Although marital discord can be attributed to lack of preparation, insufficient effort, or inappropriate expectations, marriages often fail because the couple is simply not a match. While the dating approach in most segments of the frum community is intended to ensure a thorough assessment of suitability between two people, there are important areas of compatibility which tend to be overlooked.
On its face, the shidduch system appears to be very efficient and effective. Multiple levels of checking are completed before the couple even meets. The couple then spends time together, exploring whether they enjoy each other’s company, determining whether their hashkafos match and whether they share common life and family goals, and finally “talking tachlis” (making plans). Often, however, there are significant flaws in how the dating process is handled, and frequently-critical considerations get simply left out of the equation.
Although the shidduch system presumes a fair degree of research and consideration before a couple decides to date, the range of issues studied often neglects to focus on the most central dimensions of selecting a spouse. Couples and their families frequently fail to explore both the emotional compatibility of the couple, as well as whether each of them has developed the qualities necessary to create and maintain a healthy marriage.
That is not to suggest that other areas of focus are not also important. For example, there is typically much exploration around spiritual compatibility. This can include each person’s values and hashkafos, the kind of community they want to join, the nature of the home they want to have, the career types that might be acceptable for husband or wife, and what kinds of schools they would choose for their children.
There is also a lot of discussion of familial compatibility, which typically includes religious styles, culture, parental roles and relations with siblings and extended family. Intellectual compatibility is another area that is often discussed. This may include intelligence, but should also address general interests, the type of things they each enjoy doing or feel is important to do, use of free time, and what each finds interesting, amusing, important, boring or a waste of time.
While all of these areas of compatibility – both the broader and more specific dimensions – are important in determining suitability, they are not enough. Perhaps because it is harder to quantify, emotional compatibility frequently is not even on the radar screen of either the couple or their families. Every person has his or her emotional orientation, defined as the way one reacts to the world and life issues inevitably confronted. For example, some people are high strung, nervous, and excitable. Others are more laid back, or even-keeled. Some are happy-go-lucky, and likely to take things in stride, while others are more thoughtful and introspective, deeply affected by events. Some people are expressive, wearing their emotions on their sleeves, while others are more reserved. And, of course, each person’s emotional make-up is a nuanced combination of all these and other tendencies.
Emotional compatibility exists when two people’s emotional styles blend and fit in such a way that makes them feel comfortable in their relationship. When this emotional ‘fit’ is present, negotiating life’s inevitable bumps and challenges goes more smoothly, and each finds a sense of fulfillment sharing their lives with the other.
The challenge, of course, is in determining the type of person with whom one is likely to be compatible. For those in a community in which non-marriage relationships with the opposite gender are not common, this might seem particularly challenging. However, emotional compatibility is not limited to the marriage relationship; it is encountered through the many relationships one has as a child, teenager and young adult. The first step in considering with whom one is emotionally compatibility is, therefore, reviewing the kinds of people with whom one has tended to form close friendships. Are there patterns in the type of buddies one chooses in school, yeshiva, camp, summer jobs, or the neighborhood? While people often have a wide circle of friends, there are always those closest few, with whom one shares the most. For most people, a pattern can be identified, which is indicative of a person’s tendencies and needs.
It is important to stress, however, that not all patterns of friendships in someone’s life should be replicated in a marriage. In fact, there are many who struggle mightily in their adolescent and post-adolescent friendships. The following questions might be helpful when using a pattern of friendships to determine with whom one might be compatible:
- Can you think of friendships in your life that have been satisfying, enjoyable and positive experiences?
- Did these friendships make you happy?
- Did they feel equitable, in that you felt you gave and received in more or less equal measures?
Helping someone review the relationships in their life that met – or definitely did not meet – the above criteria can provide guidance as to the type of person with whom they are likely to be emotionally compatible. Even those whose relationships have tended to be problematic can benefit from this exercise.
In some situations, helping someone determine with whom they are most likely to be emotionally compatible can be a relatively straightforward task. However, this kind of assessment will be extremely difficult when the other person has pre-existing psychological issues, and/or when there is a lack of psychological insight on the part of the mentor. Although successfully mentoring someone in this area takes a degree of psychological sophistication, ignoring the need for emotional compatibility is notan option. We must strive to better educate those who are mentoring to this basic need, and to guide them as to how they can be helpful. Those who are dating should be encouraged to seek out a mentor who understands these dynamics.
Another extremely important area of exploration that is often insufficiently addressed is character. Qualities like respectfulness, honesty, trustworthiness, sensitivity, supportiveness, and generosity are often presumed to exist in one who is otherwise found to be compatible. Most people appreciate that these qualities are the central basis of a healthy marriage, and sometimes assume that others wanting to get married will have these qualities.
Unfortunately, some people think about marriage in terms of what they are going to get, and not in terms of what they are supposed to give. In reality, a person’s background and schooling, and even their degree of religious observance, often belie their true character; thus presumptions about character are never advisable. A much greater emphasis on the exploration of character needs to be introduced into the dating system.
Even when looking for signs of good character, young people often misinterpret behavior, or extrapolate inaccurately. They might think, “Someone who is attentive won’t be stingy,” or “Someone who is fun to be with certainly wouldn’t speak harshly,” or “Someone who is frum would not be disrespectful or untrustworthy,” or “Someone who is outgoing, or popular, probably isn’t dishonest, or unkind.” The unfortunate reality is that projecting one character trait from another is a flawed and dangerous approach.
Even nuanced observations of behavior must serve as a basis for further investigation, rather than as a basis for a life-long decision. Attention must be paid on dates to hints of unpleasantness, disrespect, untrustworthiness, dishonesty or a lack of generosity. Often, the eagerness to find a spouse induces people to ignore these hints, but those dating must be fortified by their parents and mentors to resist their inclination to overlook them. One should not fall into the trap of concluding that bad behavior is not the ‘real’ him or her, or that it will change after marriage. Children should not tell themselves that they must have misunderstood what they saw or heard, and that there must be a ‘good explanation.’ This is not meant to encourage the kind of hyper-analysis of dates that sometimes takes place, but to address those most likely to explain away such issues or concerns without so much as a second thought.
In much of our community, the dating process is rather rushed and pressured. Having too many dates is frowned upon, and too often, decisions tend to be based upon insufficiently-examined impressions and third-party reports. Is there anything parents, teachers, or mentors can do to help those dating do a better job in determining whether their date has the appropriate character and whether they are emotionally compatible? One thing that can be done is simply to stop answering their questions about the relationship.
In our community, if someone has questions or concerns about their date, they will typically bring them up with a parent or mentor, rather than with the person they are dating.
She has all the qualities that I know I’m looking for, and I do have a good time, but I find that I do most of the talking. I don’t know if she’ll warm up, or if that’s just her. Everyone raves about her and she has a chevra of friends, so maybe she does have more personality than I’m seeing. What do you think?
We’ve gone out twice and at the end of each date he’s said he had a really good time, but then the shadchan says he needs time to think. My mother thinks this is inconsiderate. What do you think?
I was sharing something about my life that was very heavy. All of a sudden, he abruptly stood up and said that he really had to go and was going to get the car. Then he started walking out of the lobby. What do you think was going on? Does this just mean he’s plain rude and I should dump him, or do you think there’s a reasonable explanation?
We’ve gone out three times and there’s a lot there, but she never asks me anything about myself. I don’t know if she’s too shy, or there’s a lack of emotional depth there. What do you think?
Much to the detriment of all involved, parents, mentors and rabbeim typically provide answers to these questions, or offer ‘insights’ into these issues, that are detached from the actual situation. This robs the individual of the opportunity to see what it feels like to be in a relationship with this person, and to learn about their emotional compatibility and their date’s character on a much deeper level. It would be far more productive if the response to these types of inquiries would be to provide guidance on how to investigate these questions. This approach is particularly attractive if tools are offered that are likely to elicit actual and reliable information. For example, it might be suggested that they raise a concern directly, as follows:
You know, I seem to be doing most of the talking. I hope, I’m not overdoing it, or are you usually more of a quiet person?
At the end of the next date, if he says he has had a nice time, say:
I’m a little confused. You’ve said that in the past but then the shadchan calls and says you need time to think. Can you tell me more about how you really feel?”
Although it’s always better to bring things up in the moment, in the case of the boy who got up abruptly when they were discussing something personal it would have to be done after the fact:
I was wondering what happened last time. Was there something wrong that led you to leave so abruptly?
I feel like I’ve gotten to know you pretty well, but you seem to be hesitating to ask me anything about myself. Is there anything you want to ask? Is there a reason you haven’t been asking me anything personal?
When two people have the opportunity to deal with an issue directly, it provides two additional layers of information that can help them make one of the most important decisions of their lives, especially given the relatively brief dating period. In addition to providing a better answer to the actual question or concern that they have, the discussion reveals an additional layer of information about their emotional compatibility: how did the discussion go? Was it confrontational or was the question or concern well-received? Was the conversation positive? Did each of you appreciate the other’s feelings and point of view? What was the other person’s demeanor? Thinking back to the issue of emotional orientation, was this the type of person you had thought was for you? Did opening up to each other make you feel closer to one another – which most likely indicates a good emotional ‘fit’ – or did the interaction leave you feeling more distant?
The third layer that is revealed during such a conversation is that of character. Did the question elicit resentment, impatience or anger or was he respectful, caring and generous in addressing the issue? Was she interested in your happiness and concerned for your satisfaction in the relationship or was there a lack sensitivity to your needs? Selfishness or one-sidedness in discussions such as these are definite causes for concern.
The dating process is often fast paced, and lifelong decisions need to be made quite quickly. The depth that is necessary to make this kind of lifelong decision can only be attained when the people involved have the opportunity to relate to each other with a measure of depth. Whether large or small, any questions, concerns or differences need to be explored, dealt with, and examined in depth.
If mentors would be better educated in how to guide those who are dating to utilize the questions or concerns that come up as opportunities to explore their budding relationships, they would help them arrive at a far better position from which to make informed and confident decisions. They will learn more about their emotional compatibility, the character of their date and how they might interact as a husband and wife, sharing their lives together until 120 years.
Lisa Twerski, LCSW, maintains a private practice in Brooklyn and lectures locally and nationally on many subjects including domestic abuse, marriage, and dating. She also serves on the Board of Directors of Nefesh International and has recently published a book on domestic abuse entitled, I’m So Confused, Am I Being Abused? Guidance for the Orthodox Jewish Spouse and Those Who Want to Help, Israel Bookshop Publications.