Recently I was speaking to a friend (who is happily engaged) and she mentioned that she sometimes wishes she was involved in an arranged marriage. Specifically, she longed for the ease of trusting someone else to guide her to a man they thought well suited for her, a man with whom she would then fall in love (this was not an opposition to her fiance but to the difficulty of relationship in today’s culture). Those who love you would seek your best in this marriage.
It is safe to say that this idea is albeit totally extinct in today’s culture. The closest we come is people suggesting or opposing a match (incidentally, it was a strong suggestion by a friend that made the aforementioned match). We do not get involved in other’s loves and love forms the only foundation for marriage.
Why do we so oppose the idea of arranged marriage in America today? There are two primary possibilities: either it is an issue of freedom or it is one of love. Let us consider both.
Starting with the latter, we presume all marriages must begin with love, and that this love is the greatest love the couple ever had. Several things stand out as wrong, or at least problematic. The first is that in the past most marriages began with little in the way of love, yet then grew into love. Many couples who were happily married did not meet much prior to their wedding and did not choose the other. Further, many marriages that were founded on love did not have as (absurdly) deep a foundation as we expect today. The response to an engagement after a month of dating is shocking, much less after only a few days (as is normative in Shakespeare’s plays). No one ‘tested’ their love (or made sure they were ‘compatible’ — which, incidentally, is such a huge load of crap; it is one of the most offensive lies about romance out there, but that’s another post) but simply expected to work into it. Love would grow best in marriage.
The question of freedom is perhaps more fundamental to our culture. This idea opposes arranged marriage because it denies an individual the right to choose his or her spouse. On one level this is largely a good: that is, no one can be forced to enter into marriage (a critical attribute of sacramental marriage is that it is entered freely by both parties).
On another level, however, it completely fails. If we imagine meeting someone who informs us they freely accepted the spouse their parents had chosen for them we would still find it somehow wrong that they didn’t go hunting for their own spouse, but instead trusted to someone else’s decisions. This is where freedom goes wrong. The idea is that for freedom to properly be free it must be unconstrained and thus be entirely internal, something ‘untainted’ by another. Thus while I am free to make (all of) my own decisions, I am not free to trust someone else.
Both of these errors (more precisely erroneous uses of concepts) bring about a specific result in today’s culture: dating. The idea of dating is, at its heart, the idea of freely falling in love. We ostensibly think it will therefore lead to a good marriage but divorce rates suggest this is not the case. Where does it fail? In the very definition of dating used here: freely falling in love. We know marriage will no longer involve the falling (in the same way) but we expect it to have freedom and love under certain definitions.
And therein lies the problem. Marriage is, by its very nature, a free act of removing one’s freedom; that is, the married man is no longer free to marry another man. Similarly the love one encounters through most of marriage is little like the love of those first few years (particularly once children are involved). Arranged marriage, conversely, does not involve this idea of total freedom nor the idea that I need just this kind of eros to be happy. It subsists on a deeper love.
I am not necessarily advocating an increase in the use of arranged marriage. What I am saying is that we ought to pay attention to why those marriages seem to work out so well when our ‘better’ system results in a lot of quickly dissolved unions of dubious character. True love and true freedom must involve trust, not simply in ourselves, but in those who love us and desire our freedom. Only then can we truly love and truly be free.