Marry First, Love Second: The Case For DIY Arranged Marriage

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First off, I am not a relationship writer, but this topic came up the other day when my cousin was thinking of just ‘ordering’ a mail-order groom because she’s fast approaching 30 and is still single. Of course, I felt pity for her but this inspired me to write this piece and weigh the options. If the mail-order groom thing was readily available, we wouldn’t have many single women today!

Matchmaker Hellen Chen thinks you’re spending too much time dating. If you really want to be married, she says, you should simply get married, and let romance happen later. Dating is a recipe for heartbreak, and marriage should come first. Hellen Chen may be right on the money.

Chen says she’s seen too many people date for two, three, even five or more years, and then break up. If you spend time dating, you’re bound to get crushed. What you need to be truly happy and free, says Chen, is a spouse. When you have someone and something to come home to, then you can experience freedom like you’ve never had. In her world, the barrier that separates two single people poses the problem; if you just get rid of that and get married, well, problem solved.

The Case For “Settling”
Be warned, singles looking to mingle: Chen’s advice on marrying before dating is bound to strike you as odd, if not out-and-out preposterous. After all, how do you find the person you want to marry if you don’t date first? While I haven’t experienced her matchmaking style directly, I do know that she’s not exactly expecting you to book a chapel for the first date. That said, her message is clear: Stop nitpicking every date to death and finding reasons to not commit to someone. Stop wasting years and years in relationship limbo, cohabitating with someone you’re not sure about. If you want a happy relationship, you have to settle to some degree. So stop all this nonsense and get married already.

Before you go dismissing Chen as some out-of-touch relic, remember: What she’s advocating isn’t much different than what Lori Gottlieb dared to suggest in the book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough (and the notoriously polarizing Atlantic article of the same name that went insanely viral in 2008). Gottlieb warned us that we’d live to regret the day we let that nice guy with the receding hairline or questionable spelling get snapped up by the woman willing to overlook his superficial flaws. If you find something wrong with everyone, she argued, you’ll end up past your prime with fewer prospects and fewer men to choose from.

I’m not a fan of this scarcity-of-men argument, personally, but she made her point, reached a lot of people and perhaps humbled more than a few women into solid marriages they might have missed. (Did Gottlieb herself ever settle? Word on the street, says Melanie Notkin in her book Otherhood, is that she has not.)

The Paradox Of Choice
In his 2004 book The Paradox Of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz illustrated the theory that too many options tend to confuse people, breed anxiety and lead to a kind of paralysis when it comes to making a decision. An abundance — or even a perceived abundance — of partner choices may actually prevent you from choosing just one; after all, a better partner might be just around the corner.

A few years back, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Slater, author of Love in the Time of Algorithms. Slater believes that online dating poses a threat to monogamy — or at least unhappy monogamy — simply because if you know there are other potential mates out there, why would you put up with characteristics you don’t like?

And yet, putting up with all of your partner’s flaws is exactly what you must do, says Chen. That’s the job! She makes it clear that this is precisely what you’re signing up for. But the payoff is worth every last quirk, she says. Either you marry someone now and start creating a home and a life, or continue to pointlessly date and end up “homeless and loveless” (her words, not mine!).

Marriage Requires Compromise
The fact is, anyone who wants a specific thing must make some compromises to get it, be it something material like a fancy apartment or something more spiritual like a spouse. And this isn’t even just about marriage. If you want sex without relationship, you can have it, but you’re still making a sacrifice; you risk not having a supportive bond. If you want marriage, and to be married, more than anything else, then you can do that, too, provided you’re willing to do away with the impossible standards and endlesss dealbreakers you’ve clung to in your search for Mr. Perfect … who doesn’t exist, by the way.

In other words, you must have to be willing to commit first and love second. After all, it’s only (fairly) recently that we demanded the whole package: true love, intellectual match, perfect partner, best friend forever. As Stephanie Coontz taught us in Marriage: A History, for most of recorded history, love was considered a pretty fickle reason to get married — it was more about creating a family unit and a stable life — which may be why today, with so many couples marrying for love alone, so many of us are leaving in droves.

DIY Arranged Marriage
You know where I’m going here, right? Because what Chen is essentially telling you to do is perform your own arranged marriage. And you can decide to do it now. If what you want is a committed, long-term bond, then maybe — just maybe — this is the way to go.

It’s estimated that 55 percent of the world’s marriages are arranged — 90 percent of which happen in India. The divorce rate, as you probably know, is roughly 50 percent in this country. Guess how many divorces result from arranged marriages? Four percent. That’s not because people are happier elsewhere as a rule, or don’t suffer the same emotions or experiences that all couples do. It just means the ones who enter into arranged marriages by and large don’t do so with the same expectations as others do. They kind of say, “He’ll do,” and let the bond form over time. Then love grows — not in all cases, certainly, but a lot more than you realize. Full lives, children, a summer home, perhaps — all of this can be yours, too.

Do the countries where arranged marriages happen have a history of being oppressive towards women, though? Yes. Have women historically been treated as chattel, a bartering chit for securing land, power, and influence? You bet. Do I like the idea of women not being able to choose? Of course not. But in a first-world country, you can choose. You just … aren’t.

As a single woman (currently in a relationship) who has never had the real drive or compulsion to get or be married, it’s ironic, I know, to admit that I’m squarely behind this argument. I realize that. But I am — only insofar as marriage is concerned. Because while we all want to be loved, to feel a connection with someone, we don’t all need to, nor should we all be, married. But if you do want to get married first and foremost, well, Chen’s way makes a lot of sense.

You’re Not Willing To Work For It
Here’s where our cultural expectations get the best of us: We fall under this spell, from a fairly young age, that we should just be able to have something magical — true, everlasting love. That it’s our God-given right, in fact, and fairytale romance should happen. Then we’re so beside ourselves when it doesn’t happen in the way Disney said it would.

But let me ask you: In what other area of your life would you expect something like that to just materialize because you’re entitled to it? You don’t assume you just “deserve” a CEO position if you’ve never held an office job, right? You don’t just walk into a company, with no relevant experience, and say, “I’ll take that job, up there in the corner office,” then, when they deny you, stomp out in a huff and complain there are no jobs out there. Of course you wouldn’t do that. But that’s exactly what women (and lots of men) do when it comes to relationships.

Now I realize corporate hierarchy is a limping analogy. But, in essence, you do want the job, so to speak. And if you want to be married and live a married life, then you have to start with what’s available and commit to making your life what you want it to be. That’s what Chen is saying.

And I’ll admit, the idea of “dating” the person you married is appealing. It’s enough to make me wonder if we waste all the good stuff while we’re courting and then bore ourselves to tears after vows are exchanged.

In fact, Chen may have found the secret to marriage: Imagine if the good stuff wasn’t the appetizer, but the main meal. Think of how differently your romantic life would be if you could enjoy all the sexy fun of dating without wondering “where this is going” — because you’re already there.

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