In actuality, this article was started about twenty-five years ago.
I was a bachur in Ohr Somayach, Yerushalayim, at the time. Despite struggles with the realities of becoming observant, I still wore a nice pair of rose-colored glasses about the world I was entering. Yes, there were challenges and even real problems, but it was still a disinfected picture of life in the yeshiva lane I beheld.
Then, casually – it was during a walk in Meah Shearim on a bright, late summer Shabbos afternoon – someone in a group I was strolling about with remarked that he heard Rabbi Gottlieb say that the divorce rate of baalei teshuva was as high as those of the general, secular world.
First there was disbelief.
“Are you sure you heard that?” another person asked. Yes, he seemed to be sure. Furthermore, he said, he heard that in Rabbi Gottlieb’s opinion baalei teshuva should date for six months, not six weeks, before they get engaged.
Truth be told, I never had those claims confirmed: that the divorce rate of BTs was as high as in the secular world and that Rabbi Gottlieb had actually said it or that BT dating should last six months. Nevertheless, the conversation stuck with me.
Flash forward about a year later. I am now a fully committed BT learning full-time in yeshiva. I am at a weekend retreat with my fellow bachurim. The previous year, a slightly older peer – I’ll call him Michoel – had made Kiddush for us. I envied Michoel: he was intelligent, deeply committed, funny, personable, creative. And he had a wife who was as intelligent and spiritual as she was attractive. They were the picture of perfection in my mind.
Now, a year later, I sat at Michoel’s table, and he was making Kiddush again… but his wife was not there. They had since divorced. (They had been married long enough to have a child.)
This sent me for a loop. I never asked him what happened, but his divorce stuck in my gut. Michoel was someone I could relate to; someone who had achieved, externally at least (internally, too, it seemed), many of the things I dreamed of. Yet, his picture perfect life was shattered. And with it my own picture of perfection about becoming a baal teshuva. If one wasn’t careful, one could stumble and fall like Michoel, like his wife, like the 50% or more secular and/or non-Jewish Americans who divorce.
Anyway, to this day I still do not know if, in fact, the divorce rate of baalei teshuva is comparable to that in the secular world, but I have witnessed or heard of enough divorce, to say nothing of difficult marriages, among baalei teshuva to ask the following question: What are the pressures and circumstances that might put more strain on a marriage of baalei teshuva than others?
I suspect that the answer is: strains that are no different than those of becoming a BT in the first place.
For instance, if it can be said that a baal teshuva tends to have less familial support than an FFB, then the baal teshuva couple has more strain on them because they tend to not have parents to give them the same degree of physical, emotional and/or financial support one might typically get from FFB parents.
(Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. My own parents, baruch Hashem, took the hour-and-a-half ride to visit us three or four times a month for over a decade. This had an enormously positive impact on my children. Often, I thought to myself how the kids would have fared without them.)
There are greater financial stresses and requirements needed to live the observant life. In theory, and often in practice, they are offset by positive communal attitudes and a healthy Torah outlook. However, is that always enough? And what about baalei teshuva who do not have the deepest roots in a community or perhaps even the same depth of Torah wisdom to apply this knowledge?
The strains of raising and being mechanech children: It can put a strain on any marriage when children have difficulties in school. Many BT parents lack the learning skills to teach their children beyond the elementary school years. This is another extra strain.
I am sure there are other things, but I want to leave this article more open-ended. What are examples of other strains, in your opinion? What are the worst ones? What are your strains and what do you do and/or what can anyone do about them?
Do you even accept the premise of this article: that BT divorce rates are as high as (higher than?) secular divorce rates? Do you think they are higher than FFB divorce rates?
I look forward to the usual spirited and articulate responses.