Love 'grows more' in arranged marriages

Doreen Wachmann meets a man who studies bonds between couples

A TOP American psychologist who is currently enriching marriages by teaching people to love each other felt very strongly during his teenage years that God was calling him to be an Orthodox rabbi.

Dr Robert Epstein, who is currently researching why love increases more over time in arranged marriages than in love ones, told me: "In my teens I had a very strong feeling that God wanted me to be a rabbi.

"I read a lot of Jewish literature and co-taught a course on Judaism for high school students."

He described as "very funny" the fact that during his last years at Connecticut's Trinity College, which had its origins in the Lutheran church, he was given a ministerial scholarship because of his strong interest in Judaism, which paid for his tuition.

After college, he spent six months in an Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem but decided that what he was really supposed to do was to make a positive contribution to humankind.

He re-interpreted his calling.

He said: "I went to Israel with my siddur and psychology books.

"While there I decided the best way was through the field of psychology, rather than the rabbinate. It was a very conscious decision, which I made in Israel. But my career started with a religious calling to become a rabbi."

And a glowing career it was, resulting in the publication of 15 psychology books, professorships too numerous to mention, editor-ship of Psychology Today and numerous media appearances.

But before continuing to talk about his career, Dr Epstein was very keen to tell me a very strange story of what happened at the brit of his first son.

He said: "When my son Julian was born I was very busy completing my doctorate at Harvard University. So I asked a Jewish friend to make all the arrangements for the brit.

"I just had to get the minyan. I invited my non-Jewish professor, the most famous psychologist in the world, Professor B F Skinner.

"At first Dr Skinner, who was then in his late 70s, refused, stating that a circumcision was barbaric. But I talked him into it.

"The brit was taking place in the living room of my very small apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a hot July day and we had no air conditioning."

Dr Epstein said: "There we are in the very crowded and hot living room with Professor Skinner. In comes the mohel who looks like a chassidic rabbi. He starts doing the prayers and the cutting. The baby cries and we hear this thud.

"There is Professor Skinner, one of the most famous people in the world, lying on the floor.

"He fainted. He must have looked at the cutting and fainted. He appeared to be dead, as white as a sheet. But we got him breathing and onto a sofa.

"The man who founded behavioural psychology, which was all about giving positive reinforcement, was very groggy. The mohel continues with the ceremony and, standing next to Skinner, he starts to say in a Yiddish accent, 'When you raise this Jewish child, you should always give him positive reinforcements and programme the small steps in the child's life that he will always be successful'.

"He continues for about 15 minutes with a Skinnerian behavioural-type psychology sermon on how to use behavioural techniques to raise children. It was so bizarre."

Dr Epstein explained: "We found out later that in rabbinical school in the 1950s the mohel, who was also a rabbi, had read all about Skinner's work and thought it would be a great way for people to learn Talmud.

"When he came into the room he saw only one elderly man, whom he assumed to be the grandfather of the baby. Someone told him it was Skinner, whom he admired." Dr Epstein added that he later discovered that Skinner had been circumcised for medical reasons as an adult in his 60s, which had proved traumatic.

He said: "Watching the cutting overwhelmed him in the crowded hot room." Dr Epstein added that he was currently "very excited" making the final arrangements for his third son's barmitzvah in August.

I urged Dr Epstein, whose second wife was born in Yorkshire, to leave the subject of his Jewish identity and tell me how he developed his interest in love and arranged marriages.

He said: "It started 10 years ago when I was interviewing possible interns for research projects.

"I try to motivate interns by matching their interests with projects. I had this young woman intern who said she had never been in love. I couldn't find any project suitable for her.

"Then I got this crazy idea that she and I would deliberately fall in love and write a book about it. I was then divorced and single. I told her. She loved the idea but her boy friend didn't."

Then editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, Dr Epstein told his staff about the idea and they all loved it. He wrote an editorial for his magazine about the concept of deliberately falling in love and said he was going to try to find someone who would sign a contract committing herself to a process to learn love him.

When the article appeared, his phone started ringing at 6am from all kinds of people, including journalists, literary agents, radio, TV and movie producers.

He said: "I had letters from 1,000 women in six countries who wanted to try to fall in love with me."

Dr Epstein chose a Venezuelan woman hoping to move to the USA with her children.

He said: "We definitely fell in love, but we were not able to make a successful relationship because she lived in Venezuela. When we first met she was about to move because of the revolution against Hugo Chavez, but he got control. The revolution died and she got a big job in Venezuela."

But through the experience, Dr Epstein had learned the techniques of deliberately falling in love with a stranger. He then began studying people in arranged marriages, mainly in Asia, who had done it.

He said: "I know it's possible, because millions of people, principally in Asian cultures do it every day. In some parts of Orthodox Jewish community they do it all the time."

As a result of his research, Dr Epstein developed more than 30 exercises, like looking into someone's eyes and falling into their arms that help people to bond.

He uses the exercises in lectures and on TV and claims they help married couples improve their relationships. He recently released an online compatibility test .

He says: "My test is extremely good at finding the deal breaker in a relationship. Topic by topic, it shows exactly where the other person does not share the other's most important relationship need. You need a relationship with few or no deal breakers which can destroy the marriage or make one or both of the parties miserable.

"In most western cultures we leave the entire process of love to chance. We don't have families helping out to figure compatibility. We just take whoever we're attracted to. This is stupid, a poor basis for creating a happy marriage."

But Dr Epstein does not advocate arranged marriage for everyone. He said: "They would never work in western culture where we have very strong ideas about free will and do not have the support structure to maintain them."

Up to now, Dr Epstein has done most of his research on arranged marriages in India and Pakistan and has not had an opportunity to research Orthodox Jewish couples who have been introduced.

He is, therefore, anxious for frum couples to respond to his continuing research on love in arranged marriages.

If you are in a successful arranged marriage Dr Epstein would like you to fill in the questionnaire on

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph