Researcher Dr Amelie Turgel takes a look at the impact that the observance of the Jewish laws of family purity may have on creating happy marriages. (See page 21 for an overview of these laws.)
Research studies have found significant correlations between frequency of physical intimacy and overall marital happiness or satisfaction, indicating that happy couples are intimate more often than unhappy couples (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983). Obvious as this may seem, we nevertheless also see that within the marital context, sexual interest has been found to decrease. James (1981) proposed that the intimacy rate within the first year of marriage dropped by about a half, due to the novelty wearing off: ‘the honeymoon effect’. Studies have shown that as marriage progresses beyond the honeymoon period, the couple settles into a predictable physical routine due to the accessibility of a partner and the predictability of sexual behavior with that partner over time. (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983; Doddridge, Schumm, & Berger, 1987).
The above research left me wondering whether adhering to the Jewish laws of family purity, which are designed to enforce a routine of intimacy and separation, might produce a different picture. Does observance impact the marital sexual relationship? What are the benefits of observance? Can observance enthuse the relationship with renewed energy and chemistry each month?
The positive impacts of observing the laws of family purity through the eyes of Jewish women
During my scientific study exploring women’s experiences of their observance of the laws of family purity it became apparent that the women interviewed experienced a range of sentiments, several positive aspects of their observance were highlighted. I will present a narrative interplay of some of the positive themes that were most figural and powerful from the women’s accounts.
The women all expressed a romantic view that the separation period (where husband and wife have no physical contact) creates a renewed desire for intimacy within their relationships. The separation creates a longing for the other which helps to fire a simmering excitement for the relationship. Enforced separation means that contact, when it occurs, seems to be valued all the more. As a result, the relationship is enhanced.
Katie describes the part of separation period that she finds beneficial:
It’s the just before we can touch again, that’s the bit that counts
and it’s really important to maintain that on a regular basis. That’s
what gives the relationship a spark, otherwise it all becomes a bit
There was a phase in Katie’s relationship when she would prolong the time she could be intimate with her husband by taking packs of the contraceptive pill back to back with no breaks, enabling her to postpone her menstrual cycle.
I stopped running packs into each other because it wasn’t exciting any more, and I think we kind of lost the excitement altogether, because there was no separation.
Returning to a monthly cycle of separation and intimacy seemingly enthused her relationship with renewed sexual excitement.
Becky shares this sentiment:
It keeps your relationship alive … and you make time to build that
romantic aspect into your marriage. Because it’s not always there
it’s not taken for granted.
Karen illustrates her experience of physical renewal in her drawn-out description of the days of separation. Her evocative quote conjures up a palpable sense of her anticipation:
You count the days, day one, day two, day three, day four. It’s only 6 day four still and … hello, this is taking a long time! Day five … gosh two more days… Day six and seven are so exciting at that point. And then you’re there. You’re ready.
Karen not only values the separation as conducive to building her sexual interest, but she also views separation as immensely beneficial in the building of her relationship through non – physical channels:
The times that we’re not able to be physical are wonderful interludes in our marriage. At the beginning we felt it was a great basis for our relationship – we had to talk to each other, find out about each other. We came to understandeach other’s strengths and weaknesses.
The theme of separation illustrates the common experience of the renewed passion, sexual excitement and relationship growth within the women’s marital relationships.
A Protective Framework
The women all express feeling contained and protected by the framework of family purity.
Laura expresses her appreciation of the value and space given to the sexual relationship:
I’m grateful for that, that it’s given the space it is, that it’s given room ... it is exciting, because sex is an important part of marriage. So there’s time for that … it’s not all the time. So again, other parts of the relationship can develop.
Katie also seems to view the laws’ imposition of boundaries and limitations as beneficial:
It does teach you to kind of have … be a bit more moderate in terms of what you want at all times. And to be able to stop yourself from having, it does teach you to kind of have limitations.
Karen provides a rich description of her appreciation of the laws of family purity. She suggests that the laws exist beyond the wisdom of man and conjures up the image of G-d creating a blueprint for marital life.
It gives you a framework for newness…and nobody is wise enough to build themselves a framework for newness because that’s not how we think about life. And I don’t know if anybody is really educated in that way. You should be looking for healthy newness.
Protection: A Healing Time-Out
The theme of protection also surfaced across the women’s accounts of their experience of the separation period. Protection for most seems connected to the period of healing in which the physical wounds of childbirth are given space to repair. Alongside such physical healing there also appears to be a process of psychological healing. Here the women’s accounts convey the experience of relief in having the psychological space to adjust to their new identities and be excused from sexual obligation:
There is something to be said for a woman being left alone with her baby for a couple of months, and not feeling that she has to be on call not only for a nursing baby but also for a husband. That’s not indicating that you don’t enjoy the physical relationship…but time out for a woman after she’s had a baby is definitely a good idea…
Like Laura, Karen also communicates feeling protected after childbirth:
The first two months after I had the baby we obviously weren’t together. and I was so grateful because I had pushed for three hours with this little bubala, so I was extremely sore….
Stacy has not had children so her experience of protection is somewhat different:
It’s great not to get any attempts from my husband that I have to reject…
[Editor’s note: There are no hurt feelings as it is understood between the couple that this is a no-go area at certain times of the month.]
The Mikvah Experience
The women spoke appreciatively of their personal space at the mikvah, making clear that they benefit from the opportunity for purification and renewal:
Katie paints a beautiful picture of her mikvah experience. She invokes a vision of her rebirth: as she becomes purified she appears to renew both her religious commitment and her relationship.
Because I’ve got a baby I’m just much busier. When do I ever have time for myself? Never. So that’s really nice and it’s spiritually uplifting as well. As you go under the water you feel like you are entering a womb, surrounded by water, then as you emerge it feels like a newborn, like it’s a birth, emerging with renewed energy.
Karen explains how preparing for the mikvah helps her to shift her mind-set:
Your actions help pretty much to shift your state of mind, without a doubt. You know and we all know that. You get dressed up … and then you go to a wedding at night … you suddenly feel like a queen now. And you’re ready to be regal and engaging and enchanting.
Karen conveys how transformative she finds the experience of using the mikvah space for purification. She shifts her identity from that of the daytime, busy mum who has no time to take pride in her appearance, to that of an attractive confident, powerful woman, ready to “engage and enchant” her husband at night.
Laura and Becky also describe valuing the reflective, personal space provided by the mikvah. Laura conveys her relief at being forced to take time for herself:
It’s good to have those times of reflection. Life is extraordinarily busy. It’s a very frenetic lifestyle. So when it’s demanded of me to make time for myself, to think about my personal relationship with G-d, I like that.
These sentiments are echoed by Becky as she also appears to value the personal reflective space gained at the mikvah:
The evening when you go is your evening out … and the bathroom is quite a reflective space. You lie in a warm, deep bath and no one is going to knock on the door and the phone is not going to ring, and that’s a really lovely, relaxing place to be.
While observance of this mitzvah is not a quick fix for marital problems, it clearly offers thewomen interviewed a tool that can be used to enhance their marriage. The contained sexual structure and its built-in separation period injects renewed excitement and desire into the relationship. It is also seen as protective in offering time for
healing after childbirth. The imposed ‘time out’ from physical obligation removes hints of rejection. And, by no means least of all, the personal space at the mikvah offers women a uniquely special time for pampering, reflection and purification.
(The above does not intend to offer halachic rulings or guidance. The laws are best studied with a woman who is learned and practises them herself.)
1 All names and identifiable information have been changed to protect the women’s identity.