Ilana Cowland and Rabbi Jamie Cowland
Over the years, we’ve asked hundreds of people, why do you want to get married?
We’ve received many answers, such as:
I want a partner.
I want to move on to the next stage of life. It’s time to settle down
My parents keep bugging me.
I want to grow.
All my friends are settling down.
I can finally afford a home.
I want kids.
We can relate to many of these sentiments. But they all have one thing in common. They’re all about meeting your own need.
Now, we’re not saying that marriage is a totally selfless endeavor. Marriage consists of two people and you’re one of them! It’s not a selfless experience, but it shouldn’t be a selfish experience either.
It’s a “selves” experience. Two people, two selves, and the way those two selves enjoy marriage is through giving.
here are certain things we’re all more or less ready for. We’re ready to be happy; we’re ready to spend wonderful quality time with the person we love. We’re ready for the kind of companionship that brings us joy and we’re ready to no longer be lonely. We’re all ready for the selfish benefits because we were born selfish. We’ve been very good at selfish pleasures since the day we were born. (If you’re that newborn baby that said to your mom, “Hey mom, you look tired. You just sleep. I’m happy to wait for a few hours before I have my next feed”, then you are the exception.)
There is a lot more to a relationship than what you get.
Being married is like sharing a blanket. There are two ways to share a blanket. If I’m making sure that I’m warm and you’re making sure that you’re warm, we’re both going to spend the night having the blanket pulled off us by the other person. But if we both make it our business to ensure that the other person is warm, then we’ll spend the night feeling someone putting the blanket over our shoulder, as we do the same for them.
Judaism views marriage not as the next selfish stage in the development of one’s own needs and aspirations, but as an ongoing training in one’s ability to give. Committing to that relationship requires being at a place in your own emotional development where you are ready to strive to become a truly committed giver. Am I ready to stop thinking “me” and start thinking “we”?
Thinking “we” means that if my spouse is happy, I’m happy. Thinking “we” means that if we’re in a fight, we’re both losers. Thinking “we” means that if we disagree on something, we’re committed to finding a solution that we’re both happy with. Thinking “we” means that when we need to compromise, it’s not a question of me waiting to see how much you’re willing to sacrifice to make me happy. It’s a question of how far I can go to make you happy, and the word sacrifice doesn’t come in to it, because when I’m giving to my partner, I am giving to us.
If you can view your spouse as an integral part of you and stretch your definition of self to include your significant other, then giving to them is like giving to yourself. Making them happy makes you happy. There’s no sacrifice.
So what prevents us from being more of a giver?
For people whose nature allows them to give easily, being ready to give in a marriage is pretty straight forward. (If anything, their challenge might be allowing themselves to be given to, but that’s a different conversation!) If you’re used to putting yourself first, which is very normal, getting ready for marriage consists of becoming conscious of this tendency and expanding your consciousness to include others.
Some simple habits to pursue may include volunteering at a hospital or soup kitchen, dedicating some of your time to helping other people, asking yourself how a given situation looks from the perspective of another person, taking care of a pet, reaching out proactively to people who would appreciate your call. All these activities help expand your boundaries and appreciate there are other real, live people in the world besides you. This does not come naturally; for most people it needs to be learned.
Some people have a hard time to give due to difficult life experiences that caused them to erect walls and focus on survival mode and self-preservation. We all have a survival instinct and when people experience broken trust, trauma, or abuse the idea of giving and putting yourself out there for another feels threatening. The gut instinct is to retreat to a safe space where there is no vulnerability. So some people will react by remaining distant and avoiding relationships altogether, while others will use the relationship to facilitate their needs. Being a taker is a form of self-protection.
Selfishness caused by bad experiences can be either an active choice or an involuntary reaction. Either way, acknowledging that pain and taking steps towards healing it will help you to become free of it. (We are not referring to those helplessly selfish people who are abusive and narcissistic and unfortunately stand little chance of growing out of their disorder.)
Working on becoming a giver doesn’t stop once you’re married. Marriage is the first step in a journey towards oneness. Even married veterans are constantly faced with the challenge to see the world from the perspective of “me” versus “we.” It is a constant struggle to grow. No one is perfect and no one needs to be.
The key is to make sure you are on the right track before getting married. That usually requires a U-turn in viewing a relationship as an opportunity to take (What are you willing to do for me?) to seeing it as an opportunity to give (What am I willing to do for you?). And all those small but massively significant acts of giving that we do throughout our day are slowly but surely changing our character and priming us for a happy, fulfilling marriage.