Monday, June 8, 2009

Lessons from an Arranged Marriage

Yesterday's "Modern Love" column in the New York Times addressed the least modern form of love, arranged marriage.

It's timing was fortuitous. Many young people today are tiring of the turmoil of the dating scene. Others are beginning to see that dating is an unnecessarily expensive indulgence during a time of financial crisis. Link here.

After all, as Farahad Zama writes, the current practice of trying out many different partners and getting to know everything about them does not seem to have led to a rash of happy marriages. It is surely ironic that he hears people who have dated for years before marrying say that they woke up one morning and proclaimed that they had been sleeping with a stranger.

Dare I add, serial relationships often cause serial traumas, to the point where young people have begun to doubt their own judgment.

That may be one reason why Fox Television has found people willing to participate in a reality show where family members arrange a marriage for their children. In "I Married a Stranger" the betrothed couple will meet each other for the first time at the altar.

I do not know whether this will make for good television or even good marriages. I would mention that Fox has distorted the custom of arranged marriage, at least as it is practiced in Zama's modern India.

When family members recommended a young woman as a prospective bride for Zama, he had the opportunity to meet with her for a short period of time. And they both could have rejected the arrangement.

This is largely more humane, and less dramatic, than the Fox formula.

We should remind ourselves that the great majority of marriages in human history were arranged. At the least, they involved considerable family input.

Today, we no longer see marriage as a social alliance between two families. We tend to follow the plot of a fiction where two independent, autonomous individuals meet, date, court, fall in love, and then get married.

Their marriage is an expression of their love. And there love is purer if society and their parents disapprove. As the fiction plays itself out disapproval becomes the cause for continuing marital drama and discord.

Arranged marriage involves custom and social ritual. The individuals represent their families more than their romantic yearnings. Their primary responsibility is to their communities, not themselves.

In principle, as Zama notes, this situation can lead to love. It certainly does not make love impossible. And yet, it does not make love the be-all and end-all of marriage.

The first lesson is that young people today who make their own judgments about whom they want to date and marry should consider that marriage is much more than an expression of love. They should see themselves as social beings with a responsibility to something larger than themselves.

Thus, if everyone around you thinks that you have fallen in love with the wrong person, the chances are very good that you have.

Next, Zama offers two pieces of advice that we should all heed.

First, he says: "I think that in arranged marriages one starts with lower expectations and realizes the need for compromise that is essential in a successful bond...."

Marriage requires work; it requires active management. It is good to be in love with your spouse, but it is bad to imagine that love will solve all of your problems.

Second, Zama highlights one of the pitfalls of the dating scene in today's large cities: "Would we have gotten married if we had met in the conventional Western manner and dated each other? Or would we have given up on each other and moved on, searching for the perfect 'one?'"

I have written about this before, and it bears repeating. Young people today have so many choices available that they have little incentive to compromise or to work out problems in their relationships. When the dating pool is so deep and wide, you are more likely to tell yourself that you can do better, and even that you can hold out until you find the perfect One.

If no one is willing to settle for less than the best, young people get involved an a futile effort to attain an inhuman form of perfection. Surely, this is not a formula that is going to produce too many happy marriages.

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