For the past eight years, Robert Epstein, the Harvard-educated Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, has studied arranged marriages, interviewing more than 70 people from a variety of backgrounds, including some Orthodox Jewish couples. His findings are in sharp distinction with the current air of suspicion that surrounds the practice of arranged marriage in many democratized societies.
According to Epstein, feelings of love in arranged marriages tend to gradually increase as time goes on in the relationship, whereas in so called “love marriages”, where attraction is based on passionate emotions, a couple’s feelings for each other typically diminish by as much as fifty percent after only eighteen to twenty-four months of marriage. In fact, according to a study conducted in India, arranged marriages appear to surpass love marriages in intensity at the five year mark, and to be twice as strong as love marriages within ten years.
The problem in part with love marriages, says Epstein, is that they’re based on a love that is perennially misunderstood, influenced by unrealistic media portrayals that present it as an uncontrollable, spur of the moment force. “We grow up on fairy tales and movies in which magical forces help people find their soul mates, with whom they effortlessly live happily ever after,” wrote Epstein in a cover article for Scientific American MIND. “The fairy tales leave us powerless, putting our love lives into the hands of the Fates.” Such relationships can implode when the characteristic love of the newly married dissipates as time goes on.
Instead, Epstein advocates that relationships be built deliberately, through various practical exercises that he has distilled from his research on arranged marriage, as well as from more than 80 scientific studies conducted by other researchers. According to Epstein, relationships are organic and can be infused at will with deep commitment and lasting love, an empowering thought that he thinks will solve many marriage crises. Even pretending to be in love can contribute to deep relationships, says Richard Wiseman, whose book on the subject, Rip It Up, came out this week. The idea is conceptually similar to Fritz Strack’s 1988 study that smiling makes people happier, a landmark paper that has since been followed by numerous corroborating studies concluding that external actions influence internal emotions. Epstein, who was formerly the editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, is currently working on a book of his own, called “How People Learn to Love and How You Can Too”, and is trying to produce a similarly themed reality TV series. He has also created ArrangedMarriageSurvey.com, a website designed to gather data about arranged marriages from couples who want to contribute to his research.
In an age of climbing divorce rates and record numbers of single parenting, the discussion about love is especially apropos. In the US, an estimated half of all first marriages and two thirds of all second marriages fail. It has long been claimed that the Jewish divorce rate is substantially lower, but reliable data is hard to find on the subject, perhaps because of the premium placed on privacy in many Orthodox communities. That premium has forced Dr. Epstein to conduct most of his research on arranged marriages in non-Jewish setting like India and Pakistan.
In those countries, as in many Orthodox Jewish communities, the traditional definition of arranged marriages is blurred into a hybrid of sorts between arranged and love marriages. The parents or matchmaker suggest a date, and the young couple then exchange correspondence or go on several dates to decide themselves whether to marry or not. This is the system in non-Hassidic Orthodox Jewish communities and among Chabad Hassidim, where adults of marriageable age are set up on “shidduch” dates, with the assumption that after a dozen, sometimes less dates, the two will be ready to decide to marry or not. The practice is conceptually far from a forced marriage, illegal in many Westernized countries, in which parents decide on a spouse for a child with no input from the child himself. As opposed to forced marriages, “In arranged marriages, there is a choice, and it is respected” said Epstein in an interview with The Algemeiner. “The parents and the son or daughter make the decision together; everyone is interested in everyone else’s benefit.”
And therein lies the system’s advantage. “It means that there’s a third party involved, there are other perspectives in the matching process.” Epstein said. Whereas the prevailing attitude is one of chance- “we stumble across somebody in a bar on online, a poor basis for a marriage”- arranged marriages add an outsider’s opinion-“it brings our intellect even just a little bit into the process.”
Others are not so fond of the idea.
Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained At Last, an organization whose stated mission is to “help women leave arranged marriages,” was in an arranged marriage herself, and claims that the matchmaking culture of current Jewish society is not conducive to informed decision-making. “There’s all this societal pressure. People aren’t allowed to meet others themselves, and they have to wait for a matchmaker to deal with them, so they have a limited time to decide” she told the Algemeiner. “They have to get married at a young age, with not enough experience, and they aren’t given the tools they need to make a proper decision.”
Ms. Reiss said she was motivated to form her organization, the only non-profit of its type in the US, from her personal experiences with arranged marriages. “It’s a business transaction. It’s not about love” she said, adding “The choice you make is not a choice at all. Its societal coercion.”
Ms. Reiss is dedicated to helping women marginalized by the arranged marriage system, and it is clear that such women exist. These “coerced” are unable to assert their independence and are boxed into a life they are unwilling to live and unable to leave, as was the case with Deborah Feldman, author of the bestselling book Unorthodox, an expose on the Hassidic community that has brought its author minor celebrity. But the dearth of data has left it unclear whether women like Ms. Feldman and Ms. Reiss are outliers in a generally successful system, or are indicative of the system’s patent failure.
Francine Kaye, a British divorce therapist self-styled as the Divorce Doctor, thinks the former is the truth. “When it is done properly, and both families are aware what the other’s beliefs and values are, there’s a lot to be said for arranged marriages” she said to the Algemeiner. Ms. Kaye, who has been featured on CNN and the BBC, sees arranged marriages as a good way to ensure similarities between people looking for relationships. “Compatibility is so important. In the Orthodox Jewish community the parents carefully look at compatibility- they do their homework on their characteristics, their goals, and values.” In this capacity, she sees arranged marriages as not unlike online dating, in that they single out people whose proclivities are similar in vital relationship areas. “Truly what is the difference between an arranged marriage and a dating site where you need to fill in a long form about your preferences?” said Ms. Kaye.
Dr. Epstein, for one, has decried online dating sites like JDate and Jewster because they objectify people, as well as contribute to enormous amounts of online deception. “The number of people who lie on these sites- women usually about their age and weight and men about their income and marital status- could be as high as ninety percent,” said Dr. Epstein, citing a study he personally conducted into this area. But the central idea of compatibility is nevertheless a strong one, and important for a marriage’s long term stability. People who are compatible can commit to a life together, and will stay married even through rough times, whereas those who marry for love often overlook crucial differences and separate when their initial passion burns through.
For this purpose Dr. Epstein has designed AreWeGoodTogether.com, a website aimed at pinpointing and matching the pivotal characteristics that determine people’s compatibility. Through this he hopes to glean the benefits of an arranged marriage while circumventing its drawbacks.
“An arranged marriage is not perfect, but in some respects it’s better than a love marriage” says Epstein. “I’m not saying we should practice it, but I do think we can learn from it.”