Arranged Marriages

Lately my blog inspiration seems to be coming from the music I listen to in doing my morning step machine work outs.  Today I switched musical styles to Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, and the song “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” got me thinking of a debate a group of us had back in graduate school at the University of Minnesota.

The song, for those who don’t know involves a couple who are making out in a car at age 17.  The boy wants to go “all the way,” but the girl insists that it’s only if he promises to love her forever, never leave her, make her happy for the rest of her life and make her his wife.   He resists, but when temptation grows he gives in and makes the vow.  At the end they are both “praying for the end of time to hurry up and arrive” because they regret the vow they made in the heat of passion.

The debate took place at a Friday night happy hour (a tradition for us in grad school).   At some point someone made a derogatory comment about arranged marriages.   Our friend Sheila, who was from Malaysia where arranged marriages still take place, interjected that it ridiculous for Americans to criticize the marriage practices of another culture.  After all, our divorce rates are about 50%, it’s not like we do the marriage thing well in our culture.   But arranged marriages?   Soon everyone was jumping on her, as she calmly made her case.

In an arranged marriage, the father knows that he wants to get someone for his daughter that will not only be a good match, but who is dependable, honest, and will be able to support the family.   He will essentially research the possibilities, consider the strengths and weaknesses of potential husbands, and ultimately make a deal with someone he thinks will suit his daughter.   And, of course, the man’s family has similar concerns.   Who do you think will make a better choice — a hormone influenced 18 year old aroused by some rugged rougish guy who turns her on, or a father thinking about the long term happiness of his daughter?

Moreover, in arranged marriages the couple does not suffer the illusion that romantic love can last.   In America, she noted, couples “fall in love,” and then when the romance fades and life becomes routine, they “fall out of love.”   We in the West seek to maintain the fantasy that you can find a soul mate with whom you’ll feel an eternal connection and bond.   When things start getting boring and the romance fades (as it inevitably does), we start to regret the choice we made.  Maybe he or she isn’t the right one?   We start thinking about what we could be achieving without being “tied down” by a spouse and even kids.   And, of course, since our imaginations are limitless, almost always we can fantasize a better life than the one we have.  Soon, desiring the sensation of “being in love” we break up, deciding that the other person just isn’t right.

In arranged marriages, you go into it with the idea that it’s not about love, it’s about commitment.   Both realize that their families made this choice, and they are responsible to get to know the other person and make a family.  Over time, the bond forms, and almost always (in part since parents usually are careful in making the choice) love happens.   And since it’s not the rush of romance followed by the let down of routine, it ends up being a stable love, one that doesn’t depend on emotional highs.

In the West, she noted, we start by falling in love with an illusion.   When we don’t know someone well we “fill in the gaps” with how we imagine them to be — usually imagining what we would consider the perfect mate.  I call this the “halo effect.”  When we get to know the person better, we inevitably find that our imagination was off, the person is real, not a result of our fantasy.   In an arranged marriage, you have no illusions, you may even fear that the person won’t be someone you can get along with.  You get to know someone on their own terms, generating mutual respect.  It is a more realistic relationship.

Finally, she argued, look at the results.   Here relationships and marriages break up right and left, tearing apart families, creating hardships for children, and often leading couples to keep seeking the unobtainable – long term romantic love.  In her country, and in most countries with arranged marriages, divorce rates are low, and people tend to have happy families.   How on earth can we defend our irrational emotion-driven method of having teens with hormone buzzes choosing who to spend the rest of their lives with compared to that?

At some point in the conversation I realized that this was a debate my side could not win.  Ultimately it came down to the fact that in our individualistic culture we’d never accept arranged marriages, and she agreed.   I think her point was to give our western arrogance a kick in the butt, and let us know that when we look down on traditional cultural practices, we often have no clue what we’re condemning and defending.

Yet it also got me to think about marriage in a way that affects me to this day.  Every couple will “fall out” of romantic love.   Every relationship will get routine, boring, and couples will often drift away, sometimes feeling alienated and isolated in what they thought would be a fun, exciting, romantic life together.   Sometimes couples will go weeks, even months without sex — or perhaps worse, sex becomes a routinized chore.   If kids are in the picture they demand time and love, leaving hard working couples worn out.   Is this all life is?   What could I be doing if these chains were loosened and I was free?

If marriage is primarily about feeling in love and happy with your partner and soul mate forever, very few couples achieve that, if any.   For some the dry spots will last years, for others months.  But as long as there isn’t abuse or resignation, people can choose to see it as a commitment, something that has to work because that’s what marriage is all about.  They can keep trying, force themselves to show affection even when they don’t feel it, learn to appreciate each other on other levels, and let a mature love develop.    We set ourselves up for failure if we see romance as the bond; it should be commitment.

To be sure, Sheila conceded, sometimes parents do make a bad call.  Sometimes an arranged marriage is a disaster.  But, she contended, it arguably works for cultures in parts of Asia better than our system works for our culture.   I realize, looking back at that discussion, it was really about modernism, and how difficult it is for we humans to deal with modern society.   In the past tradition and custom defined our lives, we were part of a larger society, we did not need to strive as individuals to succeed and define our own lives.

To us now, that would be a limitation of freedom, just as not choosing our own mate seems intolerable.  But our individualism is a construct of the modern secular era, it is part of our enlightenment choice to break from culture and tradition and take responsibility for making sense of our individual lives.  It liberates us from religious and traditional duties, but replaces them with no clear guide.   So we get it wrong.    Workers in the 19th century sweat shops are exploited horribly, we have wars, holocausts, and create ideologies to replace the lost certainty of religious faith.

As a culture, we’ve chosen the path of liberation, and it’s a very difficult path — as our problems maintaining marriage and family illustrate.   Our short term whims lead to choices that can blind us to what’s good for the long term.   We see the allure of liberty, without realizing its price.   We berate “backwards” traditional societies, even when they serve their society’s needs better than our practices serve our own society.   But maybe the “arranged marriage” debate also points us to a solution.   Just as we need to learn to choose commitment over mere romance, as a culture we have to learn to choose sustainability over short term greed and self-interest.    Maybe that’s the challenge of modernism  — to learn self-mastery and self-control.

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  1. #1 by S. on July 26, 2014 - 09:10

    nice fallacies there.

    this is what you get when u let educated people defend cultural or religious dogmas against the ill informed. its called ‘apologetics’.
    i just want to comment on the worst most underlying misunderstanding here.

    first of all, you forgot to point out a VERY important nuance, which could prevent this set of arguments from being abused by proponents of barbaric tribal practices.

    there must be made a very clear distinction between ARRANGED marriages and ARRANGED FORCED marriages.

    Arranged marriages, as for example still in well defined practice in japan (called Omiai), are introductions and courtship facilitations set up by family and/or friends AT THE REQUEST and CONFORM THE WISHES of 2 candidates. this practice has subsided somewhat in the developed western world as a result of, indeed, individualism versus group society. on the other hand, we (westerners) have (had) developed our own ways of finding prospective partners by our own effort, for example clubbing, leisure and sports clubs, and more recently, internet dating. to compare the ‘success’ rate of this with Malaysian fixed marriages is like comparing apples and oranges. different cultures. ill get into that in a bit.

    arranged FORCED marriages are very different. they are fixed by the family/families of the spouse-to-be (aka victim) AGAINST the, expressed or not, wishes of this victim. completely regardless of whether this victim already has a lover, or admirer or admiree, they are forced in various ways, some more subtle than others, ranging from emotional blackmail or financial or social pressure (threat of being ‘cut off’) to downright kidnapping, seclusion and slavery. this is an abomination which caused and still causes much grief, unhappiness, abuse, rape, suicide and killings.
    these kinds of forced marriages still occur in Malaysia, despite being illegal in SOME (!!!) Malaysian states, as well as in many other countries and (religious) cultures. often religion is used as an excuse, but in the religion where this is most prevalent, namely Islam, it si actually not allowed by the Qur’an and condemned in the Hadith.
    the reality is its a barbaric tribal practice that lines up perfectly with the practice of slavery and the view that women do not have even basic human rights.

    to debate that such arranged marriages (because you are clearly not debating ‘Omiai’ or ‘introduction’ practices here, and to excuse them by stating ghat these are much more successful and happier marriages, is downright appalling.

    second, there is another thing to consider. even if we are talking about mild varieties of this kind of forced marriage, which is the most common, we should go back to examining the apples and oranges. in the west we have developed enlightenment, equality, , and more such things that are not as indigenous other cultures, for example the ones that widely allow and practice arranged forced marriages. children in such societies are brought up to not be self examining individuals pursuing personal development n happiness, but to unconditionally obey their parents and elders, to adjust their lifestyle and themselves to the dogmas of their community, which by the way is tribal as i said and so its very tightly knit and with very strong prescriptions on lifestyle, and especially girls are brought up (or perhaps brainwashed) into a submissive role especially towards men and ultimately towards fathers and husbands. often they are actively prevented or discouraged from developing themselves educationally and academically, and in some societies even from having a job or being independent in any way shape or form.
    now, you can guess from this context that even arranged marriages that these spouses-to-be willingly agree to, are often not really voluntary but rather the result of collective brainwashing and in other words, oppression. certainly not freedom of anything.
    erroneously stating that these marriages are more ‘successful’ because in the western world more divorces occurs is deceiving by pretending a marriage that doesn’t officially divorce is automatically a ‘success’, and by hiding that unsuccessful (read:unhappy) marriages most often do not split up or divorce due to family and community pressure, and the result of the utter brainwashing of children into these roles and dogmas.

    it fails, or even intends to fail maybe, to take into account the many ways in which a (continuous) marriage can be considered a failure, and even the ways in which the numbers are skewed. for example, in the Philippines, there is no divorce. married people who want out of their marriage simply file for annulment, which means the marriage basically never OFFICIALLY existed in retrospect. in other cultures people just run off and remarry without getting divorced at all. especially in Muslim societies where men are allowed to have up to 4 official wives (and an unlimited number of girlfriends according to some) this is very common. so your Malaysian friend is either knowingly or unknowingly hiding facts n misrepresenting the situation just to defend her cultural or religious dogma. and you and your other friends were, like most people, simply not sufficiently informed to debunk her fallacious arguments.

    i find it typical how western developed society has become so enlightened and unable to realistically relativate and judge other cultures by universal standards of humanity sometimes that it becomes often self-accusing, which, combined with the opposite (less self-critical) side’s culmination of centuries of apologetics of primitive practices, makes for conclusions such as yours.

    i agree ‘the western way’ is not perfect by far. and maybe monogamism just isn’t the natural way. or maybe we should be more responsible n less fickle in relationships to make them more successful.
    but to pretend that forcing people into lifelong marriages, even with the slightest amount of pressure, is somehow better than what the westerns societies have evolved under the rights of equality and freedom of choice of lifestyle and partner choice, is kind of ignorant to say the least.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on July 26, 2014 - 15:33

      I think you missed the point of the post, and read a lot into it. I do think many in the West err by thinking that their cultural norms are universal. I suspect people all over the world like to think that what is “natural” to them should be natural for everyone. And one doesn’t have to believe that there are “universal standards” that exist in the ether. Standards are what we humans construct – and we can construct standards of human rights without having to say they have some kind of universal ontological status. We can just say we choose to create standards to protect human dignity because we want to.

  2. #3 by s. on July 26, 2014 - 18:27

    Thank you for your reaction, and glad to hear we agree on some points.
    I might have read too much into it- I admit to that possibility without reserve, but I’d like to pose it is a sensitive subject for many people and deserves a discussion and some more viewpoints, even if overlapping.
    I guess we share the same suspicion, and I’d even say I’m quite sure about people all over the world preferring to project their own (community) values on others. We Westerners are not much different than anyone in that department, although there are levels of variation between certain western countries. I come from one that generally likes to ‘keep the nose clean’, not project our own values on others, and even has become somewhat overtolerant to those who do. I myself have an international and cultural studies background and encounter many statements and discussions such as the one you described, abroad as well as in my own country.

    The question of who has the moral highground and what that is exactly is however not moot. We can see plenty of examples from comparative analyses, For one, in view of integration of immigrants in western countries which confronts us directly n often personally with cultural differences. The subject here of arranged marriage is not a bad example among those.(to avoid misunderstandings, I’m talking about how minority culture problems surface in western societies as violations of human rights, only because the structure of signaling, reporting, and aiding is available whereas in the country of origin it is not). For example, wife beating is socially quite acceptable in some countries, but not in western countries and if reported, there will be some kind of police intervention. Should we conclude its just part of a functioning society in a non indigenous community or a far away country? The victims wouldn’t agree i suspect. Societies like that also suffer from a plethora of development problems directly and indirectly as a result of the mentalities that cause the violations of those human rights. We don’t protect protect human dignities for nothing, wouldn’t you agree? It creates better societies for all members, with only the telling exception of anti-social and sociopathic individuals.

    I was triggered mainly by the first half or so of your article/text and the Malaysian friend’s explanation, but from the conclusion I (possibly mistakenly) understood a sort of ‘if it works for them…’ argument.
    My own point was that it actually generally does not work for them either, not counting some far too often cited exceptions. Not to say we have it all worked out ourselves, but at least we are free to make our own choices and lifestyle.

    As for the universal standards, I think we’ve come far enough to agree on some rough standards at this point in human history, if we have learned anything from the past. I think although much injustice (which i agree is subjective up to a point) and brutality still exists in the world, as it did before, on average or even in general we as the human race seem to have made progress. We’ve set those standards in large parts of the world in agreement with the majority, and institutionalized them in modern, social, legal and punitive systems, as opposed to the lawless and/or unequality times of yore. There are huge crowd funded NGO’s working for those human rights and ideals to build a better world. Not to mention that basic values of respect and empathy are somehow inherent in most non-sociopathic people (which is why we are able to build societies in the first place, isnt it?), and the most brutal acts are facilitated and created by hierarchical political structures. I could use some conclusions on the nature and psychology of (human) (mass)aggression to support this statement, but undoubtedly u know what I mean.

    In light of this, any country or community that still allows violations to such laws, and even worse tries to rationalise, affirm, or excuse them can consider themselves backwards and on the moral lowground. Is that a harsh judgement?

    I hope i didn’t miss the point again and I apologize if my tone seemed disrespectful for any reason. That’s not intended. For the record, I’m not a native speaker of English and good intentions can get lost in translation sometimes. I appreciate your expertise and your blog.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on August 12, 2014 - 20:24

      Maybe nothing works given the high divorce rates in the West! I do think that culture matters and there are diverse ways of ordering societies. From how my Malaysian friend talked, parents traditionally were very concerned about finding a good partner for their daughter. And in pre-modern times village traditions and connections probably made the practice even more effective. Part of the problem now is that with the rise of modernism traditions die out and its more likely that some parents would force a marriage for reasons other than a true concern for the children. I can imagine arranged marriages working very well in certain contexts. In a context of a modern industrial society (including third world developing societies) I think it is more likely not to work.

      Backwards or ‘moral lowground’ is one way to see it, but it gets complex. The West modernized first, but practices in European history took a long time to improve – cultural change was slow. Now that modernism spreads its expected the rest of the world change at a radically fast pace – that is difficult for any culture. That doesn’t excuse violations of human rights, but pragmatically it means that we’re likely to be dealing with that for some time. Moreover, too fast a change can have a backlash (which I think we’re seeing in the Arab world).

      I also think there are some areas where we’re just learning that what should be basic standards are being violated. Environmental destruction may be leaving future generations a much more dangerous world, individualism/consumerism may be harming the bonds of community that give meaning. This isn’t as bad as torture and other clear violations, but it seems to me that this may be the next set of standards to be worked on and with which to try to build agreement.

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