First the marriage, then the courtship

Arranged marriages have moved beyond their traditional base and are becoming a small but growing trend in the US.

Courtesy of Judy Griesedieck/Minneapolis Star Tribune/File
Marriage of strangers: David Weinlick and Elizabeth Runze met when a friend sent out a press release inviting potential mates to meet David. They've been married 10 years and have three children.

Whisper the words "arranged marriage," and images of women signed over as chattel are likely to rise in the minds of many Westerners. But, say culture watchers and sociologists, there's a rising interest in this age-old practice in the West, as shown by at least two books and three upcoming television series on the topic – as well as a growing number of matchmaking sites devoted solely to arranging unions.

More important, couples with no cultural or family tradition of arranged marriages are entering into matrimony with proper strangers in what is being called a "turbo-charged back to the future."

While the number of nuptials consummated in this way is still small, there's evidence that some of the principles of these traditional pacts are drawing attention and respect from both scholars and singles who are anxious to move into a married state.

"In this Internet age, we have so many options we want people to narrow them down for us," says futurist Marian Saltzman, chief marketing officer at Porter Novelli in New York, who calls arranged marriages one of the "developing trends of the moment."

Internet dating has exhausted many people, she adds, suggesting that if online courtship is the yin of modern relationships, then arranged marriages are the yang. "People are saying to themselves, 'I'm tired of a whole bunch of cheap Hershey bars. I want gourmet chocolate and a connoisseur to tell me which of the top two brands I should choose.' "

But, she points out, arranged marriages in countries such as the United States are "not the old routine of dads selling daughters for a dowry; these kids have veto power."

David Weinlick and his wife, Elizabeth, began their union through what their "marriage arranger," good friend Steve Fletcher, calls "a piece of whimsy."

Mr. Fletcher, a political consultant, got together with a group of friends and announced that Mr. Weinlick would be married on a certain date, but needed a bride. "After we put this out as a press release, we thought nobody would take this seriously," he says. Instead, the group received hundreds of responses and more than two dozen women showed up on the appointed date to be "vetted" as potential brides.

Ten years and three children later, Weinlick says, "We love each other more every day." He and his wife, who is a nurse, agree that one of the keys to the union's success has been their shared values. "We were both committed to commitment," he adds.

Nick Gilhool, casting director for the impending Lifetime cable show "Arranged Marriage," in which four couples will take the plunge and allow cameras to film their first year together, says applicants share a frustration with dating and a desire to "be proactive" about their love lives. "Marriage is being repositioned and reexamined," he says.

The tradition of arranged marriages and the lessons it has for 21st-century couples interests author Reva Seth, an attorney of Indian heritage whose parents came together in an arranged marriage. "Everyone I know is questioning the role of marriage today," says the New Jersey-raised writer who now lives in Toronto with her husband and 4-year-old son.

She began to interview women from arranged marriages with an eye to discovering lessons for Westerners. The biggest surprise, says the author of "First Comes Marriage," is that "most of these women are happy, the main reason being that they have realistic expectations about their partners and always viewed them as a life partner, not a lifesaver."

One of the cornerstones of traditional arranged marriages is the participation of family members. In the case of Huriya Manzar, a 30-something computer programmer from Staten Island, N.Y., her parents and brothers arranged her marriage when she was 18. "For us, marriage is not so much about two people being in love," says Ms. Manzar. "It is about a relationship to a larger community, our family, our friends, and our neighbors."

She says her marriage to a man with whom she had spoken only briefly before they wed has been about "two human beings compromising and realizing that the other is only human, not some perfect being." Now pregnant with their second child, she adds that she loves her husband, although she does not feel she was ever "in love" with him.

This notion of romantic love and fulfillment through a soul mate is the cornerstone of much dissatisfaction, says psychologist Stan Tatkin. He's not surprised at singles investigating arranged marriage because it fits into one of the basic definitions of happiness. "People generally find they are more able to find happiness from the things to which they commit themselves," he says.

Lisa Clampitt, cofounder of the Matchmaking Institute, and her husband of five years barely knew one another when they wed. "He proposed within 20 minutes of meeting me, I said yes, and a week later we sent out 'evites' to our friends," says the former social worker with a laugh, recalling that many of her buddies didn't respond because they considered it a joke. "But, within two months we'd gone to Las Vegas and married and begun our life together. We just found things out after committing to each other, rather than before."

Still, not all stories have such a happy ending. Sophia McDonald, a university-educated Russian immigrant, says that she met a suitor from Seattle through an international matchmaker. He and Ms. McDonald dated for a year before they married and began living in the US. After the marriage didn’t work out, they divorced, and eventually she became a matchmaker for people in the Washington area. [Editor's note: Sophia McDonald says that she dated her future husband for a year before they married and that they divorced because the marriage didn’t work out, not because there were any misrepresentations or financial failings on her husband’s part. She does not deal in international matchmaking.]

Arranged marriage, as it's practiced traditionally, will never take deep root in the West, says Robert Epstein, visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego. "We don't have the ... most important ingredients" – a strong community support system, either religious or social, and shared values or beliefs.

But, says the author of the upcoming book, "Making Love," a study of the potential lessons from traditional matrimonial customs, Westerners can absorb the deeper principles, such as that love doesn't have to rely on the click of Cupid's wand; it can be "made."

He points to a story about an arranged marriage in a novel by Salman Rushdie. Day by day, the wife contemplates a small aspect of her husband and resolves to love that single quality. Bit by bit, she comes to love the whole man.

Just as mainstream culture has absorbed the notion that we can work to improve our physiques and our careers, says Dr. Epstein, we'll come to accept that we can "work" on marriage and love.

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