Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I'm in my mid-20s without a strong desire for marriage. On one hand, I'm open and willing to date. But on the other hand, I don't believe I'll ever be ready for marriage. This issue is becoming more and more difficult as my friends and even younger siblings become engaged and married.

Should I still be dating? Or should I simply call quits and figure out how to lead a productive life on my own? What if I find myself ready for marriage, say 10 years down the line, and I date and date and date... then turn 60 and I'm still single! Does that indicate that I was supposed to stay single from the start?

I really need to get some clarity on this, because it's beginning to drive me crazy.

Claire

Dear Claire,

We live in a world in which many people would react to your letter by saying, "Of course she doesn't want to get married. She's not even 30! Contemporary culture tells us that marriage is just another lifestyle choice. In addition, much of contemporary culture views marriage in terms of "how happy is it going to make me," instead of "how can another person and I give to each other and build a rich life together."

But Judaism regards marriage and building a family as a central focus of life, and thus twenty-something is definitively not too early to start.

Yet still, many people don't feel they are ready for marriage, even though they may be of "marriageable age." This may be because they want:

  • a better idea of who they are, or the direction they want their lives to take
  • time to clarify what they expect from marriage and what they seek in a marriage partner
  • to pursue a short-term goal that requires a focus they couldn't maintain if they were dating or married
  • time to mature and individuate from their parents

These people are right: They need to resolve all of these issues in order to be ready to date for marriage. And most of them are able to make a concerted effort to address these issues and be ready for marriage within a reasonable amount of time.

However, when someone describes a vague uncertainty about wanting to get married, or concern that they may never be ready for marriage, our experience has shown that there's more involved than simply needing time for growth, introspection and clarification. Usually, there are one or more unresolved issues that block the desire to get married, and these issues are usually related to something that happened earlier in life that the person hasn't been able to work through.

In your case, it will very helpful to discover what is blocking you from wanting to get married. Because many people are able to learn a great deal about issues such as these through writing, we suggest that you set aside some quiet time for yourself and write down all of the reasons why you believe you might not want to get married, are afraid of marriage, or are not ready for marriage. Write down all of your thoughts, even the ones you're afraid to admit to yourself or to other people. Save your list, and wait another day or so to review it.

The ideas people come up with when they perform this exercise range from seemingly innocuous to traumatic. Some of the more common concerns we've seen are:

  • My parents had a terrible marriage. I don't know how married people are supposed to relate to each other, and I'm afraid I'll make the same mistakes as my parents.
  • Someone very important to me betrayed my trust. I don't know if I will ever be able to trust anyone, and I don't want to be betrayed again.
  • I'm ashamed of the way I look. I don't believe anyone will ever accept my appearance, and I can't bear to be rejected by someone I care about.
  • I'm terrified/repulsed by the idea of physical intimacy with anyone. (This is sometimes expressed by victims of sexual abuse.)
  • I'm afraid of having children and/or afraid I can never be a good parent.
  • I had so much responsibility growing up in my home that I don't want to be trapped in the same life now that I am an adult.
  • My friends have gotten divorced and I'm afraid that if I get married I also will face that problem.
  • I was often teased or ridiculed by others and I can't imagine anyone ever wanting me.
  • I'm overwhelmed when I hear how many responsibilities married people have. I don't think I can handle them.
  • I'm afraid I will be trapped into a lifestyle I don't want.
  • I don't have a strong sense of myself, and I don't know if I ever will.

Part two of this exercise involves examining each of the reasons you listed and figuring out the different ways you can deal with it. Addressing each issue may take time and research, but it takes you one step closer to your goal of discovering and working through what's blocking you.

So, for example, if one of the items on your list is your fear of repeating your parents' dysfunctional patterns of relating to each other, learn what people from similar homes have done to be able to relate to their spouses in a healthier way. That could include identifying strong married couples you know and observing how they interact with each other. It could include reading books on marriage and enrolling in a workshop on marriage skills, conflict resolution, or anger management. It could include talking to a couples' therapist for ideas about how to acquire the skills that can help you have a good relationship with the person you eventually marry.

Your ultimate goal is to be able to address each of these issues so that they won't block you from moving forward in your life. Please don't give up if you find that something is too painful for you to handle on your own, or too frightening to address. In any of these cases, you can find a capable therapist who can help you work through the issues.

We can understand resistance to the idea of discovering what that baggage is. Someone who has built up a lot of protective layers as a coping mechanism -- and feels that they are functioning pretty well in spite of their baggage -- may not like the idea of disturbing those layers. They know it will take time and energy and force them to deal with painful issues that they were "handling" very well when they were buried.

Until you feel that you are ready to get married if you meet the right person, we recommend that you not date. Many men you would date will be marriage-oriented, and it isn't fair to date someone if you don't share that goal. It also will hurt you in the long run, by both jading you and by possibly giving you a "reputation" of being hard to please that may haunt you when you are ready for marriage.

Another thing that will help you during this time: look to find fulfillment in other areas of life. Most single people who are actively looking for marriage partners also manage to have fulfilling careers, hobbies, friendships and community involvement. Life shouldn't stop because you aren't married. However, it's important to make significant room in your life to pursue that very important goal.

Finally, you asked an existential question that we can't answer. Why are so many people who want to get married having trouble finding the right person? This question plagues us every day. In the past, people faced starvation, disease, pogroms... but finding the right spouse wasn't an issue for most of them. Today, compared to the past, we are rich, healthy, and relatively safe, but the dating maze is hard for many of us. We can only speculate why the singles' crisis persists, but in any event it is clearly one of this generation's greatest spiritual challenges.

With best wishes,

Rosie & Sherry