By Elisheva Liss
The room was packed with a few hundred accomplished women. I asked for a show of hands:
“How many of you pursued higher education after high school?”
Almost every hand went up.
I continued, “And how many of you feel satisfied with the level of education you received in preparation for your marital relationship?”
One or two hands were tentatively raised. People looked around the room incredulously.
This was an audience of Orthodox women. Most had attended values-based schools and seminaries. They were raised in halachah-observant homes and were specifically taught about “intimacy and family purity” before their weddings. Probably in most cases, they grew up in families who sincerely wanted to prepare their kids for life — not only academically, but personally, too.
Yet one of the most crucial areas of life had somehow fallen through the cracks. And these responses were typical of other groups to whom I’ve posed the same series of questions. It’s not that we don’t understand the importance of investing in relationships, but, clearly, we have gaps in our systems.
The following quotes are examples of the pain I have heard hundreds of times, from individuals who seem happy, healthy, and stable, but are suffering secretly, and often in a way that could have been prevented.
“I just wish someone had spoken to me about all this properly before I got married.”
“I felt so betrayed when my kallah teacher explained this to me. Like I didn’t even really understand what I was agreeing to when I got engaged. I went home and cried.”
“My whole life I was told: ‘Don’t look at boys, don’t even think about them, and certainly don’t talk to them.’ Now, suddenly, almost overnight, I’m supposed to know and understand exactly what to do. It’s too much pressure. We were both terrified. It wasn’t fair to either of us.”
“I’ve never been comfortable in my own body, never understood the appeal of the physical. I thought I was just modest. How am I supposed to just want to suddenly share it with another person?”
“I really believe that having had a better understanding of intimacy could have saved our marriage.”
“We finally figured things out more or less, but it was a nightmare for a few years until we did. Did it really have to be that way?”
“I would hate for my kids to have to go through what we went through.”
“I know my parents love me and did the best they could, but they didn’t prepare me for this, and the consequences have been devastating in our marriage.”
As parents, most of us strive to give our children the best education we can — academically, morally, and in terms of life skills. We know that we need to teach them kindness and compassion, hygiene and responsibility, spiritual consciousness, to say “please” and “thank you,” and useful skills in order to make a living. We understand the value of book smarts, religious values, street smarts, social skills, and marketability.
But what we haven’t quite figured out as a broader community is how to prepare kids for the most intimate parts of marriage. It’s like we somehow assume that they will just automatically “know what to do” without ever having been taught. Sometimes they do. But often they don’t. They usually don’t have the clarity, confidence, or vocabulary to talk about it with their partners.
Sometimes, they have been “taught” by harmful sources: internet searches, misinformed friends, or predatory adults. In many, many cases the results are traumatic and tragic. Shame and secrecy keep this suffering well-hidden, but therapists’ offices and inboxes are overflowing with the fallout.
Some parents will say, “There is no need to teach kids this stuff before they need to use it. They’ll go to classes before they get married to learn ‘what to do.’” But in the meantime, they are still developing, feeling, noticing, desiring, touching, experiencing things, and drawing their own conclusions. It is unrealistic for a handful of premarital education classes to compensate for 20 years of missed opportunities and misunderstanding.
Research repeatedly tells us that the majority of young adults surveyed, in a cross-section of communities, wish their parents had educated them more and better about their bodies and psychosexual knowledge. Yet this area of child and adolescent development still tends to go largely unaddressed — mostly because parents themselves don’t really know what, when, or how to talk about it. Particularly in religious communities, where there is a fear of over-exposing kids, families and schools tend to avoid any subjects that feel not “G-rated.” So while there is a fair amount of general, secular material available to guide parents in these conversations, there is little that is tailored for values-based learning and faith-based communities. And it often gets neglected.
It seems that the next generation of parents wants to do better for their kids. It’s hard to discuss these topics in public — to balance on that fine line between propriety and necessity. For years, my colleagues and I have been “quiet” resources for parents who want to do more for their kids and are seeking guidance. There are a handful of books and websites that both present healthy, biologically accurate information and also honor the sensitivities and needs of religious people.
Two wonderful Jewish books available are:
- “Talking about Intimacy and Sexuality” by Yocheved Debow
- “Talking to Children about Intimacy” by Sara Diament.
I’ve recommended them more times than I can count. But I’ve also clocked more hours than I can count in conversations with parents and educators who want even more comprehensive and specific content. I’ve lectured to groups and workshops, but we always end up wishing we had more time, to be able to cover more ground.
So I began researching and compiling material to be used in a digital course presentation, titled “Sacred, Not Secret — a Religious Family’s Guide to Healthy, Holy Sexuality Education,” and released it during these weeks of “shovevim tat” — when Jews have the custom to focus on improving holy sexuality. I encourage all parents to research and strategize ways to better talk to and prepare their kids for relationships and specifically marriage, and there are different ways to do so. But for those who would like to avail themselves, this course is designed to be an online resource for parents looking to prepare their children for a safe, healthy relationship with their bodies and others’ and for what marriage can and should be — a consensual, loving, sacred space for two people to get close in every way.
Elisheva Liss, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, lecturer, and the author of Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking, which is available on Amazon. She blogs on ElishevaLiss.com and https://nefesh.org/blogs/ElishevaLiss.