Put very simply, family matters a lot, but not as much as some other things. This whole article is to explain that statement.
People use the expression “marrying into the family.” It is true that family is an important aspect of marriage. But ultimately you are contemplating marrying an individual. You may marry “into” a family, but you are not marrying “the” family. People should be assessed on their own merit.
Having said that, it is clear that the family in which a person was raised impacts their emotional health, their values and expectations of marriage, and the role models they are instinctively likely to emulate. In other words, it is less about their family members and more about how they have internalized their family and how it will play out in their own life.
It is therefore reasonable to include the family background into the small number of ways a person can find out what a person may be like. That might be through the process of conducting background checks or getting to know someone through dating. The “family influence” should not be downplayed. In most cases, it likely played a significant role in shaping the person’s character and attitudes.
But there is something more significant than family influence. That is the person’s own journey and identity. If all the information you have and all the evidence you can gather suggests that the person you are considering as a marriage partner has the right qualities – that must be the overriding factor.
Here are a few pointers to help think through the role of family in deciding on a shidduch:
The Hidden Factor – the parenting.
When people seek to learn about a person’s family background, they are going to find it much easier to find out about the kind of aspects that carry much less weight. Often, they will find out little or nothing about the things that make all the difference. That is the cruel irony.
By speaking to the appropriate people, and by asking the right questions, you are likely to be able to form a reasonably accurate picture of the parents’ lifestyle, whether there was shalom bayis, or what standard of frumkeit they upheld. This is relevant information, and may provide a reasonable indication of where their son or daughter is likely to be holding. To a lesser extent, one can draw some inferences about the person from their siblings, especially their older ones.
However, the truly significant factor when it comes to family is the level of nurturance the child received. Did the parents know how to give the child the support needed? This question is particularly difficult to answer for a whole host of reasons, not least because each child is somewhat different, and what they require from their parents varies somewhat according to the individual character (and thus needs) of each child. For some children, what they need most from their parents is emotional warmth. Other children have a deep need for validation and acceptance. Some children most need their parents’ respect for their independence.
Luckily, most times, parenting works out pretty well, if not perfectly. The child grows into adulthood as a (relatively) emotionally healthy person. But many parents get it seriously wrong. While most are likely well-intentioned, they either squashed their child, deprived them of emotional closeness, or regularly belittled them. After an entire childhood in which they struggled to feel good about themselves, they come to marriage carrying a significant emotional deficit.
Marriage can be a great healer for such people, and they find the close emotional bond in a supportive and respecting relationship to fill the missing piece. Sadly, though, for others, marriage becomes the arena where those inadequacies acquire their full expression. The problematic relationship habits are recycled and repeated, as the person’s only experience of relationships is an unhealthy one.
The emotional wellbeing of a person is by far the greatest contributor to marital stability and satisfaction – yet it is among the hardest things to identify. By far, the greatest contributor towards emotional wellbeing is the parenting they received. Yet, often people focus on every aspect of a person’s family besides for the one thing that has the greatest impact. This is because of how difficult it is to really know what it was like for this person growing up.
The function of dysfunction.
While we would like to imagine that people are free agents of their own destiny, the reality is that none of us is an island. We are undoubtedly affected by other people’s behavior around us and towards us. It is not easy to shake it off the impact. Spending our formative years in a stable, loving home is no guarantee of emotional and mental stability in adult life, but it is a strong predictor. By contrast, people who were surrounded by a great deal of turmoil and dysfunction are prone to internalize that in their own lives, with sadly predictable results in their own adult lives.
When a young person has to deal with substantial adversity – for example, the loss of a parent, homelessness, sustained bullying – they are highly likely to go in one of two opposite directions. In a minority of cases, it will make them stronger. They will emerge as a heroic person with deep strength of character. However, in the majority of cases, unfortunately, they are likely to be adversely affected in some way or another. If you are aware that the family background is challenging, you want to be trying to understand the impact this has had on the person’s character.
Here are a few examples of dysfunction in the family:
Divorce – Divorce is a part of life. The Torah accepts that this is sometimes necessary and appropriate. The problem is that it is often accompanied by a great deal of turmoil and instability. While it is highly questionable to assume a whole lot about a person based on their parents’ marital status, it is absolutely reasonable to try to understand the impact it has had on the person. It is entirely possible that the parents’ marriage difficulties have inspired the child to become passionate about getting his or her marriage right. In this case, the divorce could even have a positive effect on the children’s marriage. But this is not always the case, and it is reasonable to be concerned and pay attention to what impact this may have had.
Alcoholism – Any kind of serious addiction is devastating to a family. A common form of addiction is the misuse of alcohol. Thankfully, this is relatively rare in our community, but addiction is not unheard of. Often, the issue can be quickly addressed and the family balance is successfully restored. At other times, the problem persists and the entire family unit is traumatized. Some people who experience these challenges develop unique inner resources, and grow into incredible young adults. But it is also possible that the person turns out to be damaged by the experience. Because both things are possible, it is important to take the time to understand the person well before drawing conclusions.
Anger – Even people who think of themselves as decent and pious can have serious difficulty controlling their anger. A little bit of anger is neither here nor there, but with some people it gets out of control. Living for many years in the presence of a person who expresses rage is emotionally very harmful. It can lead to people being highly insecure, people distrusting of people, and having difficulty getting close to people – amongst other consequences.
It is important that you don’t brush aside these considerations. Ask yourself whether you feel you can handle the likely consequences of such challenges. It is difficult to truly know how one will feel in reality, but that is true about most aspects of life. At least, look at every issue from all angles and be honest about your feelings. It is best also that you bring up these concerns during dating. How would they be handled? Do you feel that the two of you together would be able to cope with things?
Family as a support system.
You may not be marrying the family, but family can play a blessed role in your life. If your spouse’s family is supportive, you will benefit greatly. A whole lot of stress will be absent from your life, if your in-laws are nice people. Marrying into a great family is a wonderful thing. But is it essential?
This depends greatly on one’s own situation. Some people are more independently minded, and may feel that a supportive family is a bonus but not essential. Other people may not come from a particularly supportive family of their own and would find a family support system to be a major boost. In short, the importance of this issue varies from person to person, and is not something that can be quantified objectively.
When you are dating, thinking about grandchildren may seem way ahead of the game. But the reality is that a close relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is a truly beautiful thing. A close wider family is something special, and it is reasonable if you do consider this important. But even if you don’t prioritize warm relations with your spouse’s family, it is worth understanding that there are some really not nice people out there. Sadly, there are people who are profoundly unpleasant and indecent, who bring toxicity to any relationship. Not everyone can handle such people. You want to be careful about this.
So you don’t like her brother – get over it!
If you have an issue with a member of someone’s family, that is generally not an automatic reason to reject dating someone. Having this challenging person in your spouse’s family may complicate matters somewhat, but it should not be a primary consideration. A prospective date should be judged for the most part on his or her own merit, and not shrunk down to the size of his or her most unappealing relative.
Someone may have an uncle, cousin, etc. who is known to be controversial or problematic, and you could understandably find that off-putting. The thought of having to do with this person for the rest of your life does not exactly fill you with glee. However, when it comes to shidduchim, you have bigger fish to fry. There are far more significant considerations to weigh up. We don’t have the luxury to give attention to everything, and the factors associated with the person themselves carry much greater weight.