The Yetzer’s Playing Field


Most discussions of the so-called Shidduch Crisis focus on the plight of young women. According to the common wisdom, every boy — or at least his mother — has a long list of young women eager to meet him, and the only difficulty confronting mothers of boys is sifting through all the competing “offers.” In truth, however, young men are not necessarily well-served by the knowledge that their mothers need secretarial help just to handle all the calls about them.

Many years ago, a friend of mine went to discuss a shidduch with his Rosh Yeshiva. He had already met the young woman in question a number of times, and he answered positively in response to all the Rosh Yeshiva’s questions about her. Yet when he was done describing how things were going, he added, “Still, maybe I could do better.” The Rosh Yeshiva cut him off. “When you enter the realm of dimyonos (imagination), you are playing on the yetzer hara’s field. Your focus should be on her, and only her.” My friend married the young woman, and lived happily ever after.

Unfortunately, too many young men today are dancing to the yetzer hara’s tune, and the long list of eager applicants for the title Mrs. Ploni that they are always hearing about is part of their problem. One consequence of the feeling that there is an endless supply of girls is that many young men are too quick to write off a shidduch. They fail to let things develop slowly, and if they are not immediately swept off their feet prepare to move on down their “list.” What is forgotten is that a young woman who may have had little experience talking to a male other than her father and brothers is not likely to sparkle in early conversation, especially if this is one of her first shidduchim.

A related problem is that young men may focus on looking for negative points. All the wonderful points learned about the young woman during the investigation stage are treated like givens, qualities assumedly possessed by all those on the “list,” and ignored. After all, it is easy to imagine perfection. So if anything is not exactly up to specifications, it is easy to move on to the next name, who no doubt possesses all the positives and has nothing amiss.

Even the young man’s checklist of what he is looking for is often a product of the imagination – a composite of all the traits he has ever admired in any woman, one trait from this woman and another from that one. The problem, of course, is that no such composite exists, and many of the traits are rarely, if ever, found in common. (Leah Jacobs and Shaindy Marks have an excellent discussion of this issue in their Shidduch Secrets.) One is not likely to find a spouse who is at once deep and happy-go-lucky; thoughtful but always smiling and chirpy; a homebody and baalebusta and someone always involved in neighborhood chessed projects. Most dismaying of all to many young men, it is hard to find a young woman eager to undertake to be the principal breadwinner and child-raiser so her husband can learn without distraction, but who will never inquire what she is getting for her efforts or remonstrate if he wants to spend three hours reading the paper on Friday.

THAT SHIDDUCHIM and marriage have little to do with one another is a given. The qualities that make for an enjoyable date — e.g., good looks, vivacious personality — often have little to do with those that make for a good wife and mother — responsibility, resilience, ability to deal with adversity — or with the respect that is the foundation of a good marriage. Many of the attitudes described above are inimical to a happy marriage (which may be a partial explanation of the spate of young divorces.) Young men for whom the “lists” have become a kind of security blanket may imagine that whomever they deign to marry will be so grateful that they will never hear a word of criticism. That illusion is not likely to survive the week of shevah berachos [the festive meals following a wedding].

The talent for identifying what is not “perfect” developed during shidduchim only makes it harder to build a happy marriage, which depends on the the willingness to overlook minor irritations, like the toothpaste squeezed from the top or the socks on the floor, and the recognition that few things are worth the price of an argument. The illusion that there is some perfect young woman out there who is the answer to all one’s dreams, now and forever, hides the crucial fact that marriage requires constant work, particularly work on oneself. All problems do not end under the chuppah, and new challenges begin for the first time.

The constantly reinforced message that it is a buyers market as far as young men are concerned encourages them to selfishly focus in shidduchim on the question: How does this meet my needs? Yet the most basic requirement of a happy marriage is the desire to give to another. It is as spouses and parents that we most fully become the kind of “givers” that should be one of our most important life goals. The Borei Olam created the world only in order to give to a being outside of Himself. And as those charged with living “in His image,” it is our task to become givers as well.

Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler used to tell young couples under the chuppah that the joy they experienced at that moment came from their great desire to please and give to one another, and if that desire ever waned so would their marital happiness.

Perhaps one of the greatest tragedies for marriage-age bochurim today is that so few of them experience the guidance and advice of our generation’s Rav Desslers during shidduchim and as they prepare for marriage. Nor will they be receptive as long as they and their mothers are busy comparing their “lists” with their friends.

Meanwhile the yetzer hara is smiling every time he draws another young man onto his playing field.

This article appeared in the Mishpacha, Wednesday January 14, 2009.

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6 years 8 months ago

Barry (#10), you are right, to a degree. All I can say in defense is to read Gila Manolsohn’s and Wendy Shalit’s books. With all the inadequacies, the observant community is still doing a lot to give our kids more than a chance at healthy, fulfilling marriages, and protecting their dignity along the way.

Robert Lebovits
6 years 8 months ago

The problems with the shidduch process begin even before a match is offered, and they are not just an outgrowth of poor guidance. They start with the very basic concept of “The BEST..”, as in “The BEST bochur” or “The BEST girl”. When looking for a shidduch young men & women are given to believe that they ought to accept nothing less than “the best”, and that there are some objective measures by which to make such a determination about a given prospect. In fact,if we truly subscribe to the construct of Eyzer K’Negdo, what is RIGHT for someone is completely dependent on that individual’s own unique strengths and weaknesses as well as their goals, values, etc. Some pre-formed list of ideal attributes is less than worthless – it is a distraction.
Of course, to ascertain who is the “right” life partner requires a significant degree of self-knowledge and honest appraisal. I would suggest this is where bochurim are least well-served by their mashgichim and roshei yeshiva. For any number of reasons, bochurim are not given regular and accurate feedback about their personal qualities and development, the information most critical in the search for a shidduch. Instead, they are told what they OUGHT to be and what sort of girl they OUGHT to find. Consequently, the potential for misdirection and erroneous judgements is huge – often with very destructive consequences.
If we want to really make an impact on the future direction of our children, let’s start by asking our educational institutions to lok after the entire student, not just his intellect or her tzidkus.

6 years 8 months ago

Comment for Barry:
I hear you. Looking from the “outside” as you imply would make someone say, “Huh?” to our shidduch crisis and the characteristics of our dating scene and the like. Each Jew has his/her struggle in finding a mate-period. Thankfully not all JEWS fall into this category.
Yes, the indictment is very sad because it infers that we as a people perhaps have gone off of the derech of our ancestors better ways and understanding to the importance of our own culture with regards to what it finds important in a mate and all that this relates to in marriage.
I do think and feel that I also must mention another aspect to this crisis. This is not meant as an attack, yet when you mentioned that you are in the reform movement. I could not help but to think, “Ok, and how many jewish men or women have even married another Jew?” It’s not meant to be a snide remark or some sort of cut down in response to your thoughts, yet it is a reality. The entire Jewish Nation needs help in this most vital area because THIS area,marriage, is the most holy, I believe, of all the areas in Jewish life. It is the continuation of Jewish life into the subsequent generations. It also influences the quality and the way in which the generation will lead. Neither side can afford to take matters lightly, selfishly(marrying souly for looks, $ or whatever else), or without regards to jewish law and it’s ramifications. Yes, Barry it appears WE need major help. Once again, not meant as an attack, yet this must be mentioned.

6 years 8 months ago

I read an article years ago in a frum magazine re: shidduchim. There was an interesting comment from a rabbi whom mentioned when he counsels young adults looking for shidduchim he usually asks them, “What are you looking for in a mate?” They, in turn, provide a list of qualificaations that they are looking for. Rather, it should be, said the rabbi, that the young adults should respond with a list of their own qualifications that they hope to be able to provide for their potential spouse as well as their sincere desire for that potential spouse to accept him or her for who he or she is.
This is a totally different perspective from what “appears” to be the mainstream thought process of what can the other do for me. I am not saying that someone should marry someone who is abusive or the like in an effort to be selfless. I have on the other hand seen many a person turn down another because -and I am not kidding, “he was not wearing the clothing that the other one preferred.”
It seems that we have lessened on much of what we value as a society in terms of the spiritual and replaced it with material or perfection in many areas of life like finances and the like. Other problematic areas include looking at the faults of others verses building our own spiritual account of problems addressed and worked on til we refine our own characters. Just some thoughts……..

6 years 8 months ago

As a Reform Jew, clearly not a part of the hareidi community, I read the post and assumed it was a parody of some sort that I just did not understand. But the comments seem to indicate that it wasn’t a joke or parody at all.

So I must ask: is this REALLY the way you folks live?
The advice to the young men seems good enough, but there is something wrong in the culture, if this is the attitude that “young men” have, and must be strongly (and correctly) counseled against. The Rosh Yeshiva surely gave good advice. But how in the world are the rest of you, who have not achieved the learning and status of a Rosh Yeshiva raising your kids?

I am certain that the author didn’t intend it this way, but he presents and amazing indictment of your culture, and something that is very sad.