Let's stay together: Baltimore duo helps couples regain marital bliss

For The Baltimore Sun
Therapy that can help couples stay together.

Amicable divorce, or "conscious uncoupling" as Gwyneth Paltrow calls it, is all the rage these days, from Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner to Gavin Rossdale and Gwen Stefani.

But Rivka and Shlomo Slatkin believe the better choice for most couples, Hollywood types notwithstanding, is staying married.

The Pikesville couple, who say they have experienced their own problems during 14 years together, have started the Marriage Restoration Project with the goal of saving troubled marriages.

Shlomo, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi with a master's degree in counseling psychology, decided to become a marriage therapist after he and Rivka went through a marital crisis soon after their first child was born.

As with many couples, their problems arose through a lack of communication and understanding. He was immersed in his rabbinical studies and graduate school. Rivka was busy taking care of their newborn.

"Life got very stressful," she says.

Rivka, whose parents had divorced when she was 12, says she lacked having a good model for how married couples should communicate. While she was used to yelling, her husband was not.

Shlomo suggested they see a marriage counselor, and they contacted David Bowman, a Frederick pastor who practices Imago therapy. Developed 35 years ago by Harville Hendrix and popularized by Oprah Winfrey, Imago therapy is a form of couples therapy in which partners take turn speaking what's on their minds.

Bowman says that with the guidance of a therapist, the partner repeats what the first has said, affirms those feelings and offers empathy. Most couples will spend 12 weeks attending sessions that last from 60 to 90 minutes.

Shlomo said that during their first session, he and Rivka recalled why they fell in love. As is common with Orthodox couples, the Slatkins had married soon after meeting. A mutual friend had introduced them, and on their first date they had spent seven hours walking around Washington and talking.

Rivka was drawn to him because he was a good listener. Shlomo was attracted to Rivka because of her warmth and charm. Within six weeks, they were engaged. In three months, they were married.

Imago therapy rekindled the excitement they felt when they first met. "After our first session, we were back in love," she says.

Although they noticed improvement in their relationship right away, they worked with Bowman for several months discovering new things about themselves and each other.

The experience not only helped to save their marriage, they say, it also changed their life's work.

Shlomo gave up the idea of teaching in a synagogue and decided instead to become a marriage counselor, learning the Imago techniques that had helped him. He became a certified Imago counselor, one of about 30 in Maryland.

The Slatkins point out that all couples experience relationship troubles. About six years ago, the Slatkins hit another rough patch in their marriage, one they call the "10-year itch," even though it was just eight years into their marriage.

Many couples go through troubles at this point in their marriage, as the high-profile break up of Garner and Affleck shows.

The stress that comes from work and raising a family is common, and the Slatkins were no different. Rivka wanted to establish her own career and began a marketing business. Shlomo was dedicated to building his own business, and the resentments began to mount.

They worked through their issues together again using Imago therapy techniques, and soon afterward Rivka came up with the idea of the Marriage Restoration Project.

She says the idea came after a chance encounter with a young girl who described to Rivka watching her divorced parents begin to date again. Rivka saw much of herself in the young girl and told Shlomo, "We have got to do something to help these kids."

The Slatkins' Marriage Restoration Project features a variety of options for reaching couples. They offer two-day intensive retreats, counseling via Skype and a free downloadable book to help couples. Although Shlomo calls himself the "Relationship Rabbi," he counsels couples of all backgrounds and religions.

Hendrix, author of "Getting the Love You Want," praises Shlomo for bringing Imago therapy to Baltimore's Jewish community. "He is very creative," he says. "He's doing an amazing job."

Hendrix says he and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt, developed Imago therapy in the early 1980s as they pondered why their previous marriages had ended in divorce.

"I think it has spread because it is a lived experience that gave birth to the theory," says Hendrix. "We grew and developed the theory together and with our interaction with other couples."

The key, he says, is that Imago not only allows the couples to talk, but it requires them to listen. "It's almost embarrassingly simple," say Hendrix, adding that Imago therapists are reporting an 80 percent to 90 percent success rate.

Shlomo says he has no data on how many marriages are ultimately saved, but he believes that almost all see improvement in their relationship after attending the sessions. "I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think it would help people," he says.

While preserving the family for the sake of the children is one reason that motivates the Slatkins, they say there are other reasons to stay together. It is a fallacy, they say, for couples to believe they will find someone better than the partner they already have.

Betty and Jay Cherniak of Baltimore sought help from Shlomo Slatkin when their children were nearly grown.

"We were approaching the empty nest," Betty recalls. "You turn to each other and look at each other and say, 'Who are you?'"

Betty Cherniak had known Rivka for a long time and when she and Jay decided to seek counseling, they went to Shlomo for Imago therapy. "There is nothing short or speedy about Imago," Betty says. "Everything is slow and thoughtful."

But Jay Cherniak says the therapy began to work right away. "I always felt we were more relaxed with each other after every session," he says.

Elan Hertzberg, an Atlanta-based filmmaker, says he and his wife, Yelena, encountered the Slatkins while attending Shabbat services in Baltimore. As they became friends, Hertzberg became a strong supporter of their work and invited the couple to Charlotte, N.C., to put on a marriage workshop.

"I got to see and watch people learning and laughing," he said. "It's very fun. Very comfortable."

Bowman, who offers Imago therapy counseling and workshops, says the technique can be used to help with any relationship. He has worked with families, gay couples and couples who aren't married.

He says he has found one of the principles of Imago therapy to be true: Couples seek partners who remind them of their parents. "It's uncanny how our current situation and frustrations are linked to our childhood," he says.

Shlomo says one important difference that Imago therapy offers from some other counseling techniques is the therapist does not take sides. "There is no blaming or shaming," he says.

Rivka says she would like to expand the Marriage Restoration Project and create a nonprofit agency dedicated to saving marriages. "This project will help families," she says.

But should all marriages be saved?

Shlomo says that question is ultimately left up to the couple to answer. "It isn't my job to determine if a marriage isn't worth saving," he says.

But he says he has seen couples work through cheating, alcoholism, drug addictions, verbal abuse and even some physical abuse, although he would not encourage someone to stay in a marriage if the person's life was at risk.

"I think people can change," he says. "If they are committed to saving the relationship people will and do change."

5 steps couples can take

Shlomo and Rivka Slatkin's book, "The 5-Step Action Plan to a Healthy and Happy Marriage," lists the actions needed to save a marriage:

Commit. The Slatkins say this first step can be the most difficult because it requires both partners to want to save the marriage. Although it isn't uncommon for one partner to drag the other to counseling, Shlomo said it is difficult to help couples if one partner has given up hope of saving the marriage.

Seal the exits. When marriages run into trouble, couples often look to friends or activities to relieve the pain. Some might resort to infidelity, but even exercise or spending too much time on Facebook can be detrimental if the couple is using it as a way to escape spending time together. Couples may need to take a break from their social circle to spend more time together to work on their problems, Shlomo says.

Detox the marriage. The couple must learn to refrain from yelling or making accusations.

Acknowledge the "other." Each partner must learn to enter the world of the other and understand what each is feeling.

Love infusions. The couple must learn to express love for each other, even when they don't feel like it. This involves doing small acts of kindness for one another and spending time together.

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