May 25, 2024
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May 25, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

In the legendary town of Chelm lived many philosophers and savants. The story is told about one of these ruminators who developed the fear that when he disrobed his distinctive garments at the public bathhouse, he would lose his distinctiveness, look like everybody else, and lose his identity forever. In order to forestall this catastrophe, he tied a string around his ankle, but was thunderstruck one day when he noticed that the string was missing and that another Chelmite (probably a philosopher with the same problem) had a familiar looking string around his ankle. At this point the savant exclaimed “Woe is me! If he is me, who am I?”

Nor were the Chelmites the only people who struggled with the problem of identity. Many centuries earlier, the Greeks, struggling with the same problem, exhorted their citizens with the wisdom of the Delphic oracle: Know thyself. But the Chelmites and the Greeks are not alone in this matter. Many American Jews, especially singles, are also confronted with this problem. Why is the identity crisis especially important and problematic to singles?

Today’s singles confront a problem very different from that of their parents and grandparents. We live today in a fluid mutli-ethnic, religious, and cultural society and a high level of permeability among groups. The less discrimination, the more mixing. To whom do these single men and women owe their allegiance? Where do they belong? Who shall they marry?

A single man in his early 30s boasted that he dates women “of all races, ages, religions, levels of education, and interests.” Although he had a vague hope that fellow members of the singles workshop I was conducting would compliment him on his broadmindedness, in fact, he wasn’t too surprised when the reaction was: “You’re all mixed up…you don’t know what you want.” A more penetrating assessment would have been: “You don’t know who you are.”

The famous psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson highlighted the resolution of the identity crisis as one of the most important developmental phases a person must pass through if he is ever to develop a healthy personality capable of going onto the next steps, including intimacy with a partner for a lifelong experience.

According to Erikson, the identity crisis refers to the individual’s ability to integrate inner strivings, meanings, directions, values, and goals with outer demands. Failure to integrate one’s personality results in identity diffusion—or confusion. The person doesn’t know who he is, what he stands for, or how he’s going to end up.

Settling down into the coveted “meaningful relationship” involves making a definitive statement about oneself, one’s values, goals, and aspirations. It also demands a long, hard look into oneself for a determination of the single’s rock bottom non-negotiable desiderata in a spouse. But this is not easy to achieve, and for this reason all too many people float about the marriage supermarket unable to choose from the many different, competing offerings that come their way. They don’t know who they want, because they don’t know who they are.

How then does one solve this monumental problem? Easier asked than answered; however, any one of the following or a combination of them may be helpful:

The individual should carefully scrutinize his affiliations, associations, behaviors, activities, and any commitments in terms of time, money, and loyalties. He should examine his life with a fine-toothed comb, asking himself questions and challenging his position every inch of the way. Is this what he really believes? Is he comfortable in such and such a setting? Are his long term goals being represented here? Is he true to his heritage, his family, himself? In the words of one of my mentors: “If you want to know another person, ask him two questions: What are you doing and with whom? Why that person and why that thing?”

Barring unusual problems, most singles eventually come to terms with who they are, narrow the range of their dating partners, and find someone compatible with whom they feel comfortable enough to build a satisfying and rewarding life. However, if after many years of dating, a person doesn’t know who s/he is or what s/he wants, s/he should immerse himself in self-searching and value clarification activities with the goal of finding out who s/he really is.

Reuben E. Gross, Ph.D., is a NJ dually licensed Psychologist and Marriage Counselor. He is a Fellow, Academy of Clinical Psychology and a Diplomate in Psychotherapy A.B.P., and A.B.P.P. Dr. Gross has a private practice in Teaneck, NJ. Comments and questions are invited. To read more articles on related topics go to Dr. Gross’ website: www.MarriageCounselorNJ.com. Questions and comments are invited at: [email protected] or call: (201) 837-0066.

By Reuben E. Gross, Ph.D.

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