I turned myself into a pretzel trying to do what was “right”
I started dating at the fairly typical age of 19, but only got married 20 years later. Throughout those years of dating, I was blessed. I lived at home with my parents with whom I had a good relationship. I had a solid group of supportive, fun, lively friends, both married and single, and the unwavering support and encouragement of a rebbetzin whom I respected and relied on. I also had a great job I loved and in which I saw a lot of success.
I got to travel the world and explore fascinating places. Through hard spiritual and emotional work, I was able to accept my situation and created a life for myself that allowed me to be happy, healthy and whole during those challenging years of singlehood.
I won’t deny that some days were full of heartache, and I cried myself to sleep countless nights over dreams and hopes that weren’t fulfilled. It wasn’t easy to balance the supreme joy of a sibling’s happy occasion while simultaneously feeling the pain of not having that same thing for myself. It was hard to watch my siblings and friends get married, have kids, make brissim, upsherins, bar mitzvahs, and weddings, while I was the lonely guest, the one showing up noticeably, conspicuously, painfully on my own.
I was what could be called a “good dater.” I was fairly easy-going, friendly, and non-judgmental. I gave everyone a chance, listened to shadchanim when they said try one more time, dated guys who were perhaps suitable, though I was certain they weren’t, and spoke to professionals, a rebbetzin, and dating mentors to make sure I was making sound decisions.
But I was living in a world where everyone wanted me to be happy, which meant they wanted to see me married. With my best interests at heart, they offered advice, guidance, and constructive feedback. They were motivated by good intentions, but often contradicted my mentors.
And yet, I listened to them. I listened to those voices telling me not to be picky, telling me to adjust what I was looking for because what I wanted was “unrealistic” and “didn’t exist.” I was apparently “too frum” and needed to be “more open-minded.”
I was told it wasn’t smart to trust my gut and that maybe I didn’t know what I really needed. I was assured that as a wife, I could mold a guy into the husband I wanted, so I should overlook the “non-essentials” that were bothering me. I was instructed to give the guy one more chance because perhaps he wasn’t fully himself and I didn’t really get the opportunity to know him. I was informed that the reasons I provided for saying no were invalid, and that if I really wanted to get married, I should see it through to the end (which usually meant dating until the guy said no). I was advised to tone down my personality, to not share all I’d accomplished because guys found me intimidating.
I was informed that I must send a picture of myself. Sometimes even that wasn’t enough, it had to be a full-length picture. Perhaps I should even get my hair and makeup done and go to a professional photographer? Someone once said to me that I was so much cuter in real life than in my picture, and suggested I photoshop my photograph so it reflected more of what I really looked like.
Past a certain age, I was encouraged to attend singles events, go to mixed Shabbos meals, and “get myself out there” so that people would see me, think of me, remember I was still around.
I was told many, many things, and like the conscientious student I was, I listened to it all.
I learned to doubt my intuition, blame myself when something didn’t work out, and swallow veiled insults dressed as constructive feedback. I turned myself into a pretzel trying to do what was “right.”
But I didn’t even know what was right anymore. Did those voices advising me speak the truth? What about my own voice? What happened to the accomplished, successful woman I was when someone I didn’t know, or even someone who cared deeply, told me something I knew was not okay? Why, when it came to shidduchim, did I lose my sense of self, my sense of what’s right, my confidence?
A few years ago, I decided to step back and take a brutally honest look at my dating experiences. The world of shidduchim is confusing and painful and disorienting. I realized I needed to shut out the external voices and listen closely to myself. I worked with a therapist to rebuild my sense of self and spoke often with my rebbetzin to define who I was, what I valued, and the kind of home I envisioned.
After this inner work, I arrived at some surprising conclusions. I could have ideas of my own! I could have values that were non-negotiable! I could have a voice!
I reassessed the way I viewed my hishtadlus. I recognized that doing the “right” thing wouldn’t guarantee I’d get married. There are far too many men and women who do everything society dictates as “right,” and yet remain unmarried, so I didn’t buy into the notion that there is a “right” thing to do. Instead, I figured out what was right for me, regardless of what the societal expectations were.
I delved into the topic of hishtadlus and realized that the reasonable effort we must exert, while fully recognizing that the results are in Hashem’s hands, is different for each person, based on their age, gender, personality, temperament, level of emunah, and dozens of other factors. I decided that if I truly trusted that results only come about through Hashem, I could put in a minimal amount of hishtadlus and leave the rest up to Him — no additional hishtadlus would change the results.
If I wasn’t finding my bashert, it didn’t mean I needed to automatically blame it on a lack of hishtadlus. I saw this so clearly: One family could have a child who got married immediately, and another who waited years to get married. It was unlikely the family did hishtadlus for one child and not the other!
I stopped listening to people who told me what my hishtadlus should be and started looking within myself to figure that out. I finally realized there is no one who can definitively tell you what your hishtadlus needs to be; this is where you must listen to your own voice, recognize your own needs, and develop a deep dependency on Hashem, trusting that if you do what is truly right in your eyes, Hashem will bring your salvation.
I constantly worked on recognizing Hashem’s complete control over the world and accepting that He does only what is best. I reaffirmed that my job was to be the best person I could be, and that Hashem would gift me with marriage when it was the right time.
The ultimate hishtadlus, the one action that made me feel I’d put in my best effort, was tefillah. I reached out to Hashem, thanking Him for the wonderful life I had and begged Him to perform the miracle of sending me my bashert. There were months when I davened, but felt too broken and too disheartened to ask to get married. It was a hard contradiction to deal with — to be upbeat and happy and accepting of my current life while also begging and pleading for a different life. Sometimes I ignored my wish to get married, pushed it so far down into the most secret place of my heart. I imagined I didn’t really want it so badly just so I could function in a society structured around that very thing I was frightened I’d never attain.
But even in those moments, I knew, deeply, that Hashem was the only one capable of lifting me out of this challenge.
With this clearer understanding of hishtadlus, I made a few decisions about my dating life. I didn’t go to singles events that were open to a very broad range of people. At such events, the crowd was very diverse and it was unlikely I would meet someone similar to me hashkafically.
Singles events in general made me feel like I was on display, like I was selling myself all evening over and over again, and they drained me emotionally. (Though if a singles event was run well, catered to a specific crowd, and had reputable and respected shadchanim, I considered it.)
Though I got a lot of flak for it, I stopped sending out a picture of myself. To anyone. For any reason. I believed my dignity and self-respect were too important to sacrifice on the altar of doing what was expected. I didn’t want to feel my entire potential as a wife was based on my picture, even if that picture had been complimented many times over the years and had gotten me dates in the past. I also firmly believed it wasn’t okay for men to have albums of women in their phone they could flip through as though it was a catalogue from which they could choose the woman who appealed to them most.
I was often told that no guy would even look at my shidduch résumé if it didn’t have a picture attached. I knew of people who found a picture of me from somewhere and shared it without my permission because they believed I was stubborn and delusional and they had to disregard my request if I had a hope of ever getting married.
And yet I held firm to this for three years, with no exceptions. I know I lost potential dates due to the choices I made, but I didn’t believe I would lose out on marriage because of them.
And then, at the age of 39, on Thanksgiving weekend, I traveled to visit a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. As soon as I landed, my friend informed me she was setting me up on a date. She told me that the guy’s sister, a friend of hers, had called her earlier in the week to ask if she knew anyone for her brother. Based on her friend’s description of her brother, my friend immediately thought of me. Wasn’t it hashgachah that I was flying in that weekend anyway?
I rolled my eyes. I wasn’t in the mood to date. I was supposed to be on vacation! Couldn’t I get some time off? Besides, I hadn’t brought any dating outfits along.
And this guy was fresh into dating after losing his wife! He was a father of three children, and he lived in a different country, far from my hometown where I had my family, friends, and an amazing job.
But my friend pushed me as only a friend of 25 years can do. She told me he was a mensch, that he was friendly and soft-spoken. She related how he’d handled hardship with emunah, said he sounded like the kind of guy I used to describe back in the day when I was allowed to wax poetic about what I wanted in a husband. She told me lots of things, and I listened.
But I still wasn’t in the mood. I knew that “not in the mood” isn’t the best reason to turn down a suggestion, particularly one that actually did sound good. So I agreed to meet him. For an hour, at most.
He wasn’t too excited, either. He hadn’t dated in 15 years. He didn’t remember how to date and wasn’t sure he was ready to. He had no clue what a shidduch résumé was. He also wondered why his sister was making excuses for this woman who wouldn’t send a picture of herself. A picture! When did it become the norm to send a picture of yourself to a stranger? “That’s not normal,” he said. “I would never ask for a picture.”
But after hearing about this woman who flew in for three days, who sounded like a perfect match for him, he said, okay, he would meet her. But how long should a first date be? He decided on three hours.
And at the end of our four-and-a-half-hour first date, I walked back into my friend’s house shocked and confused. I liked him. And he liked me back. How did that happen? Wasn’t that weird? That’s not how this dating game usually plays out!
I’d been dating for 20 years. I knew how this was supposed to go. But apparently, the rules can change at any time, when Hashem wills it.
We squeezed in another four-hour date before I flew home, and I knew I’d met someone unlike anyone I’d met before. I called my rebbetzin after that second date, just to make sure something wasn’t wrong with me. Is it normal to just like someone? To feel we connected so easily? To not have any doubts or worries about him as a person? Maybe I was missing something ominous that I just didn’t see?
She laughed and said this was a gift from Hashem called clarity. Barely four weeks later, still shocked but no longer confused, we drank a l’chayim. It had been the easiest, smoothest, calmest dating experience I ever had.
Choosing to marry my husband had its challenges, of course. We had to work through how we would combine our lives, recognizing the tremendous sacrifices I would be making, leaving the country, my family, my job, and every security I’d built to support myself through my years as a single woman. I would be going from solidly independent to being a wife and a mother — I would be taking on the role of raising his three children, something I knew I could do in theory, but was stressed about how it would play out in practice.
There was a lot of work ahead, but even that wasn’t really hard because of the pure clarity we had, knowing this was so right.
When the right guy came along, the voices of society telling me what to do and how to do it were irrelevant. I didn’t have to ignore my values. I didn’t need to attend a singles event or send out a picture to get married. I didn’t need to be quieter or louder on a date, didn’t need to show more or less of my personality, and I certainly didn’t need to compromise one iota on the kind of person I was looking to marry.
I’m certain it was the tefillos of so many that brought me to this point: My tefillos, those of a heartbroken girl-turned-woman, dating for what felt like forever. The tefillos of my family and friends, who wished so badly for this to happen, who made Tehillim groups I never knew about, lit Shabbos candles early, baked challah and had me in mind. There are countless people who can take credit for shaking the Heavens. And when it was the right time, Hashem took all those tefillos and opened the Heavens to let this blessing through, to show us all that miracles do happen.
The years of dating won’t be easily forgotten. I carry deep scars and still occasionally feel panic at the idea of going on a date again when I see an email in my inbox from a shadchan who doesn’t know I’m married. And I still cry about being single, though now my tears are mixed with tefillos for my friends who are living happy, fulfilling lives while they wait for the miracle I so recently experienced.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 755)
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