(pictured) Feigel and Esir Tobolowsky’s marriage.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Feigel and Esir Tobolowsky’s 52-year marriage was an inspiration for their daughter, Susan Barth, when it came to relationships built on mutual respect, shared goals, love and commitment to each other.
Four years ago, Barth founded Together in Happiness, a nonprofit that aims to advance marriage education in Israel, so that others could learn to enjoy the kind of marriage her parents had.
“Our goal is to provide as much information, skills and tools [as possible] so that you walk into your relationship with the greatest amount of knowledge,” says Barth, whose gentle Southern twang is a holdover from her roots in Dallas. “It really comes down to self-awareness.”
Her approach is based on an international, research-based marriage education curriculum called the Prevention and Relationship Education Program (PREP), which was developed by US academics, and her organization provides workshops for couples in all stages – from the newly engaged to new parents to grandparents.
Barth and her husband and daughter made aliya from the US just after the Gulf War, eventually settling in Beit Shemesh. The idea to commemorate her parents through marriage education came to her as she was preparing a wedding guide ahead of her daughter’s marriage.
“It became so obsessive for me,” she says of the months of wedding planning, and she came to realize that while wedding preparations are intense, there is often little focus on the actual basis of marriage. This was what led her to start Together in Happiness in 2011.
While marriage education is a well-known concept in the US and even receives government funding, it is still a rather alien idea in Israel.
“It was a pioneering effort. People don’t know what it means,” says Barth, who believes marriage education can have a huge impact on strengthening society.
“I believe that if people don’t focus on the relationship as the heart, everything else is secondary,” she explains. “I had this dream of introducing marriage education to all Israelis.”
Her ultimate goal for the program, she says, is to have marriage education become “a natural checklist item.”
The workshops, according to the organization, are meant “to provide effective tools for marriage communication, to provide tools to cope with marital conflict, and to teach active listening and problem-solving methodologies to neutralize the danger signs which are destructive to healthy and happy relationships.”
However, it is not mental-health professionals who teach these sessions. Instead, trained facilitators help impart these skills. Ideas and examples are brought up throughout, but rather than sharing their personal experiences with the group, the attending couples listen to the facilitator and then try out the exercises for themselves.
“Marriage education is by definition not therapy,” clarifies Barth, whose background is not in mental health, but in project management. In her opinion, “a marriage is a project waiting to materialize.”
Participants in the workshops learn about communication danger signs – such as the escalation of arguments or the withdrawal of a partner – and how to manage them. They also learn how to talk about problems and solve them, how to show support for their partners, and what are the top issues couples face.
The workshops, available in both English and Hebrew (with Barth facilitating the English-language ones), are aimed at all sectors of society – though she notes that “more Anglos are amenable to the idea. From the Israeli standpoint, this is a different culture.”
She admits, too, that “men are generally reluctant to come,” but stresses that the gatherings enable attendees to “learn and feel like you’ve gone out as a couple.”
Indeed, the notion of maintaining a regular date night is of huge importance to Barth, and the workshops are designed to combine the educational content with a chance for couples to have a nice time together outside the house.
At a recent workshop co-hosted by the OU Israel Center, couples ranging from the engaged and newly married to the long-married sat down to bagels and coffee before delving into the presentation. The lecture began by presenting participants with the words “Marriage is like...,” and suggestions like “music,” “a game of ping-pong” and “a tightrope” all popped up.
The goals and key elements of PREP were then introduced, along with risk factors in relationships and how to manage them.
“Everybody argues. There’s not a couple that doesn’t argue,” Barth told the group. “But it is about how you argue, how you handle your negative emotions.”
The couples learned a communication technique called the “speaker/listener technique” and got some time to practice it with one another, then moved on to learning about the importance of a “time-out” in the event of a heated argument – the idea that taking a constructed break from an argument can help bring it to a close. The next topic was problem-solving, but to everyone’s surprise, Barth asserted that 80 percent of issues could be resolved simply by talking, rather than making active decisions to solve them.
The workshop ended with participants raising possible ideas for date nights. Suggestions ranged from hiking, playing Scrabble and snorkeling to catching a Broadway show. Then each participant wrote down two date nights they’d like to have and swapped lists with their partner. Together they decided which two they would do, and when.
Among the couples who have taken the workshop to heart are Jerusalem residents Julia and Daniel, who had been married for about six months when they participated.
“We were hoping to gain more information and techniques related to this huge and all-important topic of building the marital bond. Both of us are interested in personal growth work, psychology, emotional/ spiritual awareness, and it all comes out, so to speak, in marriage,” they say by joint email.
“While at the same time, the starry-eyed excitement of being newlyweds was still with us, we were also interested in obtaining down-to-earth, hands-on skills that are the bread and butter of building relationships.”
Their favorite skill from the workshop was the speaker/listener technique.
“As is the case with all the techniques in the workshop, it’s not complicated. However, it does take a certain discipline to put to use,” they maintain. “The technique helps to break down what could blow up into a big issue into smaller, more understandable compartments. It gives an expression for emotions that are hovering beneath the surface.”
They say they would definitely recommend the workshop to others. “One might be skeptical of claims to obtain ‘marriage secrets,’ but when it comes down to it, that’s the best description for these techniques,” they say.
Together in Happiness will hold its next workshop on October 21 at Jerusalem’s Tmol Shilshom cafe, and Barth hopes that more couples will catch on to the importance of marriage education.
“If you want a happy, healthy relationship and a legacy for your family and yourself, you owe it to yourself to participate,” she declares.
Contact Susan Barth for more information and/or reservations for workshops at [email protected], or visit www.together-in-happiness.com.