In her book A History of the Wife, Marilyn Yalom examines the history of marriage and its cultural evolution. “How,” she asks, “did the notion of romantic love, a novelty in the Middle Ages, become a prerequisite for marriage today?” Not having read the whole book, I’m not in a position to comment on its conclusions, but when I saw this article on corporate dating services, her query was the first thing that sprang to mind.
No matter your point of view, modern marriage is in a state of flux. Is it broadening to include homosexual couples? Might polygamy, as was recently asked, evetually become legal? Should our definition of the term remain purely religious? Is marriage on the out, as indicated by rising divorce rates and the attraction of remaning in a de facto relationship? Or is the union overdue for a revival? These are all relevant questions, but even accounting for wide gulfs of disagreement, most people would still acknowledge that marriage, more than anything else, should be about love. Socially, we disdain the notion of marrying for convenience, to the point where that phrase – a marriage of convenience – now carries negative connotations.
So how, then, does the Simply Drinks Exclusive Dating Agency fit with our perceptions?
In keeping with current social norms, the accepted schedule is to fall in love first and maybe get married later. But we baulk at the reverse: the idea of getting married for whatever reason, and only then falling in love. For reasons that might trouble us to articulate, it smacks of wrongheadedness. Why would we want to risk unhappiness? Isn’t it, well, cold to get married without any thought beyond pragmatism? And this, here, is the nub of it: pragmatism. For thousands of years, marriage was, for various socio-cultural, moral and religious reasons, a largely pragmatic institution. It was the done thing; and, more, a thing to be done by a certain age, or before any illegitimate children could enter the picture. It was how families made alliances, gained lands, played politics, ended feuds, claimed kingdoms and produced heirs, because these were the lynchpins on which society was founded. Love was all very well, as the troubadors sang, but in popular mythology and literature, it was frequently tragic.
Nowadays, our belief is that, what with women in the workforce, single and unwed parenthood being destigmatised and no societal pressure to get married at all, any idea of pragmatism in wedlock should be outdated. All you need is love, as the singer sang. But despite our deepest hopes, this isn’t the case. As a species, we aren’t that great at distinguishing love from lust, and psychologically, we seem troubled by the idea that fiery passion is, as a matter of course, transmuted over time. We want to believe that love will be enough, that any deliberate thought of pragmatism need not sully our hands: that we need no stronger foundation for wedded bliss than what we feel in the moment. Love conquers all, as the poet wrote.
But there have always been multiple considerations. What makes Simply Drinks different from other dating services is the level of screening that takes place: the idea that someone, somewhere is carefully vetting potential applicants in accordance with a list of desired attributes – not love, not lust, but basic physical acceptability, financial status, and a certain level of intellectual interest. And from a distance, the process resembles nothing so much as the marriage brokering of past centuries: entering into a relationship, not because of how you feel together, but because of what, potentially, that union brings. The fact that the service is tailored to the rich and, dare we assume, powerful only helps the comparison, as it was noble families who traditionally kept a closer eye on what (or who) a marriage would bring the clan.
Recently, Sam de Brito blogged about a phenomenon which is, in various permutations, becoming more and more common: perfect man syndrome, or the idea that today’s singles seem to be getting pickier about the qualities they look for in a potential mate. Previously, I’ve been content to shrug the issue off, but in light of Simply Drinks, I’m wondering if such high standards actually reflect a desire, however unconscious, to make pragmatic - and not purely romantic - matches.
If this is the case, then it’s easy to see where things fall down: society tells us that we must marry, first and foremost, for love, thus throwing a not-inconsiderable barrier in the path of would-be marital pragmatists. Just as older cautionary tales involve disobedience and recklessly marrying for love, their modern equivalents warn of the other extreme: marrying lovelessly, and the dangers thereof. To be trapped in a loveless marriage is one of our great social fears, and while I’m enough a child of my time to share the sentiment, it’s worth noting that on one level, the very phraseology suggests that the whole of marriage should concern love, and that if it dies, then only a shell remains.
Which brings us, in a very roundabout way, to Jane Austen. Beyond the fact of narrative quality, Pride and Prejudice is romantically timeless for one simple reason: by the end of the story, Elizabeth and Jane have married, not just for love, but with undeniable pragmatism. In Mansfield Park, Fanny is confronted with the prospect of opting, as her mother did, to marry poor for love, and the picure painted is a stark one: yes, there was love, but when it comes to feeding, clothing and caring for multiple children in Cheapside, money has something to recommend itself. The balance of each story, one feels, is a struggle to be both loving and pragmatic: fortunate for Austen’s heroines, in that they inevitably find what they’re looking for, but the dichotomy is real.
At the end of nine paragraphs, it feels like base commonsense to say that the best marriages should be founded on equal parts love and pragmatism. Day to day, there will always be practical considerations, and as most people have an idea of what they want from life, it makes sense to find someone who’s heading in the same direction. Personalities are all-important: just as some will inevitably find happiness in marrying purely for love, others are better off taking the path of Jeff Bridges in The Mirror Has Two Faces (only without Barbra Streisand). But unless we stop and look at the history of marriage in all our talk of renovating it, we’re in danger of moving from one extreme concept to another: privileging love above what it brings to the relationship, confusing balance with lovelessness and compromise with failure. Me, I’m happily married to a loving husband, but when we chose to tie the knot, it wasn’t just for love. We each have goals the other can help fulfill, and, more importantly, wants to help fulfill: we have plans beyond being in love. And if that degree of pragmatism makes me wrong, then baby – I don’t wanna be right.