Jewish couples face challenges in preserving a lasting promise

Joel Crohn, one of the co-authors of a new how-to book on preserving Jewish marriages, wants marriage to be something people celebrate every day, not just at weddings and anniversaries.

However, many marriages have a severe lack of "Shalom Bayit," or domestic harmony — and Crohn wants to do something about it.

A Bay Area marital therapist who specializes in working with interfaith couples, he has spent over 20 years studying Jewish identity and marriage.

His findings on why some marriages fail while others succeed is the backbone of his new collaborative effort, "Fighting For Your Jewish Marriage: Preserving a Lasting Promise."

Current research shows that between one-third and one-half of Jewish marriages end in divorce, a statistic close to the California divorce rate of 50 percent.

Crohn and co-authors Howard Markman, Susan Blumberg and Janice Levine found the statistic for Jews quite alarming. So in collaboration with the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, they wrote a book to help prevent people from entering the statistical pool.

It was written as a way to "implement ancient wisdom and use modern science at the same time," Crohn said in a recent interview.

Researchers now have the ability to look at a five-minute videotape of a seemingly stable and happy couple and predict — with 90 percent accuracy — if the marriage will survive or fail.

By looking at how couples interact in every day situations and by observing facial clues for contentment or disdain, body posture and manners of criticism, marital therapists can now tell which marriages will go the distance.

That kind of "modern science" shapes the book, which begins with a forward by Rabbi Harold Shulweis of Congregation Valley Beth Sholom in Los Angeles County.

The book reminds readers that Jewish and interfaith relationships are under assault by the same forces that affect all marriages: economic pressures, difficulties in balancing professional and personal life, breakdown of community and lack of extended family support.

However, it goes on to explain, Jewish and interfaith marriages face additional tests because the partners have their own set of burdens, such as assimilation, identity ambivalence or being a Jew in a largely Christian society.

These social factors have had a profound effect on many Jews, and when they enter into marriage, perhaps they are not the easiest of partners.

The approach the book uses to help save and enrich marriages is called PREP: the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program.

Based on 20 years of research at the University of Denver, the program is designed to help couples develop techniques they can use to increase marital satisfaction and prevent divorce. The PREP system has since been adopted for use among many different religious groups.

"Anything that is so straightforward can be radical and revolutionary," Crohn said of the PREP system. "The suggestions in the book are not exotic."

One of the most interesting parts of the book — and perhaps the most controversial — examines the concept of Jewish self-hatred and how it might affect relationships.

The book points out that Jewish men and women often project negative stereotypes onto members of the opposite sex.

Even in a comfortable, loving relationship with another Jew, the book states, "We could also become uncomfortable with how he or she reminded us just how Jewish we were."

For example, the book runs down the comments of some Jews at a workshop on relationships.

The women say Jewish men are "neurotic" and "very dependent" and "egocentric and selfish."

The men offer variations of one theme, that Jewish women have "high material expectations."

The book argues that this kind of thinking can have a disastrous effect upon a relationship. When someone projects such a negative stereotype onto a potential partner, "they unconsciously sacrifice themselves in a self-destructive bid for acceptance," the book contends.

The book says a positive sense of Jewish identity must be created. Only after that happens can one achieve true intimacy.

Even if readers dismiss that theory, they will be hard-pressed to discredit the rest of the book, which focuses on issues that kill even the best relationships: money, sex, in-laws and religion.

According to the book, couples whose marriages are in a high degree of distress display four specific patterns of conflict interaction when attempting to deal with those issues: escalation, withdrawal and avoidance, invalidation and negative interpretations.

"For your relationship to grow through conflict, instead of being damaged by it, it is necessary to use agreed-on strategies and techniques for keeping conversations safe and under control," the book states.

"This doesn't mean that every conversation will be pleasant. But it does mean that you work to keep escalation, invalidation, withdrawal and negative interpretations from overwhelming your efforts to hear and be heard."

Crohn, who has offices in San Rafael and Kensington, tries to use some of the techniques offered by the book with his own wife. Most of his energy, he said, now goes into being a good listener.

"I use listening now as an active process, not a passive one," Crohn said. "Listening doesn't mean you have to agree with what your partner is saying. I used to think it did."

Stacey Roberts-Ohr

Stacey Roberts-Ohr is a former Jewish community professional in the Bay Area