Whether one is speaking of marriage in Judaism or in our society general, no single factor is a greater predictor of success or failure than the choice of partner. As obvious as it might seem, this factor can be one of the most difficult to understand in our modern society. So many marriages fail because they should never have been sworn to in the first place. The process for making such a choice is as important as the choice itself. The process should facilitate making the best possible choice.
To learn more about marriage traditions within Judaism click here.
Ketubah (Jewish Marriage Contract) of Karaite Jews in Egypt 1957
In our modern western context we are given many mixed cultural signals as we grow into adulthood. We are told that sex is fun for everyone, that any two (or more) people can engage in this behavior, and that all consequences of such behavior can be avoided. We celebrate characters like James Bond, who go from flower to flower. In recent decades promiscuity, once stigmatized, has become increasingly popular for women as well. Our society has become obsessed with identity issues and irrelevancies such as gender choice, sexual orientation, and reproductive avoidance. All of this noise confuses and conflates the real matter at hand: humans are healthier, happier, and live longer when they share their life with a compatible partner. Life partnership should be the real goal of relationships.
Science has shown that people are happier into old age when coupled with a life partner. Children are healthier, happier, and more successful in life when raised in two-parent families. Recent decades have seen changes in our society meant to equalize and empower women. These have had many positive effects and blessings. Taken too far, however, this otherwise beneficial movement can become destructive. In the decades long attempt to empower women, many modern feminists have promoted among women the worst of male behaviors, such as promiscuity and the avoidance of reproduction. The negativity toward traditional femininity and maternity are likewise harmful. The equality of women will not be achieved by belittling or degrading woman and their biological realities.
Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis
Men and women are equals in modern Jewish thought and women have always enjoyed greater rights under Jewish law than surrounding peoples. In forming a healthy marriage, two equal people should join in partnership for mutual benefit and respect. There need not be any sense of subservience of on partner to the other. The two can lead together making decisions as a unit. In traditional Judaism, marriage is a reproductive relationship, a life partnership, a team, and an enterprise. Like any partnership the parties sign a contract, work toward certain defined goals, work as a team, and provide support to one another. To learn more about Torah laws and traditions surrounding marriage click here.
I prefer to look upon my own marriage in this light: my wife and I are both equally subservient to the corporate entity that is our family. I cannot place my needs before hers or those of the children because we all must cooperate toward mutual goals. In this way each individual’s needs must be met even where it might infringe upon the wants and desires of another. Wants must be in perpetual balance with those of others where they can be answered. At times, some wants may go unfulfilled so that all needs may be met.
Women have always enjoyed greater equality in Judaism since ancient times. The Torah (Five Books of Moses) includes many rights and protections for women, including inheritance rights (daughters of Zelophahad), the right to divorce, and the right to refuse marriage (Rivka was asked if she wanted to marry Yitschak). To learn more about the role of women read this article on the subject.
Ozzy and Sharon Osborne
In the Torah the reproductive act is looked upon as transactional, the exchange of comfort, inheritance, and the provision of heirs. The man promises to feed, house, clothe, and protect his wife and to ensure that her children are his heirs (who inherit his estate). The woman offers comfort and care for the man and ensures that her children are also his children. If a man creates children in other inappropriate relationships, these children still have a claim on his estate. In a time before paternity tests, men could not be certain of paternity except when monogamy was kept. The contractual marriage is thus a healthiest and safest relationship that serves the interests of both parties. Times have changed and there are relationships that are not reproductive and of this we should be kind and tolerant. Nevertheless, the best practice, the life-long monogamous marital relationship between a man and a woman must always be held up as the ideal.
In that sexual behavior is seen to be primarily reproductive in nature, and marriage is the relationship in which this behavior properly belongs, it goes without saying that I do not concur with modern fancies that sexual behavior is free and open and can be done anywhere with just anyone. Sexual partners have responsibilities to one another and it is best if these are well understood in advance and agreed to by both partners. As a society and as religious people, we can be tolerant and accepting of those who choose lifestyles that do not conform with this approach, but the approach of the righteous must always be the one based in the religious law.
How to Seek a Partner
When one sets out to find a partner, one must do so with deliberation. Our society’s method of coupling often involves dating recreationally with various people until you randomly meet someone you like. Unfortunately, empty promiscuity often accompanies this method of coupling. This is not a very effective means of selecting a partner, and not particularly healthy for the individual either. Many young people today respond to surveys that they feel used and unloved in this kind of lifestyle.
What if there was a method for selecting a partner that was deliberate and guided? A process into which one enters specifically to find a life partner? This type of process is referred to generally as courtship. Courtship, as I define it, can be any process by which two people intentionally pursue a life together. This can be a very formal, traditional process or an informal process between two people interested in forming a couple. If dating is like a month-to-month lease from which each party can quickly and easily walk away, a courtship is like an annual lease wherein the goal is longevity. It is possible that the courtship may end with breakup, much as any dating relationship. Again, the fine difference is the intention: the goal of dating is casual fun that may lead somewhere serious while courtship is done with the goal of a lifetime commitment.
Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump
How Does Courtship Work?
A courtship process might begin by deciding what a given individual desires in a partner. One might write out the qualities that are important before setting out. Consider your own strengths and weaknesses and look for qualities in a partner that will improve you. As an example, a person who is very thoughtful and makes plans for everything might want a partner who is a little impulsive so they can relax and have fun at times. A person who is very focused may prefer a partner who is more open minded and free spirited who can help to balance them. Life is more fun when people who have similar but still diverse interests couple with one another.
It may be helpful to sit down and discuss these traits with parents, extended family, and close friends, or to ponder the qualities of admirable marriages. Other people may have thoughts or advice that can help you. If family is important to a person, their partner should also be family oriented. What are the qualities of a good mother? A good father? Sometimes our goals can be too narrow: as a young man I might have started out with the most important trait that she be attractive; the more gorgeous the better! Experience would quickly have rearranged my priorities to start with her brain: she should be intelligent enough that we can carry on a fulfilling conversation. Indeed, that my future wife and I had similar geeky interests and could talk for hours about history, was a definite sign that we were a compatible couple.
List the traits and prioritize them so that would-be partners can be compared against these priorities. Consider your life plans: how many children to have? Where do you want to live: city, rural, close to family, etc.? Career or stay at home? What are your goals? Extroverted or introverted? In our broad and complex modern world, it is all the more important that individuals define what they are looking for before entering into the process. Don’t forget to keep an open mind too. Sometimes the right partner is the one you least expect.
When you meet someone who expresses an interest, describe the simple process to them. Make it clear you are interested only in a life-long partnership and go through the process of getting to know one another, asking the questions, discussing family and children, and generally coming to an understanding of shared goals. When the two people have decided that they want to spend their lives together, then begins the next process: engagement and marriage. If the courtship reveals that the two people are not right for each other, then they can pursue someone else. This process will lead to more successful partnerships and happier relationships overall. Dating involves a lot of guess work and does not always result in happy relationships for precisely the reason that the parties are never intentional about the process and the endgame. A happy life-long relationship sealed in marriage is the greatest blessing two people can share.