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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Online Dating, Romantic Love, And Expediency–Why Traditional Marriage Is Still Important

Arranged marriages are common in India.  How foolish, traditional Indians say, to trust one’s life to a sentimental, inconsequential, and totally invented notion – romantic love. Marriages which are contractual agreements based on established principles of caste, color, education, wealth, and family status are far more sensible. “Let them fall in love after marriage if they like”, said Raj Gupta, an Indian friend of mine. “No harm done.”

Indian wedding

Of course he was right.  Romantic love is indeed an invented notion first attributed to Abelard, whose love for Heloise in the 12th century was chronicled in over twenty years of love letters, has been the standard for all young love ever since.  It was love at first sight for the brilliant philosopher and theologian Abelard and the well-born and intellectually gifted Heloise.  Their love was one of both spiritual and physical intimacy, the consummation of both the highest and most refined sentiments of the age and the most sexually potent.

Abelard and Heloise

The plot thickens when Heloise becomes pregnant, and although her uncle, Canon Fulbert agrees to help them wed and arranges a secret marriage, his intent is to destroy Abelard and to have his niece for himself. Abelard is beaten in the streets of Paris as Heloise escapes the confines of her uncle and finds refuge in a convent in Argenteuil.  The two lovers realize the hopelessness of their situation, give up their child, and live the rest of their lives apart in religious orders.

Petrarch a century later wrote love sonnets to Laura and immortalized both the genre of romantic poetry and the institution of romantic love. 

On earth reveal'd the beauties of the skies,
Angelic features, it was mine to hail;
Features, which wake my mingled joy and wail,
While all besides like dreams or shadows flies.
And fill'd with tears I saw those two bright eyes,
Which oft have turn'd the sun with envy pale;
And from those lips I heard—oh! such a tale,
As might awake brute Nature's sympathies!
Wit, pity, excellence, and grief, and love
With blended plaint so sweet a concert made,
As ne'er was given to mortal ear to prove:
And heaven itself such mute attention paid,
That not a breath disturb'd the listening grove—
Even æther's wildest gales the tuneful charm obey'd. (Sonnet 123)

Knights jousted for their fair maidens and went off to war with perfumed ringlets of their lovers’ hair.  Although marriages were still arranged – no aristocratic family would permit anything so capricious as love to dictate the terms of lineage, wealth, and social status – romantic love became the ideal.

Knight and Maiden

“You are still in the thrall of an imagined fantasy, my dear”, my Indian friend told me, “and the sooner you are done with it, the better”.

Although Americans have not reverted to marriages of convenience, we have indeed moved a lot closer to Raj’s ‘fall in love after marriage’ counsel than I had ever expected. What is online dating if it is not a form of arranged marriage?

An American colleague of mine relies entirely on a dating website which guarantees success.  It bases its claim on comprehensive and statistically reliable data.  A high percentage of courtships brokered by the website result in marriage.  Not only that, a much lower percentage of computer-mediated unions end in divorce.

Image result for images online dating

The website is so successful because it has developed predictive algorithms based on those factors which contribute to marital harmony and those which are antithetical to it. Clients are asked to fill in an exhaustive questionnaire based on these factors; and then are urged to ask their own questions that reflect very personal preferences that are likely not caught in the wide big data net.

My colleague swears by the site, and is now in the fifth year of a happy marriage. Not only men and women of a certain age are drawn to online dating, it has become de rigeur for younger people as well.  Why would anyone waste time, money, and energy cruising singles bars when sophisticated psycho-social software programs can do the work for you? If the unions that result from these data searches are not marriages of convenience, then nothing is.

A large (20,000 respondents) study done by the National Academy of Sciences concludes that marital satisfaction and durability is slightly higher for those who have met online:

Nearly 8 percent of marriages initiated offline ended in breakups, couples who met online reported lower rates of separation and divorce -- 6 percent.

"What is clear from this research is that a surprising number of Americans now meet their spouse on-line," the research states, and "Meeting a spouse on-line is, on average, associated with slightly higher marital satisfaction and lower rates of marital break-up than meeting a spouse through traditional (off-line) venues." (Huffington Post, 6.4.13)

While this slight statistical difference might be an indicator of the success of the new arranged marriages, more conservative critics are not so sure.  ‘Satisfaction’ is a very subjective term after all; and stated within the context of an online-based study may reflect only the practical aspects of living together rather than the more essential or spiritual. In other words, although online couples may have fewer arguments and more things to talk about, theirs may not be the passionate, deeply spiritual love enjoyed by Abelard and Heloise.

Romantic love may be a discredited concept; but no one denies the chemistry that provides the strongest bond.  As Freud and Sophocles well understood, we all marry our mothers and our fathers and respond instinctively to their subliminal calls. The truest union is not one of romantic love, but one of incestuous love.

Image result for images oedipus rex

There is no way, for now at least, that the most sophisticated online dating program can possibly account for these deep-seated emotional longings.

In short, online services will soon be the preferred method of dating, and the more sophisticated the software, the greater likelihood of success measured at least by ‘secular’ satisfaction and longevity.

Yet many of these couples may feel shortchanged.  Choosing partners is not like analyzing the NYSE or the Dow; and the data-based approach to partnership may be the equivalent of a blue chips-only portfolio – steady as she goes but boring and ultimately not satisfying.

Edward Albee understood marriage to be the crucible of maturity.  Only by being trapped within its confines can one finally reject the fantasies and idealism of youth, deal with rage, jealousy, and resentment – the stuff of life – and grow up.  In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf George and Martha who have eviscerated each other for decades finally have stripped themselves to the marrow and find that perhaps they do love each other. At the very least they realize that they need each other, and perhaps that is the best definition of love.

George and Martha

Martha did indeed marry Daddy, but George was not the strong, loving father she thought.  On the contrary he was a failed academic and writer and weak husband. Yet divorce was never mentioned.  They lived through the deliberate torment and agony because they wanted and needed to.  They suspected that their marriage was the only way to arrive at love.

According to the online dating paradigm, marriages are mediated and electronically concluded; and that marital satisfaction and longevity is a matter of statistical probability.  If things don’t work out, divorce is easy, common, and socially acceptable. Contracts all have an out-clause; and except for the Catholic Church for which matrimony is a sacrament taken before God, most everyone is for it.

In other words, the juice is taken out of sexual pairing; marriage as a crucible for emotional and spiritual development removed; and a culture of expediency installed.

The marriage of George and Martha represented the best of all possible worlds.  They married because of potent but unrealized sexual forces; they stayed together because marriage was an institution; and they grew to love each other profoundly and intimately because of it.

The worst of all possible worlds is arranged marriage whether the Indian or online kind.  They are no more than socio-economic contracts based on practical, secular, and very temporal notions.  At least the online system takes personal choice into the equation and offers a reasonable compromise between romantic love and efficiency.  The arranged marriages of early English courts were certain to give rise to the notion of romantic love.

Which leads me to expediency. Traditional marriage – concluded with parental support but based on mutual attraction; sanctified by the Church; existing without divorce; and providing Albee’s crucible of maturity – had a strong raison d’etre. Modern marriages brokered online with attention paid only to compatibility and contracted with easy out-clauses must be ruled by expediency.  Children – the essential bond between spouses and offering us the only glimpse into innocence we will ever have – are a matter of practical choice.  They are measured against tenure, job advancement, personal goals and ambitions.  Childless marriages and abortion are the consequences.

Image result for catholic church sacrament of marriage

Since traditional marriage has been the foundation of civilization for millennia, its dissolution cannot help but have repercussions in the larger world. If marriage becomes electronically-brokered, legally contracted, and easily voided; then why should social, political, and economic decisions not become as expedient and temporal?  Marriage is the fulcrum of morality and faith.  Honor, respect, compassion, valor, and honesty all begin within the family. Dealing with a wife you cannot discard and children you cannot jettison defines your moral code and gives meaning to your spiritual principles.

Everything has pros and cons. There are probably fewer contentious marriages around today thanks to Big Data; but many of them have become routine, spiritless, and essentially useless

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