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Shidduch/Dating "Crisis" : Have we lost our way?

Jul 31, 2022

** This post has been adapted from a column I originally published in the Five Towns Jewish Times.

My goodness, where do I begin? Yes, we have most definitely lost our way. I know people like to refer to the issues in the dating world as the “shidduch crisis” but honestly, the way the system functions is the real crisis. It is more accurately a humanity crisis. People have become so utterly obsessed with such superficial and trivial things that have nothing to do with building healthy marriages and families and it has only pulled us further from what really matters. When a relationship is established with such a weak foundation it is no wonder that we have so many dysfunctional marriages, awful mental health statistics, struggling kids and generations of people who don’t know how to engage in the world in a healthy way. This cycle doesn’t end until someone makes the conscious decision to break it.

The focus should not be just trying to get people married. We need to be paying more attention to helping people find partners who they can have a healthy and fulfilling relationship with. Marriage and family therapist Dr. Stan Tatkin says that “Marriage for the sake of marriage is akin to planting a garden in quicksand.” A long-lasting relationship is rooted in the desire to help each other thrive and endure. All other aspects of your relationship may change over time (attraction, common interests, passion) but if you find a deeper shared purpose as a couple, you have a greater chance of making it for the long haul.

While there are many issues with this system, I am only going to cover a few here. I hope this will be the start of an ongoing introspection and conversation that elicits real and meaningful change.

The shidduch world has adopted an artificial hierarchy, almost like a caste system where people are being matched based on statuses (social, financial, physical) rather than actual compatibility. The girl with the brother who had a “problem” as a teenager can never get set up with the boy from (blank) community or family. She can only be paired with a certain “type” that is usually pre-determined by someone else’s misguided values and biases. Why has this shallow system that is so focused on exteriors and status become the accepted norm? Why do people feel so powerless to stand up to it? This learned helplessness only serves to maintain the problem. It doesn’t need a huge overhaul to be fixed. It starts with the micro fixes. It starts within ourselves, our homes and our parenting.

Parents are smothering their children so that they never have to face any challenges which, not only does not help, but it actually makes their lives harder in the long run. Please let your children learn to problem solve. Please let them face disappointments. Please let them fail. Please let them learn how to manage conflict with their siblings, friends, co-workers and boss. Let them learn to advocate for themselves. Let them have the option to ask for help! Struggles are opportunities. Let them handle their own dating lives. Yes,  they can plan their own dates and even decide for themselves whether or not they say yes to dating someone. If you think they are old enough to be dating, they should also be old enough to ultimately choose their partner or even just the restaurant they go to on that first date. Your job as the parent is to lovingly and supportively stand nearby as they navigate each stage of life. Offer advice and guidance when asked and needed. The goal should not be to make our children’s lives problem free, that is not reality. Rather, we want them to internalize the belief that they are able to adapt to and manage challenges; this is how resiliency is built, it gives them a sense of agency and this is how they live a happy and fulfilling life. 

Lack of education and positive role models. Our communities need to be learning about and educating on what healthy relationships look like as well as fostering more emotional intelligence in young people by teaching and modeling self-awareness, regard for others, conflict resolution skills, self-management (all Jewish values, by the way) long before dating and marriage are even on the horizon. Sadly, with all the education our kids receive in all their years in school, basic relationship skills are not part of the mainstream curriculum. Also, many post high school programs (yeshiva and seminary) are still giving teens really misguided and problematic advice about relationships and marriage. Another sad reality is that many kids are not growing up in homes where they are seeing a loving and respectful relationship between their parents. Even if you have not modeled a healthy relationship with your spouse whether because you are divorced or with a partner where change is not likely, all hope is not lost. Please work on building a strong relationship with your child. We know that a child’s relationship with their primary caregiver(s) will inform how they tend to relate in their close relationships. A healthy and secure attachment with a parent or safe and caring adult can make a hugely positive impact on future relationships.

Young men and women are being discouraged (and prevented) from meeting in less formal settings. This not only reduces the chances of meeting someone but it also takes away valuable social skill building opportunities between young daters. If we think young people are old enough to get married, they should be old enough to casually interact with potential partners without being fed the message that they can’t be trusted outside of the structure of a “shidduch”. There are benefits to meeting this way and this should not be ignored. Let singles sit together at weddings, encourage young people to go to “young professionals” events (young people are being advised by mentors not to go to these things because of “tzniut”/modesty), host meals with a variety of singles, facilitate events where people can interact in a more relaxed and natural setting. It has gotten so taboo to meet on your own that there are some couples who will have a shadchan (matchmaker) “set them up” even once they are already dating. This is happening in the “modern orthodox” community. Why is this totally healthy and normal way to meet a partner suddenly being looked down upon and even discouraged? I can’t help but see a correlation between adopting more rigid mindsets and increasing issues within the system.

The biggest problem though, in my opinion is objectification. This is when we reduce someone to the status of a mere object to be looked at or consumed, visually or physically. Both men and women are constantly being objectified but it is certainly more common for young women in the dating world to be subjected to scrutiny over their looks, body shape and size, what school they went to, what size dress their mother wears (yes, really), who their siblings married and many other meaningless criteria.

When someone objectifies you, whether knowingly or not, they dehumanize you. They may value you based on only external and superficial things. Objectification pushes away love. It is hard to fully love and respect someone you see through such a narrow lens. While I think there may be some practical value to the “shidduch resume,” I also think that more often it feeds in to this objectification. People are reduced to words on a paper; their school, their siblings schools, their parents’ jobs and headshots. A person can be written off as “not for me” before they’ve even been spoken to! Then there are the requests for full body shots and the private investigator level snooping that goes on in order to uncover every bit of information on a potential match; the lengths some parents will go to is highly inappropriate and sometimes downright scary.

For the purposes of this column, I’d like to give some extra attention to the obsession with physical appearance, specifically weight and body size since this spills over into other areas of life and can have severe and sometimes long lasting impact on individuals, families and marriages even outside of the dating world. Our idea of what is attractive is very much influenced by our environment, society and media. This is an undeniable fact; just look at the ever-changing beauty standards around the world.  It is horrifying to me how many people have been told to lose weight (or change some other aspect of their physical appearance) in order to be set up or find a match. How can someone say with so much confidence that there is ONE body type or “look” that is worthy of finding love? THERE ISN’T. If you are in the business of matchmaking and you believe this and have said this, please stop setting people up.

Happy relationships thrive on so much more than looks (which is not the same as attraction, FYI). Our bodies are not our worth. They are not what make us loveable. Love and objectification are not compatible. Physical attraction is important, yes, AND it is subjective and one tiny aspect of a relationship that is enhanced by things that have nothing to do with aesthetics like smell, voice, proximity (how often we see a person, their literal proximity to us), reciprocity (whether they like us back), similarity and attachment style.

Throughout our lives our bodies and physical appearance will change. This is a biological fact. If a relationship is so heavily based on a partner’s physical body what does that tell us about its sustainability? Healthy and fulfilling relationships are built on and thrive with mutual respect, friendship, playfulness, shared meaning, safety, trust, and communication (among many other things). These things are far more important than any measurements, hair texture or facial structure.

I encourage everyone reading this to think about the messages you are giving in your own homes about bodies and worthiness, directly and indirectly. If a child grows up in a home where gaining weight or being fat is bad or they were made to believe their body was wrong, what will they believe about people in bigger bodies? When you make “harmless” fat jokes (even about yourself) you perpetuate the stigma that fat people are less than. Less date-able, less worthy, less respectable. Why would anyone want to date anyone who is in a bigger body when they’ve learned that it is a moral failing, gross and unattractive? Why would someone in a bigger body think they deserve love when this is the message the world gives them and then the matchmaker only confirms it over and over? Also, many times people are being told to lose weight and they are objectively "average sized" or even small! 

What were the beliefs your parents had about dieting and weight loss? What was your mother or father’s relationship with food and their body? How did it influence how you see yourself and other people? You have the power to teach your children what beauty is. You have the power to influence what they think is important in a partner.

When we are obsessing about post-holiday/pre-bar mitzvah/wedding “detoxes” we send the message that weight gain is terrible. How does that affect someone in a marriage when they gain weight for any reason? What are we teaching our sons and daughters about love, worthiness and attraction?

Do you know anyone who has gone on a restrictive diet or, even more extremely, had a surgical procedure to lose weight and they still haven’t found anyone? What can we blame their single status on then? Do you know someone in a bigger body who is married and maybe even got married before you? Do you know thin people who have had a hard time finding someone?

Over the past two years there has been a sharp increase in eating disorders which have the highest mortality rates of all mental illnesses. Kids as young as eight years old are expressing body dissatisfaction. Yes, in the Jewish community.

There is a huge upward trend in disordered eating behavior and exercise when young people enter the dating world. This shouldn’t be happening but when our community normalizes the pursuit of intentional weight loss (which is not the same as improving health but that’s for another article) we tell our kids that being thin is admirable and something to strive for, for yourself and your partner. Not everyone who diets will develop an eating disorder but everyone who has an eating disorder has a history of dieting. Here is your reminder to stop complimenting weight loss because you could be complimenting an eating disorder, depression, grief, illness etc. Even if you are certain that “they worked so hard”, you literally cannot know what a person did to lose weight, so why not focus on non-body related compliments instead?

It is very important that each and every one of us takes a good, honest look at our actions and attitudes and how they contribute to, uphold or reinforce the problematic attitudes in our respective communities. Find a problem with our current dating system? Ask how you have contributed to it, either in action, speech or even inaction and silence. If you are a parent, you are raising the next generation of potential partners and parents. What values do you want them to have? What kind of partner do you want them to be? What kind of relationship would you like to see them in?

It is not lost on me that my newspaper column on this topic often sits above a weight loss ad that boasts about how “incredible life is now that I’m 100 lbs lighter!” The weight loss industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that is built on exploiting your insecurities and your failure at dieting because if dieting worked, you would only ever do it once. Being smaller will not solve your problems, no matter what they tell you. We would all be better off to focus on the things that truly impact our health such as building healthy relationships, addressing mental health needs in our community and educating on what health really is (it’s not a look and it’s also not going to the gym and eating salad). Dr. John Gottman found that people who have supportive relationships live longer than those who are unhappy or feel isolated.

For parents in this stage of life with their kids, please stand up to inappropriate behavior from matchmakers. Do not give in to requests that are demeaning and disrespectful and tell your kids that they can do the same. Please talk about and model what healthy relationships look like. If you are not sure yourself, please take the time to learn. There are many resources available online and in book stores where you can learn more. Some reading I recommend: Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson, Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work by Dr. John Gottman, Wired For Love by Stan Tatkin, Marry Him by Lori Gottleib (a humorous and really insightful read) and Getting The Love You Want by Harville Hendrix. Also, if it is feasible, it can be helpful for your child who is dating to meet with a therapist who can help them gain clarity on what they are looking for in a partner and relationship and learn how to spot both the green and red flags.

I want to close with some things that I wish didn’t have to be said, but sadly need to be: Stop making young women feel like they have an expiration date, stop telling people to continue dating someone they have no feelings for, stop telling people to lie about or cover up things about themselves or that marriage will solve their struggles, stop telling people that they can’t be themselves if they want the “right” partner, stop telling people they are too picky, stop telling people they need to change their physical appearance to be worthy of love. There is a difference between offering perspective and totally discrediting a person’s right to choose and ability and to know what they want for themselves.

Here's to hoping we can all reflect and make changes in our own homes and relationships and in the process create larger change to this very broken system.

 

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