Updated: Aug 17, 2020
Raizy, a soft-spoken 24 year old graphic designer, shifted in her seat, hesitant to share her next words. I waited, while she formulated her thoughts. They eventually tumbled out as a poignant monologue:
“My husband is a really good person. He does the right things for us to have a nice marriage- in bed and out. But the sad truth is, I’m just not so attracted to him. It’s not that he’s ugly or gross, or anything. I bet most people would consider him a nice-looking guy, and he’s always clean and well-groomed. But his features, his build, even his voice and the way he walks- I just don’t care for any of it. It’s just not my taste, I guess. I think it also affects how I feel about his personality- it’s fine; I’m just not excited by it.
When we originally met, I didn’t intend to go on another date; I told the shadchan and my parents that he seemed like a great guy but not my type. They all wondered what that meant, and I tried to explain that the problem wasn’t his middos or his intelligence, but the overall feeling I got. I was encouraged to give it another try- after all, people say: ‘great guys are not easy to come by, and it only gets harder as you get older.’ That made sense, and we made pretty good conversation on the dates. I can’t say they went badly, so we kept going out. But I never looked forward to seeing him. It just wasn’t so interesting to me- I can’t even explain why, other than a feeling, and mostly visual. When I saw him approaching from afar, my heart sank a little with disappointment. When his name come up on my phone, I wondered if I could maybe just call him back later. Even now I still feel like this.
I discussed it with my parents and my mentor, and they all told me that the only thing that’s important is what’s on the inside: character, kindness, patience, reliability, honesty. These are the qualities that really matter, and that to reject a guy on the basis of his looks is shallow and shortsighted. After all- would I prefer a more handsome man with a cold, selfish heart? They said a guy who is ‘too into his looks’ would probably be arrogant and self-absorbed. I was confused, because what they were saying sort of made sense, but on the other hand it felt not right to get engaged to a guy I wasn’t excited about being around. Everyone reassured me that real love comes after the wedding, once the living together begins- touching, giving, growing, kids - building a home makes you feel closer and happier. I guess it made sense at the time. And everyone who said it was smart, older, and cared about me, so I trusted the advice and went ahead with the wedding.
Well it’s two years later. It hasn’t happened for us. I don’t feel any closer to him, even though we have been trying to connect in all different ways. I don’t enjoy sex or really any kind of touch. I don’t know if it’s just because of lack of attraction to my husband, or something wrong with me; I never got a chance to try with another partner. But even though I feel bad about this, I do see other men that I sometimes think I would enjoy touching- I never do, but it just shows me that it is possible for me to like a guy’s looks. I feel so guilty, and bad for my husband- living with a woman who just doesn’t love him. I try to smile at him and be nice, but I don’t even like who I’ve become. I can get moody and irritable in ways I never was before marriage. I’m resentful that I have to be with him, even though it’s not his fault- I get upset after sex because it’s such a let-down. I do what I need to in order to get through the day, but I’m so disappointed in marriage- and I feel like I only have myself to blame. Shouldn’t any two reasonably nice people from similar backgrounds be able to just have a good marriage? I keep trying to focus on everything good about him- his character, his thoughtfulness, his brains. But I know all that stuff is true in my head- it’s just the feelings that aren’t there.'
I don’t want a divorce for a few reasons: for one thing, my family would be devastated. They wouldn’t understand. Throw away a perfectly wonderful husband because of something as stupid as looks? I don’t want to be that shallow or snobby. And who says I would find anyone better? Even if I did, looks fade, right? Dating as a divorced woman is much harder, especially when people hear that I left for such a dumb reason. So I would end up alone, or settling for someone even less desirable, and with people thinking I’m crazy on top of it. Maybe I am. I just feel so stuck and stupid. I wish I could turn back, but I can’t and now I don’t think there’s anything to do about it.”
Raizy’s story is a common one, though not often talked about socially. The advice she was given is widespread, well-meaning, and, in my humble opinion, terribly misguided.
Of course the most important objective quality in a person is character. No one would disagree that it’s critical to look for a spouse who feels trustworthy, safe, kind, respectful, and “good.” But there are other variables we need to consider as well. For example: would we ever tell a 20 year old young lady to just go ahead and marry an 85 year old tzaddik because “the only thing that matters is goodness”? Obviously that is an extreme and imperfect comparison. But it illustrates there are clearly aspects of a potential spouse that matter besides general goodness and value judgements.
There are essentially four general areas of critical compatibility that ought to be addressed: intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and physical. Not sameness, but compatibility. A mutual, good fit.
Religious and practical compatibility are deemed very important in our culture:
“She needs someone bright- someone who knows how to learn.”
“He’s looking for someone who went to a Beis Yaakov school.”
“She would like to live in a specific community.”
“He’d like someone with a Chassidishe background.”
Most people have no problem asking about career plans, academic achievement, and what level and style of observance is familiar. But when it comes to emotional and physical attraction, many of our young adults are taught to belittle and disregard these factors. To the point where they aren’t even sure what it is.
Emotional attraction is essentially: “How do I feel about and around this person? Do I enjoy spending time with him/her? Do I like what they say, what I feel when I think about and sit with them?”
Physical attraction is a similar vibe but more sensual: “Do I find him/her appealing? Do I find myself wishing we could be physical? Is there a basic pull, a desire to get closer?” Many religious men and women are not only not taught to ask themselves these questions, but to disparage the idea that these questions matter at all. To reject such thoughts in favor of more “spiritually enlightened” and “noble” criteria. Kind of like marrying an excellent Yeshiva- report card.
The problem is: You don’t have only an intellectual or spiritual relationship with your spouse. You have a physical one too, a VERY physical one, and ideally, an emotional one. When you are choosing your Rabbi or teacher, selecting a friend or an employee, it’s unnecessary and unfair to care much what they look like: just choose good, kind, inspiring, diligent, or trustworthy- whatever the relationship calls for. But for some reason, G-d programmed us to care what our life partners look like. He made it that some people turn us on, some turn us off, and some don’t interest us at all. He made interpersonal chemistry not exactly aligned with nobility of character; there are some people with hearts of gold whom I truly admire, but to whom I just have nothing to say, and others who may be less pious, but we just connect better conversationally. It’s not really “fair” or even entirely logical- but I didn’t make up those rules; they are human nature.
[For those who say “that’s not the Torah way,” TaNaCh has many examples of holy men and women who appreciated the good looks of their holy partners. And even outside the context of love, when Shmuel HaNavi was sent to anoint David Hamelech, he mistakenly assumed David’s older brothers were supposed to be the king. G-d explained to him: “Man sees to the eyes, but G-d sees into the hearts.” Even a holy man of G-d like Shmuel initially judged on appearance, and G-d affirmed that this is how we are wired.]
(Just to clarify: I am not justifying the very real problem of the opposite phenomenon: those who fixate and insist on asking about and scrutinizing a potential partner’s looks down to specific dress size, with little regard for anything else. That’s a separate, serious societal issue. But this post is addressing the problem of glossing over the issue of attraction entirely. Neither extreme is helpful or healthy.)
For those who find themselves dissatisfied in marriage due to lack of physical and/or emotional attraction, there can be a lot of shame and self-doubt. There is sometimes a sense of “what is wrong with me that I can’t get past this silly, subjective, shallow problem,” especially if the spouse in question is objectively appealing by others’ standards. There may be attempts to deny, repress or ignore the feelings. But they usually affect the relationship in some way.
The million dollar question: Can attraction be created where it didn’t exist before?
My answer: Sometimes, but there are no guarantees. And it depends on other variables per case.
It’s common to hear stories of people who didn’t like each other at all at first- one way or both ways, and then eventually developed strong romantic feelings- especially before engagement. But don’t bank on that happening.
Depending on how pronounced, long-standing, or compounded the obstacles are, there are some efforts than can be made to try and increase connection, if internally motivated.
But at least before the fact- especially in communities that tend towards quick dating and to emphasize the inner over the outer, please, let’s educate young people to acknowledge and honor their tastes and feelings of attraction, apathy, and aversion, when they are selecting a partner for life. It can save both of them a lot of suffering after the wedding.
To learn how we can save the next generation unnecessary relationship suffering, click here