On Expectations and Commitment

By Esther D. Kustanowitz ( Los Angeles , CA )

I believe that commitment is commitment. Even more so, I view matrimony as a commitment that is inviolable. But recently I was reminded that not everyone has the same barometer for what is considered commitment. I had dinner with a potential business associate, a married man with children. Suddenly, over the course of dinner, our business seemed to veer into funny business. First came a few compliments, most of them professionally related. Then he asked to hold my hand. I told him no, and that he had made me uncomfortable, but that didn’t stop him. He told me it was simple affection and I was over-interpreting it, but I think my yeshiva day school background spoke up at that moment. Years of learning about drawing fences around areas of temptation, creating moats and walls that kept sin in the barely visible distance, suddenly made sense. But in that more compromising position, in that moment of a potential breach in a protective fence, I was uncomfortable.

Since that hot summer night, I have wondered what I’d done to convey that there was possibility there, or whether I overreacted at a display of affection that perhaps, as he kept claiming, wasn’t what I perceived it to be. I pondered how similar the actions of hand-shaking and handholding were, and tried to revisit the events from alternate perspectives. I put myself in his shoes, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he was expressing an intended affection-minus-sexual-desire only to be rejected. I stepped into his wife’s loving and trusting shoes, and wondered how I would feel if my husband, the father of my children, was in a foreign city and held the hand of his younger, female, single potential business partner over dinner and wine.

Maybe this kind of thing happened all the time for him and his wife. If so, perhaps it wasn’t a violation of their commitment, and therefore, strictly speaking, within their understanding of morality. Or maybe they had an open relationship that permitted liaisons on foreign soil. I put on my yeshiva girl glasses and thought to myself, this is why people are shomer negiah, and don’t touch members of the opposite sex until they are married to one; because “good touch” can turn to “uncomfortable touch” while a wineglass empties. But regardless of any subjective moral codes or extenuating circumstances between him and his wife, for me this action on his part represented a crack in their commitment. And that made me uncomfortable.

I believe in honest communication, and have high standards once commitment is proclaimed. And because I know not everyone mirrors my constant commitment to commitment and communication, I try to keep my expectations (and sexpectations) in check, while keeping my standards high. It’s a hard line to walk, and this line is probably part of what has kept me single. This is something that I, and probably other single Jews, struggle with, and is sometimes categorized among the frustrated as “unrealistic expectations.”

Where are our models for contemporary Jewish dating? Maybe we need a liturgy that gives us the words to praise the divine elements of dating, or a Shulchan Arukh (code of Jewish law) that instructs us how to behave. Every Passover we read about being commanded to “see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt ,” about identifying personally with an ancient story and people. By seeing ourselves there, we can begin to understand what their lives were like and the choices they made.

I believe that by keeping in our hearts the injunction—whether divine, rabbinic, or personal—to treat others as we would like to be treated, and by clearly communicating our intentions, we elevate our dating behavior to a higher ethical level. We—or at least I—can only hope that at the end of the dating process, this approach will yield a more concerned, communicative, and ethical partner to stand at our side as we conquer the world. To put it another way, by elevating the way we see each other while we’re seeing each other, we will more fully be able to see ourselves.

Esther D. Kustanowitz writes, edits and consults on matters relating to Jewish life, pop culture, dating and relationships, and online social media. Esther wrote “First Person Singular,” a singles column in New York ’s The Jewish Week for more than four years. She currently blogs at My Urban Kvetch (http://estherkustanowitz.typepad.com/)and at Jdaters Anonymous (http://jdatersanonymous.com/). She also consults for the ROI Community, an international network of young Jewish innovators in their 20s and 30s, and has been known to teach improv. She lives in Los Angeles , CA .

Reprinted from Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices, Vol. 4: Sex and Intimacy, © 2010, edited by Elliot N. Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg, published by The Jewish Publication Society with the permission of the publisher. Available from the publisher at http://www.jewishpub.org/product.php?id=351.

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