Here’s the fantasy hovering in the back of the mind of most young girls in the U.S.: you meet the perfect guy. You fall head over heels in love. You get married and live happily ever after. As we all know, the reality can be very different.
Here’s the reality young girls in more traditional cultures anticipate: your parents canvass their friends and colleagues and select the perfect match for you. Or, if they’re particularly liberal, they’ll provide you with a few options to select from. With luck, they will have chosen wisely and your shared values will blossom into a stable, maybe even loving, relationship.
As the product of a liberal western upbringing, I’m inclined to think, but love is the whole point of marriage and always has been. Right?
Throughout human history and across all cultures, the point of marriage was to solidify relationships and create mutual obligations. Whether you’re reading the history of Western Europe or the Indian subcontinent, it’s striking how much of it focuses on the need to pair up the sons and daughters of various rulers to create the perfect alliance – or foil a rival monarch’s plans.
Ordinary mortals were no freer. Tribal bonds, religious affiliation, social status and, above all, wealth drove parents to seek advantageous matches for their offspring. Whether those offspring liked or even tolerated each other was of no consequence.
What changed? Ironically, it was the Victorians – those rigid defenders of traditional values in Western society – who recognized love as an acceptable basis for marriage. Perhaps they noticed that the happiest arranged marriages were those in which the people were so well matched they came to love each other. Or perhaps they were following a trend set by the woman who gave her name to the era, Queen Victoria, who married the love of her life, Prince Albert.
May you all be lucky enough to find – or have found – your own Prince Charming.