Debunking the ‘true love’ narrative: myth or misconception?

Finding out my parents had had an arranged marriage was a bit like finding out that Santa Claus wasn’t real.  The only difference was that I was eleven instead of seven, and that my mother didn’t understand why I was upset. Maybe it’s because I’m a girl, but the messages you usually get in today’s world, not just from rom-coms and chick lit, but even from friends and family, is that there is a Mr (or Mrs) Right –  a ‘lobster’, in Phoebe Buffay’s words- for every person.  Visions of my mother being swept off her feet by my father on the sandy beaches of Sri Lanka were replaced by somewhat less romantic images of a pre-pubescent girl being wedded to an older man she had never met . Luckily, the years since I was eleven have allowed me to realise that:

a) although their marriage was arranged, it was based on mutual consent and not forced (there is a difference, mind) and my mother was well over the age of consent when it occurred.

b) arranged marriages actually seem to work pretty well

The latter realisation came as a bit of a surprise, and if I am honest, has put paid to a few of my beliefs about true love. Although my parents knew each other before marrying, they did not feel any “attraction” or “connection” prior to marriage – most brought up in their culture did not feel any need for this or believe in it.  However, my parents appear to love each other and be as content together as any happily married couple, as far as I can see.  Indeed, the same story is true of the dozens of other happy couples I have met who have had arranged marriages (55% of marriages are arranged globally according to UNICEF).  If partners in arranged marriages do not cherry pick each other, but are matched together by others, then surely there are many people with whom one can be matched, and experience love for.  Could it be that Mr “He Will Do Just Fine” or Mr “Seems Alright” should knock “Mr Right” off the top of all Richard Curtis’ casting lists?

Of course, we should not be too lavish in our praise of arranged marriages; while they enjoy a lower divorce rate (approximately 4% globally compared to as much as 50% of so-called “love” marriages in countries such as the USA), this may be more indicative of the fact that where arranged marriages occur there are usually mitigating factors including a cultural taboo against divorce, lower expectations of the partner’s attributes and greater family support. However, it is worthy of note that even in a love marriage, the partners tend to come from the same race, background, and religion.  In this respect at least, true love is hardly the magical phenomenon that transcends social barriers we often pretend it is, and bears some resemblance to an arranged marriage.

The success of arranged marriages supposedly points to the importance of commitment, limiting expectations and unconditional love (i.e. not ditching your fella because he starts hogging the duvet), and the danger of infatuation or romantic attachment.  This is a helpful distinction to make.  The Antonies’ and Cleopatra’s of the world will enlighten us on how true love can actually be defined in due course, but in the meantime, it is obvious that true love has to be distinguished from infatuation (if not romantic attachment).  It is infatuation which gets rid of many of our beliefs about true love; we are often up in the clouds after meeting or being with someone for a short amount of time, but they turn out to be Mr or Miss Wrong – often Mr “Why Did I Even Go There?” Indeed, scientists often say that the honeymoon period of a relationship only lasts two years, and many romances and marriages come to an all-too-abrupt end after this length of time.

To get to the bottom of this matter, like any practised Oxford student, I asked Google its opinion:   “Does true love exist?”  In turn, Google pulled up about 46 200 000 results in 0.28 seconds, many from blogs and Yahoo Questions (interestingly, dilemmas which bear arguably more importance for humanity such as “How to solve poverty” can only summon a mere 32 million responses).  The first few responses were “No” from a few misanthropes who either cited “really good sex” as the basis of relationships or bitter experiences with unfaithful lovers as proof that true love does not exist.  “Yes” often issued from thirteen year old girls who claimed they had “found da one” (having known him for all of two weeks, although I grant my cynicism may be unjustified; after all Juliet married Romeo at this very age after knowing him for less than twenty four hours).

To me, it seems obvious that if you define true love as finding your one in seven billion, and take God playing Cupid out of the equation, evidence and probability suggest true love would be impossible. Paradoxically, arranged marriages provide optimism about true love, demonstrating that there is probably more than one candidate who will provide us with an amazing marriage. We don’t need to agonize over finding the guy or girl who ticks every box and knocks us off our feet to boot.  Despite there often being an absence of romantic, palm-sweating kind of love (which often fades in love marriages in any case), there is certainly plenty of committed, caring and selfless love in arranged marriages.

That said, long lasting love does not have to be without sweaty palms or that warm fuzzy feeling. Scientists found that when people were shown pictures of their partners, the same chemical reactions occurred in the brains of 10% of those with twenty-year-old relationships as those who had only recently fallen in love. Sure that’s only 10%, but, as Blaise Pascal said, “the heart has reasons, which the reason cannot understand.”  Against all reason, I myself can’t help but hold on to that oh-so-soppy hope that there is someone with whom I can fall head over heels in love with, spend a lifetime with, so that after decades, like one online blogger, my heart still “picks up a beat when he walks through the door”.