Word on the street is that Orthodox communities are facing a shidduch crisis, with many bemoaning the supposed surplus of eligible women in relation to eligible men. When you consider the importance the Jewish community places on marriage and building a family, it’s understandable that when it doesn’t work out immediately, a lot of anxiety ensues. Many women, even those with multiple professional degrees and successful careers, say they feel they are not viewed as full-fledged adults until they have a ring on their fingers - and many view themselves that way as well..
So it’s clear the issue of dating and marriage is fraught with stress and for many, there’s a real fear of being left alone while everyone else progresses through early couplehood, parenting and communal life.
Are these fears founded? Is there a true crisis afoot?
New research published this month in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (JSSR) by Dr. Yosef Sokol, a researcher and professor in the new PsyD program at Touro University’s School of Health Sciences, shows that many anxiety-provoking beliefs about the shidduch system are not actually true. The data he gathered and analyzed tell a different story.
Dr. Sokol, with others on his research team, collected information on nearly 9,000 members of the Yeshiva Orthodox (YO) and Modern Orthodox (MO) communities in North America. Survey responders self-identified as YO or MO. The survey—the largest of its kind on this demographic to date—explored how age at first marriage varies across gender and cultural affiliation.
“Many people define the shidduch crisis with this unsubstantiated statistic--10% of Bais Yaakov girls will never get married,” says Sokol. “This is based on a model of the Orthodox Jewish community growing at a rate of 5% each year and a four-year age gap in dating. The theory goes like this--if the population is growing and girls start dating at 19 and boys begin at 23, there are more girls than boys entering the shidduch scene every year. Over time, there won’t be enough boys to match the girls.”
“I’ve even heard people say that up to 20% of girls will never get married. This actually is what prompted me to want to do this study, as the ‘data’ being shared frightens people and relies on numbers that didn’t seem true. Girls may start at 19, but on average they take longer to get married so there is less of an age gap between spouses than you might expect from when they start dating. For example, my study found that for YO individuals, the actual average marital age gap is 2.2 years, not four.
Of course, it can still feel like there is an imbalance in the dating market for many reasons including that boys have more options of who to date, but they only marry one person and so a set is taken off the shidduch market two at a time. Also, any small disparity in the dating pool becomes magnified dramatically based on our method where boys usually gets the ‘shidduch resume’ first. Since boys get it first, it appears like they have more options but they can agree to date a girl and then get rejected. All in all, when it comes down to getting married which is what most people are worried about, the data shows that girls are getting married. The data simply doesn’t support that fear-inducing statement that 20% or 10% of girls will never get married,’ said Sokol.
The study’s key findings refuted numerous common misconceptions about the perceived shidduch crisis. For one, the prevalence of singlehood in Orthodox communities is lower than one might expect, given the widespread handwringing.
The study found that in Yeshiva Orthodox circles, 92% of both men and women were married by age 30. By age 40, that number was about 98%
Rates of marriage were somewhat lower in Modern Orthodox communities, where 81% of men and women were married by age 30. Just under 90% were wed by 40.
Another widely-held belief is that there is a large disparity in marriage rates between men and women. Not so, says the study. In Yeshiva Orthodox communities, for instance, about 88% of men and 92% of women are married by age 28.
“While these numbers may or may not be considered a crisis depending on your viewpoint they don’t seem to match what many people fear is happening,” said Dr. Sokol.
The impression that there is a marriage crisis afoot has many negative effects. Orthodox singles report feelings of anxiety, shame, inferiority, and a lack of identity. They also mention social consequences, including public pity. In addition, fear of spinsterhood puts pressure on many women to marry young.
“While so much of the angst focuses on women, if you ask young men who are single they’ll say there are many single guys but no one talks about them. That fits with the results of the study which didn’t find a big disparity in the number of single women and men. It’s possible that the communal sense of a specific crisis for women is due to it being more psychologically terrifying for girls who aren’t getting married so there is more focus on them and we don’t hear about single men as much,” said Sokol.
In performing the study, Dr. Sokol sought to alleviate some of that angst.
“People think there’s a shidduch crisis, they panic, and may choose someone, or push their children to choose someone, that might not be good for them,” he says. “Of course, the community should support singles and their families and continue to be sensitive to those who are waiting to find their basherte, but I hope my research can provide more accurate information about our marriage system, help relieve some of the widespread anxiety and enable singles, community members and leaders to make more informed decisions. I believe our community needs more data-based approaches to identify solutions and programming that will be most likely to help.”
When asked what parents, schools and community organizations can do to help, Sokol shared a number of ideas, namely:
● Help young people identify priorities for marriage partners. Many don’t know what they’re looking for or if they have found it. Before they start dating, they should be able to articulate what’s important to them and why.
● Parents and teachers can encourage young people to develop rich friendships where they learn to solve problems creatively and deal with difficulty in a healthy way. “Guys who are able to have long-term chavrusas, or study partners, will likely have good marriages,” says Sokol. “They develop the skills needed to resolve conflict, be good listeners and come up with creative ways to solve problems. They show they have staying power in a relationship.”
● Parents and children should have an honest conversation before the child starts dating so they can get on the same page, especially if a mother is vetting shidduch resumes. She should know what her child is seeking and vet potential partners according to those criteria.
● Teach young men and women how to build a relationship during dating –when to be vulnerable, how to show interest in an appropriate way and how to deal with discomfort.
● Encourage dating for as long as it takes to see the other person’s flaws and get a sense of what an actual marriage would be like. It’s important to see how one’s dating partner handles stress. Of course, this length of time may differ for various people and segments of the community.
● Community organizations have been teaching young people about red flags to look for during dating, but they should also talk about “green flags,” i.e. what will work to create a solid long-term marriage. This includes trusting the other person, being comfortable with them, having similar values and life goals, and being able to deal with relationship issues that will inevitably come up.
The research team included Dr. Yosef Sokol, Dr. Naomi Rosenbach, Dr. Yitzchak Schechter, Chayim Rosensweig, Chynna Levin and Shifra Hubner.