Updated: Aug 17, 2020
Selecting a spouse is possibly the most momentous decision that we humans make over the course of a lifetime. We are choosing our roommate, co-parent, romantic partner, teammate, and closest companion- ideally, for life. We live in times in which we have more autonomy and opportunity than ever before in history, we seem to be more emotionally complex, and demand more of our love relationships than any other times or cultures. And while we can land a man on the moon and split an atom, this mystery called lasting love continues to elude us; in fact, we seem to be floundering even more observably, judging by divorce rates and radio music.
We could, and maybe should read entire books on the subject of how to date for marriage wisely; the amount of information available can be overwhelming. This article suggests four primary areas or quadrants, each with several subcategories, for analyzing and assessing a potential relationship: mind, body, heart, and soul. When we are in touch with each of these four aspects of the self, we can develop an awareness of what we value, what we appreciate, and what we need from a primary relationship. There is some overlap between the quadrants, but organizing it this way can help us to see with more clarity, what is flourishing or lacking in ourselves or a relationship, in a defined way.
While each of us is comprised of all four, most of us tend to favor one or two quadrants over the others- like a major and a minor in college. We may favor our attention toward a dominant feature of the self. For example, someone who is very intellectually brilliant, may seek out her cerebral equal in a spouse, and feel that this is more important to her than, for example, physical appearance, or spiritual orientation. This is, inherently, neither a danger nor advantage; but simply a tendency to keep in mind, so as not to completely neglect our recessive quadrants.
We also tend to cluster, as individuals and as cultures. For example, in many religious communities, singles meet at a young age, through professional shadchanim [matchmakers], following a formal protocol, with a technical focus on concrete matters of family, religious and socio-economic compatibility, and an expectation of very brief, pragmatic dating time. In these circles, there tends to be a strong emphasis on spiritual and practical compatibility and less on emotional and physical attraction until after the wedding. On the other hand, in more contemporary communities and dating styles, where young adults meet on their own or through friends, date more recreationally, romantically, and for longer periods of time, there is often more focus placed on physical and emotional attraction, and only afterwards on spiritual, intellectual, and practical compatibility. Of course, these are just stereotypes, and each comes with its challenges, but it’s good to be aware of tendencies to compensate.
Another word about cultural norms: In Orthodox communities, there seem to be three general dating styles: be’show, shidduchim, and social dating. Individuals who date via be’show, will usually meet a potential spouse selected by parents and familial connections, approximately 1-4 times before engagement. There is little to no premarital relationship, and the expectations for the marital relationship are somewhat limited. They don’t expect to forge a meaningful connection, love, or feel palpable chemistry, before the wedding, and marriage roles are quite traditional. Social daters will generally meet casually, on their own, or through friends or the internet. They will usually focus initially on emotional, romantic, and physical attraction, and then later on assess intellectual, pragmatic, religious, and spiritual concerns. They seek to develop loving connection before an engagement, some with and some without physical contact. Shidduch daters are more vague. Average dating times range anywhere between 2- 12 weeks, generally with a shadchan go-between, and formal protocols. This is enough involvement to hope for some modicum of chemistry, but due to modesty sensitivities and boundaries, there is a limit to how much the relationship will be able to develop before the wedding. Many shidduch daters find themselves wondering exactly how much they “should need to know or feel” about a partner or union before making a commitment. Whether examining ourselves, our dates, or our marriages, these constructs can be helpful for measuring self-awareness and goals:
The intellect includes the cognitive, the academic or educational, thought processes, culture, interests, savviness, capability, and the dialogic wavelength. To say it’s “how smart we are” is an oversimplification, but it emanates from there. This is where we ask: Do I respect this person’s opinion? Am I interested in what s/he has to say? Do I understand and feel understood when we converse and share ideas? Do I get the sense that s/he makes wise, rational decisions, using a thought process I can appreciate?
When we look at our pragmatic life goals, do they match up well? Does this person “make sense” for me as a potential spouse? For example: If he dreams of raising a large family, with a full time mom, in a quiet suburb, and she’d like to have a progressive career, 2.5 kids, and live in Manhattan, that would be a logistical glitch. Likewise, if she wants to move to Israel, as soon as possible, and he wants to work for his family business in New Jersey. Another example: gender roles, expectations, and responsibilities. What kinds of family cultures have shaped our ideas about what spouses “should” do for one another, for their kids, and their home? Earning, homemaking, bill-paying, parenting styles? Marriage is not only a love story; it’s also a life plan.
Physical attraction: What some young people unfortunately don’t realize until after the wedding is that the marriage relationship is a very physical one. In any other area of life, assessing another based on the other’s appearance would be unkind, unfair, and superficial. But in this particular area, it is actually problematic not to ascertain attraction. This is a category over which some obsess and others underestimate. The level of importance of physical attraction varies by personality, gender, culture, and exposure, but a good general rule is that we should try to marry mates whom we find at the very least reasonably good looking, and with whom we could imagine enjoying physical intimacy.
Financial/material: Money can’t buy us love, but financial stressors can certainly challenge it. It feels unsavory to discuss finances and material lifestyle in the context of something as sacred as spouse selection, but to deny the role that the monetary and the material play in the life of a couple is naïve. We need not be completely financially independent when we get married, but discussing a general idea of how and in what manner we intend and hope to support ourselves, and notice our socio-economic backgrounds and assumptions, is prudent and responsible.
Emotional: The emotional self could be further subdivided into psychological and temperamental. Our psychological self is our mental wellness, our general stability, and how we cope with life circumstances. Our temperamental self has to do with our personality traits, feelings, moods, behavioral tendencies, and the way we process and react to the world internally.
Interpersonal: The interpersonal refers to communication, ability to express, relate, empathize, share, moderate, regulate, compromise, and connect. These are core, critical relationships skills. Some are inborn, others cultivated, but they, maybe more than other factors, will often determine the success of the union.
Emotion questions to ask when dating are: How do I feel about this person? How do I feel when I’m with him/her? How do I feel about them when we’re not together? How does s/he seem to feel about me? How do we treat each other? Do we enjoy each other’s company, smile a lot, laugh, care for each other? Do we communicate well? Does s/he matter to me, and do I feel I matter to them?
The spiritual can be divided into the technical religious or theological and the deeper self or philosophical. In Orthodox communities, we tend to identify strongly with the first, and sometimes take the second for granted.
External religious affiliations, backgrounds, locations, institutions, attire, and practices are relatively easy to identify and describe. Families and individuals will use these designations for choosing neighborhoods, schools, shuls, Yeshivas, seminaries, colleges, even friends and jobs. Even nuanced differences can feel important when dating and in marriage, and in general, broad-brush similarities are helpful here.
The psycho-spiritual self is harder to quantify, and even more elusive to pinpoint within a relationship. Some couples claim to have a magical “soul-mate” dynamic, which sounds romantic, but perhaps unrealistic as an immediate dating objective. Deep spirituality is more existential; it relates to a sense of being, of deep connection, of purpose. Not everyone thinks about this consciously, but it transcends personality, and generally informs and frames our attitudes about goodness, morality, values, priorities, prayer, integrity, work ethic, serenity, beauty, and sense of responsibility to G-d and mankind. A good question to ask about spirituality for the self or the couple is: What inspires us?
There are no guarantees when it comes to love relationships, but going into them with our eyes open, leading with the mind and the soul, and following closely with the heart and the body, can set us up for wise and balanced decision-making.
[Much of this article’s general content is derived from Matthew Kelly’s wonderful book: Seven Levels of Intimacy- enthusiastically recommended reading for anyone in or pursuing a relationship.]