The conclusion is inescapable: the movers and shakers of American pop culture are utterly clueless when it comes to relationships.
A major source of the problem is the power of first impressions. I've heard it said that when you go for a job interview, the interviewer has already decided within the first 30 seconds if you're getting the job or not. It's psychological - meaning that to a psycho it's logical. There is nothing you can possibly say or do in 30 seconds that's either so brilliant or so stupid as to justify such a snap decision - but such is the nature of human psychology.
How does this concept affect relationships? In the secular world, a couple's first impression of each other is based on physical attraction. "She's hot!" "He's not my type." Now, physical attraction is important, but it has no direct bearing on character, life goals, relationship expectations, or anything else that affects a couple's capacity to form and maintain a healthy marriage. Thus the couple have already formed first impressions about each other, one way or the other, without knowing anything of substance about one another.
And what of the second impression? In general, the initial conversation centers around common interests, such as long walks in the park or favorite movies. This too is dysfunctional. While a couple must have common interests, families are not built based on long walks in the park. Too early a focus on favorite movies and the couple's physical attraction to one another creates a situation where they want to believe they are right for each other. This creates false intimacy and sets the stage for heartbreak.
Eventually, when the couple are "sure of their feelings", they discuss what they want out of a relationship, how to raise the kids, how many kids, etc. There is an implied contradiction here: before they have this discussion, the feelings that they are so sure of are by definition based on nothing. They may indeed agree on everything of substance and be perfect candidates for marriage - but nothing has happened until now to suggest this.
And what happens if they disagree on something crucial? Now the dysfunction rises to new heights. In general they are too emotionally invested to admit that they are a mismatch. Instead, they put blinders on, each hoping that the other will change. When they can deny the truth no longer, a fight ensues, and the result is a heartrending breakup.
Consider Hollywood couple XY. Ms. X and Mr. Y meet at an upscale hollywood party and are instantly madly in love. When asked why, all they really say of substance is because he/she is so beautiful and we have so much in common. What do they mean by "so much in common"? They have lots of money, hang out at the same places, and like the same movies and tv shows and possibly sports teams. Suddenly, a year into the relationship, Mr. Y is asked in an interview if he would ever want to get married and he answers "yes of course, maybe in the next year or so who knows." Meanwhile Ms X is asked the same question on the same day and says "um I guess, some day." They read each other's interviews and - surprise, surprise - two days later an article appears saying they have broken up. Is this love? Are these role models?
How does the shidduch (ultra orthodox) dating system avoid this? At every step of the process, we seek to maintain the couple's objectivity. Before they even meet, each separately approaches a third party, the matchmaker (who can be a relative, friend, rabbi, or professional matchmaker), and says, "This is what I'm looking for in a marriage partner, and these are the qualities I bring into a relationship." Really this is not so different from friends setting up friends in a secular society, aside from the fact that a lot more thought and research goes into it before the couple meet. Most mismatches are weeded out at this stage. If they have radically different world views, for instance, they will not meet.
When the matchmaker hits on a potentially suitable match, then the family or mentors on each side call references on the other side and research who the other person is. If one of them is divorced, the other can contact the rabbis who performed the divorce and find out if there were allegations of abuse, infidelity, etc. Psychological and health issues are also researched at this stage.
Eventually, if the girl and guy decide based on all of this that it is worth it and agree to meet, a date is arranged. Again, objectivity is maintained. The conversation centers around their life goals and marriage requirements, including anything not covered during the meeting with the matchmaker. At that point, knowing that the other person has been researched by their friends, mentors, and/or family and knowing that their world, religious, and life views are the same "on paper" and talking in person and finding out if what was said on paper is true, all that is left is for them to decide whether or not they like each other and find each other attractive. Then only is chemistry allowed to become a factor. This is the complete oppostite of the secular method.
In the interest of maintaining objectivity, touching before marriage is also strictly forbidden. Because touching can create false intimacy, it's very easy to think when hugging or kissing, "We make a good couple." Many people think that touching in Orthodox Judaism is looked down upon. However, the exact opposite is true. It is recognized in Orthodox Judaism that touching is a source of creating intimacy which can be used in either a positive or negative way. In marriage, this is a good thing and considered an extremely important tool in maintaining and building a marriage. Prior to marriage, it has the power to blind a couple's objectivity. My wife and I didn't even hold hands before our wedding. (As a result, our first kiss was nothing short of magical.)
Because the emphasis is on determining suitability for marriage and because people only start dating when they are ready to get married, courtship is much faster than in the secular world. My wife and I got engaged after six weeks; as I write this now in 2009, we have been married nearly six years, and we are every bit as passionately in love as we were then.
And what if the couple are a mismatch? Because important issues are discussed up front, instead of after months or years as in the secular world, the couple see their own incompatibility before their emotions have a chance to blind them. Breakups are in general amicable, and heartbreak and unrequited love are virtually unheard-of. Indeed, a close friend of my wife's kept a record of all the men she dated prior to her own marriage and set them up with her friends. In the secular world, dating your friend's ex is a big no-no. Logically speaking, this is nonsense - the qualities that you didn't like in your ex could be exactly what your friend is looking for - but the emotional investment that precedes a breakup is such as to foreclose this option. In the Jewish world, this kind of matchmaking is quite common.
The numbers bear out the success of the Jewish system. Only 5 to 10 percent of our marriages end in divorce, vs. over 50 percent in the non-religious world - and that doesn't even include long-term dating relationships which end in breakups. The shidduch (ultra orthodox) dating system may seem strange, but it is by far the most successful.
My wife Chana co-wrote this article.
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