People take lessons to learn to drive, to fly a plane or to sail a boat. However, when it comes to marriage, there is virtually no preparation at all, and couples are thrust into the turbulent waters of wedlock to either sink or swim.
In Israel, Sherrie Miller and Lori Lurie are attempting to change that situation.
As the co-founders of Choice of the Heart (Bechirat Halev), a marriage education program for newlyweds and "nearlyweds," the two women are striving to equip couples with the tools to launch them into a loving and lasting relationship.
Based on the Prepare/Enrich mentoring program developed in the US after 30 years of research by social scientist David Olson, Choice of the Heart (www.choiceoftheheart.org) is a series of workshops dedicated to empowering married and engaged couples to learn to communicate and understand each other. In fact, communication is just one of the nine topics covered in the workshops. The others are conflict resolution; role relationship; managing finances; spirituality; intimacy/sexuality; importance of the family origin; parenting; and personal and family goals.
Because the program encompasses such universal themes, the workshops are applicable to both religious and secular participants. What's more, Miller and Lurie have added relevant material from the Torah and other Judaic sources to further enrich the content of their seminars and make them even more appropriate for Israeli couples.
"Prepare/Enrich is one of the top three programs of its kind in the world and has been translated into 20 languages," says Lurie, a family therapist and marriage educational counselor. "David Olson has given us his permission to represent him in Israel, to translate his book into Hebrew and to add the Torah wisdom," she adds.
The women have been in touch with many rabbis in Israel who have endorsed marriage education as an essential tool for a successful marriage. Rabbis understand that there is a real problem, says Lurie. The divorce rate is very high. "Religious couples are trained in Halacha, but they need to know how to communicate, which is the key to intimacy," she asserts. "In the religious world, men and women are separated from early on. In our workshops, they are all together."
As for haredi couples, the Miller and Lurie team can work with them one on one.
"We get very excited about the program. It is tried, tested and based on comprehensive research," says Lurie.
The six two-hour workshops are run in small groups. Ideally, the groups are homogeneous - all married or all engaged couples - but the material is equally effective in a combined session, says Lurie. "The key is to encourage couples to learn together as couples," she stresses.
"For a lot of newlyweds or nearlyweds, it is the first time they find themselves in a safe environment in which to talk about issues they've never discussed," says Miller, a guidance and marriage counselor.
In the workshop, the pairs are given a set of questions. Each pair goes off on their own for half an hour to work on the exercise together. Then they regroup and have the option to share what they found out about themselves and each other. In that way, they gain insight into their similarities and differences, as well as their strengths and growth areas, says Lurie. In the group, it is a comfort to discover that they are not alone in facing their problems - although overly personal issues are off limits in this setting. The program is a prevention program for marital problems; therefore, if serious issues are raised, the group leaders ask the couple to speak with them after the session and they recommend a therapist.
After each workshop the couples in the group are given homework, which they work on together before the next session.
"We want to get them at the stage before they begin to form bad habits," says Miller. "We want them to get a handle on what they're bringing into the marriage and what they want to get out of it."
While Choice of the Heart is a not-for-profit organization, the couples pay a fee of NIS 613 to take the course. "We give them the tools for a strong and long-lasting marriage on a silver platter," says Lurie. "We encourage them to invest in the relationship and see it as a future. We want people to take marriage seriously and have the tools to work through it."
This may have a ripple effect on the single world, Miller and Lurie believe. "The singles see their friends in unhappy marriages," says Miller, who is also a counselor for singles. "They feel threatened and are afraid to commit to anyone, as the odds of success are so low. This is a contributing factor to why there is such a large single population."
Miller and Lurie looked into many other programs before they made their heartfelt choice. "The program is the most adaptable to this society and the most flexible for what we want to add," says Lurie. "Couples find it clear, implementable, and full of fun and humor."
In the workshops, for example, they use tools such as DVDs to help couples understand how different men and women are. "They laugh a lot, and that helps to break the ice," says Lurie. "They get into it, and they want more."
Often, a woman will have to drag her partner to the seminar, the two leaders recount. He'll sit there with his arms crossed and be rather resistant to the process. "But when he does an exercise," says Miller, "he comes alive; he gets into it."
Overall, they receive a lot of positive feedback from men, who say, "I'll tell my friends. It's helping me."
The man gets as much out of the course as his partner does, says Lurie, and he becomes an advocate for the program.
At one time, sexuality was the biggest issue a couple grappled with. Now the most prevalent problem is financial. "We teach them how to manage their finances," says Lurie. "It need not destroy a relationship. They can actually turn it into a strength." She cites the example of an engaged pair, each of whom was encountering financial difficulties. When they came back to the seminar as a married couple, the "I" had become "we" - as in "How we can cope with our financial situation."
But little things can undermine a relationship as well if you don't know how to deal with them. To quote one of their mottos, "People don't prepare to fail; they fail to prepare."
The team cites the case of a husband who didn't like the way his wife washed the dishes, and he was always checking to see if they were clean enough. When it was suggested to him at the seminar that he could wash the dishes, he said he didn't feel it was his role. Then Miller and Lurie encouraged the couple to talk about things, and they ultimately resolved the issue themselves.
"Happiness is not about absence of conflict but the way we cope with it," say the team leaders.
A paradox that fits the paradigm is that the very thing that attracted one to another at first can become a nagging issue in the marriage. In the realm of "opposites attract," a man who is rigid and fastidious may be drawn to a woman who is laid back and easy-going. In the marriage, it becomes a problem when it is evident that he is very neat and she is sloppy. "They need to find a balance, a middle ground," says Lurie. To do that, the exercises in the workshop that focus on communication and conflict resolution are crucial.
"My dream," says Lurie, "is to make this program compulsory as a standard pre-marital and early marriage course." In that vein, they are participating in a one-day conference at the Israel Center on November 16, where they and other guest speakers will discuss a relevant range of topics, in English, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Miller and Lurie are also training mental health professionals so they can go out and start groups of their own. At present, Miller and Lurie offer their program three times a year in Hebrew and English in various locales in and around Jerusalem.