Orthodoxy’s Unrealistic Marriage Expectations

Several recent articles focused on the difficulty of being Shomer Negia’h in advanced singlehood. While Halacha is easy to blame, since all of its rules are on the books, social norms are much harder to blame as they are not down on the record. In the case of older singles and loneliness, Modern Orthodox social norms are responsible for a great deal of the pain described in recent articles. That can be changed, but we first need to address it. 

 

Let’s look at what an upstanding Modern Orthodox family might expect from their child. Children are often asked to grow up in a coed environment, go to coed camps and social activities, and be fully engaged with the opposite gender, and yet still to be Shomer Negia’h. Then, unlike their counterparts say in Beni Akiva Israel, who can get married at a relatively young age, modern orthodox youth are expected to go to Israel for a year and then come back to the United States to begin their education. Socially pressured to attend American’s best schools, kids then go off to college campuses with the most permissive social norms in the country. While this may not apply to every modern orthodox child, it is very much part of the ideal ethos of modern orthodoxy. 

But say much of this didn’t apply to you, or say you were modern Yeshivish. You are then socially discouraged from getting married until you finished your undergraduate degree and a practical graduate degree. This can mean anything from going to medical to finishing a degree in physical therapy or actuarial studies. You are also expected to make sure you landed a job in the field before making any marriage plans. Sure, in many cases, mommy and daddy can help you get married before you do this, but this is the general ethos. If you can beeline to the end with parents’ help, mazel tov. 

Then comes the dating process. No written rules here, but lots and lots of unwritten ones. First comes the length of dating. As in the Yeshivish world, it is passt nisht to date for too long, in the modern orthodox world dating for too short is looked down upon. Couples are expected to date for at least six months before tying the knot. During this time, they are expected to spend much time together, go on romantic hikes, activities, dinners, and more, all while being Shomer Negia’h. Is anyone aware of another religious group that has the insane expectation that their youth/young adults spend this much time together and not even touch each other? of course not. Not even Mormons, not even the Amish. No one. 

Next comes the engagement. After engagement, the couple is expected to interact regularly, and wedding arrangements most often exceed a half a year. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out there can be a problem there. 

This is all when everything goes perfectly. 

Then you have the situations when things don’t go as planned, which brings us to older singles. 

No one and I say this with a profound sense of pain and recognition of the suffering and grief that comes with it, NO ONE plans on being an older single. 

The incredible pain and suffering of older singlehood is not the product of one missed turn. It is the product of a society that de facto encourages later marriage, discourages “settling” of any kind, pushes for high socioeconomic achievement, and does not see marriage as the be all end all of things. My wife and I met a young man struggling with dating in the older singles scene. He had a terrific job with lots of stability and was making $200,000 a year. He was being rejected time and again for not making enough money. The affluence of the ’90s has become the norm in many modern orthodox circles with families telling their kids, explicitly or inexplicitly, it is not OK to “settle” for less. This places many young people in a bind. They are embarrassed to “bring home” someone who does not live up to some of the outrageous prevalent expectations modern orthodoxy has come to have. Top this with a generation, myself included, that came out of college just to see the greatest recession of modern history, not able to get the jobs and financial security our parents told us we should strive for before marriage, and you have a full-blown disaster and many years of delayed marriage. 

Of course, being Shomer Negia’h is incredibly painful and difficult, but doing away with it would not solve most of the problem. Our problem is far bigger than that. Loneliness and isolation are as bad for our health as smoking fifteen (!) cigarettes a day. This problem only gets worse as age advances. The fact that the United Kingdom appointed a Minister of Loneliness, addressing the growing crisis of loneliness in the UK, is a testimony to the severity of the issue. The orthodox community is no exception to this challenge. 

While changing the Halacha is not within my purview as an orthodox rabbi, I can suggest social changes– changes modern orthodoxy as a whole must do to alleviate the pain and suffering for which it is at least parcially responsible for. Some of these apply to us as a society, while others apply to individual singles.

As a society: we need to recognize the paradox of expecting kids to be together so much, or delaying marriage so much. Pick your choice: either advocate for earlier marriage, expect your kids to get married before being fully settled (something somehow humans used to be able to do before our community became so affluent), or don’t place them in highly coed environments and expect them to be shomer negia’h and while achieving all of the above. Secondly, be kind. There is no excuse for the fact that many orthodox singles feel ashamed to go home for Shabbat or the holidays, and are uncomfortable at family events. There is no reason that older singles should dread Shabbat and holidays, days that are meant for joy and rest. There is no excuse for the fact that you didn’t call your single relative for more than a few months to see how they are doing. There is no excuse for you not inviting your single friend for tea and cake just to see how they are doing. There is no excuse you didn’t send your single friend from college a text message wishing them a Shabbat Shalom and telling them you care. They don’t need your mercy; they do need humanity. 

To older singles: your pain will always be greater than anyone will ever recognize. No one who has not been through what you have can recognize the pain of being older and single. Please, don’t suffer alone. There is someone out there who will be happy to talk, understand, and even help. Don’t do this alone. If someone doesn’t reach out to you, reach out to them. It can be a friend, family, a teacher from years ago, or just someone nice. Talk to them. Some of the most important friendships I have today are people I reached out to when single, who hosted me, listened and encouraged.

Secondly, step out of your comfort zone; do not accept the status quo. This can mean making Aliya, moving to another city, pursuing a bygone relationship, deciding to have a child on your own, traveling, deciding to expand your dating circles to someone you would not have considered in the past, deciding to go for that profession you always dreamed of, or much much more. We live only once, let’s make the most of it. 

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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