Nell Freudenberger's new novel, The Newlyweds, tells the story of a couple that marries for practical—not romantic—reasons. Is that really such a bad idea?
Nell Freudenberger's new novel, The Newlyweds, takes as its subject what the book jacket describes as "an arranged marriage for the twenty-first century." It's one that the main characters, Amina and George, arrange for themselves, with help from a dating site. After an 11-month email courtship, Amina moves from Bangladesh to Rochester, New York so that she and George can get hitched, for reasons more pragmatic than passionate. Like George, Amina wants to start a family—and she also wants a green card. Their union "is more like the arranged marriage of Amina's grandparents than like her parents' love match," Michiko Kakutani wrote in a recent New York Times review.
Might we Westerners—so intent on finding our soul mates—be able to learn a thing or two from Amina's grandparents? A number of experts think we can—or that, at least, there's plenty of wisdom to take away from cultures where arranged marriage is still common. The number-one attitude adjustment Westerners would do well to make if they'd like to lead more satisfying romantic lives (and who wouldn't?): Taking marriage more seriously as a relationship that's supposed to last until death, rather than till divorce. In arranged marriages, says Reva Seth, author of First Comes Marriage: Modern Relationship Advice from the Wisdom of Arranged Marriages, "both people come into the relationship with a sense that this is forever." That kind of mindset stands in stark contrast to the one common in Western culture, says Seth, a Canadian journalist who spoke to more than 300 women over the course of five years while researching her book. In this part of the world, she says, even in committed relationships, we're constantly asking ourselves: Could I do better? Would someone else make me happier? That kind of mentality—coupled with how easy it is, legally and socially, to get divorced—"makes it extremely difficult to duplicate the level of commitment that I found among the women I spoke with," Seth says.
Research psychologist Robert Epstein, the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, agrees. After spending the last ten years studying arranged marriages for a book that he's working on, he similarly contends that deep connection isn't as crucial as deep commitment. Love is more likely to grow over time in arranged marriages, he argues, because those couples have more practical attitudes about what a relationship entails than those of us who believe life will be a piece of cake as long as we find "true love." "In arranged marriages, they do not have this idea that love is brought to you by the fates," says Epstein. Rather, they believe it's something that evolves with the years—and with effort. People in arranged marriages are more serious about sticking by their partners through thick and thin, Espstein argues. They're more psychologically prepared for difficulties, while Westerners think less about what trials the future might bring. In fact, Epstein contends, we often assume that our significant others will always stay as attractive, youthful-looking, or thin as they were when we first fell for them.
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Perhaps even more commonly, people in the West have impractical notions about how much effort a relationship will take, Epstein argues. We think that as long as we feel so strongly about our mates when we first get married, life together will be a breeze—and when it's not, we're quick to jump to the conclusion that whatever's not working can't be fixed. (The fact that 45 percent of all U.S. marriages end in divorce seems to indicate he might be on to something.) As a result, he thinks bliss in so-called "marriages of choice" often reaches an apex on or around the wedding day, while it steadily grows for those in arranged marriages. (It may grow from nothing, of course--but perhaps that makes it all the more remarkable.)
Seth says she's wary of making generalizations about how content people in arranged marriages are, since the women who wanted to speak with her about their experiences were the self-selecting happy ones. And it is worth noting, perhaps, that a 2005 study in the Journal of Counseling & Development found no differences in satisfaction between Indian couples in arranged marriages and American couples in love matches. But neither she nor Epstein advocates that Westerners begin arranging their marriages—simply that they learn from cultures where people do. All this aside, Seth says, "Among the women I spoke with, yes, they certainly seemed far more satisfied with their relationships" than those in marriages of choice.
One reason they seemed to be more content: "I noticed a general tendency among the women I interviewed to focus on the positive aspects of the relationship and their partners," Seth reports. That was not the case with her peers. "So many of my female friends and I often seemed to bond over conversations about what is wrong with our relationships or partners versus what is right," she says. She thinks the difference can be explained, again, by how seriously women in arranged marriages take their commitments. "If you go into it with the sense that your family researched this person for you and this is forever, it just makes sense to focus on what it working versus what is not," she points out.
Hollywood--and all of the "happily ever after" stories it cooks up—deserves a lot of the blame for our distorted ideas about what marriage should be, according to Epstein. "There are literally millions of Americans in therapy because of violated expectations around those ideas," Epstein claims, referring to the discrepancy between our idealized notion of love and reality. (Indeed, even Amina--who isn't exactly thrilled with George—likes romantic comedies; "her favorites were Sleepless in Seattle, Mystic Pizza, and Pretty Woman," as Freudenberger writes.)
But don't romantic happy endings significantly pre-date Disney, going back at least as far as Shakespeare? Sure, in Western culture, Epstein says. But folk tales and love stories from Asian cultures have, traditionally, ended differently from ours, he says, with more ambiguous endings—ones that we would find unsatisfying—even if the Westernization of the world is starting to change that.
The historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, agrees that Westerners would have more success with marriage if they thought of it more as a "working partnership," as she puts it. Love " doesn't have to hit you like a storm and then move on." But her take on why, in modern times, we're so obsessed with finding someone "perfect" is more nuanced than Epstein's. For thousands of years, she notes—and even through the '50s and '60s—marrying "was about getting advantageous in-laws or expanding the family labor force," she tells me. "A woman needed a man to provide for her and her children; a man needed a woman to rake care of the home and raise the children. Gender roles were very stereotypical, and mate preferences were based on those stereotypes." But, thanks in large part to the women's rights movement, people in industrialized nations can now be a lot more flexible when it comes to choosing a partner. "In the last 40 years, it's been easier for individuals to gain those practical benefits without marriage," Coontz points out. "More women can support themselves financially; men have drip-dry shirts and take-out food. And you can have regular sex without having to marry. That makes it possible—even necessary—to look for a more individualized match."
In that sense, seeking out a soul mate is a positive thing, a reflection of the fact that we can now choose mates based on considerations that are more meaningful than the size of his salary, or of her hips. Nonetheless, Coontz adds, the search for someone who feels just right can get out of hand. "It's easy for people to expect too much from a romantic partner," she says. "And of course those expectations are constantly fanned by the mass media."
Westerners have an unhealthy tendency to think that true love can transform us, Seth says. We're" sold the idea that our soulmate or 'The One' ... will come into our lives and 'fix' things for us—whether its job dissatisfaction, a lack of purpose, whatever," she says. "The women in arranged marriages had more reasonable expectations of what their husbands could and could not do for them."
So maybe Westerners can learn a thing or two from arranged marriages—if not from Amina, who seems to feel more deeply about the soul mate she left behind in Bangladesh than her husband. "Communication was supposed to be the secret to a successful marriage," Freudenberger writes, "but she sometimes thought things had been better between them when they'd understood each other less."
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