The Jewish Ethicist: All's Fair in Love?


How much should I tell a date?

Q. Do the principles of "truth in advertising" apply in dating as well?

A. In an earlier column we pointed out that in many ways the "marriage market" is similar to other markets. To some extent everyone is trying to "sell" him or herself; eligible men and women are permitted and even encouraged to put their best foot forward, but they have to eschew any deceptive practices. Indeed, the basic principles of truth in dating are parallel to those in truth in advertising, and often the Jewish legal tradition learns one from the other.

One rule of fair selling is that a deficiency that can be considered an actual defect must be disclosed to the buyer before the sale is closed. (The exact timing of the disclosure requires some judgment. It is permissible to delay disclosure a short time so as to arouse the customer's interest before pointing out a defect, but it is acting in bad faith to wait so long that time is wasted in pointless negotiation over an ultimately unsatisfactory deal.) A normal deficiency doesn't need to be actively exposed, but may not be concealed. For example, if you are selling a used car and the brakes are bad, you have to be up-front with the customer. If there is a little rust in the body, you don't have to point this out since most old cars have some, but you shouldn't paint it over to hide it.

The overall idea behind these laws is that in a business deal, each party is free to pursue his or her own interest, but is not allowed to mislead or take advantage of the other side.

Some legal works draw a parallel to dating. For example, a person is obligated to reveal a serious disease, but a healthy person who requires a stringent diet doesn't have to tell a prospective suitor. (1) The idea behind this parallel is that marriage is also to some extent a kind of business deal, in which each partner agrees to undertake specific obligations and is in turn entitled to a variety of rights. The section of the Code of Jewish Law devoted to marriage laws is filled with a detailed enumeration of these obligations, and an important part of the Jewish marriage ceremony is the reading of the ketubah, or marriage contract, which spells out many of the husband's obligations to the wife, including the responsibility to support her, to esteem her, and so on.

The idea of marriage as a standard contract, with standard obligations, still has an important message. Surveys show that despite changing roles in marriage, certain basic expectations have not changed; in particular, even very successful women generally expect their husbands to be able to support them if necessary, and most men expect that their wives will be willing to stay home with the children during the most critical period. Today it's even important to remind people that marriage implies obligations!

However, we have to acknowledge that most people marrying today are at least as interested in a relationship of trust and openness as they are in having the spouse fill some specific set of obligations. Therefore, anything that interferes with such a relationship is in itself an obstacle to domestic harmony. To go back to our previous example, a wife who expects that her husband will provide her with a certain standard of living and will love and respect her is not being cheated if he doesn't reveal that he needs a special diet. But today, a wife may feel that the very fact that her fianc? didn't reveal his special need is in itself a breach of trust, and this feeling of lack of trust may undermine the quality of the marital relationship for both partners.

So I think that today the most ethical policy is: anything that will become known after the wedding, should be revealed before the wedding. Any other policy is likely to lead to feelings of resentment and to sapping the reservoir of trust that sustains a successful marriage.

That doesn't mean that couples have to reveal everything. Getting married doesn't mean giving up your right to privacy, and married people are certainly entitled to keep some things to their selves. Indeed, sometimes people err on the side of making dramatic revelations that are really irrelevant to the couple's future but cause worry to the partner. But any substantive quality that is going to come to light, should in general be revealed to a prospective partner at an appropriate stage of the developing relationship.

We like to draw parallels between marriage and other relationships in our life; we talk of the "marriage market" or the "dating game". But a successful marriage today is neither a game nor a business deal, but rather a deep relationship of trust and respect. Dating can be fun and adventurous, but ultimately it has to be structured so that it can lead to a serious and permanent commitment.

SOURCES: (1) See Hanisuin Kehilkhatam 3:13.

IMPORTANT NOTE: A recent column discussed some bargaining practices of a one-time executive of the General Motors corporation (GM). Due to an unfortunate typographical error, a few times this was printed as "GE". The entire discussion relates only to policies attributed to GM.

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