When we think of the “shidduch crisis,” we typically think of the many singles that need to get married and what we need to do to make that happen. Recent research of the frum community by the OU’s Center for Communal Research has shown us that this conceptualization may be part of the problem. In directing all our energy to helping singles find their bashert we lose sight of another equally if not more important shidduch crisis, the crisis of experience; the inherent challenges of being single in a family-oriented community. By placing our emphasis on getting single men and women to the next stage of their lives, we write-off their current stage as unimportant, leaving them without adequate support and direction.
This crisis of experience was neatly summed up by a single woman I was recently speaking with who described herself as “living in limbo.” From her senior year of high school through seminary and every schmooze since, every vision of spiritual greatness is preceded by, “When you get married…”
As the years went by and she remained single, she described her sense of self slowly chipping away. “What about now? Am I nobody until I get married?” This lack of identity was compounded by loneliness. She explained how every one of her single friends has one foot out the friendship door, waiting to be whisked away by marriage. “None of us are willing to invest in new relationships that we know will end as soon as we find a husband.”
Viewing singles exclusively through a we-must-get-you-married prism has terrible ramifications. Single men and women describe feeling put down by others in the community or even worse, feeling invisible. As two of the study’s participants put it:
“There is a tendency to infantilize single members of the community. This manifests in various ways, including … as a 20-something medical student, I and a 30-year-old widow were seated at the children’s table at a wedding.”
“This is one of the most trying and embarrassing times in our life. We lose a sense of purpose and don’t really know why we are on this planet. There is no way to explain the thousands of times we are discounted, rejected, overlooked while we try to find our own purpose and meaning in life. The combination is terrible and really can destroy anyone. We need to find a place in the frum world for single people and stop treating us like we are damaged goods that need help.”
Our community’s lack of sensitivity to those in this stage of life is not just painful, it is actually detrimental to finding them a shidduch. “Somehow or another,” said one single man quoted in the study, “the community has managed to convince the singles community that if you’re not married by X-number, you’re a failure. I think a lot more people would be getting married if they felt better about themselves.”
He is right. The researchers found that mental health was an important predictor of single men and women’s confidence in finding a spouse. Those with moderate symptoms of anxiety and depression were much less confident in their chances of finding a spouse than those with mild or no symptoms. These people also spent fewer hours dating in the week before taking the survey. In other words, the more we ignore the singles in our midst, the worse they feel; the worse they feel, the more they are likely to remain single.
What Can We Do
The fact that we are focused on assisting single men and women move to a different stage does not mean we have to discount their current status. We can and must continue to try to improve the shidduch system and help as many single men and women as possible get married. At the very same time, we can and must ensure that the experience of singlehood is one in which every man and woman feels respected and has a sense of belonging in our communities.
The study concludes with a number of actionable suggestions, based on the input of the interviewees. Communal leaders can develop ways in which single men and women can meaningfully be involved and contribute to communities, they can offer relationship classes, and offer mentorship to their singles population. But the necessary changes are not limited to those in leadership positions; the entire community can better support the single men and women in our midst in the following ways:
- Change the way we speak about single men and women to change the way we think about single men and women. Adults are not “boys and girls.” Calling them such only reinforces the mistaken view that they are less than until they are married. Using appropriate language will shift how single men and women feel viewed and treated by their communities.
- Invite single men and women for meals frequently and sensitively. This simple gesture can have an enormous positive impact and create feelings of belonging and connection. However, it’s important to ensure that no one feels like a burden or an afterthought. For example, an invitation on a Monday or Tuesday will feel more respectful than an invitation on Thursday night, and a personal invitation is preferable to offering a general, “Call if you ever need a meal.”
- Engage welcomingly with the single men and women whom we meet, as we would with any adult. We need to be more conscientious of not relating to people with whom we meet or speak only on the basis of whether or not they are married.
- Only offer advice if we are asked for it. If appropriate, express genuine concerns in a respectful, personal way, and only if we already have an existing positive relationship with the single man or woman. Being a single man or woman is not an invitation for unsolicited advice.
These recommendations are a small first step, as there is undoubtedly much more that needs to be done on both an individual and communal level.
In Parshas Vayeitzei, Rachel turns to Yaakov Avinu and exclaims that she rather die than remain without children; shockingly, Yaakov gets upset with her. Rav Yitzchak Arama, the author of Akeidas Yitzchak, explains Yaakov Avinu’s frustration with a fascinating and insightful explanation. Yaakov was most certainly sympathetic to his barren wife. However, Rachel felt that without a family made up of a spouse and children, her life was not worth living. Yaakov Avinu could not tolerate this sentiment as it is antithetical to what we believe. While Yiddishkeit certainly does emphasize the important role of family, that need not be one’s entire identity; one can and must find purpose in every state of life.
This is a message that all of us, whether we are single or married, need to hear and believe. As a community, we will no doubt continue to search for ways to find shidduchim for everyone looking for one. Until they find them, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that they know how valued they are in Hashem’s eyes and in ours.