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Five Questions to Ask for a Happy Marriage

on Thursday, November 9 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

In a previous message, Inquiries or Inquisitions: A Rabbi’s Perspective on the Shidduch System, I shared some thoughts and modest suggestions regarding what have become normative practices in dating.  Afterwards, someone shared with me what might be the most outrageous prospective shidduch question I have heard yet.  The “other side” wanted to know if the girl’s family members were buried next to each other in the cemetery in Europe or in separate sections of the cemetery designated for men and women.  The parent who was asked this absurd question responded to the shadchan, “Let them know that I believe my grandparents’ ashes were likely mixed together in the crematorium.”

Rav Pam (Ateres Avraham, Chayei Sarah) quotes Rabbeinu Bachya, who instructs us that when looking for a spouse we should not place an overemphasis on looks, money or yichus, but rather the bulk of the attention should be on middos, the person’s character.  The metric Eliezer used to find the proper mate for Yitzchak and the next worthy matriarch of our people was not dress size, SAT score, or net worth, rather it was someone who intuitively acted with kindness, displayed innate compassion, and gave selflessly.

Sadly, the bulk of the typical “shidduch resume” today, as well as the pervasive theme of the questions I entertain when someone is looking into another person, revolves around education and experiences, facts and data regarding family, but little about character and traits.  This is obviously concerning, since it is character and virtues that will inform the compatibility of the couple and determine the success of the marriage.

I am not minimizing the significance of some of these questions.  However, the disproportionate attention given to, and impact of, what should be secondary issues, and the neglect of the primary questions, is no doubt contributing not only to the disillusionment with the shidduch process, but the growing incidence of conflict in marriage and divorce.

A resume and the research process can help decide if a date is worthwhile, but evaluating marriage is much more difficult and will never come as the result of things written on a piece of paper.  It is the result of shared experiences, critical conversations, and learning crucial things about one another’s background, expectations and predilections.

Someone who dated for a fairly long period of time before getting married recently shared with me that now that he has been married for a few years, he thinks back to some of the things that he thought were big issues, and realizes that in truth they are inconsequential.  By the same token, there are many things he now sees as fundamental factors in marriage that he didn’t even consider or think about when identifying what was important to him in a spouse.

So what are the critical things to look for in dating to determine if someone is suitable for marriage? What are the things we should be encouraging families to focus on when entering the shidduch process?

Drs. John and Julie Gottman have been scientifically studying healthy relationships for four decades and have emerged as authorities on the factors that contribute to a successful marriage to the point that they can predict with greater than 90% accuracy if a couple they observe will still be married in five years.

Dr. John Gottman is speaking at BRS on Sunday, January 28th

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Their research shows that Eliezer was on to something.  Kindness is not only an admirable trait regarding the treatment of others, but it glues couples together.  In fact, it is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated, all which combine to feeling loved.  Kindness is not only practiced during good times, but happy marriages practice kindness even in the way a couple fights by making sure that communication never includes condescension, aggression, or name-calling and focuses only on the issue that needs to be resolved.

Kindness and compassion are indispensable in marriage and should be qualities we are unwilling to compromise on for ourselves or our children. But there are other factors which can make or break a marriage and while some answers to questions are not objectively right or wrong, discussing them and understanding the different approaches to them, will go a long way to make a happy marriage.

Here are five examples of conversations that I submit should take place over the course of dating and courtship and even within marriage itself, if they didn’t occur sooner:

  1. How did your family fight?

Disagreements are inevitable in marriage.  How those differences are navigated is the driver of the success of the marriage.  Did your family put things on the table, have it out, did they sweep them under the carpet, or did they silently shut down when issues arose?

  1. Affection

Did your family prioritize and show verbal and physical affection with one another or was it assumed and not expressly provided?  How often do your family members say “I love you” or offer praise?

  1. Articulated Roles

Do you have a more traditional outlook on gender roles and responsibilities regarding children, income and caring for the house, or is there an expectation of sharing all responsibilities equally?

  1. Money

Did your family spend money freely or are they more calculated and frugal? Do you like high end brand name clothing, furniture and cars or are you satisfied with inexpensive or generic alternatives?

  1. Transparency

How do you feel about privacy and personal space within marriage?  Do you expect to have access to all of my passwords, accounts and spend most free time together or do you prefer having personal space and sometimes doing things apart?

Again, in large part there are no right or wrong answers to these five questions and they are certainly not a comprehensive list of the type of issues that truly make or break a marriage.  Nevertheless, they are a sample of the types of ways I believe we should be thinking about evaluating a prospective mate and focusing on the critical things in marriage.

Gottman’s research has shown that 69% of relationship conflict is about perpetual problems. All couples have them – the problems that are grounded in the fundamental differences that any two people face.  They are the issues that create the fights that happen over and over again with both sides thinking this will be the time I convince the other that my way is right, though it never happens.  Gottman says that with every fight there was a conversation that needed to take place, but a fight happened instead.  Rather than revisit the same fights over and over, we can eliminate almost 70% of the conflict in marriage, by simply identifying our fundamental differences and devising a strategy of how we will navigate them with the spirit of compromise and partnership.

R’ Chaim Vital (quoted in R’ Shlomo Wolbe’s Kuntrus Hadracha L’chasanim) said: “A person’s character traits are primarily measured based upon how they are to their spouse.”  If we learn to ask the right questions and emphasize the most important things, perhaps we can improve the process of finding a mate, as well as the health of our marriages themselves.

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