I read your column every week and I wanted to write to you for the longest time about my problem, but I thought things would get better. I’ve been dating a guy for more than a year, and my mother hates him. Now that he wants us to get married, I’m not sure what to do. He’s a ba’al teshuvah, and my mother says that there must be something wrong with him and that’s why he became a ba’al teshuvah. It’s true that his background was not stable, possibly dysfunctional, but he’s financially successful and really has his life together now. He is honest with me and told me that his therapist had him on medication years ago, but he no longer needs it; his therapist also feels that he has done the necessary work on himself and is ready to get married.
He davens, goes to shiur, but he does some things that are secular. Nobody is perfect, right?
I dated lots of guys before him, but with him it’s so different, and I feel very comfortable being with him. What do you think about all this?
Thank you for your readership. Since you read my column, you surely know that I typically say what needs to be said, no holds barred. So if at any point during my response you take offense to something I state, please know that it comes from an objective place and out of concern for your future happiness.
In my shadchanus I have come across many ba’alei teshuvah who seek their bashert. Most of the time these men and women are sincere about Yiddishkeit. Their reason for becoming frum came from an intellectual evaluation about the world and the meaning of life. They viewed how frum people live, and, appreciating the traditions and substance of a frum lifestyle, these admirable people then started educating themselves in areas of halachah. They willingly took on the responsibilities that come along with being frum, not just on the outside, but privately, too. Such people deserve much praise. I’m sure you know that our chachamim taught that a ba’al teshuvah stands in a place where the most righteous person could never stand.
Just as anything is possible, it can also happen that the reason one might seek religion is because things did not go well for him or her while living a secular life, and the beauty of religion seems like a second chance at getting it right. That in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, assuming whatever they’re leaving behind is really gone and forgotten.
No matter who you marry, it is important to learn all that you can about him—not just who he is in the present, but who he was in the past. When you are dealing with frum-from-birth people you can always research their history. Everybody knows somebody from anyplace in the world where there is a frum community. It doesn’t matter on which continent the person might have been raised. If you are in the United States and you want to find out about somebody in Australia, Europe, or anywhere in the world, all it takes is a few phone calls, and you can make contact with a rabbi or some other person in that particular community.
That is not the case with people who led an unaffiliated lifestyle. Who are you going to call and who can possibly vouch for them? If they have been frum for a very long time, and are still young, then you have some resources. But if they led a full life prior to becoming frum, then all you have is the choice to take them at their word. And that is what I believe is of great concern to your mother.
Let’s start with safety first, in terms of the person’s mental status or if he or she ever did anything to hurt or cause damage to another human being. You can’t start calling the secular neighbors and people from his community because they will think that you are being intrusive or insane! While it might be considered the norm in the frum world to inquire about a person you are involved with in shidduchim, in the secular world that’s not how things are done. Should you start conducting investigations, you will find yourself hitting a brick wall over and over, and not only won’t you find out anything, but you might even get accused of harassment!
So for now, let’s go with what he told you because I’m sensing discrepancies. He says that his therapist had previously put him on medication. If his therapist is not a medical doctor, then he or she cannot prescribe medication and is not qualified to make an assessment whether to go on or off any drugs. If he’s seeing a psychiatrist, that’s a whole different story. In most cases where a patient has any type of mental disorder, he might see a therapist to talk things through or receive required therapy, and then see a psychiatrist who will monitor his overall health and prescribe medications accordingly. It is possible that the person he is referring to as his therapist is also his psychiatrist. Nevertheless, it should be clarified to you.
Since he disclosed having had a history of a possible mental disorder, here are some of the questions you should be asking him. Does he have a psychiatric history? What has he been diagnosed with? Has he ever been admitted to a mental-health facility? What type of medication has he been on that he was told he no longer needs and why? What kind of situation could he find himself in that could one day require that he resume the medication? You have every right to know the answers to those questions. Do not, under any circumstances, ever contemplate marrying him before you speak to his therapist and psychiatrist.
When you say that he davens and goes to shiur yet he does things that are secular, what exactly does that mean? Are you insinuating that he lives a double life when it suits him? Does he go through the frum motions that are socially expected of him because of the community he currently lives in, but where certain aspects of his past are concerned, he still carries on as though he is secular? Is that how you would want your husband to conduct himself? Are you also intimating that he might be a hypocrite, and is your mother perceptive and able to be objective enough to oppose this relationship?
The other concern I have is that you admit he had a dysfunctional life. I don’t know what you mean by that, and I can only assume that whatever was going on with him before the two of you met, it is vastly different from the way you have lived your life. That’s not a simple matter either. He might crave stability if that is what he was lacking, and you probably represent that for him. He likely sees in you what he wishes he had, and he hopes that he can attain that by marrying you. While I am not saying that it is impossible for that to happen with a positive outcome, you need to have all the background information so that you can understand what could possibly trigger him down the line, and, if so, how are you expected to react to avoid a negative consequence?
I commonly find that singles who are frum from birth are oftentimes attracted to those who have previously lived secular lives. They all say, as you do, that they feel comfortable with such a person. Those who have been secular have an easier time relating to someone of the opposite gender. They were not raised with the same type of restrictions, and so they are less emotionally reserved and able to express their feelings much easier, and that usually makes the person they are dating feel at ease. It can make somebody feel as though they finally found their bashert. In your case it’s even more so, specifically because you have dated a lot of guys, and this guy represents to you what you have covertly been craving. In a way, you both fulfill each other’s needs.
Could this relationship work? The answer will depend on whether you know as much about him as you would want to know about a guy who has been frum all his life. When it comes to shidduchim, a ba’al teshuvah should be given the same chance as any other person. He or she should never be discriminated because of his or her past. But just as transparency is expected of a frum-from-birth person, the same transparency is warranted from a ba’al teshuvah, too.
Baila Sebrow is president of Neshoma Advocates, communications and recruitment liaison for Sovri-Beth Israel, executive director of Teach Our Children, and a shadchanis and shidduch consultant. She can be reached at Bsebrow@aol.com. Questions and comments for the Dating Forum can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.