Courtship for marriage is often a journey that takes years to complete. Finding our soulmate can be like finding a needle in a haystack. There are so many potential partners out there, how can we know which partner will be right for us?
Conventional Courtship Model
In the conventional courtship model, couples often meet at a party or are introduced by meddling friends. Their first conversation is often casual and a bit flirtatious. If they like each other, they might hook up. If they enjoy each other’s company, they will become an official item and spend months enjoying each other’s company.
Neither will mention marriage for fear of rejection, but at some point, they will discuss moving in together. At this point, they are more likely to justify it as a matter of convenience, or as a cost saving measure, rather than profess love for each other. After living together for a while, they begin to discover each other’s personality and peculiarities and at that point, if they like what they see, they might hesitantly propose marriage.
I say hesitantly because they know that marriage is a serious game changer, and they are not sure that the other is up for it. Until now, their courtship was enjoyable and convenient. Marriage is a lifelong commitment. Marriage means children and family. It means melding into a single unit with no easy way out. So, there is naturally a lot of hesitation in both the proposal and the acceptance.
If the answer is yes, both parties heave a huge sigh of relief and feel as if a burden has fallen from their shoulders. They each secretly wanted to marry but were afraid to propose it. Now that the proposal is done, they can move on with life.
This seems like a terribly cumbersome way to find our soulmate. Think of the many ways that the process can be torpedoed. First, you might go to many parties and not meet someone that strikes your fancy. Second, you might find someone you like, and you might be physically compatible, but discover that you have no chemistry. Third, you might have chemistry, but when you move in and start learning more about each other, you might discover that you don’t actually like each other.
If at any point the relationship ends, it involves serious heartache because you spent so much time together and have developed feelings for each other. Moreover, you have spent so much time together and have nothing to show for it. You are back to square one and must start searching for that needle in the haystack all over again. After several cycles, it is no wonder that you lose your appetite for such relationships. It costs too much time and heartache. And the chances of success are so slim.
Courtship for Dating Model
Allow me to introduce a radically different courtship model. Let me begin by saying that as radical as this model might seem, it has been the traditional Jewish model from time immemorial. And the Jewish people are still here, so the model has stood the test of time.
In this alternate model is what I call the courtship for marriage model. In this model, you don’t bump into people at parties or on the street; you never search for needle in haystacks. You begin by thinking carefully about what kind of person you want to marry. To determine this, you first think carefully about your own personality and about the family environment that you prefer. You think about the traits that you will bring to a marriage and what kind of personality traits would complement your traits. You think about your values and life goals to determine the kinds of values and goals you want in a soulmate.
You would then make a list of the fifteen traits and values that you seek in your spouse. This list would include some criteria that you consider critical and others that you consider desirable.
This can be a difficult undertaking. As young people, we are not trained to think of ourselves and to project our future in such detail. We think about abstract theories and global issues, we think about other people’s problems, but we don’t often analyze ourselves and envision our own needs in the future. However, creating this list is a critical first step in the courtship for marriage model. It is the platform on which the search for your soulmate will commence.
The next step is to be interviewed by a matchmaker. Don’t be intimated by this; it is more pleasant than it sounds. The matchmaker can be your rabbi or Rebbetzin, it can be someone who does this professionally, or a friend who has made this a hobby. The purpose of the interview is for the matchmaker to know you and understand the kind of person you are looking for. The matchmaker will consult his or her roster of names or consult fellow matchmakers or community rabbis and Rebbetzins. After careful evaluation, the matchmaker will recommend someone who matches your preferences, personality, and lifestyle.
You will now present that name to someone who cares for you—a parent, family member, or friend—and ask them to learn more about your potential partner. This person proceeds to interview friends and family members of your potential partner to get a better sense of the match. Simultaneously, your potential partner will have someone screen you. If both screeners agree that you are well suited, a date is selected, and you will meet.
Right off the bat, you have the benefit of knowing that you are not searching for a needle in a haystack. You are fishing in the pond that your kind of fish prefer. It might turn out that your screeners were wrong and that you are not compatible, but the chances of compatibility are much higher than if you meet each other randomly and are attracted by external appearance.
Once you meet, your objective is not to have a fun night out on the town. Your objective is to get to know one another. It is an interview, for lack of a better word, for marriage. The goals are stated upfront so if you are compatible, you will not hesitate to propose marriage. You also won’t waste months and years before asking delicate questions to find out more about each other. You are free to delve directly into the “interview” because you are both on the same page. The goals are mutually understood in advance.
I grant that this is a highly unusual courtship model in the contemporary world. However, if the conventional courtship model is fraught with hardship and complication, it is wise to consider alternate models.
Not So Unconventional
I would suggest that this unconventional model is not all that unconventional. Consider the major decisions that you have made to this point in your life. You chose your college, your career, and your place of employment. You didn’t choose them based on their surface appearances. You didn’t try out a college because you liked the color of the grass or the size of its campus only to discover at a later point that they didn’t offer the classes you wanted. You invested time, money, and effort, in interviewing multiple universities before deciding on the one that fits your needs. You considered your options carefully and sifted through multiple considerations before deciding on what suited you.
If you did this for your education, career choice, and place of employment, you should certainly do this for a lifelong decision such as marriage. College lasts for several years; marriage is for life. A place of employment can be changed with relatively little heartache. Marriages are not as easily discarded. We don’t enter important life decisions by merely checking out the external qualities. We dig down to consider the underlying factors. Why should marriage be different? It is, after all, the most important decision that we will make in life.
It might be unconventional to screen and interview our marriage prospects before we initiate a relationship. But it is a conventional formula for all other major decisions in life. Why would we do this for marriage?
One possible answer for why we don’t do this for marriage is that we want to play the field. We are young and want to have fun. We want to enjoy each other’s company before we get serious. Yet, no one goes into a business meeting without understanding the goals of the meeting upfront. You don’t sit down just to a delicious lunch and wait to see if a business proposal will pop up in the conversation. You go in with a clear understanding of the goal. You enjoy a wonderful lunch, and you spend time socializing, but you also get down to business because the meeting’s goal is understood upfront.
It might be more fun to just have lunch and leave the contentious business negotiations to others, but if you did that you would have failed in your long-term goal. The same is true of marriage. We all want to attend parties, find someone attractive, and play the field. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that this doesn’t satisfy us in the long run. Eventually, we want to settle down and get married. And though we want to have fun while we are doing it, we also want to pursue our goal. The conventional courtship model is a cumbersome way to do that.
Meeting someone using the courtship for marriage model need not be dull and boring. It can be lively and fun. You can enjoy colorful dates in creative locations, but since the goal of marriage is mutually understood you can also get around to discussing the purpose of your date. This can cut months, if not years, off your search. If you are not compatible, you will know it shortly. If you are compatible, you won’t hesitate to propose.
Three Stages of Courtship
Structured courtship has a structure that allows you to transition from stage to stage. The first stage is to relax in each other’s company. Although you know that you are meeting to explore prospects for marriage, you don’t discuss your goals and values in the first date. You want to have that discussion when you are relaxed and comfortable with each other. This stage might take several meetings, but that is okay. You don’t want to rush it. There will be plenty of time for serious discussion in the next stage.
The second stage is to explore each other’s interests, life goals, personalities, and values. This is when you can discuss the larger questions of life. Do you want a large or small family? Do you want to send your children to a Jewish day school? What type of lifestyle do you enjoy? What are your dominant personality traits? Do they complement my personality traits and emotional needs? What are your life goals and what do you hope for? Are they consistent with my hopes and goals?
If you are not compatible, either party can end the courtship with no hard feelings. This is part of the arrangement. Either party has the right to step away if they feel it won’t work. The beauty is that the breakup occurs before any feelings are developed which makes it easier to move on. It also occurs early in the process which saves you months and years of wasted time.
If you discover that you are compatible with each other, you are ready to transition to the third stage. This is the stage of developing emotional attraction. In the courtship for marriage model, living together before marriage is not necessary. On the contrary, sometimes distance can make the heart grow fonder. There is also no need to explore physical compatibility; there is plenty of time for that after marriage. This is a time to develop emotional attraction. To see if the person that fits your criteria can also tug at your heartstrings.
This stage can take a little longer to unfold and so long as you are making progress, let it unfold. Obviously, if either party feels emotional stagnancy, you might not be emotionally compatible and you might consider breaking off the relationship. But if you are both progressing toward feelings of attraction, let it roll until you know.
When you are certain that you feel for this person, when you know that breaking it off would cause you heartache, it is time to propose. In the courtship for marriage model, the idea is not to fall in love before you are married. The idea is to build a platform on which love can evolve after marriage.
When you lean to dive into a swimming pool, you are taught to dive headfirst. The same is true of diving into marriage. You must lead with your head and let your heart follow. In this system, you begin with a rational exploration of each other’s qualities. If your mind concludes that you are compatible, you transition to emotion. You explore the heart and see if you develop feelings for each other. If you come to feel emotional attraction, you transition to action by proposing and marrying. In other words, the mind leads, but the heart seals the deal.
In the conventional courtship model, this system is turned on its head. You begin with a physical relationship while you have no emotional or intellectual investment. Then you develop feelings for each other. Finally, you transition into the logical stage during which you find out if you are compatible.
In the conventional courtship model, you can be infatuated with the other’s physical beauty well before you feel anything for each other and certainly before you know whether you have anything in common. You can develop feelings for each other before you even know that you are compatible in all the important criteria that are relevant and critical to building a life together. In other words, the heart leads and the mind struggles to get involved.
If you love each other, it is difficult not to marry even if your mind screams that you are not compatible. You tell yourself that love conquers all, but the fact is that love doesn’t always overcome our basic need for compatibility. Many people who are incompatible and marry out of love, eventually divorce. Your marriage might be the exception, but exceptions (a) require herculean effort, and (b) are unlikely.
Conversely, if you don’t marry because you discovered that you are incompatible, the breakup will be painful because you love each other. It is a system that rushes into unwise commitments that you are not at liberty to make. It is designed to fail because most people are not compatible. Sometimes success can be snatched from the jaws of failure, but that is rarely the case which is why our search for a soulmate can take so long.
The courtship for marriage model sets you up for success. You only meet candidates that were carefully screened to suit your interests and goals. You structure your meetings in ways that allow your brain to do its work before the heart works its magic. This way if you need to stop, it is relatively painless. If you are ready to transition into the emotional stage, it will be with someone that forms a good match.
Restricting ourselves to dating only Jewish people is a serious commitment, but if we are serious about a Jewish marriage, it is a necessary commitment.
To succeed in this undertaking, we need do something that we are not accustomed to doing. We need to imagine ourselves ten years down the line, married with children. We need to ask ourselves what kind of life we will want to lead. When we are young and carefree, our interests and goals are more casual. But our underlying values are already in place. At this point, we already know what kind of life we prefer to live, but we defer such thoughts for when we are older and more responsible.
When we are young, our religious engagement is often at its lowest. As we grow older, especially when we have children, our religious engagement will likely be greater than it is today. However, our choice of marriage doesn’t only affect us today. It affects the rest of our lives. Therefore, making decisions based on our current values, knowing that our values are likely to change over time, is irresponsible. It is a luxury that we can’t afford.
The responsible thing is to sit down and imagine what life will be like down the line. When we have a family with children, will we mind whether our home has a tree or a Menorah? Will we care whether our children attend a synagogue or a church? Will we want our children involved in Jewish youth groups or attend Jewish summer camps? If yes, we need to think about it now and marry someone who agrees with us.
We must resolve to only date Jewish candidates. Even if we are dating for fun, we can never know when our hearts will open and fall in love with someone we never intended to marry. At this point, their religion might be less important to us than it will be in the future. But we need to think about life at a later stage.
Lest you think that this constitutes discrimination against non-Jews, remember that marriage is, by definition, a discriminating choice. We choose the one person from among billions who is right for us. If we are looking for someone tall, we discriminate against short people. If we are looking for someone serious, we discriminate against easy-going people. But that is okay. We don’t want to marry the politically correct choice. We want to marry the person that is right for us. If one of our criteria is religion, we will look for a Jewish mate and reject all who are not Jewish. This is not discrimination. It is marriage.
What We Need to Know
One of the arguments for the conventional courtship model is that it is best for couples to know each other fully and completely before pledging their hand in marriage. This way there are no hidden surprises and skeletons won’t crop up in the closet after marriage. This way there is less chance that we will regret our marriage since we will know everything about each other in advance.
It needs to be stated upfront that this model doesn’t seem to be working. The divorce rate in the secular world exceeds fifty percent. If this model were working, the success rate would have been higher.
The fact is that no matter how much we learn about each other before we marry, we still don’t know all that there is to know about each other. This is because the human condition isn’t static; we are dynamic beings who grow and change continually. As we mature, we develop new perspectives, new interests, and new goals that are different from those we had when we first married. So, no matter how much we learn about each other before marriage, we must be prepared for surprises, some of which we might not like. But this doesn’t need to break a marriage. The key to a successful marriage is not finding the person with whom we have no conflict. It is finding the person with whom we can face and overcome conflict.
This is one of the reasons for the soaring divorce rate. The rose-colored lenses through which many couples see marriage at their wedding, sours as our priorities change over time. If the unexpected differences that we discover about each other don’t scare us away from each other, we can work through them and make our marriages work. But if we believe that our marriage is perfect and then discover that there is no such thing as perfection, it can be a rude awakening.
Having stated the obvious, allow me to explain why I believe that it is better to discover some of the hidden skeletons after marriage than to unearth them before marriage.
We all begin with a marriage wish list. My perfect spouse will have the following fifteen criteria. When we begin to court, we realize quickly that the perfect spouse doesn’t exist, and we prioritize which criteria are critical and which we can live without. Generally, we create a scale in our minds by asking ourselves, how painful it would be, on a scale from one to ten, if our spouse lacked this criterion?
If the pain is at a scale of eight or higher, we usually turn down the suggestion. If it is two or lower, we usually agree to meet each other. If it is somewhere in between, the answer would depend on how many of the other criteria this person has.
The fact is that no matter how high or low a criterion is on our scale, if it is higher than zero, it will require compromise, tolerance, forgiveness, love, forbearance, commitment, patience, and all the other skills that make a marriage work. The question is only how much effort we will need to invest to make it work. If it is lower on the scale, it will take less effort. If it is higher on the scale, it will take more effort.
And here I come to the main point. Every single person will have habits or traits that we won’t like. Some will be higher on the scale, others will be lower, but everyone will have faults. Our willingness to invest time and effort to work it out is commensurate with our commitment to the relationship.
When we are merely seeing each other and haven’t become personally invested, discovering even a small flaw can break the relationship. We might be willing to overlook a flaw that bothers us at a scale of one or two, but if we find one that reaches three or four, we will be ready to bolt. Because easy come, easy go. We haven’t invested too much in the relationship so breaking it won’t take an emotional toll.
This is why most relationships that work on the conventional courtship model fizzle before they get serious. It is not because the couple has discovered a deep-seated problem. They haven’t even begun to explore each other in depth. They discovered relatively shallow problems, but why should they bother with it if they can opt out and look for someone better? To use a crass analogy, why repair the computer if you can buy a new model for less money?
If the relationship turns serious and we have been together for months or years, we become more attached and more emotionally invested in each other. At this point, breaking off the relationship can be hurtful, so we have more incentive to work out problems that arise. At this point, we are willing to resolve issues that rise to the level of five or six, but if they are higher than six, and especially if they are persistent, it breaks our threshold. After all, we aren’t married. We haven’t committed to each other. We are just in a relationship. Our relationship is worth an effort, but not a herculean effort.
Once we get married, we are most incentivized to solve whatever problems crop up. Even if it rises to the level of seven or beyond, we have reason to try and make it work. After everything we have invested, after the wedding, after we have become a family and have envisioned the rest of our lives together, breaking up is terribly painful. It is our last resort. If the problem rises to the level of ten on our scale, we might have little choice but to fall back on our last resort. But anything less than ten, deserves at least an effort. We will go to counseling, we will discuss it, we will attempt solutions, try out compromises, and do whatever we can to solve our problem.
Here is the good news: Almost every problem in a marriage can be solved if both parties are willing to make it work. It is almost never a question of whether a solution exists, it is almost always a question of whether the couple wants to make the solution work.
Herein lies the secret of courting for marriage. If you inform your significant other upfront that you are courting for the purpose of marriage, and you both agree to “interview” each other for the position, you can cross off nearly all the significant problems from the list. The problems that rise to the level of ten are usually based on differences of values, principles, goals, and visions for life. One can easily cross those off the list during the courtship process.
The rest of the problems are usually not as high on the scale. These are problems that are solvable if both are willing to invest the effort. And since the willingness to invest is commensurate with the commitment we make to each other, it is wise to move forward with the marriage and make the commitment. Don’t fear that differences and issues will crop up and surprise you. Just assume that they will. But because you are committed to each other for the long term, you will both do what it takes to solve the problem.
The bottom line is that the more we know about each other’s faults before marriage, the more likely we are to opt out. And we will have opted out for something that could have been resolved with the right incentive. So why spend so much time discovering every single strength and fault. Let’s get married and let the surprises come. They will anyway.
What About Love?
The courtship for marriage model works on the supposition that love doesn’t form in a year. It takes decades and even a lifetime together to build up to full love. Love is built by the little things that spouses do for each other every day. It is built by solving problems together and experiencing life together. It is built by waking up together and doing to sleep together.
If we are compatible, and have chemistry, and enjoy each other’s company, and share a heartfelt bond, we have all the necessary ingredients for love to flourish. We don’t need to spend decades before marriage to ensure that we are in love when we marry. We can marry now and build our family as we build our love.
Let me conclude by saying that if you are a proponent of the conventional courtship model, you would think me crazy for suggesting that you can be married to your soulmate within one year. But if you buy into the courtship for marriage model, I can say with some degree of confidence that within one year, you can find your soulmate and be married.