Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Picky, Picky: It Would Be Funny...

...if it weren't so serious.

Bad4Shidduchim has penned a beautiful, funny-yet-moving Open Letter to female singles in the frum world that everyone (single or married, male or female) should be sure to read in full. It's hard to choose an excerpt, it's so well put, but to expound on a couple points:
Dear Girlfriends,

You put up with a lot of criticism when dating. Even if you staunchly stand against nose jobs, it can’t help but get to you: all that disapprobation of how you dress, how you look, how you do your hair and carry yourself. What you say on a first date and what you shouldn’t have said. Some say you’re not modest enough. Some say you’re too modest—you’re not in high school anymore. Some say be yourself; some say don’t lay it on too thick at first. Whatever you do is somehow wrong, and that’s the reason you’re still single. [...]

Don’t let those other people get to you. They don’t know you well enough, and they’re too shallow themselves to delve beyond your surface. Those guys who complained about your hair, your makeup? Too busy keeping artificial scores to experience real life. The one who ditched you because he worried you weren’t pretty enough to show his friends? He’s the one who should be self-conscious, not you.
A friend of ours became infuriated when she read the now infamous controversial piece in The Jewish Press recently by Yitta Halberstam, prompting a fantastic email discussion on the subject of shidduchim in general, and thanks to a timely e-mail from a shadchan, a specific one about "picky boys".

Firstly, near the end of our long, back and forth discussion, she noted something which is extremely important: [slightly edited]
As much as I have a healthy self esteem, when I read these articles about looks, etc., or if I'm having a bad day with regards to my look, or if I gain some weight (helloooo, I'm a girl, it happens! I love chocolate), then I get really anxious. As much as I know I'm supposed to be appreciated for my internals - and even when I'm on the chubby side, I'm still attractive - it can get to you! And I'm generally healthy and really not predisposed to eating disorders, etc., but if I can get so affected, and I'm generally healthy, then what about others who are not!??! Geez.
Meanwhile, while we were having our discussion, someone had told her to contact a shadchan about a certain boy, but the shadchan told our friend nicely in an e-mail that the boy is "very picky" and while she thinks it's a good fit hashkafically and personality-wise, she had tried setting him up previously and would have to say no for now. Our friend followed up to note that she wasn't asking to be set up, but that while she was on the subject, it seemed that if everything else was okay, the only logical conclusion would be that looks were the issue - and while she is quite secure in her looks and anyone she dates (and she usually doesn't date via shadchan) seem to appreciate her looks just fine, she nevertheless feels uncomfortable even being set up by someone who would condone such behavior and facilitate on behalf of such a boy.
No caption necessary...

Reading between the lines of the shadchan's original e-mail, it seemed she was subtly hinting that she was doing just that, at least to some extent, and this was confirmed in her response to our friend - the shadchan feels stuck between a rock and a hard place. She laments the guys who she would like to set up but doesn't feel they are "ready" to date, and gets very upset at those who want "stunning" girls or are unreasonable in general. She decries the boys who want specific "looks" they like, states clearly that the majority of the girls are far superior to the guys in most ways, and notes that the boys' attitudes toward looks put shadchanim in a tough spot. She does, however, end up trying to set these boys up with girls similar to their demanded "look".

Our friend's reply nails the solution on the head:
Thank you very much for your response; I appreciate that this seems to be an all too common issue and you as a shadchan end up in the middle. I only wish (as I'm sure you and many others do) that we could find some way to express to certain guys (and girls I'm sure) that the huge focus and unhealthy perspectives related to looks (because I totally understand that attraction IS a big deal, within reason!) can be damaging not only to their ability to build and maintain strong relationships but that people will also become hesitant to set them up.
It is hard to fault a formal shadchan from doing the best they can with what they have in terms of setting people up, even if that means working around boys' picky whims to try and make matches. Would it be better if they simply said "I'm sorry, but I don't feel comfortable setting you up" - ? Certainly! But it serves little purpose to attack them for this, as they are simply trying to do a job, and the shadchan strongly felt that otherwise, these were genuinely nice boys who seem to have fallen into this trap. It's at least arguable for a professional to work with what they've got.

For the rest of us, however, this is absolutely something we can do. One of the major contributors to the so-called shidduch "crisis" is that rather than attempting to solve the core issues, people cater to them instead: Instead of telling boys to grow up, not be shallow, and give people a fair chance, we instead tell the girls to try and fit the shtus-like approach and do whatever they can to knock a guy's socks off when he picks her up. Instead of stopping girls from dating too young, which is creating an incredibly imbalanced pool, parents encourage daughters to date younger and younger so they have more of a chance of finding someone - not realizing that they're actually making it harder just by adding their daughters to create an absurdly high ration of girls to boys.

But certainly among people we've spoken to, behind the scenes things are different. Are guys still getting more dates than girls? Seemingly. But more and more, their friends and even their family sometimes simply don't feel comfortable setting them up, noting that they're too shallow, too immature, and too difficult. Girls who are dating are finding more and more that their dates have a serious lack of maturity, skewed value systems, and to some extent (not always) are taking the attitude that they aren't going to put up with it anymore. If a guy is demanding a ton of information or a set of pictures for a simple first date, they view him as too immature and not worth the time, and have the shadchan (if not the girl herself) basically pull back the suggestion. Essentially, these girls are saying that if a guy is actually a mensch, he'll act appropriately and they won't need to jump through all these hoops and play all these games to go out.

More importantly: They're right.

The girls who have taken the attitude of "if he's interested, great. If not, that's fine, too" have, it seems*, an easier time dealing with the dating world - and the guys who act similarly are having better experiences as well. By not allowing one side to cater to the whims of the other, the dating dynamic changes - no longer are relationships uneven, but they begin to take shape on even footing. The girls regain their self-esteem by not lowering themselves to chase dates, and for the guys who work at building such relationships despite not having every card in their hand it creates a sense of humility and hubris that seems to be disappearing otherwise. It's also reasonable to say that being forced to work at building, rather than simply choosing or being picked to be part of a relationship, allows couples to appreciate them that much more, which may help to stem the increasing spate of divorces in the frum community. (One can hope, anyway.)

While it is difficult to choose the atypical path, perhaps those young women who wish to build strong, lasting relationships should simply stop playing the game. Normally, a couple heads on a date knowing every bit of mundane information about the other person, plus any great story that their respective friends told them about one another. This effectively kills the date from the get go - there's less of a reason to listen to the person across the table other than to overanalyze all their little tics and comments and be incredibly self-conscious of one's own. For the most part, people have made a basic box set of judgments about the other person from the information provided., and all the date accomplishes is fill the box in a bit.

Perhaps instead**, young men and women should ask their friends and family to set them up based on the one or two core values which are integral to their being above every other (and be truly honest with themselves about what these are, or this will be a failure) or even nothing, and otherwise instruct their friends to say nothing about them - and to accept those matches which accept those terms. And perhaps those guys who are menschen - or maybe just sick of being told about countless girls who are exactly the same on paper - will get smart, take a chance, and say "Hey, you know what - I think that value is what I identify with", and give it a shot. Suddenly, the date isn't a boring give and take talking about everything the pair knows about one another, filling in a pre-defined box, but instead building a picture of a person almost from scratch, with one major foundation piece at its base.

And hey - if it doesn't work, there's always plastic surgery.

* Please note that this is from our selective experiences and obviously could be unrepresentative. That said, all four couples we helped introduce/set up who are married did so without any games, without any advance pictures of one another prior to meeting, and by handling their relationships basically entirely on their own as adults. I think I've been involved in less than 20 set-ups, most of which lasted at least a number of dates, which is about the best a person setting people up can expect - the rest is up to the daters themselves.

** I tested the above theory on one couple. For six months, the guy (who wanted a break from dating in general) refused to date a girl on just my say-so without any information. Finally, one day, he acquiesced, figuring what's the harm. They recently gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Sure, 1 is a horrible sample size, but 1/1 is still batting 1.000!