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Courtship: The Jewish Way

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.


Headfirst


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.