Autism in the family is kept as a secret in Jewish Orthodox families, as many other mental disorders, with the aim of preventing harm to the family’s reputation. Even these days, in modern times, orthodox Jews get married through matchmaking arranged by the couple’s parents, with the mediation of religious leaders, so the family’s reputation plays a significant role in considering someone to be an appropriate bride or groom.
The couple gets to meet only a few times before the marriage takes place, for very short periods of time and often, under the supervision of other members of the family. It is not surprising therefore that the stressful setting of these ‘dates’, together with the obvious excitement, limit the young couple’s ability to formulate a solid impression on each other and of course there is not any real possibility to get to know each other before the glass is broken and the ring is put on the finger in the Jewish traditional wedding ceremony.
Orthodox Jews get married without any knowledge or experience in former romantic or sexual relationships. These topics are not culturally acceptable in family conversations, as well as in educational and social circles in the couple’s surroundings. Most orthodox do not even have access to television or to the internet. Public media is not in accordance with strict Jewish law. That’s why young adults cannot really tell if what is going on in their relationship is ‘normal’.
When couples feel that there is a problem in the relationship, they usually do not go to therapy, but rather consult with their rabbis, who unfortunately cannot be very helpful in cases of mixed-neurological relationships. Divorce is not very common among orthodox Jews and even couples who report severe distress will be encouraged not to leave the marriage. Orthodox couples are not allowed by the Jewish religion to use contraceptive methods, so as a result, they frequently have very large families with lots of children, which makes the possibility of separation almost impossible.
I do not get to meet many orthodox mixed neurological couples in my clinic. However, I can say that when I do, these are the most difficult, heart breaking and memorable cases. I met women who were raped by their husbands, without any of them realizing that what was happening in their bedroom could be easily considered rape by the law. I was surprised to meet orthodox women who were having an affair, which is considered by religion to be a terrible sin. These women, sometimes after many years of marriage, enjoyed for the first time a sexual and loving relationship, something they did not imagine could exist.
All in all, I can tell from my experience that mixed neurological marriages in the orthodox community are not restricted to high functioning autism as in most cases of mixed relationships. Hence, the difficulties these couples face, the lack of awareness that comes along with the lack of romantic experience, together with the denial and lack of support from the orthodox community, worsen the complex situation, which demands serious consideration from Jewish religious leaders.
Dr. Pnina Arad