Introduction: Thinking About Marriage
The topics that have been discussed in the various issues of Klal Perspectives present as variations on a theme: Our focus on form over substance leads to simplistic and externally-driven decision making, and to a system that often fails to produce individuals sufficiently prepared to properly meet life’s challenges. This creates the perfect storm when it comes to marriages. The critical life choice of whom to marry requires clear and substantive consideration. And the challenge of maintaining a healthy and strong marriage requires genuine maturity and character.
As such, perhaps major changes to the systems of Shidduchim (matchmaking) and education are called for. Alternatively, it may be helpful to develop effective formal, programmatic approaches to pre-marital training. Either of these strategies will require some kind of systemic change or innovation, and as such will not be implemented in the near term. This article will attempt instead to present a limited practical approach that can be helpful here and now for young people already on the threshold of marriage.
What follows is a rather simple guide to help young people and their parents stop and think before moving to the next step en route to marriage. The process of choosing when, who and how to marry can easily be hijacked by external and superficial considerations. This is exacerbated by the pressured and celebratory atmosphere that surrounds the whole Shidduch-to-wedding process, which is not conducive to contemplative decisions. To buffer these influences, young people should be coached to thoughtfully prepare for each step of the dating and marriage process.
In the Torah’s recounting of the six days of creation, each stage opens with the act of creation. The exception to this rule is the description of the creation of man, where the Torah does not open with the act of creation but rather by introducing the decision (“Let us make man…”) that preceded the act of creation….
It appears that G-d created man in a manner that reflects man’s essence. Man is unique in that his conscious thought is intended to control his behavior and actions…. G-d revealed this uniqueness in describing the two phases of man’s creation; first the decision, followed by action. (HaRav Yitzchak Hutner in Pachad Yitzchak on Shavuos, 25:9)
As a very basic framework, this guide will identify six points in the dating and marriage process where preparation and thought can make a significant difference. Of course, thinking about what one is doing should not begin with the dating process but should be part and parcel of every step in every person’s life. And, without a doubt, beyond the points presented here there are many additional subjects and angles to consider and discuss. Nevertheless adhering to these minimal steps can effectively introduce more thought to this critical decision-making and developmental process.
Ideally parents should be the ones to engage their children on the matters presented in this guide, however they are often hesitant to have these discussions with their children. This is a fear to be overcome. There is great value in children being able to discuss these issues directly with their parents. Where the parents are not well-suited to play this role, it can be played or supported by Mechanchim (educators), Rabbonim (rabbis), or other mentors. To facilitate these conversations for those less comfortable in this role, following each step presented below is a summary paragraph including some talking points to help guide the discussion.
Conversation I: So you want to get married. What exactly is marriage and are you ready for it?
The first conversation concerns the decision to consider pursuing marriage. This can be a very exciting stage of life, which the young person enters with all the hopes and dreams of what they hope to get out of it, but with less thought about what they will need to invest in it. A healthy measure of Koved Rosh (level-headedness) can be just what the doctor ordered.
Occasionally young men ask me what they should be thinking about on their wedding day. This is what I suggest to them: When they stand beneath the Chuppah they should undertake to bear responsibility for their wives in every situation, and to never relieve themselves of this responsibility. As the Midrash (Eicha Rabba 3:24) taught: “’It is good for a man to bear (i.e. assume) responsibility in his younger years’ – this is the responsibility of (caring for) a wife.” In the Holy Language (Hebrew) we refer to someone who is getting married as a “Nosei Isha” – literally, one who is “carrying” a woman. This is an outstanding expression! For that is exactly what he must do; carry his wife, care for her for all of the days of his life. (Rav Shlomo Wolbe in Alei Shor vol. 2 p. 218)
This is a simple but fundamental attitude to marriage, and is equally applicable to both the young men and women involved. And it should not be presented to young people with a middle-aged krechtz (groan) about the burdens of married life. Properly understood and lived, marriage – like any other sacred burden – is “Nosei Es Nosav”, uplifts those who carry it. The opportunity to really “be there” for another person is the most powerfully fulfilling dimension of marriage. There is much to look forward to. But the relationship must begin with an appreciation for the responsibilities being assumed.
The assumption of responsibility for another is a fundamental dimension of growing up. Normal development begins with an infant’s inability to see beyond itself and its own needs, and then slowly growing and maturing to become increasingly aware of the existence and the needs of others. Marriage, in that sense, is the great leap into adulthood, whereby one commits completely to care for another.
This is what (my father) would always tell me: “This is what man is all about. He was not created for himself, but rather to do for others in any way that he can.” (Rav Itzele Volozhiner in his introduction to Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s Nefesh HaChaim)
Talking Points for Conversation I: “Why do you want to get married? What do you hope to get out of marriage? What do you expect to invest in it? How do you understand the concept of Ahava she’eina tluyah b’davar (unconditional love)?” Help the young man or woman move beyond the natural excitement that surrounds first entering the dating scene. Shift the focus from the self-centered elements of what may be their first real engagement with the opposite sex, or from the glamorous gifts and trappings of the anticipated dating-to-engagement-to-wedding march, to the excitement that should be at the heart of relationship and marriage: the fulfilling burden of committed caring for another person.
Conversation II: What are you looking for? Choosing whom to date.
Once the young person has decided to pursue the possibility of marriage, the second step is to help them use their more developed view of marriage to inform the choice of what to look for in a spouse.
Someone once asked HaRav Chatzkel Levenstein what are the three most important qualities to look for in a prospective spouse. He replied: “Middos (character), Middos, and Middos”.
I often encourage young people to consider the following exercise. Drop in on a couple’s celebration of their fiftieth wedding anniversary. If they appear very happy then approach them and say, “Excuse me; I have begun looking for a spouse. I see that you have had a very successful marriage. Please tell me what is it about your spouse that has made your marriage so great?” One thing we can be pretty sure about is that they are unlikely to give as a reason, “He wears white shirts,” “She is slender,” “He went to Yale or Brisk,” or “She went/didn’t go to movies.” So while Hashkafa (religious philosophy), background, culture, education, appearance and values are certainly all important factors to consider in choosing a partner, what will make or break the marriage is how loyal, kind and caring each spouse is.
To put it bluntly: when we get married we place our future happiness in the hands of our mate. The way our spouse treats us – through his/her unencumbered free will – will be one of the most critical influences on the quality of our life. What factors should we be considering when deciding to whom we will consider “entrusting our fate”? Should the decision be based on their resume and a few of their Hashkafic stances?! Or, should our choice be based on their reputation for kindness and consideration, loyalty and commitment, gentleness and humility?
“It is not because you are more numerous than all the other nations that G-d is interested in you and has chosen you, for you are in fact the smallest of the nations. Rather it is because G-d loves you….” It would have been far more glorious for G-d to have chosen the largest nation as his own, yet He chose you as He saw you as most worthy of His love from amongst all the nations, because the best person to love is one who will bear his/her beloved no matter what happens. (Ramban Devarim 6:7, loose translation)
Talking Points for Conversation II: “What are the most important qualities that you are looking for in a spouse? Which of these qualities are going to have the greatest impact on your long-term happiness? How can you best clarify that a specific proposed shidduch has these qualities?” Help the young man or woman make their decisions as to who to date based on the quality of the character of the prospective mate; to move from the “trophy” shidduch to the one who has those traits that really count; to follow in Hashem’s way and choose not based on impressive externals but based on the down-home values of selfless commitment and loyalty.
Conversation III. Do you really want to marry him/her?
At this third step, the courtship has been ongoing and a decision is being made regarding whether to proceed to engagement. The goal of this conversation is to help the young person clarify their genuine interest in their prospective mate; to ensure that they have had sufficient opportunity to get a real sense of the person and his/her character.
It is forbidden for a man to marry off his daughter when she is young, until she is older and says, “He is the one I wish to marry.” (Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 41a).
It appears to me that G-d did not want to take the rib of man until man himself realized that amongst the other creatures there was none who could serve as his mate, and that he would crave that kind of mate. (Ramban Bereishis 2:20)
It must be clear that the young man and woman are truly interested in each other. Sometimes young people may move ahead with a marriage because everything seems right on paper; they have dated the expected number of times or weeks or months and nothing has gone wrong; they are taken with the resume and the trappings around the Shidduch; and/or they feel some kind of unspoken pressure to close the deal. They may not be in touch with themselves enough to know whether they really are interested in the person.
There is an equally significant concern in the opposite direction. Sometimes the courtship process is so successful that the parties are extremely interested, but hardly know one another. Marriage is – after all – nothing like dating. As someone once quipped, “’Conversation’ is what you used to have with your wife before you married her.” The measure of a good dater is one who can engage you very well when completely focused on you. The measure of a good spouse is one who can be mindful of and dedicated to you while attending to life’s business as usual. This requires a very different skill set. A courtship that is removed from regular life only demonstrates that the parties can act well on dates, and is not a solid indicator of how they will treat their spouses in real life. The young people involved should make sure that they do not proceed based simply on shallow impressions gleaned from formal dating.
A third significant area to probe is how much actual time the two have had together in forming this relationship. In the current world of long distance dating, where couples may have formed their relationship with hours on skype and hundreds of e-mail exchanges, there is a real likelihood of creating an entanglement in relationship without sufficient “face time”. There is no substitute for physical presence to really gain the taste of a relationship with another person.
A footnote: As a rabbi who deals with couples and families and their challenges, I am often anxious at weddings. While many around me are celebrating the event, I find myself worrying about whether this relationship is built to last. While some may rightfully view my attitude as overly jaded and pessimistic, I am afraid that there are too many people involved in the shidduch process who are tending to the opposite extreme and who encourage – consciously or otherwise – precipitous decisions. In construction there is a term known as “builder grade”, a euphemism for cheap but superficially attractive materials. The builder’s goal is to complete the house such that it will look good enough to sell. His concern may not be how long it will last. It is of essential importance that you help your children look past the short-term goal of making it to the Chuppah, and instead help them evaluate the long-term prospects of the intended match. In approaching it this way you may find yourself cast in the role of “spoiler”, in competition with Shadchanim, well-meaning friends, and infinite sources of peer pressure. But it may be your most important role.
Talking Points for Conversation III: “Tell me about him/her. What do you love most about him/her? Do you enjoy and look forward to your time together? Are you attracted to him/her? What makes you feel ready to marry this person? Are you feeling any kind of pressure to close the deal? Have you had a chance to interact in less formal settings? Have you seen him/her in action when he/she is involved in something other than you? How well do you think he/she knows the real you? What does that tell you about how well you may know him/her?” Help the young man or woman clarify that they have a good sense of, and are truly interested in, their prospective mate; that their decision is not being pushed ahead by external considerations, nor pulled along by superficial attraction; and that they have had sufficient natural time together to have something of a real sense of relationship.
Conversation IV: Planning a Wedding: Rehearsing for Marriage
One of the greatest intrusions on preparing for marriage is planning a wedding. The following illustration is typical: I encourage an engaged couple to invest a few hours in pre-marital counseling, and while they readily agree they simply cannot find the time to do it. The endless preparations for the wedding seem to preclude spending even a bit of time to prepare for marriage.
Additionally, the engagement period and wedding preparations seem to encourage self-centeredness on the part of the bride and groom. The combination of their shared infatuation, the intensive preparations for a massive celebration revolving around them, as well as excessive involvement in all kinds of shopping-type activities, will likely produce an attitude antithetical to that which we would want going into a marriage.
Shimon his (Rabban Gamliel’s) son says: “All my life I have grown up amongst sages and have found nothing better for the physical welfare of man than silence” (Avos 1:17). The SHELAH interprets this Mishna as follows: I have spent all my time in the company of sages and from them, who wield their influence through the spoken word, I have learned the true significance of speech. But as regards the physical aspects of life and the personal affairs of men, I have found silence to be the best policy. One is duty-bound to make provision for these things but one must not talk much about them. Let the speech of men and their discussions center on spiritual and moral concerns. Indeed there is nothing more offensive than the pompous gusto with which men converse about the merits of food and drink. (Rav Hirsch’s commentary on Avos 1:17)
Our task in this fourth step is to transform challenge into opportunity. As the wedding planning begins, we must help the young people involved zero in on how they can use the process to refine the attitudes and tools that will be invaluable for them in marriage, such as flexibility, sensitivity, and looking the other way whenever possible. A healthy conversation can help the young people involved (and their parents!) learn to care less about the wedding party; to allow for the other side’s preferences as their default position; and to be sensitive to and aware of all the work and investment being made around them, leading them to be less demanding. Such a shift cannot only help ease the significant distractions, stresses and strains created by wedding planning; it can actually turn this into an excellent training ground for the couple’s developing relationship.
Talking Points for Conversation IV: “Are you finding the wedding planning distracting and/or stressful? What kind of impact has it had on your relationship? Has it created stresses with your fiancé or his/her parents? What do you think you can do to avoid these stresses? How frequently do you consider eloping?” Help the young man or woman approach the preparation for the wedding as the first phase of their marriage, by helping them see it as an opportunity to practice kindness, sensitivity, and forbearance, amongst other important traits. This can serve as an important paradigm shift that can help the couple get off on healthy footing in their relationship.
Conversation V: Choosing a Taharas HaMishpacha Teacher: Training for Intimacy and Relationship
If the parents have forged a comfortable relationship with their children and are able to communicate with them openly, then they must explain to them adolescence and prepare them for the experience. A mother should prepare her daughter, describing what sort of changes the girl can expect. If a girl arrives at adolescence without this preparation, she can be so severely traumatized by her first monthly cycle that she may not recover by the time she gets married.
Boys need preparation too. They need to be taught what a nocturnal emission is so that they are not shocked. This is also an opportunity for a father to explain briefly to his son that sperm is a holy force that will someday make him a father as well. At a later age, more detail should be added. The Chafetz Chaim spoke with his sons when each reached the age of fifteen and explained to them the details of physical maturity, appropriate conduct, the prohibition on wasting seed, etc. Once in his lifetime every young man needs to be presented with the Halachos that apply to this area of life. Many challenges await our youth. What an awesome task parents and teachers have to prepare the youth to face these challenges. (Rav Shlomo Wolbe, Zeriah uBinyan b’Chinuch p. 50)
The above passage is likely to elicit surprise from many readers. There will be those who are surprised by the delicious naïveté projected amongst youth whom Rav Wolbe anticipates will be “shocked” by their first period or emission. Other readers will be surprised that the parents would be expected to openly and explicitly discuss these matters with their children. Both reactions – perhaps from two ends of the spectrum – bespeak a gap in our child-rearing. Typically, today’s young people learn “the facts of life” from the wrong people, the wrong places, and at the wrong times. The safest and healthiest way for a child to learn about this critical dimension of life is within a warm and open parent-child relationship. Absent parental involvement, children will likely learn about it in raw form from their peers or media sources, or they will not learn about it properly at all and be seriously deficient in their understanding of themselves and their sexuality.
Either of these alternatives can come back to haunt a future marriage. In my rabbinic experience, I have consistently observed that healthy marriages include a warm and satisfying intimate component. The understanding of sexuality when learned from raw sources is that of a lustful activity independent of the framework of emotional relationship. And sexuality that cannot be spoken of will be seen as shameful and will be difficult to recast as an important positive force in the marital relationship. It is therefore important for this area to be discussed early on in a manner which is secure, private and sensitive.
As the young man and woman approach their actual marriage, this discussion clearly has to be expanded. And while a parent or a specific teacher or mentor may not always be best-suited for the task, it behooves them to ensure that the groom and bride receive proper and comfortable guidance in this area.
Towards this end their Taharas HaMishpacha (Family Purity Laws) teacher can often play an invaluable role. Their instruction in this area should go beyond the technical and the purely Halachic aspects of marital relations, and should help deepen their students’ appreciation for the positive value of healthy intimacy. Each should be guided to understand both male and female attitudes and needs, and to approach their mate in a manner which is sensitive to these differences. They must come to appreciate that their personal Tzenius (modesty) will enhance the meaningfulness of their intimate relationship. And they must be helped to distinguish authentic, relationship-based intimacy from the superficial, objectifying sexuality that permeates general society.
There is a current trend for many young people to learn the Halachos from one teacher and go to another to discuss marriage and intimacy. This would seem to reinforce, rather than resolve, the student’s discomfort with sexuality. While a special ‘shmooze” with a mentor exceptionally insightful and experienced in these areas is invaluable, the on-going training with the regular teacher should not be separated from discussion of these issues.
A note: Intimacy is but one of many areas in which couples will require guidance as they enter marriage. The marriage relationship is fundamentally different than any other in the level of inter-connectedness between husband and wife. As such many issues are worthy of exploration and anticipation in advance of marriage. This should be encouraged, whether in the form of discussion, reading, and/or formal pre-marital counseling. Our discussion here has focused on intimacy because of its uniqueness and centrality to the marital relationship, and because training in the related laws is always part of marriage preparation.
Talking Points for Conversation V: “How are you managing with the Halachic limits on physical contact during engagement? We also found it challenging. Can you see the difference between other desires you may have experienced and this desire for someone you love? While you need to carefully observe the Halachic limits, your struggle is a healthy sign of an important dimension in your developing relationship.” Begin some level of open discussion about the important role intimacy will play in their marriage. The discussion should proceed to help the young person choose a Taharas HaMishpacha teacher who effectively includes the human elements of intimacy in their training.
Conversation VI: How are you settling in? Following up.
And Moshe said to G-d, “The people cannot ascend to Mount Sinai, for You warned us saying, ‘Set boundaries for the mountain and sanctify it.’ ” But G-d said to him, “Go, descend…” RASHI: (Moshe said) I do not have to warn them because today they were already warned three days ago, and they cannot ascend [the mountain] since they have no permission. (G-d responded) Go, descend and warn them a second time, for we caution a person before the act he is to perform, and we caution him again at the time of the act. (Shemos 19:23-24 with Rashi)
At least as valuable as the pre-marital discussion is ensuring that the young couple has ready and comfortable access to practical guidance and support after the wedding. Parents, Rabbonim, teachers and mentors should ensure that the couple fully understands that they are available, and should try to either check in with the newly-married couple themselves, or, if appropriate, confirm that someone else is playing that role. A continuing connection with the right Taharas HaMishpacha teachers can be invaluable in this regard. Certain Chassidic communities have established systems in which young men are assigned a mentor who maintains contact with them for the first years of marriage, providing guidance and support until such point as the couple has truly settled in. Whatever the protocol and whatever the avenue, it is essential for young people to have the access and the means to thoughtfully and openly address issues that arise in their developing relationship.
Talking Points for Conversation VI: “How are you settling in to marriage? What has been your most challenging adjustment? How have you addressed it? Who would you seek help from if you were struggling to address it? Do you view seeking help in your marriage as a weakness?” Ensure that your child has someone to turn to as he/she begins the journey of marriage.
What we are suggesting is so basic and simple that it is certainly already being done in many homes. However it is often not happening, leaving many young people to travel this road without proper preparation and consideration. This often leads to poor decision-making in choosing a spouse, and may leave them insufficiently prepared for the challenges of marriage.
All we are suggesting is to stop and think. Parents, check in on these issues with your kids! Rabbis and teachers, discuss these things with your congregants and students! And young people, don’t just rush headlong into this marriage thing! Look to those around you to help you approach this critical stage of life with proper thought and preparation.
Six simple conversations can help you think much more clearly about marriage.
This article was originally featured in Klal Perspectives, Summer 2012.