There was a fascinating short story in the Oct 13 issue of the New Yorker about 38-year-old woman, a 44-year-old man and his 71-year-old mother, a retired professor of zoology who had long kept most people at bay with her coldness.
The story hinges on the sly feints all three make in the direction of what some stories might call love, but that this story suggests is making do. Neither the man nor the woman is the slightest bit interested in marrying anyone let alone each other, but for reasons we at first don’t understand the mother is trying to arrange a union.
Set in modern-day Beijing the story (“Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” by Yiyun Li) reveals its secrets slowly. The son, we learn, is a gay man who has lived abroad in Canada and the US for 20 years and been much disappointed in love. After helping to support his last lover through college, he was dumped with the glib excuse that they were just having fun. The woman has never married — and has been much pitied for her spinsterhood — but has been in love for years (though in ways never specified) with the older woman, who in turn may have had a lesbian affair in the distant past. The older woman acknowledges the younger’s many kindnesses but barely tolerates her presence. Sometimes she invites her over for a special occasion and sometimes she doesn’t.
Depending on your point of view these people are all either emotionally stunted or stymied or both. Nevertheless they eventually move toward a three-pointed ménage, arranged and housed by the mother, who doesn’t want to see her son make the same mistake she did.
“They were lonely and sad people,” concludes the story, “all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.”
That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of arranged marriages but the story itself is unbelievably touching (see for yourself at Newyorker.com/fiction) and it raises the interesting question of the will in relationships. The most striking thing about arranged marriages, after all, is not the fact that somebody else might choose a partner for you, but the idea that you can and should make it work — that it’s within your control.
The question is how much control? How far can we push our relationships? To what extent can we create them through intention alone?
Therapists usually suggest — in their veiled, sideways way — that some sort of intention is necessary. Love’s not enough. You must make a conscious choice, a willed decision — a commitment — to stay with person X, otherwise you’ll drift and your love will wither in the bright light of everyday angst.
But most people in the West are suspicious of too much intention in love. It can come across as cold or calculating. In our tradition you’re supposed to fall into love, not step up to it. It’s the fairy dust at the end of the rainbow, something you find, not produce. We follow The Supremes in thinking you can’t hurry love, you just have to wait.
Needless to say this is not a belief that is universally shared. I was struck many years ago by a CBC radio interview with the Indian literary critic Harish Trivedi. Romantic love, he said, is central to Western civilization, but it has never really caught on in India, where most marriages are still arranged and the expectation is that one will grow into love. Both approaches seem to work about equally well, he suggested, leading me to guess that the key ingredient is commitment.
You can make almost any relationship work provided you stick with it. The decision to commit — and what else is marriage but a socially sanctioned commitment? — is a kind of protective structure, a container for all the desires, fears and emotions that would otherwise tear the couple apart. What holds people together, in other words, is the decision to stay together. One creates the relationship, crafts it from hard work, longevity and endurance.
I say that, but I’m not sure that I believe it. What if you simply don’t find the other person attractive? Love often grows, but lust — well, lust, is less amenable to summons on command.
Still there’s something in the idea of arranged marriages, even if it’s only the idea that relationships (of all sorts) need time and intentionality. The big advantage of arranged marriage is that somebody is going to take the time to get to know you better, whether you like them or not. In a world where people come and go at the drop of a digitized picture, an incentive to slow down and grow might be helpful.
As novelist and relationship veteran Jane Rule remarked in an interview many years ago, “I think there’s too much emphasis on romantic choice and not enough on love…. You do work at it.”