The case for arranged marriage
Update: April 11 425pm BDT at the end
Theirs was the stuff of fairy tale romance. The son of a Supreme Court judge and a charismatic English professor, he was brought up to be a pukka gentleman. She came from the wrong side of the poorest of backwater towns, first in the family to make it to university, relying on nothing but her grit. They were white collar professionals, colleagues who fell in love in their late 20s. I was there—it happened in my living room actually. They moved in, and then moved overseas together for greater opportunities, for both. Careers progressed, and love deepened. About ten years ago, they got married in a picturesque island. Couple of years later they returned to a large wooden house with a big backyard to raise a little girl, and then a boy. Financially secure — they benefitted from the asset booms of that decade — it was a time for career change, to follow their hearts. She joined politics. He decided to pursue his passion for writing.
Then the fairy tale ended. While turning 40, she finds that politics is hard work, and merely willing isn’t enough. He is in deep blue funk, with writing going nowhere. Kids are alright, I guess. But the parents most definitely aren’t.
How about a more conventional couple? Both from straight forward middle class families. Met in their 20s through friends, and started seeing each other frequently, and then exclusively. He had an opportunity to move overseas for work. Marriage was the only way for them to be together, even though this meant an end to her career. A decade and three daughters later, she is mostly tired and bitter. Meanwhile, he wonders what might have been had they never met.
These are not isolated incidences. Whether in Desh or in the west, I see couples of my age and socioeconomic background, regardless of ethnicity or culture, in stale, unexciting marriages where no one is really at fault, where the fire of passion is buried in repressed memories and forced indifference. And these are the marriages that survive. Scarily, I joked recently with a friend that I am more likely now to attend a social shindig marking the end of someone’s marriage than a wedding!
What happens? In short, life. It’s hard to navigate the demands of modern life — finances needed for the standard of living we aspire to, but also the expectations of personal achievements we set ourselves, and then there is the social rat race that none of us are really immune from. All that before we throw in the curve ball of raising kids and the emotional and physical tolls that entail.
Of course, there are local variations. But whether in Dhaka or London, for the globalised modern folks, the standard life trajectory is to spend our 20s and early 30s establishing ourselves professionally. In the younger years, this is interspersed with experiences and experimentations — travel, hobbies, intoxicants, and of course, coupling. As we end our 20s, we look for a mate. The conventional wisdom is to experience and experiment before settling with someone — FOMO leads to resentment, after all. Then we spend our 30s into the 40s consolidating career, taking on debt, and making baby — you know, the stuff of life. And when life happens, love ends.
That seems to be the dominant story of people like me. Sure, there is a rare few who have not chosen that path, and rarer ones who seem to have a happy conjugal life — but then again, who knows the truth behind a close door! In any case, we are likely to live a reasonably healthy and active life for another two or three decades, so the current blue will likely pass. We see a few older ones picking up their lives already. Even the complications around kids aren’t insurmountable.
But one has to wonder whether we have an efficient life trajectory? Is this the standard path the best one for life satisfaction or personal fulfilment? Can we do better?
Imagine an alternative trajectory where we focus our 20s on child rearing. After all, evolution has made us ready for baby making well before that age. We are certainly better prepared for the gruel acts of baby raising in our 20s than 30s, at least as far as the physical aspects of the tasks are concerned.
Of course, there are also emotional and financial dimensions. Raising a kid solo would be pretty hard I’d imagine at any age. But who is proposing solo?
Imagine you have a mate — not soul, but one who is compatible for all the baby stuff, surrounded by a social network that is more real than virtual. A young couple with ample support, might that not be better than a middle aged one on their own?
But how do these young people find each other?
Well, isn’t courting and choosing your own mate a relatively recent phenomenon? Might we learn something from the older generations? What if parents and family networks played a bigger role in setting these kids up for the baby-venture? On balance, arranged marriages like this might be quite good at matching people with compatible and complimentary needs. I’d contend that this would actually be much more efficient than the alternative of liquid or haze induced evenings that lead to usual couplings.
Let me pause here and stress that I do not by any means call for a return to patriarchy. If anything, I’d have thought that if arranged marriages were to become norm, it would have to involve a great deal of gender equity. And why not? The institution itself doesn’t lead to patriarchy. Nothing stops a girl’s family to seek a guy who will do his share of chores, and at the right age stay at home and look after the baby.
If babies are out of the way in our 20s, we can start career or self-fulfilment in our 30s or later. For one thing, this would be better for gender equity as women won’t be falling behind because of child bearing. For either gender, parenthood would make us more resilient and mature for career or similar challenges in life.
And what about those experiences and experiments? Well, why not have some fun in our 40s?
If you should be so lucky, your baby-venture partner might be the one you would be having such fun with. But even if you arrive at a stagnant point as you turn 40, with kids well into their teens, pulling up the stumps and beginning afresh would be much easier. Particularly so, if there is a large pool of 40ish newly single people out there.
And therein lies the problem. Arguably the trajectory I describe is better for personal and social well-being. But how do we go from our sociocultural norms to that?
I haven’t a foggiest clue. Instead, let’s listen to some music.
Faham Abdus Salam makes a complimentary point:
Marriage as an institution is designed to fail/wane if we live this long. Human beings were designed to live 30 years. You have your kids by 16. You live till they become independent hunter gatherer — that is another 12 years. Give or take 4/5 years and the range becomes 30-35. You have 15 to 20 years of conjugal life – roughly speaking. That is a perfect timeframe for a meaningful relationship. You have purpose and more importantly- intensity. If we live 80 years and expect things from our partners that five hundred years ago – used to be provided by an entire village – there will be widening gap between the reality and expectation. No matter how you design marital institution – it absolutely needs to be brief.