Takeaways from Weddings/Celebrations: Modern Arranged Marriages?


I’ve come to appreciate a new weekend routine: the real Sunday paper, particularly since I’ve re-kindled that simple pleasure of reading through the physical newspaper.  The sensation brings me back to childhood and memories of reading the comics section on the floor, except I’m old now and can’t sit on the floor for very long without getting stiff.  Quite honestly, the only reason why DH and I get the physical Sunday paper delivered these days is because we’ve been forced to subscribe to a paper version of the New York Times in order to get All Digital Access on all of our gadgets and shiny devices.  Fair is fair, and call me a sucker, but I’m willing to pay for good content.

Now sometimes you can tell a lot about a person by what newspaper they read, particularly in certain countries: (the Guardian versus the Telegraph in the UK; and the WSJ or the NYT in the US.)  But I’d argue that what’s even more revealing is what section of the paper you read first.  As for me, I usually throw away the actual “A” or “news” section on the weekends (who needs real news when you already get all the big headlines via Twitter?)

I’m usually a Sunday Review or Sunday Styles type of girl myself.  But we must be in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day where there’s a huge proliferation of articles and literature about love and relationships.  So this past Sunday, I found myself instinctively gravitating towards the Styles section, right to the heart of what Carrie Bradshaw calls “the single woman’s sports’ pages: The New York Times Wedding Section.”  After perusing through the photographs of blissfully happy couples, I came across Ji Hyun Lee’s article, “Modern Lessons From Arranged Marriages,” and I was intrigued.

The article stressed the importance and role of parents and family in marriage, particularly in the initial stages of courtship and introduction.  To me, this particular line of relationship pursuit that leads to marriage seems to be much more pragmatic, assuming that parental figures aren’t insane and genuinely have the best intentions for their children.  The concept of an arranged marriage today sounds totally archaic, particularly in our modern culture of non-committal online dating and hooking up.  But our decreased levels of commitment when meeting potential spouses online can sometimes lead to eternal singlehood, and years lost to unrealistic expectations that cultivate a philosophy of optimism bias that “there’s always someone better out there,” especially in the pseudo-real world of cyberspace and singles profiles.  For those that choose singlehood, it doesn’t seem to be a big deal.  But for those who might eventually want to get married and to settle down with someone, the odds seem to be getting slimmer.

So in this day and age, the concept of an arranged marriage seems like a good old-fashioned remedy whereby one might meet a real eligible person.  Besides, if things go really well, Mom and Dad can’t nag too much about your spouse because they helped pick ‘em!  That’ll shut everyone up!

Now the arranged marriages we’re talking about here are not examples of forced marriage with little 14-year old girls being married off or sold into sexual slavery or indentured servitude in foreign countries under the guise of marriage.  The couples in the NYT article were all consenting adults at the time of marriage, and the arranged marriages all have a relatively modern twist in which both parties had some level of agency in the ultimate decision to marry or not to marry.  But undoubtedly, the initial meeting was arranged by both sets of parents.  The married couples cited in this article all live in the US and happen to be South and East Asian, specifically of Indian and Korean heritage.

Dr. Robert Epstein, an expert studying love in arranged marriages quoted in the article, pointed out that one key to a strong arranged marriage is the parental involvement at its start to “screen for dealbreakers… They’re trying to figure out whether something could go wrong that could drive people apart.”  In Dr. Epstein’s research on love in arranged marriages, he found that in many arranged marriages, love emerges and grows stronger over time.

When described in this way, this modern model of arranged marriage (if it really could be called “modern”) doesn’t sound all that different from a “love” or “courtship” marriage which results from a typical set-up by friends or nosy family members.  It also seems to lead to a much more efficient path towards a long and happy stable marriage versus random online dating.  Dr. Michael J. Rosenfeld, an associate professor in sociology at Stanford is also quoted in the NYT article, saying that he doesn’t think love marriage and this type of arranged marriage are all that different:  “The people we end up married to or partnered up with end up being similar to us in race, religion and class background and age, which means that they might not be all that different from the person that your mother would have picked for you.”

Now that quote really caught my eye because it struck a chord in my own experience.  While DH and I did not have an arranged marriage, we did meet at a networking event with peers of the same “race, religion and class background and age.”  He had a nice smile, and after we started chatting, we found out that we had both attended the same university and even graduated the same year without knowing each other.  (It was a big state university, after all.)  After we started dating, we met our respective sets of parents and found out later that they also had many overlapping social circles with one to two degrees of separation between them.  It was kind of strange, but an inexplicably good kind of strange.  Strange like: How is it that we never met before?

We needed that outside catalyst: the networking event.  And had the catalysts been our respective parents, I don’t think I would have minded.

Earlier this week, a friend asked me whether I considered myself an optimist or a pessimist.  I initially thought about it, and answered that I thought I was a pessimist because I’m generally kind of neurotic and paranoid.  But her question has been bugging me over the last few days and I’ve finally figured out why.  At the risk of sounding arrogant, I think I’ve realized that I don’t think I consider myself either an optimist or a pessimist.  I think I’m more of a realist, or more concisely, I consider myself a pragmatist.

And when it comes to relationships, a pragmatic approach to love is that there is no such thing as a soulmate or the one true and perfect match.  I know it doesn’t sound super romantic or sexy.  But in my opinion and experience, there are likely multiple time-dependent possibilities that increase and then decrease with age.  Similarly a pragmatic approach to love and marriage—assuming one wants to get married and settle down—is perhaps not to write-off or dismiss a modern day yenta (or mom and dad, or that pesky aunt or uncle or friend who’s dying to introduce so-and-so to you.)

You never know whom you might end up meeting.  Just ask the happily married couples in the NYT article.  They all have their parents to thank.

Happy Friday!