Too Many Options: The Marriage Crisis And Why Singles Today Don’t Want To Commit


benjamin-blechBy Rabbi Benjamin Blech,

Invited to any weddings lately? Grab the opportunity to attend before they become a rare occasion.

At least that’s what some scholars like Prof. Charles Martel, Professor of Computer Science at the University of California believe after carefully analyzing the data, prepared by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, on U.S. marriage rates since 1960.

The statistics are eye-opening. From 1970 through 2008, the U.S. marriage rate has declined from 76.5 to 37.4 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women. Not only is the marriage rate declining, but the rate of decline is accelerating. Creating a trend line, Martel comes up the astounding conclusion that if the current tendency continues, sometime between 2028 and 2034 the U.S. marriage rate will reach zero!

Preposterous? Of course. People will surely continue to get married. But we can’t ignore the reality of the precipitous decline in the numbers of those choosing to walk down the bridal path.

In 1960, 72 percent of adults (over the age of 18) were married. According to Pew, the prestigious American research center, that number today is 51 percent, and five percent of that drop occurred between 2009 and 2010. Marriage rates declined even more for young adults. In 1960, 59 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 were married; today, it’s only 20 percent. The average marrying age is 26.5 for women and 28.7 for men, compared to 20.3 and 22.8 in 1960.

What happened?

Some blame the economy for marriage falling into disfavor. They claim it’s yet another unfortunate consequence of the great recession we’re presently experiencing. But the trends that are making records today got their start decades ago, and they’ve consistently followed the same downward path through economic ups and downs.

The simple truth seems to be that people just don’t seem to want to commit. And I have my own theory for this contemporary sorry state of affair.

I know my research is only anecdotal and I have no proof to back up my claim but I think that rather than a new cultural aversion to the state of matrimony there’s something else going on here. Wedded bliss is still an ideal. Men and women still fantasize about family and dream about a perfect partner with whom they’ll live happily ever after. But what we’re seeing is the result of TMC – too many choices – a concept derived from the findings of a remarkable study by Columbia professor Sheena Iyengar, in a research paper entitled “When Choice is Demotivating.”

For 10 years, Professor Iyengar has been analyzing the concept of making choices. For her research, she and her staff ran a test where they set up a free tasting booth in a grocery store, with six different jams. 40% of the customers stopped to taste. 30% of those bought some.

A week later, they set up the same booth in the same store, but this time with 24 different jams. 60% of the customers stopped to taste. But only 3% bought some.

Having too many choices made them 10 times less likely to buy.

Although it has long been the common wisdom in our country that there is no such thing as too many choices, as psychologists and economists study the issue they are concluding that an overload of options may actually paralyze people or push them into decisions that are against their own best interest. TMC – too many choices – leaves us afraid to make any decision lest we then have to live with the subsequent discovery that we made the wrong one.

Once having committed, we’ve opted out of the ability to make any more judgments – and just look at how many options we left on the table that might really have been better.

TMC paralyzes us with fear, depriving our confidence in the wisdom of our selection. We end up preferring to do nothing rather than to have to live with pangs of remorse over a possibly wrong decision. Professor Iyengar summed it up this way: “The presence of choice might be appealing as a theory, but in reality people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.”

If this is true for something as seemingly minor as picking the right kind of jam, think how much more so this can incapacitate one’s ability to choose a mate. In the age of arranged marriages, a suitor might have been presented with half a dozen possible candidates selected on the basis of suitability in terms of family background, education, and religious values. In close knit communities, young men and women could choose from those they knew from the neighborhood. The boy or girl next door was seen as a viable candidate from what was considered a limited market.

Today, for better and worse, it’s a new world. The age of globalization, the Internet, the dating services that offer access to people literally from around the world present the unmarried with unlimited choices. We’re not talking about merely 24 different kinds of jams; we’re dealing with the possibility of eventually finding any one of hundreds of thousands of others who just might be the perfect person we’re looking for.

Lori Gottlieb, the author of Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, concluded that too many women – her book focused on women but the same is certainly true for men as well – “think I have to pick just the right one. Instead of wondering, ‘Am I happy?’ they wonder, ‘Is this the best I can do?'” And since they haven’t yet looked at all the other available “jams” out there, they feel that to be fair to themselves they have to postpone any decision. So they continue to wait and wait and wait, as they prolong their search for the perfect jam before they allow themselves to make a commitment.

This will surely leave them frustrated forever, because as the profound proverb asks us to realize, “The only perfect people are bachelors’ wives and old maids’ children.”

The fear of committing to a choice because of the multiple other options is not only self-defeating but from a spiritual perspective ignores a fundamental truth about God’s involvement in human affairs.

Our tradition teaches us that God is the greatest matchmaker. The Sages ask: what has God been busy with since creation? Their reply: He occupies Himself with the holy task of arranging marriages. Human happiness is a heavenly goal. The Torah teaches us that God intended everything to be tov, good, and “It is not good for a human being to be alone.”

That’s why the Talmud records that 40 days before birth a heavenly voice goes forth and proclaims, “The daughter of so-and-so to so-and-so.” Marriages really are made in heaven. God created someone suitable for every person on earth.

In Yiddish there is a beautiful word that expresses this concept of a divinely decreed soul mate. It is bashert. We all have a bashert and God in His infinite goodness makes certain to place that person in our path at some appropriate point during our lifetime.

And that perspective can make all the difference in the world when we cope with the paralysis induced by TMC – too many choices.

Without a bashert, our choices are plagued with the doubt that maybe no one out there is good enough for me. We’re tempted to keep on searching without any assurance that we’ll ever find someone who can’t be improved upon. We could have already met Mr. or Ms. Right in God’s eyes and ignored them because we were looking for Mr. or Ms. Perfect instead – and of course they don’t exist. (And even if they theoretically did, why would any of us who are imperfect deserve them?)

Knowing that we have a bashert reassures us that we’re meant to make a decision because God already made that selection for us before we were born. Our dating search is supposed to emphasize finding the one who’s been designated for us instead of discovering reasons for excluding all those who don’t meet our impossible standards. Instead of continuously rejecting, we can be secure in the knowledge that there’s someone out there who’s perfect for us in spite of the fact that he or she isn’t perfect. Like a missing piece in a puzzle, God provides us with what we need to complete a beautiful picture – a piece that complements our own strengths and weaknesses so that by working together with our bashert we can find happiness and fulfillment. The purpose of dating is to find that one person who in spite of all their failings makes us feel whole when we share life together.

I’ve spoken to countless singles who all assure me they desperately want to get married. “What’s holding you up then?” I ask. The response is almost always the same. “I’m still not sure if I can’t do better.” Their commitment phobia isn’t based on being dissatisfied with the people they’ve met so far. It’s simply the fear that once they say yes they can no longer keep looking for a superior jam – so they continue to lead lives of loneliness without the sweetness of anypartner.

The paralysis induced by TMC is an affliction we desperately need to overcome in order to preserve the ideals of marriage and family. Yes, singles need to choose wisely, but equally important – they need to choose.


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  1. while this analysis and deduction seems to work for the “frum” community, i think the trend measured was for the nation as a whole. and in a nation where divorce is just another chore to be accomplished before tonights game starts on tv, it is difficult to imagine that the cause is tmc. rather the reason in my opinion , is very easy but politically incorrect to state.

    no one can deny that a marriage is a commitment and requires work. once society has unraveled to the extent where one can satisfy that need without all that work, well then why work?
    the feminist liberation has indeed freed the female. only they didnt realize it would be a freedom they do not want

  2. Blame the advertising industry. We’re taught from babyhood to be choosy, demand “the best” – i.e. the one that will make our friends most jealous – and to never be satisfied. We’re taught that being happy comes from acquiring something outside ourselves – a product, an experience, a spouse, despite the Torah telling us otherwise.

    To a remarkable extent our frum society has adopted these materialist “American” values. In some ways we are just as assimilated as the Conservative and Reform we look down upon for being assimilated. We’ve just assimilated internally, not externally. We may eat kosher and dress in black, but our midos belong to the world of TV and racy ads just as much as those of our non-frum brothers and sisters.

    How can we break the chains?

  3. TMC might be true for MO communities where the men and woman interact more and see the choices available to them.

    In yeshivish communities, however, I do not think the average bachur is exposed to that much choice. Yes he might have a list of names but they are just that, a list, and no more. You really do not know what all the girls on the list are about and therefore its not seen as so many options. And in many cases its the parents with the list and the bachur doesnt see it at all.

    The fact is that the general trend of society to marry later, for whatever reasons those are, afect our communities mentality as well. It is simply not a stigma anymore to be older than 25 single and in yeshiva. Therefore there is less pressure and more time taken to get married.

  4. comment #1 means that the natural pull between genders which is a big cause of marriage has been obliterated by the “freedom” movement

  5. As you can see, this article was posted on Aish,com. That means it was posted for the less religious jews who are trending towards getting married later by choice.
    Our youn men and women go through so many hours of dates,phone calls, indecision, and heartbreak, just to get to that elusive chuppa.
    It is hurtful to them and unfair to post an article blaming their troubles on themselves despite their best efforts.
    I think it pays to be a little more sensitive in this area.

  6. #1 – the general divorce rate in this country is actually not terribly high compared to other countries. In fact, it’s in the middle of the pack. What’s different is that in many other countries a person’s family of origin continues to act as a support, and to help raise any children from the divorced couple.

    In the US, many people are separated by thousands of miles from their parents, brothers and sisters. The husband or wife may be the only close relative in the person’s daily life. Choosing takes on a whole lot more important aspect when there’s no support close by to go to when something goes wrong.

  7. Another post blaming the singles for their own predicament. Not much based on our Mesorah, just some comparison to jams. I’m beginning to judge leaders by how many Shidduchim they’ve made. You see it is easy to blame singles for their predicament, instead of doing something concrete. The Tanna who met the girl who nobody wanted to marry took her out and got her a makeover and married her off. That is our Mesorah. And he cried for the girls that wouldn’t have anyone to do that for them. TMC (too much choice as quoted above) is not really true for many of the girls in the Parsha — I’m finding single girl after single girl not being suggested even one shidduch by the time they hit their twenties.
    The other thing I’ve found in redting shidduchim is the many rebbeim telling the guys not to marry a girl they’ve been dating and that the guy likes. It is mind-boggling. They’re told to ask for money, to say no for anything and everything, and to turn down many others. And I think “this is frumkeit?!” — in Yerushalayim of old they didn’t let a guy past 20 sleep in the city if he wasn’t married.
    The one thing that still strikes me about the book Holy Women (by S.Y. Rigler) is that Rabbi and Rebbetzin Kramer had made over 400 shidduchim. Now that is what I call a leader. I’d be curious as to the author’s track record. Is he, like HaKadosh Baruch Hu, being Misasek all day in Shidduchim — for that is what we are told that G-d has been doing since Briyas Ha’Olam. Matching up people instead of blaming them.

  8. This article is really beautiful and motivational (for me as an older single. Yes I admit it — albeit, anonymously).

    I just wish the bashert part wouldn’t be mentioned or that he would mention the idea of that Hashem is continuously placing new “basherts” in our path (although the new may be less than the old… it’s “lephi maasov”). Isn’t that the whole idea of Hashem being “busy” making shidduchim?

  9. The culture he is talking about sounds to me like the Upper West Side or similar types of society’s , or Bais Yaakov girls that have not managed to get married at age 28 and now find themselves in a new kind of mindset as it relates to marriage.

    Because where I am, wedding invitations are only increasing with each passing year. So he can’t mean everyone. Just certain neighborhoods.

    Alteh Bucher.

  10. I once heard a great explanation from rabbi Zev Leff.

    When we wage battle against another nation, the Halacha is that we can only surround the enemy from three sides – we must leave an escape route open. Some explain this to be based upon compassion.

    The question though is about the seven nations of lo sechaya kol neshama. There too the Ramabam pasken that we must not completely surround them. Why not? There is no purpose of leaving an escape route.

    Rabbi Leff explained (he might of been quoting) that it’s really part of war strategy. As long as the enemy thinks there is a way out, an option, they will not fight the same way they would if there was no way out…..

    Same holds true of perception we use on all of life’s challenges. As long we think we have options, we don’t fight the same way as if no options existed.

  11. Singles are singles for many reasons.
    Some have issues, some have something working against them (try marrying off a guy who is 5″4, a very ugly person, a very obese man, a child of a mental patient…), some don’t know how to develop relationships, etc. Some people have bad luck! But every single over 30 should work with a shrink (a real one, with a PhD) to identify issues, and yes, some singles are picky – if you are single and over 30, can you pick the best of your past dates and go after them?

  12. the topic of shidduchim & finding your Zivug is a nisayon (test) of bitachon & emunah (faith & trust) from hashem involving 2 side. first is the boy/girl to see if they are depending on shadchanim or family members etc… to help them find a shidduch OR do they depend on Hashem & daven every day a speacial extra tefilla for a Shidduch.

    the other side of the test are the parents of each & every boy/girl & testing them in their bitachon & emunah as their child gets older & older to see if they will put their trust in Hashem or start to get worried about their child & age (especially with the shidduch crisis & girls)

    START DEPENDING ON HASHEM ONLY & TURN YOUR TEFILLOS TO HIM then your test will be over & hashem will see that you depend on him only & that all his messengers i.e. shadchanim were sent by Hashem alone.

    may you all find your zivug ASAP

  13. regardless of audience article was intended for, if “I” see it, is anything there a takeaway for me? valuable for info re attitude to making choices in this land of plenty Hashem has placed me in — attitude may apply to me too, but in areas other than jams and marriage? perhaps a comment is what im supposed to see and absorb? (appreciate 13 and 17 especially, thankyou) Perhaps so i will judge favorably someone from another background who hasnt yet married, realizing their sitution wasn’t as conducive to marriage as mine, and rather than speak to them in a condemning way, share this sarticle and ask them what they think about it. could be is of importance to them and i am shaliach? and for each of us struggling with our own unique nisyonos, lets not be misyaesh.
    tears open the gates of prayer, yes. and simcha and hislahavus break the gates completely!