Dear Rosie & Sherry,
I'm 24 years old and for the past year I've been dating a really wonderful man who's also 24. We're both college graduates and are working in our respective fields.
Max and I share a similar outlook on life and we both want to have a warm, open Jewish home and share responsibility for raising and supporting our children. But, in many ways, our ideas about what's important in life are very different from those of Max's family and friends he grew up with. Max is the first one in his family to graduate from college, and none of his siblings or cousins are following in his footsteps.
Something troubles me about his old friends. Many of them barely got through high school and now work at marginal jobs, and a few have gotten into legal trouble. Their main interests seem to be their cars and getting drunk on weekends. Max told me that he's outgrown them over the years, but he still misses the bond they had. I'm uncomfortable just knowing that he used to be like them when he was younger, even though he's so different now.
These differences in our background really bother me. On one hand, I admire the fact that Max is responsible, loving, kind, constantly growing, and eager to learn more. My parents have met him and like him. On the other hand, I've met Max's family, and while I have nothing against them, I don't feel much in common with them. They have a different way of practicing Judaism. They're also a lot rougher around the edges than I'm used to. I'm afraid that I won't be able to have a close relationship with Max's parents, siblings and extended family if we get married.
I can see us having a wonderful life together, but I'm worried about the differences in our backgrounds. What should I do?
This is the second letter we've received this week from a reader asking how to overcome concerns about differences in religious, cultural, or socio-economic backgrounds. We applaud you for writing now, rather than agreeing to become engaged and then confronting your mixed feelings about these issues. It is crucial to try to come to terms with what bothers you as early as possible, instead of ignoring it and continually pushing it off for later.
But before we discuss what you don't like about Max's background, we'd like you to look at all the positive aspects of your relationship. It sounds as though you genuinely respect and admire him, and that you care for each other. You believe that you have similar values and goals in life, and it sounds as though you've talked about these in detail.
(That's exactly what we encourage couples who are contemplating marriage to do, since it's important for them to share many core values and have similar ideas about the future they want to have. This includes what their home-life will be like, how they'll incorporate Jewish ritual and tradition into their family, the lifestyle they look forward to sharing, how each of them will balance career with marriage and family, and the way they want to raise and educate their children.)
The place where you're stuck is being able to accept Max's background. You are right not to agree to spend your lives together unless you can accept Max for who he is and where he came from.
Will his family interfere with your own lifestyle choices?
It seems that the reason you're having trouble accepting Max's background is that you expected something very different in the family you would be marrying into. You wanted a family who was religiously similar to your own, who acted like your family acts, and whose interests were similar to yours. Since that's not going to be the case if you marry Max, you need to ask yourself how important these elements really are to your future marriage. Will not having your expectations met stand in the way of you and Max having a good, loving, trusting relationship? Will it interfere with your own values or with the way you want to raise and educate your children? Are you worried that you and Max may not be able to deal with the way your children may be influenced by his relatives' conduct or outlook on life? If any of these answers are "yes," we encourage you to explore different ways that you and Max might be able to address your concerns.
At the same time, we'd like you to try to look at Max's situation a little differently than you have until now. It's called "reframing," which means looking at a situation from a different perspective. Max's family played a very big role in helping him turn into the man you care about and respect. You may find many things to admire in the way his parents raised him, the way they relate to each other and to him, and how the other members of his family get along with each other.
Look at the positive values his family embraces: Do they value hard work? Honesty? Helping each other out? Generosity? Serving the community? They may have talents and skills you're not accustomed to seeing in the people you're close to. We don't think you'll have to look very hard to find personal qualities and values that you can relate to -- ones that transcend issues of education, social refinement, and even religious practice.
And even though at first you might find it hard to find common topics of conversation, if you approach his family with the same open mind that you would like them to have when they relate to you, in time you will find yourself fitting in. As you get to know their personalities, their stories -- funny ones about their childhoods, intriguing ones about a challenge someone overcame, family legends, or retelling day-to-day events -- their lifestyle will make more sense to you, and your perspective will make more sense to them. Look a little deeper into each person, and you'll be able to discover who has a sharp wit, who can find the best bargains, who can share terrific recipes, who will give you the shirt off his back if you're in need, who has a fascinating perspective on politics and current events, and who has more common sense than many of the highly-educated people you know.
At the beginning, most people don't feel comfortable with their in-laws.
It is also important for you to understand that the awkwardness you now feel around Max's family is very common. At the beginning, most people don't feel comfortable with their in-laws, even when they come from similar cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. It typically takes time to nurture these new relationships. If you realize that there are many qualities that transcend lifestyle differences, and look for all of the qualities you can respect, appreciate and learn from, it's likely that you'll gradually feel more comfortable with Max's family, find ways to relate to them socially, and even grow fond of them. Just give yourself time.
Reframing will also help you to come to terms with the fact that Max grew up with a "rough crowd" of friends. It's not unusual for someone who grew up in a more sheltered environment to feel disconcerted about this. But instead of looking at Max as someone who grew up with friends who may have negatively influenced the way he views the world, you can turn it around 180 degrees and see Max as someone who broke out of that mold, searched for a higher truth, gave up the values his friends shared, moved past them, and is continuing to grow. He started to break away from the pack simply by deciding to go to college. Since then, he's matured, found meaning in life, and left these aimless young men behind. Isn't that something gigantic for you to admire and respect?
Respect is one of the cornerstones of a wonderful marriage, and if respect is lacking then the relationship deteriorates. As you decide whether Max is right for you, you must be able to ultimately appreciate him for the wonderful man he is and can accept his family for who they are. If you find that in spite of your efforts, you just can't get past your old way of thinking, it may be that you aren't right for each other.
We wish you success in navigating the dating maze.
Rosie & Sherry
I want to thank you for replying to my problem. It's funny that after reading this letter, I realized that my problem is having the wrong perspective. I want to be sure and be confident with the person I am going to marry, and maybe the peripheral doesn't matter as much as the person himself. The fact that he has been consistently caring and good to me is what I should be looking into more. I guess it's really difficult to do when I have so many influences from the people around me pulling every which way ("He's a little too this or that").
I often find myself comparing him to previous men I've dated and that complicates things even more. No one is perfect, and everyone comes in his own unique package. I hope that I am able to come to terms with who he is and embrace it. Your response has uplifted me and given me a lot to think about. I will update you on any news of the two of us. Thank you so much for helping me and others; you two are an inspiration.