Marriage guidance team faces new issues

By Jessica Elgot, October 7, 2010
The JMC’s Tova Hersh: “No one wants to proclaim their marriage isn’t as perfect as everyone thinks”

The JMC’s Tova Hersh: “No one wants to proclaim their marriage isn’t as perfect as everyone thinks”

Career women trying to juggle family and work and men with traditional views who stifle their wives' ambition are major issues for the Jewish Marriage Council.

Yet despite dealing with an increasing raft of relationship problems linked to the pressures of modern living, the JMC reports difficulty in attracting support.

Counselling co-ordinator Tova Hersh attributes this to the low key nature of its work, plus unwillingness within the community to accept that counselling might be necessary for a Jewish couple.

Mrs Hersh said the JMC was launched in 1946 by the late Lord and Lady Jakobovits, who felt "there was a need for a place for couples to come if they had issues, because it's worthwhile investing in marriage".

With the death of Lady Jakobovits, the organisation's biggest champion, earlier this year, the council also lost its most committed fundraiser. Its operating budget is less than £150,000.

"People don't realise we are a charity and we only charge if people can afford it," Mrs Hersh explained. "We have a set fee of £45 a session but we negotiate what people can manage.

"The nature of the work we are doing is private. No one wants to proclaim their marriage isn't as perfect as everyone thinks."

Jewish singletons are also helped through the charity's dating service, Connect.

The JMC employs 10 volunteer counsellors from across the religious spectrum and there are plans to expand into family counselling.

Mrs Hersh observed that in the past, "women looked after families and there was a meal on the table. Now women try and do everything - and they can't be superwomen.

"And there are still old fashioned men whose mothers made big meals. They want that from their wives."

The JMC caseload includes engaged couples. "There are things they need to sort out and I think that's very clever. There also might be a couple who have been married for 30 years and you think: 'Why now?' It often happens when children move out."

It claims a high success rate in preserving marriages but Mrs Hersh admits there are circumstances where couples may be better off apart. "Certainly there are times when we feel a couple aren't matched. There's sometimes no point."

Connect dating coach Jo Barnett says the service has a big uptake from thirty- and fortysomethings. It also attracts divorcees - some of whom had married out.

"There are women we see who are gorgeous, with fabulous careers. But they are now 41. They come to Connect and it's not easy at that age, they're rushing. They wouldn't have seemed desperate five years earlier."

She also feels that despite the desire for professional success, people still face parental pressure to marry. "You walk into any Friday night dinner and it's immediately: 'Well, who are you dating?' I actually think it is getting harder - people have higher expectations, they are less willing to give. They don't look to themselves."

Connect urges users to consider a prospective partner's interests before looking at a picture. "A photo makes it easy to reject someone. I've been in that situation myself time and again. You might meet up and there's something you wouldn't expect."

Like the JMC, Connect works only with people who are halachically Jewish, dealing primarily with the mainstream community. The strictly Orthodox are referred to other agencies.

Dating service is helping me to find a partner

Laura Solo-mons, 36, from Luton is new to Connect and has been on three dates.

"There's such a small community in Luton and all the 'Jew dos' I go to seem to be terribly expensive and it's the same faces over and over again," she says. "I'm sure people feel that way about me too!

"I want to meet someone outside of that, but I don't have a huge circle of Jewish friends - and I'm not the typical north London Jewish girl."

Fearing that being from Luton dissuaded potential suitors, she tried internet dating, putting "London" on the profile. In any case, "people judge you just by your picture. And people can very shallow and rude. They want someone who looks like a model from a magazine.

"Connect's way appealed a bit more because you can't reject people outright, you have to look at what you might have in common. And I'm from a traditional background.

"I like to know someone's halachically Jewish - it just means there aren't any awkward questions.

"First impressions do count and I haven't clicked with anyone I've met yet, but I have enjoyed the social occasions and there are people I've kept in touch with.

"It's been a positive experience so far."

"I was trapped and unhappy"

Mother-of-two Frances, 32, has just started counselling at the JMC with her husband. She says the couple's arguments have been affecting their children.

"I was a solicitor and we met through work. I was pregnant when we got married and I was very reluctant to be a full-time mum. My husband really wanted me to stay at home and to have a large family, whereas I'm happy with two.

"I was the one who initiated counselling. It felt like a space to vent my emotions and I broke down during our first visit. I was trapped and unhappy. My husband said he thought I was not coping with being a wife and mother and that he is happy to work late to avoid coming home to a messy house where dinner will not be ready."

Counselling had proved productive. "In the session, we addressed issues I had with my own mother and what we turned to when we felt desperate. Now we are concentrating on listening to each other more and trying to understand the way we feel. It's still early but we are trying to make it work."

Last updated: 5:15pm, October 7 2010