Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
I remember the first time I found out that one of my friends had an arranged marriage. I was at a work function and struck up a conversation with a coworker in which I asked him how he and his wife met. When they told me that their marriage had been arranged by their parents, I was stunned. I had spoken to them many times before, and always noticed how much they seemed to enjoy one another's company. In fact, if someone had asked me to name the married couples I knew who seemed most in love, they would have been near the top of the list.
Over time, I would eventually discover that quite a few of my friends had marriages that were mostly arranged by their families. They did have input into the decision-making process, and did meet their future spouses a few times before making any commitments, but the process was directed by their parents. The majority of these friends were from parts of India where that kind of thing is common, and I had a ton of questions for them about how it all worked. It led to a lot of fun and interesting discussions, and what I learned would eventually shatter my notions of what the institution of marriage was all about.
The typical secular American viewpoint is that marriage is about "love," and love is a feeling. The way to find a spouse, the thinking goes, is to find someone you have fun with, and whose presence makes you have all sorts of positive feelings -- that's how you'll know you're "in love." Then, you get married, and the overriding goal of your union is to make sure that both of you experience as much fun and comfort as possible. As long as you and your spouse still feel positive emotions about one another, you'll have a "good marriage."
Within this paradigm, the idea of an arranged marriage was perplexing. How would you know if you and your potential spouse would have fun together? If you only met him or her a few times, how could you be sure you clicked? To the modern American mind, the entire foundation of a marriage was positive feelings, and so entering into a marriage in which you weren't sure the feelings were there seemed like a recipe for disaster.
What I would eventually realize is that my friends had an entirely different understanding of what love and marriage are all about.
First of all, they saw a marriage as being about so much more than the bride and groom alone: Yes, the spouses hoped that they would be happy in their unions, but they also saw their marriages as the coming together of two entire families. The possibility of children was not seen as a tangential, completely optional lifestyle choice that the couple might make if they thought that kids would make them happy; rather, marriage was seen as being intrinsically ordered toward new life, with a hope that each family and all that it stood for would continue into in another generation. Engaged couples approached their nuptials not focused exclusively on how each could achieve as much personal happiness as possible, but also with an eye toward how to honor their birth families as well as their new families by marriage.
What I found most interesting, though, was my friends' understanding of love.
They hoped for the same exciting feelings that American culture calls "love," but they didn't see those emotions as definitive of the concept. They saw love as an action, one that's rooted in mutual self-giving and self-sacrifice. They adhered to this crazy notion that when two people come together in the name of something greater than themselves, and each is willing to sacrifice some of his or her selfish desires to make the other's life easier, that that is what real love looks like.
And they said something else that was surprising to me at the time: That when two people enact this version of love, day in and day out, the feelings come. They may not always have the same intensity of the feelings that modern Americans label "love" (which are undoubtedly too often confused with lust or infatuation), but they run deeper and last longer.
My takeaway from these conversations was not that arranged marriages are always better, or that there are no problems within that system of courtship. Instead, the glimpse these couples gave me into their lives made me completely re-evaluate my understanding of what this institution is all about, and what it means to be in love. If the secular understanding of love were true, then none of these couples should be happy. Yet not only did most of them have successful marriages, but they seemed happier than many people who had followed the typical American wisdom in these matters. They were the experiment that tested the secular hypothesis of love-as-a-feeling, and the hypothesis proved to be false.
I would later come to a much deeper understanding of this subject once I was married myself, and especially once I converted to Catholicism. But I always think back fondly on those conversations with my friends who had arranged courtships, because they were the first to introduce me to the truth that when you have a marriage built on self-sacrifice in the name of something greater, you have a marriage built on love.