Marriage Advice from a Local Priest, Rabbi & Divorce Lawyer

Three experts weigh in on how to make your marriage a success

A priest, a rabbi and a divorce lawyer walked into a bar …

Well, not exactly: They spoke in separate interviews about how to make a good marriage. Their three-way message, boiled down: Communicate, communicate, communicate.

“I see all the differing reasons that marriages end,” says Susan Hansen, a family law attorney in Milwaukee who’s been handling divorces for 36 years. “I would say that my main advice is to have open and deep communication about all aspects of your marriage before you get married.”

That’s especially true of financial affairs, she adds. She thinks a prenuptial agreement is a good idea – at least for couples who’ve been married before and have kids, or have already started their careers and may have separate savings. But the prenup should be based on that deep communication, she insists, and not be “the one you get the night before the wedding, saying, ‘Sign it or the wedding’s off.’”

And, prenup or no, the deep discussions are the point – and they should come months before the wedding, and include discussions of each person’s philosophy on such topics as travel and vacations, raising a family and even sexual relations.

“When I talk with people who are looking back,” Hansen says, “there is far greater harm in what was not said and what was not discussed, because it accumulates and then it comes out, often in very negative ways, and it’s been stored up so long for some couples, they can’t repair the damage.”

Both the Catholic Church and some Jewish congregations have frameworks in place for getting those important discussions to happen.

“When a wedding couple come to me,” says Rabbi Noah Chertkoff, “they’re often really focused on their wedding, and I’m more focused … on making sure that their marriage is something that is strong and healthy.”

Chertkoff, senior rabbi at Milwaukee’s biggest synagogue, Congregation Shalom on North Santa Monica Boulevard in Fox Point, says his congregation uses a computer-aided program, Prepare/Enrich, to help engaged couples sort through all the topics that Hansen says they should discuss. A workbook kicks off with a chapter on communication (needed: assertiveness and active listening) but it also includes suggestions on conflict resolution, financial management and leisure activities among many others. Some of the questions raised in the process are eye-openers for the couples, such as, “What is your view on spanking?” Says Chertkoff: “I generally don’t get anybody that says ‘I’m okay with giving a potch,’ but [often] they realize, ‘Oh, we’re going to be partners not only for each other but in the possibility of raising a child, and all that that means.’”

The upshot of all the questions is hopefully to get the couple thinking as a unit – instead of as two separate people. “Probably the best way I’ve seen it explained,” says Chertkoff, “is that they’re playing doubles [tennis]. They either succeed together or they’ll fail together. Too often when people approach challenges, they’re trying to win. But there is no winning as an individual; there’s only winning as a team.”

The Very Rev. Jerome G. Herda performed 25 to 30 weddings a year during his 10 years as pastor of two North Shore Catholic churches – St. Eugene’s in Fox Point and St. Monica’s in Whitefish Bay. The priest would meet with engaged couples several times each, and as part of a Catholic training program, the couples would fill out questionnaires to identify areas of agreement and difference. Additionally, each couple would attend talks and workshops, and work with a married couple in the parish who would serve as their mentors.

Herda, who is now vicar general and vicar for clergy, in charge of active clergy for the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese, says that when he met with engaged couples, he stressed the importance of communication, but also of expectations. “When you have expectations that are not being met or are unrealistic, that’s going to lead you awry,” he says.

More advice from Herda: “Be patient with each other. That’s always important.” And: “They are coming as two individuals to live as one couple, but yet you never lose your own identity, your own individuality. So finding that balance of living your own individual life but also respecting and caring for the other person … When trouble arises, the individuality becomes too much, and they forget that they still are meant to be one as a unit.”

We’ll let Chertkoff have the last word: “Honoring each other, respecting each other, that’s the starting place. In Judaism, what it really comes down to, we call a bride and groom reim ahuvim, which means loving companions. The idea is that they’re friends. Probably the most important aspect of any relationship is friendship, because so much other stuff [such as] infatuation wears away. Friendship remains. Love is a deep and profound idea, and having a friendship that’s built on love and love that’s built on friendship is really going to make the most success. That’s it.” ◆

‘Words from the Wise’ appears in Milwaukee Weddings 2018.

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Tom Tolan is managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine, where he's worked since January 2016. He spent 24 years at The Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a copy editor, assistant metro editor and reporter. He lives in Shorewood.