After tragedy rocked their world, Mort Fertel and his wife found their marriage floundering. And marital therapy made things worse. So he created his own program
Marriage is not only an art; it’s a science. It can be learned, says Mort Fertel, author of Marriage Fitness and founder of the accompanying programs, including an audio program and tele-boot camp. “As with everything in life — sports, medicine, music — there are correct methodologies, and we need to be trained to do them well. Marriage is the same. There’s a formula for success.”
Mort Fertel has the formula — in fact, he created it. And this father of five from Baltimore wants you to have it as well.
“It’s not like I went to college for this, or that I decided to become an expert,” Fertel says. Instead, he and his wife experienced their own marital crisis after they suffered the loss of three children. Their son lived only one week, and then, a year and half later, the couple lost twin girls.
Following these tragedies, Fertel says, his wife became very depressed, and he immersed himself in work. Their marriage suffered. But “somewhere deep in our hearts, we knew we didn’t want to lose each other. We made a commitment to work on our marriage.”
They went for therapy. “My wife learned about Mars, I learned about Venus,” Fertel says.
They tried all the obligatory communication techniques, such as repeating what the other spouse said to be sure they understood each other. They applied conflict resolution strategies. And they hated it. They found it silly and useless.
“I don’t pull punches,” Fertel says. “I think traditional marriage therapy is awful. We took the argument from our kitchen table to the therapist’s office, and the more we focused on our problems, the more negative we became. It just got worse and worse.”
Today, partly due to Fertel’s efforts, traditional marriage therapy has become more solution oriented. But back in 2003, it was just the couple’s efforts to save themselves.
And they did it. They put aside their problems and focused their energy on trying to connect.
“Not only did we resolve our differences,” says Fertel, “we learned to love each other again. And we did it not by dealing with our problems, but by establishing new relationship habits that brought positive energy to our marriage.”
After they saved their own marriage, the Fertels felt a responsibility to help others. In retrospect, says Mort, the Marriage Fitness program is clear and methodical, but it took time — over a year — to hammer out the bottom line: Don’t fix what’s wrong. Make new things right.
In the year after he and his wife reconnected, Fertel left his job to spend all day every day in the local library reading every marriage and relationship book he could find. Finally, Fertel concluded that no one offered his approach. So he began to write.
“I was a nobody back then,” he says. “I thought I’d bind a few copies for my kids and call it a day.”
But he sent the manuscript around, and it caught the attention of Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) and John Gray (Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus).
The attention inspired him to publish Marriage Fitness. And once he did, it became clear that his was a unique message. It was grabbed by the mainstream media — Mr. Fertel has been featured in countless magazines, and he’s appeared on three of the major networks and on many radio shows.
Marriage Fitness has become Fertel’s mission. In these days of podcasts and prerecorded everything, he’s still giving live tele-classes to people in crisis.
“It’s personal,” he says simply. “I really want to help people.”
He attributes his success to that connection. “It’s not just the message and content, though of course those are key. People appreciate that I’m teaching from experience. I didn’t learn this in school. It’s real and practical and tested.”
In traditional counseling and therapy, Fertel continues, “the therapist is trained not to talk about himself. My approach is the opposite. I talk about my experience, and it resonates. People want someone they can relate to.”
In fact, in a documentary about Fertel’s program, Dr. Elyse Hurtado, professor of psychology at the University of Miami, posited that the fact that he isn’t a therapist may be one reason why Fertel is so successful. “In therapy, if a client were to say, ‘What do you think I should do?’ the therapist would return the question and say, ‘Well, what do you think you should do?’ Mort doesn’t do that. If you ask him what to do, he’ll tell you what to do.”
With over 3 million users, Fertel’s main audience is not the frum world. But his approach has its roots in Torah, and he quotes rabbis and rebbes. He reminds people that love is a verb — the more you practice love, the more you’ll feel it. He asks people to dig deeper into themselves, to acknowledge the small choices they made that brought them to where they are today. And he begs people to keep their marriage private — not to overshare or malign their spouse.
Fertel believes that almost any marriage can be saved (barring abuse, about which he states clearly that the victim should seek outside help), and that all it takes is one person to effect positive changes. And judging from thousands of reviews — on his website, to his books on Amazon and Goodreads, to trustpilot.com, it works.
Forget about dredging up problems and trying to get your spouse to understand you. Instead, follow Fertel’s uber-practical tips and watch your life transform.
“The average American bride and groom spends 528 hours preparing for their wedding,” Fertel says. “How many hours do they spend preparing for marriage? How many hours learning to be a good wife, a good husband?”
He acknowledges that in our world the contrast is not as stark, but, he says, in the frum world too, marriage has become less successful. Our divorce rate may be lower than the general rate (though he believes it’s still too high), but Fertel maintains that frum couples are not necessarily close.
“My observation is that in many cases, even when everything is running smoothly, that doesn’t mean that people feel close. The kids are clothed, the bills are paid, the house is clean, but that’s a very different matter than a husband and wife feeling close.”
And that’s a shame, because there’s a method to marriage, he says. Just like there’s a method to practicing law or playing golf. Nobody successfully argues a case in court on day one. You need to learn the principles of law and understand how to put them into practice. Similarly, if you understand principles and practices to a good marriage, you’re more likely to be successful, Fertel says.
In Marriage Fitness, couples are taught that love is a skill. They’re taught what to do and what not to do to increase love and bonding.
First, Fertel says, they need to put their problems aside. It sounds counterintuitive, but unless you and your spouse are in a good place, you’ll be unable to solve problems.
Fertel explains more in a radio interview posted on his site. “If a husband and wife try to solve the problem, it gets worse, because they’re not looking at the root, which is a lack of connection. Everything else is the symptom.”
Communication — good or bad — is the result of the connection you have — good or bad. To improve your relationship, work on improving your connection. Communication will follow.
Fertel also compares marriage to music. Music is a combination of sound and silence, he says. And in marriage there are clear do’s and don’ts.
Let’s get started.
Chaim and Shayna were married ten years when they discovered Marriage Fitness. It was a few years into Chaim’s residency. Shayna was working full-time and maintaining the house, when everything kind of dissolved.
They’d discussed it all beforehand, Shayna says, how they’d be busy and these years in residency would be lean. They thought they were going into it with their eyes open, but they didn’t account for how tired they’d be at the end of each day.
“I was in the office all day, and work came home with me. Plus kids and housekeeping. By the time Chaim came home, I was exhausted. I’d keep supper warm and fall into bed for a nap the minute he walked in. He’d take care of himself and the older kids for maybe an hour before going to a shiur or to study or wherever.
“When he left, I’d get up to put the house to bed. Then, I’d go back to sleep to be ready for the next day. I excused myself because I was drained, and I was working so hard to provide for his schooling, and these were his kids, too, and, and, and. But we were slowly drifting apart.
“We were so busy surviving, we didn’t realize what a toll it was taking. But then we took a family vacation in the summer. We talked about how nice it would be to relax and catch up at night, but we ended up each doing our own thing on our phones and computers. There was no bonding. It was scary.
“I came home from that vacation shaken up,” Shayna admits. “I loved Chaim, and I didn’t want my marriage to fall apart because we had nothing in common.”
She discovered Fertel’s program and followed his first tip: demonstrating love.
“Consider the love you feel for your children,” Fertel says. “Is it because of everything they do for you? Is it because they’re such angels? Of course not. The love you feel for your children is a result of what you do for them. The love you feel in your marriage is a result of what you do.”
Demonstrating love in marriage is a lot about making time for one another. Talk to your spouse daily — not about the logistics of who is prepping supper or picking up the kids, but about something nice, something personal, “Just called to say hi.” Spend 20 minutes every night schmoozing and you’ll facilitate closeness and connection. You’ll build your marriage into what the Torah meant it to be: one life shared by two people.
It worked for Shayna.
“Getting more cleaning help was not an option,” Shayna says. “We were maxed out at that point. But I bought the kids special toys that we used only for when Mommy was napping. I had to be on the couch, not my bed, so yeah, it wasn’t as refreshing, but it meant I could be a mensch when Chaim came home.
“I’d make sure to be wearing nice clothes, I’d put on fresh lipstick, and I’d sit with him while he ate. It sounds silly, but that simple start, just making that time special each night, did wonders. I followed the other parts of the program, and today I’m happier than I ever was. Our love grows each day.”
The root of the word ahavah, love, is hav¸ to give. Giving leads to love, the Torah says, and it’s another piece of practical advice that Fertel offers.
“Remember your early days together,” he says. Remember those cute little gifts you and your chassan gave each other? Not the diamonds and the watches, but the cookies and countdown calendars that said “I’m thinking of you.” Fertel wants you to bring those back.
And here’s the key: It can’t be just anything, like a tie or a new tool kit. Or for men, flowers you picked up on the way out of shul. Your spouse has to feel you in the gift. More than the gifts, it’s about bringing back the personal connection.
Spending time together is the key for building a relationship. When Fertel puts it that way, we’re all like, “duh,” but, as he says, “What’s common sense is often not common practice.”
“Human nature is such that where we spend our time is what we feel connected to.” If you spend your time and energy at work, you’ll love your work. If you’re out shopping for new clothes every Sunday, you’ll love your clothes. Spend time and energy investing in your marriage, and you’ll love your spouse.
Tamar and Yoni started Marriage Fitness after their kids were out of the house and married. “I’d turned to volunteering when the kids got older, so I was out a lot, especially during Chinese auction season. But there were always kids at home, so there was someone to be back for, someone who needed supper and a listening ear.
“Then, suddenly, everyone was married. My friends were telling me how it would be fun, like shanah rishonah without all the angst, but it wasn’t. Yoni and I hardly saw each other.”
Initially, they’d looked forward to eating dinner alone, but Yoni was constantly running to take work calls.
“Everyone takes work home, I realized that,” Tamar says, “but it was more than taking work home. He scheduled calls with new clients at night. It was like work was his baby. Or his wife.”
But Tamar doesn’t place all the blame on Yoni. “I also had a side life. I threw myself into my organizations, one after another after another.”
It came to a head one Shabbos when they realized they literally had not seen each other once that week. “It wasn’t conscious. I made supper every night, I thought I was a good wife, but it was crazy season, you know?”
It was Tamar who shopped for marriage programs, with Yoni completely on board. They didn’t feel like they need therapy; they didn’t have a bad marriage. But something had to change. They bought Fertel’s book, then signed up for his tele-boot camp classes.
There, they learned to “use each other’s passions to create a connection.”
Yoni was all work, Tamar about helping organizations that help kids with cancer. Fertel’s advice brought Yoni into Tamar’s world of volunteering. He’s a marketing executive, and they connected by having Yoni analyze the various organizations’ marketing techniques and help bring them to the next level. They started to work with each other, and rekindled their connection through their projects.
“It was weird at first,” Tamar says. “We felt like we were trying too hard. Here we were, married 35 years, and we had to look for things to talk about. But we did it religiously, along with following the rest of the program, and we rediscovered all the reasons we got married in the first place.
“Now our kids laugh when they see us together. For most of their lives, we just lived in the house with no real connection.” And yes, Tamar’s chesed organizations benefitted from Yoni’s expertise.
This segues nicely into Fertel’s next tip, which, if you’re the parent of at least one child under the age of 20, you’re going to love. You guessed it… date night. Once a week.
Seriously, Mr. Fertel? Are you offering to clean up from supper and do homework and bedtime so we can go out once a week? And you’ll take care of night seder while you’re at it, won’t you?
Fertel acknowledges that arranging date night is hard, and even harder in our world where our responsibilities and expectations are so much greater. But that’s why it’s so much more important, he says. We have so many burdens on our time and energy that it seems simpler to take the divide-and-conquer approach — he does the morning, you do the night. But eventually, like Tamar and Yoni, you’re leading parallel lives, running your family the way partners run a business. That doesn’t bring closeness. Ships passing through the night may wave, but they don’t travel together.
He compares prioritizing time to gas in your tank. You might be running late to an important appointment, but if your car is low on gas, you’ll stop to fill it. Spending time together — date night, a getaway without the kids — is the fuel of your marriage. You can’t afford not to do it.
Not everyone’s marriage is like Chaim’s and Shayna’s, or Yoni’s and Tamar’s — in danger of atrophying through apathy. For some people, like Shmuel and Shoshana, the problems are deeper than just a lack of connection. But, says Fertel, there’s hope there, too.
Shoshana didn’t see any hope by the time she discovered Marriage Fitness.
“We knew it was just a matter of time,” she says. “We could hardly look at each other, let alone speak calmly. We’d been going to counseling, but it wasn’t helping, and I was miserable. We both were.
“I didn’t want to be divorced, didn’t want my kids to grow up in a divorced home, but at some point, it felt like, hard as divorce is, it would be a relief from the tension I was feeling then. And I thought for my kids, maybe two happy homes are better than one horrible one.”
Shoshana tried Marriage Fitness as a last-ditch effort, but she didn’t hold out hopes of it helping. “At that point, we were not talking to each other, so there was no question of my saying, ‘Let’s do this together.’ I discovered the program through Googling, and there was an option of a ‘Lone Ranger Track,’ so I bought it. The money-back guarantee clinched it for me — I had full intent of using it.”
But when she listened, she was blown away by the practicality of the program. “A lot was about being a mensch and making your spouse the center of world. Mort says ‘It’s not about finding the right person, but about learning to love the person you found.’ ”
It wasn’t easy for Shoshana, even after she knew she wouldn’t be asking for her money back. “I realized that his ideas are so important that even if my marriage couldn’t be saved, it was worth it. Following his program made me into a better person. And slowly, Shmuel recognized my growth. He stopped talking divorce, and about six months in, he started listening to the program himself. It’s incredible. Today, we’re happier than we’ve ever been.”
What to avoid
One of the main messages that resonated with Shoshana was the idea that most marriages are infected by three Cs: criticism, condemnation, and complaints. They lead to cancer of the marriage.
We all criticize, condemn, and complain. We mean well, we feel justified, and we want to effect change. We think it will, but it never works. Nobody feels good when they’re criticized or condemned. On the contrary, they generally lead to fight, increased negativity in the relationship; or flight, an emotional shutdown. The three Cs are ineffective strategies in any relationship. Restrain from them.
Instead, Shoshana learned to catch her husband doing things right and to make a big deal of those wins.
Another of Fertel’s don’ts comes from the Ramban. “Always speak in a calm voice,” he says.
Yelling and screaming bring a degree of chaos and animal-like energy to the home. Dignified people don’t yell, and when you act with dignity, and increase your self-respect, there’s a ripple effect on the people around you. Calmness cultivates peace, harmony, and love.
Make no mistake: This is not easy. Especially if you’re in a marriage where the connection has broken, and there’s hurt and frustration. But if you work hard to rise above the hurt, if you respond calmly to frustrations, if you refrain from the three Cs, you will change, and that will change the dynamic of your marriage.
Then Fertel mentions technology. (You knew it was coming, didn’t you?)
“Devices are terribly distracting,” he says. “It’s so easy to become absorbed when the dopamine hits are just a couple of taps away. Why do the work of a marriage to give you connection when it’s so much easier to tap a few times?
And it goes deeper. Through all that tapping, devices enable us to feel connected, but it’s a counterfeit connection — wide but shallow. A connection with your spouse, on the other hand, is narrow but deep, and at the end of the day, it’s the few deep connections that bring us fulfillment and satisfaction.
Bottom line: Put your phone away and connect, really connect, to your spouse.
Where Choices Lead
There’s divorce in the Torah, Fertel acknowledges. Hashem gave us a way out of a bad marriage. But Fertel believes that many take the path prematurely. He believes that people contemplating divorce are responsible to “make a herculean effort for at least a year before they even consider getting out of a marriage.”
During that year, take responsibility for your actions, work on fixing you, and educate yourself about what it means to succeed in a marriage. Then employ those principles and practices.
“In 99.99 percent of the time, the fact that a couple ended up where they did is predictable based on choices they made.” Let that sink in. “Where we end up in marriage is generally not a matter of fate, but because of patterns of behavior.”
Each partner’s collective small behaviors contributed to the decline, and that’s why each one can effect more than a 50 percent change in attitude in the marriage. Our actions have ripples. Ask yourself: What choices did I make that caused my marriage to get to where it is?
This is something we, as Torah-true Jews, are familiar with. And through the prism of his work, Fertel sees it as something we have going for us. “We value introspection, teshuvah, learning, and growing. We internalize the idea that who you are on inside is what’s most important — and that could and should translate into healthy marriage.”
For a couple in crisis — or anyone, really — Fertel touches on another Torah source. Sur mei’ra v’aseh tov. Stop engaging in the bad behaviors, and start doing the right thing: Remember what brought you together, spend time together, catch your spouse doing right. Give your spouse small gifts that demonstrate your love. Speak calmly. Keep your marriage private. Fertel also encourages tzniyus as a way to help people to get to know you inside.
Fertel ends with a reminder that in most cases, it was small behaviors that broke the husband-wife connection over time. But the good news is that, if you’re committed to starting over and working consistently, you can reconnect and rekindle your marriage through equally small behaviors.
Mort Fertel’s 3 x 3 = Marriage Success
Go away just the two of you, even if it’s just 1-2 nights.
Super Talk Charge.
Talk for 20-30 minutes at the end of every day. (Don’t plan or do check-list items; just talk for fun.)
Catch the Best.
Catch your spouse doing something right every day, and make a big deal out of it.
Refrain from the 3 Cs.
Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. You mean well, but it won’t work.
Always speak in a calm voice.
Don’t Decide Alone.
You’re part of a team.
Seek mutual consent.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 673)