial planner Jeff Liber and, concluding the program, a one-on-one session with Barr and the couple. “The ultimate goal of this class is to help Jewish couples stay together and have long-lasting and happy marriages,” said Barr.
The MMW program got its start in 1973 at the University of Judaism in LA, when a Rabbi asked the program founder, Dr. Sylvia Weishaus, to develop a class in response to concerns about the climbing national Jewish divorce rate. Dr. Weishaus went on to create the very successful MMW program, which has helped thousands of couples stay in healthy marriages since its inception. One of the program’s happy graduates is Beth Am’s very own Rabbi Kornberg, who completed the course 15 years ago with his wife Debbie in LA.
Kornberg and his future wife completed the course before getting engaged at the insistence of his then-Rabbi, who urged all newly engaged couples to enroll in the program. “The program helped us work through certain issues and taught us how to communicate and make sure we were hearing each other,” said Kornberg. He was so pleased with the program that he made a promise to himself to offer the MMW class at a Congregation if he was ever in the position to do so.
“It’s something that I’m passionate about because I did the program 15 years ago. I believe in it because I’ve seen it work firsthand,” said Kornberg.
Kornberg primarily teaches the Jewish component of the MMW program, which he admits, while important, is not the focus of the class. “It’s not a Jewish curriculum, per say. It’s a psychological curriculum with a Jewish component,” said Kornberg. “I talk about Judaism from a new couple foundation. We try to teach couples how Judaism helps you build a strong family unit. That’s the number one goal of the program.”
The current program at Beth Am is strictly for engaged couples or those who have been married up to, but not more than, six months. This coming spring the Congregation also plans to offer a class for couples married 10 years or longer, a so-called “refresher course” according to Kornberg. The reason for the cutoffs is simple; the program is designed so that couples will have a chance to see and work with others who are in a similar stage of their relationships.
“One of the benefits of this program is that it creates a mini chavurah. It’s really a great way to integrate into the community,” said Kornberg. In the group sessions, couples have the opportunity to share ideas and bounce experiences off of each other in a safe and supporting environment. According to Barr, everyone in the session should be at a similar lifecycle stage, making the program not only the chance to strengthen a marriage, but also to socialize and meet others.
In fact, the chance to meet others in the community was the exact reason why William Land wanted to enroll in the program with his wife Carrie. Carrie, on the other hand, thought the class would be a great chance to discuss financial planning and the creation of a Jewish home. The couple heard about the MMW program when, after a few months of marriage, they attended their first Beth Am service.
“There were things about our relationship we hadn’t gelled,” said Carrie who had realistic expectations going into the marriage. “I didn’t think marriage would be like a Hollywood movie.” Still, things seemed to have turned out well for the Lands.
The couple met through the online Jewish dating service Jdate, and, after dating for seven months, was married in October of 2003. Now, less than two years later, they find themselves happily married and expecting their first child. During their interview for this article, the couple was open about their life together and clearly found support in one another, often leaning over and whispering in each others’ ear to make sure the other was comfortable with something they wanted to share.
“I was nervous about the class, especially about discussing sex. I don’t even talk about that with my sister,” said Carrie, who found that she was actually very comfortable in the class. According to Barr, nothing is off limits in the class, and the program covers everything from commitment, to in-laws, to time-management and even sexuality. “We were forced to ask questions we would have never brought up, but that we should have,” said William.
Everyone involved with the program agreed that the single most important aspect of building a healthy marriage is good communication. The MMW program spends a good deal of time with “empathy exercises” and teaching couples how to truly listen to one another. “I think that if you have good communication, then everything else follows,” said Carrie.
Barr recommends the program as a great gift to engaged couples. After all, what will a couple appreciate more—a new blender, or the tools to build a lasting and healthy relationship?
“Everyone has expectations going into a marriage. You only run into a problem if those go uncommunicated. You don’t want to wake up in a marriage years down the road with a problem that has gone unaddressed because it hasn’t been communicated,” said Kornberg.
The next Making Marriage Work program begins in November at Congregation Beth Am. Classes will be held on Wednesday nights from 7-9 p.m. The cost for the 10 week program is $295 per couple and includes all needed materials and a private session with Rebecca Barr. For more information, or to sign up, contact Rabbi Kornberg at (858)481-8454, or Rebecca Barr at (619)507-1343.
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