This post will undoubtedly elicit strong reactions from readers on both sides of this issue. I want to preempt that I realize some, even many couples successfully meet, marry, and build families using the b’show system of mate selection, and go on to live happily ever after. When that happens, it is very fortunate. The following piece is a reflection of and a message to those individuals for whom it has been more complex:
“I didn’t know my husband before the wedding. He’s a good person, maybe a nicer person than I am, so I know I’m lucky. But I just find that I don’t want to spend time with him. I don’t love how he looks, what he enjoys talking about, or how handles tasks in life. There’s nothing very bad about him, but if he had been a girl in my high school, we never would have been friends. So I find myself making excuses to avoid being around him, and I know it’s mean. I don’t really like him and now I don’t even like who I’m becoming in my marriage. Maybe once we have babies I won’t notice so much.”
“My wife was chosen for me by our families. In some ways it made sense, but honestly I don’t think we really enjoy or understand each other. I come from a family where we laugh a lot, hug a lot, and share our feelings. My wife is much more reserved, and looks down on these things. When I try to engage her, it always feels like she’d rather be somewhere else. If we had dated before marriage, I would not have married her, but she is my wife now, and it’s very hard.”
There are different ways to choose a spouse, but in Halachic communities, it mostly comes down to three general categories: casually, via shidduchim, or via b’shows.
Casual dating can be purposeful or serendipitous, and generally involves a serious relationship prior to marriage.
Shidduchim are more formal introductions, and usually involve other parties. Sometimes they evolve into developed relationships, and at other times they function more as a way to rule out any obvious reasons for a couple to not marry.
The b’show is when families or other close contacts of a young man and woman select the spouse, and they simply meet once or a few times briefly, with little expectation of anything other than a face to face introduction and some polite small talk. At that point, either party may reject the other, but it is considered unusual and even inappropriate to do so more than a handful of times.
Depending on community and individual differences, theory behind b’show may vary. Some say they believe that their parents are wiser and more experienced and therefore their judgment is more trustworthy. Others say their parents are operating with G-d’s Divine assistance, even as His emissaries, and so the spouse they receive is ordained from Above. Still others see it less loftily, and more pragmatically: it’s just our community’s straightforward way to find a spouse, without the drama and uncertainty of dating.
When this works out favorably, the couples can be satisfied in different ways. Some are content to have a pleasant partnership, a companion and teammate for raising a family and building a home. Others are able to create a deep, emotional, and soulful connection as well.
But then there are the others. The many, many others, who feel varying degrees of dissatisfaction- ranging from boredom to disappointment to devastation. For some, it’s two kind people who simply don’t understand each other, and others where cruelty or selfishness might be at work. Some will seek help, and like the many couples in cultures across the world, will successfully navigate their obstacles, and build better relationships. Others will seek help, only to discover that the issue is not behavior or communication, but compatibility or overall attraction. Still more will suffer in silence, or in the privacy of their marital prisons, not daring to believe or hope for anything better. A small percentage will brave divorce. Some resign themselves to this lonely fate, others will look for passion outside the home- in whatever forms they find it. For many spouses, they would divorce in a heartbeat were it not for: the children, the stigma, the fear, or the shame.
What can we do for them? As therapists- we can be their confidential, nonjudgmental space. Where they can express, feel, cry, rage, and ultimately explore their options, assess what they want to do. There are rarely easy solutions, but sometimes there are ways to infuse some hope, some sort of change. At the very least empathy and validation.
But this blog post is not only directed towards therapists. Parents, teachers, community leaders: another option to is empower young adults towards more autonomy, knowledge, and self-determination in choosing a spouse. (This would include more extensive and accurate premarital education as well, but that is for another post.)
When I suggest these ideas, I am often accused of “attacking” certain “communities”. In truth, the exact opposite is true: I am actually giving voice to the pain I’ve heard countless times, reflecting and advocating about a problem that needs addressing, in the hopes of creating a better future for the next generation. Some might say: “You don’t have the right to an opinion or a say; you’re not in this system.” That is correct but incorrect. I treat hundreds of individuals from within these systems, whom I respect, admire, and care about deeply. Many have expressed the wish to shout this from the rooftops, to change things for their children, but can’t take that risk. So, yes, I am not in the system personally, and that is what gives me the safety and courage to speak up about the issue from a more removed vantage point.
Other critics might say: “Divorce rates and marital distress don’t seem to be any better among communities who date more extensively. If anything, this system breeds more serious commitment and marital longevity.” That might be true if the only criteria we used to assess marital satisfaction were divorce rates. But when marriages are arranged on behalf of spouses who are often still in their teens, have never lived on their own, and have limited exposure to anything other than one lifestyle and value system, the choices they make are not really based on their own free will, and the “choice” to enter and to stay in these marriages, are often precipitated by a disempowered “what else can I do?”
I realize I take risks when writing pieces like this. It’s prettier and more popular to write about more generic, unanimous subjects. But I appreciate the responsibility to be there for our brothers and sisters in whatever way we can. I am grateful to be able to do that for some in person, in my practice. But I have received many beautiful correspondences from readers I don’t know, just saying how helpful it was to know they were not alone in their suffering, that there are many others in similar situations, and they’re not crazy. If it can give comfort to even one lonely aching soul, it’s worth the backlash. And if it can ultimately be part of a conversation toward change, an improvement for the next generation, to promote more marital harmony and love, then all the better.
Elisheva Liss, LMFT is a psychotherapist in private practice. Her book, Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking, is available on Amazon.com. She can be reached for sessions or speaking engagements at firstname.lastname@example.org More of her content can be found at ElishevaLiss.com