Dear Rachel,

I’ve been learning more about Judaism for the past two years now, and I feel ready to begin dating to find my marriage partner. But I’m afraid. My experience with men in college before I was religious was not great. Things would start out well and then go downhill. The guys turned out to be critical, and we fought a lot. I felt like I was looking for love in all the wrong places. Maybe it was because I don’t have such a close relationship with my dad, who himself is critical and harsh. I want a kind, loving man with whom to build a home. How should I change myself so that I don’t pick unkind men like I did in the past? How can I trust myself to pick someone kind?

Dear Awesome Woman,

I’m so glad that you reached out for help. Your goal is beautiful. Deciding who you will spend the rest of your life with, become vulnerable to, and G‑d willing, raise children with is the most important decision you will ever make. You don’t want to be in a marriage with a man who is critical, unkind, lacks generosity or is irresponsible, blaming or confusing. As you shared, you previously picked men who were critical and harsh—perhaps not realizing it at first. So, how can you change that? How can you change the inner programming that may have led to this?

One thing to keep in mind is who you are now is different from who you were in college. Your values have changed, and what you are looking for in a husband-to-be is different from the college guys you hung out with for fun. Have confidence in that inner change you’ve already made.

I see that you are concerned that you’ll pick an unkind husband because of the unkind relationship that you had with your critical father. This is not necessarily true. Again, being older and wiser, with some Jewish tools under your belt, you are a different person. And as much as our childhood relationships have an effect on us, we are also quite free from limiting ourselves to those patterns.

One way to make sure that unhealthy patterns of the past are not locking us into future unkind treatment is to treat yourself more lovingly and respectfully (on the inside as well as the outside). Look at it from this angle: If you have a dad that criticizes you a lot, then you have most likely inhaled the habit of criticizing yourself. As children, we take those messages from our parents very seriously. But you are an adult now. You have a beautiful soul—a piece of G‑d in you—and that critical abuser has to go. Starting today.

You have the opportunity to change the way you treat yourself. And with this gentle shift others will treat you differently, too. The beauty of this shift is that your internal kindness will have far-reaching effects—the more gentle and kind you are to yourself, the kinder you will be to others.

Move away from inner cruelty and move towards inner love and G‑d’s love. Rise from a woman who accepts negative treatment to a woman who only allows positive treatment. This opens up the pathway to having a husband who treats you with honor. Love is an inside job. Having warm regard for yourself is necessary for living a healthy, joyful and purposeful life. G‑d believes in you, and you can believe in you.

Exercise #1: Change the Way You Treat Yourself

1. Ask yourself: What are the three most important characteristics or aspects that you want in a husband? Write those down.

2. Now with those three characteristics, turn them around towards you, putting each aspect in the blank.

“How can I be more ___________ with myself or others?”

That’s a surprising question, isn’t it? But asking yourself this can tune you into certain characteristics that you expect to see in a partner and yet, you need to own them in yourself as well.

3. Come up with two or three ways to be that way with yourself and others now—not waiting for someone else to do it for you.

An example:

Sara wants a husband who is trusting, honest and generous.

She writes: “How can I be more trusting of myself, honest with myself, generous to myself?”

Continuing with the exercise:

Sara gets more honest and trusting with herself. She is pushing herself forward in a career that she dislikes strongly; she is putting too much pressure on herself in the dating realm, and so decides to trust in G‑d and take it more slowly.

Sara finds two ways to be more generous to herself or others. She buys herself flowers for Shabbat; she says no to some social gatherings because she recognizes that she is an introvert and enjoys more time to herself. She decides to do a weekly gesture for a friend.

Exercise #2: Heal Wounds by Giving Yourself Compassion

I once took a 10-week course in self-compassion. At the beginning of the course, I asked myself how many classes (and these were two hours each!) can they give on this topic? Wouldn’t one suffice? But the surprise was that self-compassion is amazing for our nervous systems. We don’t realize that when we beat ourselves up psychologically, our bodies tense up—there’s an inner fight, flight and/or freeze response created. All generated by us. We can be our own enemy making our nervous systems feel like we are being chased by a lion or attacked by a wild creature.

So instead, when you do find yourself hurting with inner criticism, take a moment to rest your hand on your heart and give yourself compassion. You can say these healing words: “I’m hurting now. May I give myself kindness.”

And if a memory from the past pops into your mind, you can give compassion to the little girl inside you by saying: “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”

Emotions like anger, sadness or grief may come up. Since emotions are “energy in motion” and present themselves as physical sensations, just take a moment to notice them in your body. The tendency many of us have is to leave our bodies and dissociate from the discomfort of emotional energy, but you can allow yourself to just gently sit with these sensations or even move with them. This brings flow and will provide healing for you on a deep subconscious level.

Practicing these two exercises will help you shift from the inside out, creating a vessel to receive more kindness in your life.

When you choose to begin dating for marriage, be mindful of choosing a kind partner. Kindness is such an integral quality that when Eliezer was searching for a wife for Isaac, he devised a test of character to see if the prospective life partner was kind. Make that your top priority. Beware of red flags, like overly charming or controlling men. Look for compassion, respect and accountability.

And remember that G‑d is with you in your search, so have the courage to step into this exciting part of your life.