The secret to a happy marriage? Ask the rabbi

Rabbi Belovski, who has a master’s degree in organisational psychology, has prepared more than 100 couples for marriage


It is a widely-cited statistic which often strikes fear in the hearts of couples before they tie the knot: around half of all marriages will end in divorce.

Divorce rates have risen, along with rates of intermarriage, in the Jewish community over the past half century, prompting many to ask the question: what is the key to a happy marriage and how do we do it?

It is common practise in many communities for couples to visit their rabbi ahead of their chuppah for classes preparing them for married life.

The fact that Jews are less likely to be divorced than the British population in general therefore comes as no surprise to Rabbi Harvey Belovski, who has been teaching his congregants how to have a healthy marriage for more than 10 years.

The senior rabbi of Golders Green Synagogue says that while the United Synagogue’s marriage enhancement programme focuses on the “halachic stuff, such as going to the mikvah”, just as important are general preparations for being in love, being intimate, and compromising.

He explains: “Of course we want them to be technically equipped, but also emotionally and psychologically equipped as well.”

Rabbi Belovski, who has a master’s degree in organisational psychology, has prepared more than 100 couples for marriage. What makes him qualified? Happily married to his wife Vicki for nearly 28 years, he thinks he has learnt a thing or two.

“If anyone thinks that a pre-marriage class is quite formulaic or boring, I will give them 25 phone numbers of people who will probably tell you it was tremendous fun,” he says.

The father-of-seven says his lessons have a reputation for enhancing a couple’s relationship, and their connection to Jewish life and observance and even to him — “this madman who wears a long black coat and is living in Golders Green”.

The 49-year-old meets me in a north London café to tell me about the three hour-long sessions he leads with soon-to-be-married couples.

He says the first lesson “is about exploring what makes an effective relationship and what kind of tools we might develop to sustain a long-term relationship”.

This is easy, he says, but the cracks appear when they move on to lesson two — on conflict.

“I’m blunt. I get them to talk about real things — where to live, education and religious observance. I address those real issues.”

In his experience family and money are the biggest triggers for breakdown in a relationship.

“Conflict with one partner and the other’s parents really can disturb a sense of self and being.

“Even if things are good now, you could easily have a situation where there is a strain or a conflict and we need to recognise where that could happen, and consider what tools we have to deal with it.

“Resilience is important. Networks — family and friends — are very good for resilience. People who are more isolated find it more difficult to be resilient.”

He says his lessons have “precipitated many arguments” but he believes “issues need talking about. I patched up an argument once and I regret it. I think it was evidence of a serious problem”.

Learning that it is not always his place to be a mediator in matters of the heart has helped Rabbi Belovski to develop his teaching.

“It was unfortunate, because they came to me not talking to each other and by the end of the evening I’d helped them sort it out and apologise.

“I thought ‘I’m good at this’, but actually I should have identified a really serious underlying problem.”

When it comes to conflicts over money, Rabbi Belovski, who met his wife while both were studying at Oxford University, says it boils down to trust.

“Money is about whether a partner respects who I am and whether we trust each other. How we share resources, do we prioritise the same way?

“That ultimately goes back to the family. How we think about money and resources is very much a product of our upbringing.”

In his experience couples who do not have a joint bank account, or hide funds from one another, do not have the trust needed to sustain a healthy marriage.

Things have certainly changed since his parents’ generation tied the knot.

Unless you are part of the strictly religious community, past experiences of relationships mean most people have developed an understanding ahead of marriage, he explains.

“Most of the couples I see are familiar with relationships —they’ve been dating, they’ve had previous relationships, they’re usually living together. It is very unlikely someone is marrying the first person they’ve met — although it does happen.”

Rabbi Belovski, who is planning to write a book on the subject, says despite teaching with varying degrees of religious observance, there are commonalities in determining whether or not they will have a happy marriage.

At the very start “couples ought to spend more time preparing for marriage than the wedding.

“The wedding will come and go. Whether they’re awful, fantastic, cheap, expensive, filled with arguments or love and fun, they’re over and then begins the next 50 years.

“Some of these people are so absorbed in the wedding that they forget about the marriage.”

The centrepiece of any loving relationship is communication, according to Rabbi Belovski, a regular commentator on BBC Radio Two’s Chris Evans show.

“Arguments start about one thing and become generalised, like ‘you’ve upset me, you’re a b****’.

“I teach how damaging it is to wander off a specific agenda. It’s always important to ask ‘will this matter tomorrow?’ If the argument won’t matter tomorrow, then what are you arguing over?”

The rabbi, who spends an initial 45 minutes getting to know couples in what he calls a “chemistry session”, uses Judaism as a bedrock of values, ideas and philosophies, to ensure couples have what it takes to withstand the trials and tribulations ahead.

“The third session,” he says, “is about sexuality, intimacy and power. And that has a more Jewish focus.”

Usually couples shy away from talking with their rabbi about the more intimate areas of their relationship, but, according to Rabbi Belovski, not with him — they love the session on their physical relationship and its deeply-rooted focus in the Torah, he says.

“The role of Judaism is to elevate every aspect of life. I can pull out the Talmud and there is amazing stuff in there about sexual pleasure, about effective intimacy, and the importance of foreplay. This is because the Talmud writes about everything.”

Rabbi Belovski believes that by sticking to the rules of taharat hamishpacha (family purity), the physical and emotional intimacy that is essential to a happy marriage can be enhanced.

“In Jewish thought, intimacy is a type of communication. People are often surprised to learn if they don’t have good verbal communication, then they are very unlikely to have a sustained, successful intimate relationship.”

For example, he says during niddah, when a man is forbidden from touching his wife, it provides the couple with a renewed opportunity to check in with one another on an emotional level, because sex can easily become “a tool of personal gratification rather than intimacy”.

Perhaps most importantly he teaches couples how to deal with change. “People change in relationships. Most relationships break up over things like ‘we just have nothing to say to each other anymore’ or ‘we’ve fallen out of love, and we’ve got no shared interests’.

“If the relationship is focused on knowing the other person and what they need, even when they’re changing, then you remain together and connected. But it takes a really long time to understand.”

We make sure there is support:

Movements across the spectrum offer pre-marriage guidance to ensure couples have the best chance of a successful marriage.

While the United Synagogue is the only one with a set programme, within Liberal Judaism individual communities offer couples advice based on their own needs and the experiences of their rabbis.

Rabbi Richard Jacobi, of East London and Essex Liberal Synagogue, says: “I will meet couples four or five times to discuss the significance of marriage and what makes that sacred.

“As a movement, we welcome people where one partner may not be Jewish, so when it comes to marriage that might be something we work out.

“It is a pre-condition of the movement that if the couple have children they will be raised within the Jewish frame-work, with Jewish identities.

“We make sure there is support and follow up for them in order to do that.”

Liberal communities educate the non-Jewish partner with the information they need to support the Jewish members of their soon-to-be-extended family, and give advice on conversion.

The Masorti movement said all its communities offer preparatory sessions for couples who are getting married, but rabbis are given the freedom to offer their own advice. Rabbi Oliver Joseph, of Elstree and Borehamwood Masorti Community, said: “I offer at least four or five sessions with couples.

“Topics range from strengths of the relationship to the nature of the wedding ceremony.” However, time spent with couples was “most importantly a chance for the rabbi and couple to get to know one another, which brings greater holiness to the chuppah.”

The Movement for Reform Judaism also carries out pre-marriage work with couples, and said it “varies by synagogue and rabbi as they all have their own practices”.


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