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How to take a wise gamble on your future marital bliss

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue reflects on marriage in this piece for The Times.


Will the royal marriage celebrated today last more than a few years? If that sounds rather stark at what should be a time of celebration, it just reflects the fact that many of the nuptials taking place in 2018 will be greeted with champagne, but end in tears.

The figures are astonishingly high: the Office for National Statistics reports that an estimated 42 per cent of marriages end in divorce. A swift survey of Prince Harry’s family reveals that his father, uncle and aunt have been divorced, while it is second time round for Meghan Markle. Although the percentage is alarming, it is not surprising. Marriage is probably the biggest gamble that any of us take — promising to love someone for several decades ahead, when not only are emotions the most volatile part of our being, but we may have only spent a relatively limited time with that person.

On top of this we will then often go through significant life-changing experiences that can alterour priorities, such as having children or losing a parent. The real surprise is not that so many marriages fail, but that so many succeed.

Of course, nobody planning a wedding imagines that they could one day be part of the divorce statistics. That is why many clergy now not only hold marriage preparation sessions, but also make attendance at them a condition for the ceremony. They are based on the assumption that marriage is not just a matter of love, but of partnership. If the former can be impossible to control, the latter has four set components that determine whether it will work or not.

The first is liking the other person: being at ease with them, enjoying their company, sharing interests. It means you will still “get on together” when initial passions have waned. The second is respecting the other person: admiring their qualities, valuing their opinion, seeing them as a potential good father or mother to any children you have. The third is trusting the other person: someone with whom you can share your innermost thoughts, hopes and fears, with whom you can “be yourself” and feel safe.

The fourth is knowing the other person: understanding who they are deep down (not what they present to the outside world, nor what you would like them to be). What are the key values that guide them and what is their vision of the future?Perhaps this last aspect — knowing — is the most crucial. Without this the others can collapse when the “real him/her” emerges. It’s why I set engaged couples a questionnaire about each other that they have to fill in during one of our sessions together. Some of the questions are simply informative, such as “does he/she have any allergies?’’ Perhaps rather prosaic, but itposes the question of how much they have shared with each other apart from romantic sunsets.

Other questions dig much deeper as to what motivates or impedes each partner: “What does he/she regard as his greatest achievement so far?” or “What has been the saddest moment of his/her life?” Not knowing the answer to either one is a wake-up call to get talking.

The most critical are about the future: “Does he/she want children, how many and when?” and “Where would he/she like to be living in a few years’ time?” It emphasises that a partnership has to have an agreed strategy if it is to develop happily.

It ends with a trick question: “What would you most like to change about him/her?” There is only one right answer — “Nothing” — not because they are so besotted that they can see no imperfections, but because it is important to accept the person as they are, including quirks and faults. People rarely change and those going into a marriage intending to reshape their partner are heading for constant battles, if not the divorce courts.

However much one can try to be rational about choosing one’s partner for life, the love factor counts too, which is why I have long given up predicting which marriages will succeed or fail.

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