Arranged Marriage: It’s Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be
It is my experience that Americans are very romantic. And yet it is Americans, and to a somewhat lesser extent the rest of the Western cultures, who like to extol the supposed virtues of arranged marriages and poo-poo love matches. If you are a news and blog junkie, like me, you have probably read countless entries talking about how the institution of arranged marriage is a cure for divorce, unhappiness or the so-called “hook-up” culture, extolling it as the epitome of sensibility and the pinnacle of a stable, responsible lifestyle. Cherry-picked accounts by people (women especially) from patriarchal cultures swearing up and down how happy they are in a marriage to someone they did not even know before the wedding, someone picked by their parents, abound. And people lap it up. In fact, O Gentle Reader, you probably found this entry by Googling romantic stories about arranged marriages or happy arranged marriage accounts, or some other such nonsense — didn’t you? But clearly, this fascination with arranged marriage stems from the fact that most Westerners have absolutely no experience with this phenomenon and come from families where people have followed their hearts for so many generations, they retain no memory of what your garden-variety arranged marriage is really like.
So let me tell you a story about an arranged marriage in my family, which will, hopefully, introduce a dose of sober reality into this rosy picture.
One summer evening a little more than a century ago, in a village located somewhere in Russia’s heartland, my maternal great-grandmother (then aged 13), went out with her girlfriends without her father’s permission. When she returned home later that night, her father chastised her by grabbing her braids and forcefully introducing her head to the nearest brick wall. This kind of punishment was not at all unusual at that time and place — indeed, it must be noted, it is commonplace in cultures that practice arranged marriage — but in my great-grandmother’s case, the patriarch apparently miscalculated the strength of the blow, causing significant brain damage. And by “significant”, I mean my great-grandmother’s eyesight declined to near-blindness within several months following the incident.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the last waning days of the Old Regime. My great-great-grandfather was a wealthy farmer, whose sons, then in their 30’s, had gotten into the very lucrative tea and coffee importing business in Moscow. It was there that they found a husband for my great-grandmother: an impoverished petty aristocrat from the Caucasus region, who was willing to convert to Russian Orthodoxy and marry a blind girl of a much lower social standing in exchange for her impressive dowry. According to family lore, my great-grandfather was the eldest male of his clan and therefore bore the responsibility for providing his three unmarried sisters with their own dowries, in amounts befitting their rank — which is why he needed lots of money, and fast. The good damsels’ honor depended on his ability to deliver, and so did the honor of their clan and their ancient name. This is another curious parallel, that cultures in which arranged marriages are common typically have very strict notions of family honor, often demanding precisely this kind of sacrifice.
Critics defending arranged marriage may say that my great-grandparents were not well-matched and that this is not representative of arranged marriages. They may criticize my great-grandfather as a heartless monster who married for strictly pecuniary reasons. But what is an arranged marriage, if not a purely economic transaction? Aren’t love matches criticized precisely on the ground that they are based on love rather than pragmatic considerations? My ancestors’ was, in fact, a union that’s the most common garden variety in the world of arranged marriages — a union between money and status. In other words, it was a match made in arranged-marriage heaven (situated, in this particular case, in the back-room office of my great-granduncles’ tea and coffee shop).
My great-grandmother — who, everyone agreed, had been a burden to her family long enough, being blind and all — was simply informed that she was getting married. A dress was made, big trunks were filled with satins, jewelry and silver rubles, and a wedding was had. She was 18. The contents of the trunks were immediately doled out to her new sisters-in-law, and it was a good thing for them, too. After the triple catastrophes of World War I, the Revolution and the Civil War, they and their husbands at least had the means to do what most prudent upper-class people did at the time: take a ship to Istanbul, and thence a train bound for Paris. My great-grandparents, their wealth thus spent on family honor, remained behind.
Life settled into a routine. Underneath the calm domestic exterior, these two individuals were far too different to ever develop a real bond — and that is because the priorities of my great-grandmother’s family simply did not include her comfort or happiness. And how could they? Listen to anyone in our own society praising arranged marriage, and they will inevitably chastise you and me for giving personal satisfaction far too much importance. Life should be about hardships and sacrifice, goddammit, never “gratification” — right?
My great-grandfather was a handsome, elegant, university-educated man with refined, almost courtly manners, who was into “serious” literature, classical music, and a whole slew of academic subjects. He was a man of science and reason, who (despite having been raised nominally Muslim and converted to Russian Orthodoxy to marry my great-grandmother) profoundly despised organized religion. My great-grandmother, by contrast, was a simple country woman of passing attractiveness, who was not particularly interested in culture or intellectual things, never finished high school and was deeply superstitious. Her disability made her very self-conscious. In sum, there was little she could bring to the marriage apart from domestic services (which she performed splendidly).
My great-grandfather cheated. A lot. This was never a secret in the family, whose three generations simply “understood” that my poor great-grandmother could never hope to make a suitable companion to such a dashing and brilliant man, and so he had no choice but to seek elsewhere what was lacking at home. The Revolution made him ineligible to work as an engineer, and so he became a sleeper train attendant — a job that allowed him to escape home periodically and facilitated the keeping of simultaneous mistresses in various cities scattered throughout the country. Meanwhile, my great-grandmother stayed home, raising children, making pirozhki, sewing, knitting and praying.
When the couple’s first child died in the crib, my great-grandfather’s only communication to his wife on the subject was to coolly tell her that he considered her responsible. Having so informed her, he temporarily moved out, to be consoled by a mistress, while my great-grandmother stayed home to stew in her grief, alone and without any emotional support or consolation. When, several weeks later, my great-grandfather felt he was ready to rejoin the family, he did so as his right and prerogative — by simply moving back in and handing his wife the things that needed to be laundered and/or mended.
The 1920’s saw a severe outbreak of cholera in the city where my great-grandparents had settled. My great-grandfather had the misfortune to be out and about when the first series of violent spasms gripped his body. He leaned against a building to steady himself and was shortly swept up in a raid by public health workers. He was forced, at gunpoint, into an ambulance which already contained a dozen or so terrified men, women and children, all shitting blood in unison, and transported to one of a series of barns on the outskirts of town, where sick people were dumped like garbage and left to die. My great-grandmother — who, remember, was almost completely blind — went searching for him, broke into the barn, practically carried him out on her back and nursed him back to health. Once he was out of danger, he politely thanked her for her loyalty and dedication, but it was not long after that went off on another love holiday.
I don’t think my great-grandfather was evil; I don’t think he harbored any malice towards his wife. In his mind, he probably believed he delivered his end of the bargain: a husband who was occasionally home, did not beat his wife, and adequately supported the family. And wasn’t he right, on the big scheme of things? How often are we told that arranged marriages are unions between serious people who aren’t into “wuw”, romance or any of that other stupid fleeting teenage nonsense? Family and money is all that matters, and he furnished that, so there.
Plus, with all his many undeniably admirable qualities, was he not a catch? My mother, who was always in awe of my great-grandfather, often said: “He could have had any woman he wanted, but despite all the affairs, he always came back to Gram. He chose her as his wife, over and over, which means she meant more to him than all those other women.” Swell. I guess that counts for … something? As for my great-grandmother’s own loves, desires, hopes and dreams — she couldn’t act on them, never talked about them, and so everyone always assumed she had none, except to be a model wife.
Socially, the marriage was a success. The couple referred to each other in the respectful, plural form, and called each other “sir” and “madam”. The stiff formality of their interactions made physical abuse or name-calling unthinkable. They raised two children, including my grandmother, who went on to lead normal, productive lives. They never “officially” separated, and never as much as discussed divorce. Instead, they were married for nearly sixty years, until the day my great-grandfather died while visiting his then-mistress. It was certainly a polite marriage, and if you asked either of these people if their union was a good one, I have no doubt they would answer in the affirmative. But that doesn’t mean such a set-up would be good for anyone. If warmth and companionship is what you want in a marriage, then, trust me — arranged marriage is not the way to go.
The practice of arranged marriage does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a whole culture, which is broadly characterized as one where individuals (women especially) are pretty worthless, and where marriage exists to serve the interests of the extended family, as well as antiquated notions of honor and social propriety. I recently encountered an editorial praising arranged marriage, which touted the low divorce rates in India and Pakistan as “evidence” of how satisfying such marriages supposedly are. India and Pakistan — one of the worst regions in the world to be female. Places where girls as young as 10 are married off to men old enough to be their grandfathers; where women are held back from education and opportunity; where husbands kill their wives for their dowries, or out of jealousy, or for the hell of it, pretty much with impunity; and where young men’s lives, while marginally better, aren’t exactly a bed of roses, either. Who in their right mind can possibly think that living in such misery, fear and subjugation is a good price to pay for a low divorce rate?
In contrast to cultures where arranged marriage is practiced, Western cultures embrace individualism. Individualism isn’t simply a virtue — it is part of our cultural mythos. From the earliest age, we teach children to stand on their own two feet, and we look down on those young people who still live with their parents or run back to mom and dad to ask permission for every little thing. It makes little sense to tell the young: “Okay, you should live on your own and support yourself, and make your own way in the world, but leave it to your parents to make what is only the most fateful decision of your life, and accept it without questioning.”
Westerners’ insistence on getting married for love and the pursuit of personal satisfaction in marriage aren’t just some flippant and irresponsible fancies — they are an integral part of an overall worldview that treats human beings as autonomous, self-directing units not subject to anyone else’s control. And yet, I am puzzled by how disdainfully many of us look on love, and the idea of love being the only acceptable basis for a marriage.
Love is not some teenage fancy — it’s just that teenagers, to whom these feelings are new, love most explosively and awkwardly. And few things are as stupid as dismissing love, or a yearning for love, as “childish” just for that reason. Love, its absence, its possibility, or its impossibility — that’s every day of your life, and every minute of it. If you are unloved, and there is no possibility of you ever being in a loving relationship in the future, rest assured this is a knowledge that will pervade your every waking moment, and poison it — just like the knowledge that you are loved, or may yet be loved can enthuse and inspire you throughout your life. Imagine yourself in both of these lifestyles and ask, frankly, what a marriage is even for. Because it seems to me, there’s got to be more to it than simply avoiding divorce at any cost.
Otherwise, what’s the point?