Friday, October 22, 2010

How Committed Are You?: Acting Constructively (Not Destructively) In Our Romantic Relationships

Ah...the world of romantic relationships.  So exciting.  So complex.

Unless you've made an ideological decision to be celibate (not typically a Jewish decision, though there are some rare exceptions), every Jewish adult - on some level - confronts the question about the nature of the romantic encounters/relationships that he/she has had (or not had) in the past, is having (or not having) presently, or wants to have (or not have) in the future.

For singles: this might mean considering what your emotional and physical needs are, and what kind of person might be able to meet them.

For those who are already in a relationship: it means evaluating your current situation.  Is your partner meeting your emotional and physical needs?  And if the answer is no: how do you handle that situation?

If we are going to be honest with ourselves, then we must acknowledge that these are not easy questions.  The answers to these questions don't just reflect on the other important people in our lives: they are also deeply revealing about who we are.  Whether we feel a sense of loss or mourning because there's something important that might be missing.  Or a sense of unresolved anger because an ex hurt us and/or caused a previous relationship to end.

Like I said: this is all very complex.

In typical Jewish fashion, there's a little bit that we can learn about all of this from this week's Torah portion, Parshat Vayera.  This week's Torah portion includes the troubling story of Hagar, Sarah's maidservant who becomes Abraham's mistress (with Sarah's permission because Abraham and Sarah wanted a child but had wrongly presumed that Sarah was infertile).  Once Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Sarah has Abraham banish Hagar and her son Ishmael - for fear that Abraham might prefer Ishmael over Isaac.

There's lots of things that are messed up with these family arrangements.  But the number one thing that hits me is that Abraham foolishly believed that he could somehow make these synchronistic (being in more than one relationship simultaneously) relationships work.  How could he truly "be there" as a loving partner should, to both women at the same time?

Regardless of Sarah's initial collusion, the results are disastrous: he is forced to choose one over the other.  And he doesn't just break Hagar's heart. He also breaks apart a family (Ishmael, after all, never got to fully know his father).

You might counter by saying that there are plenty of examples in the Torah of polygamy (being married to more than one spouse at a time).  And I would say: it didn't go well in any of those situations either. 

One of the tragic lessons of this love-triangle-gone-bad is that we human beings are not built to truly be invested and committed to more than one loving partner at a time.

This is part of the basis for the Jewish legal value of monogamy, and the broad Jewish ethical value that I will describe as 'exclusivity.'

For those of you who are single: our tradition is clear...exclusivity is the goal of an ideal Jewish romantic relationship. 

To our college students....where the entire formal enterprise of dating might seem anachronistic, you have a tremendous challenge before you.  We live in a cultural moment where "hooking up" - enjoying casual acts of intimacy (a paradox if I ever heard of one) - with partners that you hardly know at all is not just socially's the norm.  Everyone is doing it.

Romance, in Judaism, is anything but casual.  It's an incredibly serious enterprise: a chance for us to make ourselves emotionally (and perhaps even physically) vulnerable.  Is this really something that should be done randomly or casually?  Is it something that is really supposed to be done with multiple partners during a single week/month/etc?

What about if you're already in a relationship?  I'm not talking about a person that you've been out with one or two times.  I'm talking about someone that you already have significant feelings for....maybe you've already had a formal conversation about your exclusivity (i.e. not seeing other people).  Maybe you're formally engaged or married.  What are the ramifications to those relationships, if you wind up becoming intimate (physically or emotionally) with someone else?  How are you supposed to honor your committments to your partner in that kind of compromised scenario?

I wish there was an easy answer to that last question.  There isn't one.  The only advice I have is: we have a Jewish obligation to do everything in our power to use some personal will power and resist those unfortunate entanglements in the first place.  As we learn from Abraham this week: no good can come from being in two romantic relationships at the same time.

That's why I think it's so important for all of us - no matter if we're single or in a relationship, to do a little reflecting this Shabbat.  We have got to know ourselves. what are our needs?  Are they being met?

And if they're not being met: what's the healthiest way, and the most ethical way, to address that?  If we're in a relationship, maybe the obvious place to begin is by having an honest conversation with our partner.  For all of us, there are always counselors, therapists, best friends, even rabbis (!) to share with for support and guidance.

For me, one thing is for sure.  This week's Torah portion teaches us that we are ultimately responsible for our choices.  Here's to hoping that, in the future, we are all strong enough to make choices that are constructive, rather than destructive.

What about you?  Do you agree that exclusivity...being in one committed relationship at a an appropriate ideal?  Or do you think that it is "okay" in this day and age to puruse multiple relationships simultaneously?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Shabbat Shalom.

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