rying to apply some hard facts to the so-called “shidduch crisis,” one researcher proposed a scientific study of frum singles’ dating patterns and attitudes. The resulting data from almost 800 singles — men and women, yeshivish and modern — serve as a rich mine of facts about frum dating and the world of shidduchim todayWhen Dr. Kiki Ehrenpreis was looking for a topic for her doctoral dissertation in psychology, a colleague recommended that she conduct research on her own community. Her thesis advisor at Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology specialized in obesity issues, so Dr. Ehrenpreis decided to combine the obesity interest with a subject on the minds of so many in our community: the shidduch system.
Having seen the painful struggle that many overweight friends had with shidduchim, Dr. Ehrenpreis proposed to look into how weight affects dating in the frum world. “We all assume that women who weigh more don’t go on many dates” says Dr. Ehrenpreis, herself a vivacious young woman. “But we don’t know that for sure without data to back it up. Studies in secular society have already shown that overweight women are at a disadvantage in many ways, including dating. I saw my research project as an opportunity to ask about frum dating in general, and get some facts about what’s really happening with the so-called ‘shidduch crisis.’ ”
Dr. Ehrenpreis collected enough information to test her hypotheses and complete her dissertation in 2010. She is currently working as a psychologist for a girls’ school in Brooklyn as well as with elementary yeshivah boys via Counterforce (an Orthodox mental health agency). But there’s more to analyze from the data she gleaned for her dissertation. She works as a research project manager for the Institute for Applied Research and Community Collaboration (ARCC), which focuses on research for the benefit of the Orthodox Jewish community, and she is looking forward to delving further into her data set to help produce changes that can target the real problems singles are facing.
Not Quite Black and White
Dr. Ehrenpreis began with the intuitive hypothesis that overweight and obese singles would get fewer dates, she also theorized that there would be a correlation between self-esteem and dating frequency (i.e., that those who had fewer dates would also have lower self-esteem).
There were some surprises when her survey data was analyzed. While the results didn’t turn her main hypothesis on its head, it did indicate that dating patterns are not as black and white as some cavalier “shidduch crisis” activists promote.
In order to collect data, she used Survey Monkey, an online tool, to conduct a poll of Orthodox singles, raffling off an iPod Touch as an incentive for participants. (“This was 2010, so the iPod Touch was still a big thing,” she says with an apologetic smile.) Almost 800 people responded (575 women, 203 men), about equally split between “yeshivish,” “modern yeshivish,” and “modern Orthodox,” with a small number of Lubavitch and chassidic singles. In addition to asking subjects to report their weight, she asked dozens of questions about personal background, dating history, preferences, and feelings about shidduchim overall. The anonymity of all participants was guaranteed. Nevertheless, Dr. Ehrenpreis was impressed by the willingness of her subjects to share personal data. Participants also filled out a widely used measure of self-esteem known as the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.
What did the survey participants consider the most important criteria in dating? For men, the most commonly chosen priorities were hashkafah, middos, and personality. But “looks” came in as a very high priority as well. Women’s criteria were quite similar, except that looks were a much lower priority. Women also cited middos, hashkafah, and personality. Intelligence and commitment to halachah were cited by 20 to 30 percent of female respondents.
Upon analysis, the data proved that her hypothesis about higher weight leading to decreased frequency of dating was correct — but only for women. While men in every weight category (normal, overweight, and obese) all went out on a similar number of dates in the time period in question, women who were underweight went out the most frequently, and overweight women went out on fewer dates than those in the normal weight category. Obese women went on the fewest dates of all. These findings are similar to research done in the general Western society, where women may be judged even more by their looks.
But wasn’t that what she expected? It’s considered almost axiomatic that men want to date attractive women, while women are looking for good character — a mensch.
“The chiddush is that we can use data and scientific analysis to effectively determine if our theories are true or just theories,” she says. “There are so many reasons people like to give for why there’s a shidduch crisis, but so far there are no published studies we know of that have actually tried to find out what’s true or not. If we can begin to see what’s really going on, with data to back us up, we know where to put our efforts in making changes.”
It’s also important to note that while comparing our analyses with data from secular research, it may be that weight is actually less of a factor in dating in this religious sample than in the secular world. Dr. Ehrenpreis cautions us from concluding that women should feel pressure to be underweight.
“Many men are happy to date women who aren’t super-thin,” she says. “And if you look at males’ reported top priorities in dating, a high percentage of them are also focused on middos and hashkafah — more than those who prioritized looks and weight. But having such a stark picture of the overall finding that overweight women are so marginalized in the dating economy is also hopefully a wake-up call to find answers for these women who are struggling, instead of flippantly just telling people to go on a diet.”
Am I Still Normal?
Dr. Ehrenpreis wanted to get a sense of how often all singles were dating, since many singles wonder how much other people are going out, and what should be considered “normal.” She found that in the previous three months, the typical woman went on approximately three dates, and the typical man went out on five. (These numbers include repeat dates with the same person.) So it’s clear that men do, in fact, date significantly more frequently than women, which seems to provide evidence for the idea that there are somehow more available women in shidduchim than men. However, some of the factors one might expect to impede dating frequency didn’t show up in the data. For example, baalei teshuvah went out as much as frum-from-birth singles, and divorced people dated as much as the never-married. Men who were learning in yeshivah full time didn’t seem to date more than men who were working. The perception that some of these groups may be dating less is because people may not realize how few dates even more seemingly advantaged singles go on.
“What’s most alarming,” Dr. Ehrenpreis says, “is the number of people who reported having no dates in three months. Twenty-two percent of women reported having gone on zero dates in the three months we were asking about. For males, the number was lower, but also shocking — 16 percent of men reported zero dates in the prior three months.
“The frum community needs to be aware of this. Over one fifth of girls and more than one out of every six or seven boys are not getting any dates. That,” she emphasizes, “is the shidduch crisis!”
Dr. Ehrenpreis’s second hypothesis about the relationship between self-esteem and frequency of dating—i.e., either that obtaining fewer dates will lower self-esteem or that higher self-esteem will attract a higher number of dates — was not borne out by her data.
“One of my main hypotheses was that people with more dates would have higher self-esteem, either because more dates made them feel better about themselves, or because people with higher self-esteem would be able to get more dates,” Dr. Ehrenpreis explains. “That wasn’t the case. What was related to self-esteem was satisfaction with how many dates one goes on. This is very important, because it means that if singles work on improving how they feel about the number of dates they go on, they might feel better about themselves. It may be hard for someone to change how many dates he or she goes on, but if they changed their expectations — for example, by realizing that they don’t go on that many fewer dates than their peers, or that they focus on dating appropriate people instead of just getting more dates — then that could help them cope better with the dating process. Psychologically, the idea of changing your mindset when you can’t change the situation is tremendously important.”
In 2011, Dr. Ehrenpreis presented her research findings at the annual conference of Nefesh, an umbrella organization for Orthodox mental health professionals. Dr. Yitzchak Schechter, a Monsey psychologist who directs the Bikur Holim CAPs clinic in Monsey, as well as the Institute for Applied Research and Community Collaboration (ARCC), saw the presentation and immediately understood the potential of her study.
“At ARCC, we try to translate Shabbos table talk into measurable data,” Dr. Schechter told Mishpacha. “We’d already begun looking into dating a little, and have been conducting a big study of separation and divorce. When I saw Kiki’s data, I realized this could be part of a larger look at frum dating and marriage. We could see the whole trajectory.”
Together with others at ARCC, they have been collaborating on a more extensive review of her data, in the hopes of better understanding the issues related to shidduchim in the Orthodox world. Two other researchers have offered their services to help analyze the study: Daniel Weiss, who runs the singles initiative called the Dvash Project, and Koby Oppenheim, a data analyst who works largely with sociological findings.
“At Dvash, which I founded with the backing of Rabbi Moshe Weinberger and Rabbi Eytan Feiner, I’m involved with singles a lot,” Daniel Weiss told Mishpacha. “As a result I have lots of theories as to what’s going on.” But he prefers not to make any claims until he analyzes the data and see if his ideas hold water.
Koby Oppenheim is also not ready to make any pronouncements. Thus far, he’s been helping with the statistical organization, putting the data into tables and starting to analyze subgroups of subjects. “We’re hoping to capitalize on this data to understand how to best orient ourselves to help the community,” he says.
Still, although the data collected was based on dating patterns and dating frequency, even a hundred dates doesn’t necessarily get a person to the chuppah. So where does that leave the “shidduch crisis”?
“It’s definitely true that we need a lot more information in order to understand what’s blocking people from getting married,” Dr. Ehrenpreis explains. “We would like to do a follow-up study on recently married people in order to see what factors helped them. However, this data gives us a good start in understanding current dating patterns and attitudes, so we can at least start to examine some shidduch-crisis theories. And then when we look at dating styles, we can start figuring out who might have more of a chance of getting married. Our data relating to reasons people break up can also help us understand if certain people need more help in tailoring who they date or if they may need to have different expectations from their dates.”
But even if all this dating exploration doesn’t lead to the chuppah, it can be helpful in another way.
“Inasmuch as we know that there’s this growing segment of the frum population who are spending many years of their lives single and in shidduchim (and tragically some of them might never marry, chas v’shalom — this may be too depressing to even consider, but I think it’s a reality we have to face), it’s important for the community not only to figure out how to get them to the chuppah — which is obviously crucial — but in the meantime, how to help make their lives happier and more meaningful and productive so they don’t feel like they are just in limbo,” Dr. Ehrenpreis says. “This is also why it’s helpful to see what might boost self-esteem for people who are dating so long, which can be brutal for one’s self-image.”
Paradox of Choice
The question remains: Why are frum singles having such a hard time finding mates?
“I don’t know that we should call it a ‘shidduch crisis,’ ” Dr. Schechter says. “I believe it’s more of a ‘values crisis.’ Shidduchim are a central organizing principle of our society, perpetuating a certain way of life, and any larger issues in the community will be reflected in shidduchim.”
Dating itself has certainly changed in the past few generations. It has become more formalized for those beginning the process, yet more open for older singles with access to dating sites. Recently, it has become a more common practice for shadchanim and parents to ask for a picture along with a r?sum?, despite controversy over whether this is compatibile with Torah values.
“When I started my research in 2010, asking for pictures of a potential date was less common,” Dr. Ehrenpreis pointed out. “These days many people have been discussing the pros and cons of pictures in different frum forums. Many women feel it’s degrading, and many individuals are more attractive in person when you get to know them.”
The fact that women find certain aspects of shidduchim degrading is less surprising given the theory that women feel more powerless in societies where there’s an “oversupply” of young women versus men. A popular explanation of the shidduch crisis in recent years has been referred to as the “age gap,” which postulates that men dating younger women in a population with a high birth rate will produce more available females for males to date. The effects of a population imbalance between women and men was already being investigated in the 1980s. Dr. Ehrenpreis refers us to Too Many Women? (Marcia Guttentag and Paul Secord, 1983), a scholarly survey across cultures and historical periods that found when marriageable-aged women outnumber men, women are more objectified, and there are higher rates of divorce.
Conversely, when there are more available men (which, interestingly enough, the authors claim was the case in many Orthodox Jewish communities, such as in Russia in the 1800s), women are treated with more respect, and society reflects more traditional gender roles. Business journalist Jon Birger makes similar claims in his more recently researched book, Date-onomics (2012) in which he demonstrates the “shidduch crisis” is even more oppressive for non-Jewish college-educated women. In the secular world, there are four educated women for every three educated men, and to aggravate the situation, loose moral standards across the board leave men very little incentive to marry.
But most frum singles don’t attribute their bachelor status to demographics. “When I asked people why they think there’s a shidduch crisis,” Dr. Ehrenpreis says, “a lot of them said that too many people have unrealistic expectations or the wrong priorities in what they are looking for.” Twenty-five percent of girls and 38 percent of boys said that the opposite sex is too picky, while about 40 percent of female respondents felt that mothers of boys — who are seen as the gatekeepers of many people’s shidduchim — were too picky. About 20 percent believed that shadchanim aren’t doing an effective enough job matching singles. In terms of why the subjects thought that they themselves were still single, many people said they have trouble finding the type of person they are looking for or that they themselves were “out of the box.”
While the questions still abound, and the pain of a very complex situation is all too real, Dr. Kiki Ehrenpreis’s data will surely help us understand how we can help singles. Perhaps her next survey can aid us in ensuring they stay married when they finally find that ever-elusive bashert.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 599)