Lori Gottlieb – attractive, intelligent, and personable – was surprised when she hit 40 and still wasn’t married. Raised as a Conservative Jew, she had always assumed that by that age she’d be married with a couple of kids.
She had a mental list of what she was looking for. When she committed it to writing, it had 61 items on it, such as:
- Extremely funny
- Loves kids
- Financially stable
- Athletic but not a sports nut
- Free-spirited but responsible
- Talented but humble
- Warm but not clingy
- Over 5’10” but under 6’0”
- Has a full head of hair (wavy and dark would be nice – no blonds)
- Handy around the house
- Is madly in love with me
Grappling with the issue of how many requirements to concede and when to give up “Mr. Right” for “Mr. Good Enough,” Lori wrote a book called, Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. She made herself what she called, “a dating guinea pig.” She interviewed sociologists, psychologists, marriage researchers, couples therapists, matchmakers, and divorce lawyers. In her own dating life, she tried Speed Dating, matchmakers, dating coaches, as well as an expert who dubbed himself, “a personal trainer for love,” who came to her house weekly to show her how most effectively to use online dating sites. She approached but then nixed a matchmaking company that wanted to charge her $3500 to set her up on six dates. She stretched herself and went out with men who were shorter than 5’10”, who were balding, and even a guy who wore a bowtie (after heavy prodding from her dating coach).
By the end of the book, Lori still wasn’t married, but she had learned a valuable lesson, described by her single friend Erica: “He doesn’t have to fit the exact profile that I have envisioned for myself.… I could be happy and find love if I just adjusted my attitude.”
Before You Find the Right Person, Become the Right Person
I call this, “The Copernican Revolution of Finding a Spouse.” Many single people spend years – or decades – centered on the person they hope to find. They would do better to put themselves into the center of their solar system and focus instead on themselves, by changing their attitudes, expectations, and character traits.
As the motto for The Ladder, my webinar workshop for single women, puts it: “Before you find the right person, become the right person.”
Seeking a spouse is usually approached like a treasure hunt. The gold is there somewhere (you hope!) and it’s just a question of finding it. But most gold is hidden deep in the earth, and in order to find it, you have to outfit yourself with a helmet, flashlight, and boots, you have to equip yourself with the proper digging equipment, and you have to become educated in the science and technology of gold mining. That means: You have to work on yourself before finding the gold.
Let’s take the example of job-hunting. Mitch has been looking for the right job in high tech for six years. He rejected one job because the entrance salary was too low. Another job wouldn’t take him because his skills, learned in college ten years ago, were outdated. Another job wasn’t right for him because it required a lot of travel, and Mitch doesn’t like to travel. Still another job was for a small startup with only six employees, and the personalities of the two prospective co-workers whom Mitch met rubbed him the wrong way. Mitch is still looking for just the right job. Meanwhile, not having worked in six years, he’s starving.
Most of us would advise Mitch to take a break from looking for a job, and take a look instead at himself. He could make himself more employable if he went back to school to acquire the latest skills, if he became humble enough to accept a low salary as a stepping stone to a better position, if he stretched himself beyond his comfort zone to be willing to travel, and if he worked at getting along with a wider range of personalities.
“If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?”
Working on yourself is the antidote not just for single people; it’s the reason that our souls come down into this world. That applies to everyone, single and married people. As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov said, “If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what need have you for a tomorrow?”
Hurdle #1: The List
The first major hurdle between you and the chuppah is your list of requirements for a potential spouse. Lori Gottlieb did not admit to having a list until a married friend insisted that she did – even if it was only in her head. When Lori finally agreed to put pen to paper, “it took me all of three minutes to give a detailed description of my ideal guy. Even if I’d never written a list, I clearly kept a mental file.” And that file listed 61 requirements!
According to the Talmud, 40 days before birth a voice goes out in heaven announcing who this soul is destined to marry, or what is called one’s beshert. The problem is that no one knows in what packaging his or her beshert will appear. He may be taller or shorter, less intellectual or more sports-minded than what you wanted. She may be older or younger, more quirky or less fun-loving than what you imagined. At some point you will meet your beshert, but you could easily reject him/her because of the packaging.
Throw away your list and focus on five essential criteria.
In The Ladder, I tell the members to throw away their lists. Instead, I teach them, “The Ladder Five Criteria.” Assuming the guy doesn’t have either of the flashing red lights of abuse or addiction (or the red question mark of mental illness, which needs further investigation), if the man has “The Ladder Five Criteria,” he will make a fine husband.
The first criterion is good character traits. This is the most important thing to look for in a spouse. A month, a year, and 50 years after the wedding, that’s what you’ll be living with: the character traits of your spouse.
Although I am not a professional matchmaker, single men often come to see me because I know a lot of single women. I ask them what they’re looking for. If the man starts his list with, “thin and pretty,” I feel like showing him to the door. My husband suggests I should say to such a fellow: “I know a woman who would be perfect for you. She’s thin and very pretty. She’s also mean, self-centered, and hypercritical. Shall I set you up with her?”
Here are The Ladder Five Criteria:
- Good character traits: kind, considerate, honest, not stingy, not arrogant, and does not routinely put down individuals and groups
- You enjoy spending time together
- Similar (but not identical) religious level
- The ability or plan to earn a living (which doesn’t have to be six figures)
Hurdle #2: The Objective Assessment
So let’s say you date a man who has these five criteria, but he’s unkempt and unambitious. Or you date a woman who has good character traits and whose company you enjoy, but she’s forgetful and always late. Here’s where working on yourself can make the difference between getting married and staying single.
The most important life skill to acquire is focusing on the positive.
The most important life skill to acquire is: Focusing on the positive. In Hebrew, it’s called hakarat hatov, recognizing the good, which is usually translated as “gratitude.” In positive psychology, hundreds of studies have shown that gratitude is the key to happiness, a well-functioning immune system, and marital harmony.
Most people who go on dates assume the role of The Assessor. “She has this nice quality, but I don’t like that about her…” “He’s strong in A,B, and C, but he’s really weak in D, E, and F.”
D, E, and F become the hurdles to the chuppah. Although everyone understands that s/he will marry a flawed person, because all people are flawed, the more one focuses on the flaws, the more marriage recedes into the distance.
The way to jump over this hurdle is to learn the skill of focusing on the positive. It is a skill, like playing tennis, that you can learn. You acquire this skill by keeping a Gratitude Journal. Every day list five things you are grateful for that you never mentioned before.
Then, both before and after your wedding, you focus on the positive rather than the negative. You’re happy to be marrying a man who is kind, honest, and generous. His lack of neatness and ambition don’t even enter your visual field.
A graduate of The Ladder, who was 30 years old and had been dating for marriage for nine years, sent me the good news that she was engaged to a “wonderful guy.” A year later, she joined my marriage webinar, and when I spoke privately with her on the phone, she went on and on exalting in how happy she was to be married to such a kind and loving man. Only later in the conversation did she mention that he has ADHD, and has lost three jobs in the last year. Now she was pregnant and they’d have to solve the problem of how to pay for health insurance when she stopped working. I marveled at her attitude. Their financial problems, which could have dominated her field of vision, were a small black blotch on the otherwise brightly colored canvas of her life. She had learned the secret of happiness – and marital harmony.
Hurdle #3: The Fantasy
Everyone over the age of 20 was raised on fantasies of, “They lived happily ever after.” No matter how sensible and realistic you are, the hope for a trouble-free life probably persists deep in your heart. So even if you really like the woman you are dating, her difficult parents, who are likely to create future problems, may scare you off. Even if the man you are dating is wonderful, his low earning potential, which is bound to make you strapped financially when you have children, may end the match. Why should you commit to a life likely to have problems?
The answer is: All lives have problems! God, who created the world, set it up this way because only by facing and overcoming challenges does a person grow spiritually and thus fulfill his/her purpose in this world.
Problems in life are inevitable. Face them with courage and optimism.
The Midrash says, “God has many bears and lions.” This means that if you are not challenged financially, you may be challenged with ill health. If your in-laws don’t create problems for you, your neighbors might. Infertility, a freak accident, an economic downturn, a hurricane, or a tyrannical boss can each pose serious challenges to the tranquil life you crave but does not exist.
In Judaism, we do not ask for tests, but we also don’t detour from our life’s path to avoid them. Problems in life are inevitable. Face them with courage and optimism.
Hurdle #4: The Goldilocks Self-Image Problem
A major hurdle on the way to the chuppah is a self-image that is too big or too small, too inflated or too deflated.
If your ego is too big, you may think, “How can I marry him? I have a Ph.D., and he graduated from a community college.” Or, “How can I marry a man who earns half the salary I earn?” Or, “I’m the greatest catch of 2015, and she’s not my equal.” Or, “I deserve better than her.”
If your ego is too weak, you may think, “How can I marry her? My friends won’t be impressed.” Or, “Undertaking the responsibilities of a wife, a house, and children is too overwhelming.” Or, “With a 50% divorce rate, how can I possibly succeed in keeping his interest?”
A healthy self-image, one that Goldilocks would deem, “just right,” is indispensible to getting married – and staying married. True self-esteem has three components:
- To know that your essential identity is that you are a Divine soul, ever perfect and ever pure, connected to God and beloved by God.
- A daily examination of your actions where you validate yourself for the good that you do, and do teshuvah for your wrong actions, in a proportion of 4 to 1.
- The commitment to continually work on yourself (through a class in Mussar – Jewish self-improvement – or a self-help group), so although you are not perfect, you see yourself as a “work in progress,” or “an unfinished masterpiece.”
The daily examination of your deeds is particularly important for striking the balance between a self-image that is too big or too small. As Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller says: “If you want to know who you are, look at what you do.” You may think that you’re the most generous person in town, but when you examine your actions, what did you actually do today that was generous? You might consider yourself a nobody, but when you validate yourself for four good actions you performed today, you’ll have to admit that you’re better than you thought.
Becoming the right person is even harder than finding the right person. But the empowering perk is that no matter how long it takes to get married, you’ll always be living with a truly great person – yourself.