As most engaged couples know, the stress of preparing a wedding and pleasing two sets of in-laws is enough to take that blissful sheen off even the most romantic of occasions.
But in all the talk of dresses, centerpieces, cakes, halls and bands, what is often forgotten is that marriage is not a big, expensive party, but a lifelong commitment. And the couple, although they are preoccupied with wedding details, should really be focusing on marriage details: how they are going to live together and build an everlasting relationship.
It is up to the couple, of course, how much premarital planning they want to put into their engagement period. Most rabbis require couples to come in for at least one counseling session before they agree to conduct the wedding. Among Orthodox couples, both the bride and the groom have several sessions of premarital counseling when they learn the halachot of family purity with trained teachers, which is required knowledge before an Orthodox rabbi will marry them.
Of course, couples who want a broader perspective than what some teachers or rabbis can give them, will turn to books. In the past couple of years, there have been several Jewish books published about the best way to get the most out of your marriage. These books all tend to follow a similar format: They use anecdotes to illustrate problems, and then pepper the solutions with quotations from the Torah or Talmud. The books generally adhere to the adage that prevention is better than cure. Better ways to communicate and relate to each other are best learned before the deed is done, so that you come into marriage fully prepared with skills that can see you through rough patches.
It was with this in mind that Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, a noted Orthodox psychologist, wrote "The First Year of Marriage," (The Shaar Press, 2004). The book is subtitled, "Enhancing the Success of Your Marriage Right From the Start -- and Even Before it Begins." In the introduction, Twerski explains that he wrote the book because it was clear from his experience, and from talking to marriage counselors, that many Orthodox couples enter into marriage "woefully unprepared" for the changes that marriage will bring to their lifestyle. Twerski's mission in writing the book is a spiritual one: Arguing that the intact families are the bedrock of the Jewish nation, he wants to help couples achieve shalom bayis (peace in the home). To do this, he advises men not to be controlling, for couples to highlight each other's good points and to use nice language when speaking to each other, to have healthy self-esteem, for both the husband and the wife to be aware of their respective roles in the marriage and respect each other's roles (among other things).
While most of Twerski's points seem axiomatic to making any relationship work, many couples forget them in the struggles of everyday life.
In "The Committed Marriage" (Harper San Francisco, 2003), Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis continues the gentle preaching that she started in her earlier book, "The Committed Life," but this time she turns her attention to making couples work. Among the many things that Jungreis is famous for (in addition to the benediction she gave at the White House this year and her long-standing advice column in The Jewish Press) is Hineni, an organization she founded in New York. Every Thursday, 1,500 singles come to Hineni, ostensibly to hear the rebbetzin talk about the parshah, but really to check out the 1,499 other singles there. According to her own calculation, Jungreis has made "thousands" of matches, and many of the people attending Hineni line up to access her matchmaking skills. But the rebbetzin does nothing without spreading the light of Torah wherever she can. Each chapter in her book tells the story of a couple that came to her with a complaint ("Peter and Maxine Gold['s] ... marriage was in serious trouble.... 'Normal!' Maxine exclaimed. 'Is it normal to have a husband who finds fault with everything you do but can't accept a suggestion that sometimes he might be the one who's wrong?...'") and describes how Jungreis used the wisdom of the Torah to walk the couple through to greener pastures in their relationship. (Jungreis advised the Golds: "Don't invite the Satan into your lives.") In all the cases, Jungreis' logic is infallible, and because she is so focused on being positive, the advice she gives is unfailingly feel-good.
In "Ten Minutes a Day to a Better Marriage: Getting Your Spouse to Understand You" (Artscroll Mesorah Publications, 2003), after giving a number of tips on good communication (such as "expressing negative feelings constructively" -- i.e. don't exaggerate by saying "always" and "never," and "use more 'I' statements and less 'you' statements"), Dr. Meir Wikler advises couples to take 10 minutes a day for "significant marital communication." But during those 10 minutes, there is only one speaker and one listener, and then the next day the roles shift. Those listening cannot "pass judgment" on what the speaker is talking about, but they can ask questions. It might be very difficult initially, but ultimately -- as long as the couple knows that those 10 minutes are inviolate -- very rewarding for a marriage.