One of the greatest pleasures of my teen years was sitting down with a bag of cinnamon Red Hots and a new LaVyrle Spencer romance, immersing myself in another tale of star-crossed lovers drawn together by the heart’s mysterious alchemy. My mother didn’t get it. “Why are you reading that?” she would ask, her voice tinged with both amusement and horror. Everything in her background told her that romance was a waste of time.
Born and raised in Illinois by parents who emigrated from India 35 years ago, I am the product of an arranged marriage, and yet I grew up under the spell of Western romantic love—first comes love, then comes marriage—which both puzzled and dismayed my parents. Their relationship was set up over tea and samosas by their grandfathers, and they were already engaged when they went on their first date, a chaperoned trip to the movies. My mom and dad still barely knew each other on their wedding day—and they certainly hadn’t fallen in love. Yet both were confident that their shared values, beliefs, and family background would form a strong bond that, over time, would develop into love.
“But, what could they possibly know of real love?” I would ask myself petulantly after each standoff with my parents over whether or not I could date in high school (I couldn’t) and whether I would allow them to arrange my marriage (I wouldn’t). The very idea of an arranged marriage offended my ideas of both love and liberty—to me, the act of choosing whom to love represented the very essence of freedom. To take away that choice seemed like an attack not just on my autonomy as a person, but on democracy itself.
And, yet, even in the supposedly liberated West, the notion of choosing your mate is a relatively recent one. Until the 19th century, writes historian E.J. Graff in What Is Marriage For?: The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (Beacon Press, 1999), arranged marriages were quite common in Europe as a way of forging alliances, ensuring inheritances, and stitching together the social, political, and religious needs of a community. Love had nothing to do with it.
Fast forward a couple hundred years to 21st-century America, and you see a modern, progressive society where people are free to choose their mates, for the most part, based on love instead of social or economic gain. But for many people, a quiet voice from within wonders: Are we really better off? Who hasn’t at some point in their life—at the end of an ill-fated relationship or midway through dinner with the third “date-from-hell” this month—longed for a matchmaker to find the right partner? No hassles. No effort. No personal ads or blind dates.
The point of the Western romantic ideal is to live “happily ever after,” yet nearly half of all marriages in this country end in divorce, and the number of never-married adults grows each year. Boundless choice notwithstanding, what does it mean when the marital success rate is the statistical equivalent of a coin toss?
“People don’t really know how to choose a long-term partner,” offers Dr. Alvin Cooper, the director of the San Jose Marital Services and Sexuality Centre and a staff psychologist at Stanford University. “The major reasons that people find and get involved with somebody else are proximity and physical attraction. And both of these factors are terrible predictors of long-term happiness in a relationship.”
At the moment we pick a mate, Cooper says, we are often blinded by passion and therefore virtually incapable of making a sound decision.
Psychology Today editor Robert Epstein agrees. “[It’s] like getting drunk and marrying someone in Las Vegas,” he quips. A former director of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, Epstein holds a decidedly unromantic view of courtship and love. Indeed, he argues it is our myths of “love at first sight” and “a knight in a shining Porsche” that get so many of us into trouble. When the heat of passion wears off—and it always does, he says—you can be left with virtually nothing “except lawyer’s bills.”
Epstein points out that many arranged marriages result in an enduring love because they promote compatibility and rational deliberation ahead of passionate impulse. Epstein himself is undertaking a bold step to prove his theory that love can be learned. He wrote an editorial in Psychology Today last year seeking women to participate in the experiment with him. He proposed to choose one of the “applicants,” and together they would attempt to fall in love—consciously and deliberately. After receiving more than 1,000 responses, none of which seemed right, Epstein yielded just a little to impulse, asking Gabriela, an intriguing Venezuelan woman he met on a plane, to join him in the project. After an understandable bout of cold feet, she eventually agreed.
In a “love contract” the two signed on Valentine’s Day this year to seal the deal, Epstein stipulates that he and Gabriela must undergo intensive counseling to learn how to communicate effectively and participate in a variety of exercises designed to foster mutual love. To help oversee and guide the project, Epstein has even formed an advisory board made up of high-profile relationship experts, most notably Dr. John Gray, who wrote the best-selling Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. If the experiment pans out, the two will have learned to love each other within a year’s time.
It may strike some as anathema to be so premeditated about the process of falling in love, but to hear Epstein tell it, most unions fail exactly because they aren’t intentional enough; they’re based on a roll of the dice and a determination to stake everything on love. What this means, Epstein says, is that most people lack basic relationship skills, and, as a result, most relationships lack emotional and psychological intimacy.
A divorced father of four, Epstein himself married for passion—“just like I was told to do by the fairy tales and by the movies”—but eventually came to regret it. “I had the experience that so many people have now,” he says, “which is basically looking at your partner and going, ‘Who are you?’” Although Epstein acknowledges the non-Western tradition of arranged marriage is a complex, somewhat flawed institution, he thinks we can “distill key elements of [it] to help us learn how to create a new, more stable institution in the West.”
Judging from the phenomenon of reality-TV shows like Married By America and Meet My Folks and the recent increase in the number of professional matchmakers, the idea of arranging marriages (even if in non-traditional ways) seems to be taking hold in this country—perhaps nowhere more powerfully than in cyberspace. Online dating services attracted some 20 million people last year (roughly one-fifth of all singles—and growing), who used sites like Match.com and Yahoo Personals to hook up with potentially compatible partners. Web sites’ search engines play the role of patriarchal grandfathers, searching for good matches based on any number of criteria that you select.
Cooper, the Stanford psychologist and author of Sex and the Internet: A Guidebook for Clinicians (Brunner-Routledge, 2002)—and an expert in the field of online sexuality—says that because online interaction tends to downplay proximity, physical attraction, and face-to-face interaction, people are more likely to take risks and disclose significant things about themselves. The result is that they attain a higher level of psychological and emotional intimacy than if they dated right away or hopped in the sack. Indeed, online dating represents a return to what University of Chicago Humanities Professor Amy Kass calls the “distanced nearness” of old-style courtship, an intimate and protected (cyber)space that encourages self-revelation while maintaining personal boundaries.
And whether looking for a fellow scientist, someone else who’s HIV-positive, or a B-movie film buff, an online dater has a much higher likelihood of finding “the one” due to the computer’s capacity to sort through thousands of potential mates. “That’s what computers are all about—efficiency and sorting,” says Cooper, who believes that online dating has the potential to lower the nation’s 50 percent divorce rate. There is no magic or “chemistry” involved in love, Cooper insists. “It’s specific, operationalizable factors.”
Love’s mystery solved by “operationalizable factors”! Why does that sound a little less than inspiring? Sure, for many people the Internet can efficiently facilitate love and help to nudge fate along. But, for the diehard romantic who trusts in surprise, coincidence, and fate, the cyber-solution to love lacks heart. “To the romantic,” observes English writer Blake Morrison in The Guardian, “every marriage is an arranged marriage—arranged by fate, that is, which gives us no choice.”
More than a century ago, Emily Dickinson mocked those who would dissect birds to find the mechanics of song:
Split the Lark—and you’ll find the Music—
Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled—
Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning
Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.
Loose the Flood—you shall find it patent—
Gush after Gush, reserved for you—
Scarlet Experiment! Skeptic Thomas!
Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?
In other words, writes Deborah Blum in her book, Sex on the Brain (Penguin, 1997), “kill the bird and [you] silence the melody.” For some, nurturing the ideal of romantic love may be more important than the goal of love itself. Making a more conscious choice in mating may help partners handle the complex personal ties and obligations of marriage; but romantic love, infused as it is with myth and projection and doomed passion, is a way to live outside of life’s obligations, outside of time itself—if only for a brief, bright moment. Choosing love by rational means might not be worth it for those souls who’d rather roll the dice and risk the possibility of ending up with nothing but tragic nobility and the bittersweet tang of regret.
In the end, who really wants to examine love too closely? I’d rather curl up with a LaVyrle Spencer novel or dream up the French movie version of my life than live in a world where the mechanics of love—and its giddy, mysterious buzz—are laid bare. After all, to actually unravel love’s mystery is, perhaps, to miss the point of it all.
Anjula Razdan is associate editor of Utne.