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.