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The Fourth Question

Rikki Ehrlich

It’s like there’s a cloth of nature, of cause-and-effect, allowing us to make believe we’re in control, that all we need is an algorithm to ensure our lives go smoothly. A shidduch algorithm, no less! I suddenly had a crazy urge to burst out laughing, or crying, or both

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

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VULNERABLE “It’s bashert, really,” I heard Shira’s voice say, and I felt nauseated. She didn’t really believe it. But you can’t really believe it, not until life wrenches your hand and drags you, kicking and screaming, through an ordeal forcing you to face your own vulnerability, the futility of your algorithms…

D ecision-making in Orthodox Jewish marriages: A review of the literature and proposal of an evidence-based dating algorithm

By Shira Cohen, Yocheved Stark, Michal Shapiro

Purpose: To ascertain personality characteristics and biomarkers prognostic of positive marriage quality (MQ).

Methods: An academic literature search was performed on factors related to marriage outcome. Articles were reviewed with the primary goal of developing uniform recommendations for creating an algorithm best predictive of MQ.

Results: We identified 273 studies. Personality traits, emotional intelligence scores and biomarkers of psychological characteristics were integrated into a decision-making algorithm.

Conclusion: We propose an evidence-based dating algorithm as a potential strategy to predict marital success. A prospective trial validating this as a dating tool is underway. 


As it turned out, Shira did most of the work, got most of the credit, and stood to make most of the profit if the Shidduch Algorithm concept was actually sold to the organization she was negotiating with, even before receiving the grade for our college paper. She also landed the interview for the Jewish Zone magazine feature, along with this speaking engagement. Michal ended up delivering her baby two weeks early and was stationed in the NICU at Columbia Children’s Hospital — baby was recovering from surgery, she’d texted me —so I was the only other member of our group in the Chicago auditorium filled with psychologists, social workers, and dating coaches at the National Shalom Bayis Conference of America.

I watched as Shira tossed back the glossy waves of her sheitel and fielded a question from a woman in the audience, expertly navigating her PowerPoint to reference one of her scatterplots.

“But, remember, of course, it’s bashert, really,” I heard her say smugly. I felt nauseous.

Then my phone vibrated, and my heart dropped.

March: Six Weeks Earlier

“So they predicted marriage quality based on the personality characteristics of the Big Five factor model of personality — that’s neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness… forgot the last one—”

“Openness to experience,” I supplied. Costa and McCrae’s theory of psyche; I’d remembered from last semester’s class.

Shira nodded. “Right! So they did a multivariate analysis of variance for personality differences among a cohort of couples, found that neuroticism — that’s tendency toward moodiness, anger, that type — lowers marital satisfaction, openness to experience and agreeableness increases it… Here, look it over.” She slid the paper in my direction.

The project we’d chosen for our Family Systems class was Shira’s brainchild. Our professor had looked amused when Shira had first proposed our topic a few weeks back, then given us the go-ahead.

“Okay, just tell us what we need to do,” Michal said. She started reading aloud from Shira’s stack of papers. “An experimental test of condition-dependent male and female mate choice in zebra finches? Do people actually study this garba—”

“It’s fabulous!” Shira grabbed the paper and skimmed the front. “But maybe we should stick with human subjects—” she dug out another set of articles— “for now. Okay! We’ll split the reading, then build an algorithm for daters to use — Chevi, you’re gonna loooove this! — like based on the data, avoid neurotic people, except—”

She waved another paper, marked with four different color highlighters and multiple Post-Its. “Okay, a multilevel regression analysis, they found even without neuroticism, people who made plans without their spouses had a significantly higher divorce risk over a ten-year period, the odds ratio was 1.46, consistent with Kelley and Thibaut’s interdependence theory—”

“Odds ratio? Shira, we have no idea what you’re babbling about.” Michal propped her leg on an empty chair. “Okay, so we’re doing a shidduch algorithm.” She winked at me. “Chevi, maybe try it out? We have to do a pilot study to validate it, right? “

“Fabulous point!” Shira trilled.

Just then my phone buzzed with an incoming text. Faigy, asking me to call. At 43, my first cousin was ten years older than me, with six adorable kids I’d gotten to know pretty well last year when Faigy underwent chemotherapy and I had pitched in with homework help. Faigy was in remission now. I forcibly pushed aside the niggle of worry that crept up.

“Let’s start with the lit review, we’ll talk pilot studies later,” I said. I’d call Faigy soon.


At eighteen, I did what all my friends did career-wise. I zipped through a BA in less than two years, filling in electives with seminary credits and online tests, figuring I’d have my life settled before marrying my kollel husband and having my first kid. I actually had a friend who’d CLEPed all throughout high school; she got her degree in Liberal Arts a month after her high-school diploma. She got engaged a year later. I didn’t. Exploring the options of what to do with a bachelor’s in psychology — there weren’t any — I finally enrolled in a graduate program for school psychology.

I’d enjoyed my Board of Ed job when I first started a decade ago, but eventually became restless. Taking advantage of union grants for college coursework, I registered for evening classes in a clinical psychology graduate program. I wasn’t yet sure about a complete career change, but for now my mind was learning something fresh, not to mention the salary raise with every course credit over my current master’s degree. My parents, retired in my Detroit hometown, thought I was crazy for returning to school but didn’t argue with their youngest, only daughter. I’d been living in New York since my twenties, boarding with my oldest brother and sister-in-law in the early years and eventually transitioning to my own apartment.

I called Faigy when I got home. “Hi, saw you called before—”

“What do you know about how Bubby died?” she interrupted. “Your father’s mother?”

I frowned. “Colon cancer… why? What’s going on? You’re— everything’s okay, right?” A feeling of unease spread over me.

“They found a link between colon cancer and uterine cancer. Which is what I had…. Chevi, we should talk. Like, in person.”


“This is gonna be fabulous.” Shira dumped a stash of research papers on the campus library desk where we met the next day. “Moving forward — objective data! There are biomarkers to measure this personality stuff on your date! Like, this study found higher blood TNF-alpha levels in Type Ds, the more negative worrywarts. And here, conscientiousness — from the Big Five — is linked with lower plasma CRP and interleukin-6. All three are inflammatory markers, totally explains this meta-analysis linking marriage quality to heart disease…”

I listened halfheartedly, jotting down notes to pretend I was paying attention. My mind shifted to Faigy; we’d arranged to meet after class.

“…this cohort study, they found the trait harm avoidance positively associated with CRP, a correlation coefficient of 0.227…”

Correlation coefficient significant, I scribbled. Whatever that meant. The pit of tension that had settled in my stomach was getting worse.

“…So fabulous, they got spit samples and found lower salivary cortisol correlated with a sense of meaning in life and personal growth — that’s so important in marriage! All this can help you choose the right—”

“And, of course, Hashem is the Shadchan,” Michal interrupted in a singsong voice.

Shira stopped talking for a moment, then quickly recovered. “Fabulous point!” she said. “Obviously. This is just a way of understanding it in our terms, tools for hishtadlus — it’s obvious shidduchim are bashert—”

“Obviously,” Michal said agreeably. “I was just kidding. Okay, next? Spit away.” (Excerpted from Calligraphy, Pesach 5777-2017)

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