(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)
Last year I spent the month of February discussing marriage-related topics. This year, as Valentine’s Day approaches, I’d like to return to that subject — because as I noted at the time, there’s more to talk about than can fit into a mere four essays.
(Spoiler: it won’t fit into eight, either. Though the next time I loop around to this, we’ll be looking more at things on the periphery of marriage, rather than marriage itself.)
I said in those previous essays that historically speaking, marriage tended to be seen less as an alliance between two individuals, and more as an alliance between their families or nations or whatever. Because of this, it isn’t surprising that autonomous marriage — where individuals choose their own spouses, with nobody else getting a say in the matter — was far less common than arranged marriage. Even today, something like half of all marriages worldwide are arranged marriages.
This isn’t the same thing as forced marriage. Those do exist, of course, and unsurprisingly, women’s consent has usually been treated as more optional than men’s. Furthermore, that “consent” may be coerced, with parents threatening to lock up or disown their daughter if she doesn’t give in. But at least in theory, most societies operate on the principle that both spouses have to agree to the match.
The process of finding a suitable partner can be simple or complex. On the simple end — which is also the most common — family members take care of it. Parents hunt out prospective husbands or wives for their kids, discussing the matter with other parents, or sometimes with the potential husband himself, if he’s old enough or doesn’t have family. Or that task may fall to some other relative, especially if their social position gives them lots of opportunity to survey the field. This might be an aunt with a widespread gossip network, a grandfather with a lot of business partners with available sons, or anyone else well-connected.
In fact, if you’re really good at hooking people up, you might take that on as a regular job. In Japan matchmakers may be called nakōdo, and some of them are professionals; the same is true of shadchan in Jewish society. Many cultures have similar things, though I don’t know the proper names for them all.
These people do more than just provide a list of unattached people of the appropriate gender. A good matchmaker evaluates prospective spouses, talks up their merits or discloses their flaws, shepherds the candidates through their first meetings with each other, and handles negotiations between the two families. That last function is often cited as one of the greatest merits of using a matchmaker: as with any other kind of negotiation, having an intermediary can help smooth over difficulties and cushion people’s feelings in the event that things fall through.
And that evaluation can be thorough, a cross between a job interview and a background check. Personal compatibility figures into it — a matchmaker whose list of former clients are renowned for their dysfunctional relationships and public screaming matches isn’t likely to get much business — but that’s not the only factor. The matchmaker will also look into the families: their status and wealth, immediate relatives, hereditary ailments, whether there are any scandals not quite sufficiently buried. A family whose bloodline seems to be failing might want a young woman whose female relatives have a robust history of fertility and healthy children; a family oppressed by enemies might want a young man who’s proved his courage and skill in battle.
More esoteric concerns play a part, too. Not only might a pious family want to ensure their future son- or daughter-in-law is sufficiently orthodox and devout, but they might be concerned about the spiritual compatibility of the pair. In these cases, they can hire an astrologer to chart the relevant natal charts. If you’ve ever seen something telling you that Virgos and Leos make for bad marriage partners, or that people born in the Year of the Monkey match well to the Year of the Dragon, you’ve seen a simplified version of this in action. In East Asia, people also might read significance into the number of strokes used to write a person’s name, and declare numerological compatibility or incompatibility with the name of a prospective partner. Spiritual factors provide a polite out if one side doesn’t favor the match: it’s no fault on anybody’s part, but simply the will of the gods.
The scientific version of this might be genetic. Will your genome pair well with that of your spouse? If we ever enter a period of easy and widespread human genetic engineering, you’ll be able to pick and choose which genes to use, thus ensuring (for example) one copy of the sickle-cell gene and its accompanying malaria resistance, but not two and sickle-cell anemia. But if you’re rolling the gamete dice, you might choose to avoid a spouse who carries the potential for too many unpleasant diseases.
Being a matchmaker does carry hazards, especially when the match is between very high-status people, with all the associated stakes. Thomas Cromwell’s fall from power as chief minister to Henry VIII began when he arranged his sovereign’s marriage to Anne of Cleves — a marriage that ended six months later, having never been consummated. If something goes wrong, it’s easy for people to blame the one who helped make it happen, even if they’re not the one at fault.
What about the marriages themselves? There are statistics that suggest arranged marriages are more stable than autonomous ones — that letting cooler heads make the decision, rather than choosing based on romantic attachment, works out better in the long run. But societies that feature a lot of arranged marriages also tend to place more barriers in the way of divorce, or heap enough stigma on it that partners might be more inclined to stay in a bad situation. Disentangling those factors is difficult at best.
Regardless, it’s worth noting that while most marriages in the industrialized West nowadays are love matches, that doesn’t mean matchmaking has gone away entirely. We just outsource the job to technology: websites and apps that take the information you provide and run it through algorithms to guess at who might make a good partner for you. And of course friends and family may still try to help, dropping hints about available people and setting up social occasions for you two to meet.
But that gets into courtship, which will have to wait for next week . . .