Study on Arranged Marriages Reveals that Orthodox Jews May Have it Right

July 6, 2012 11:47 am 22 comments

Rembrandt's The Jewish Bride. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

For the past eight years, Robert Epstein, the Harvard-educated Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, has studied arranged marriages, interviewing more than 70 people from a variety of backgrounds, including some Orthodox Jewish couples. His findings are in sharp distinction with the current air of suspicion that surrounds the practice of arranged marriage in many democratized societies. According to Epstein, feelings of love in arranged marriages tend to gradually increase as time goes on in the relationship, whereas in so called “love marriages”, where attraction is based on passionate emotions,  a couple’s feelings for each other typically diminish by as much as fifty percent after only eighteen to twenty-four months of marriage. In fact, according to a study conducted in India, arranged marriages appear to surpass love marriages in intensity at the five year mark, and to be twice as strong as love marriages within ten years.

The problem in part with love marriages, says Epstein, is that they’re based on a love that is perennially misunderstood, influenced by unrealistic media portrayals that present it as an uncontrollable, spur of the moment force. “We grow up on fairy tales and movies in which magical forces help people find their soul mates, with whom they effortlessly live happily ever after,” wrote Epstein in a cover article for Scientific American MIND. “The fairy tales leave us powerless, putting our love lives into the hands of the Fates.” Such relationships can implode when the characteristic love of the newly married dissipates as time goes on.

Instead, Epstein advocates that relationships be built deliberately, through various practical exercises that he has distilled from his research on arranged marriage, as well as from more than 80 scientific studies conducted by other researchers. According to Epstein, relationships are organic and can be infused at will with deep commitment and lasting love, an empowering thought that he thinks will solve many marriage crises. Even pretending to be in love can contribute to deep relationships, says Richard Wiseman, whose book on the subject, Rip It Up, came out this week. The idea is conceptually similar to Fritz Strack’s 1988 study that smiling makes people happier, a landmark  paper that has since been followed by numerous corroborating studies concluding that  external actions influence internal emotions. Epstein, who was formerly the editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, is currently working on a book of his own, called “Making Love: How People Learn to Love and How You Can Too”, and is trying to produce a similarly themed reality TV series. He has also created ArrangedMarriageSurvey.com, a website designed to gather data about arranged marriages from couples who want to contribute to his research.

In an age of climbing divorce rates and record numbers of single parenting, the discussion about love is especially apropos. In the US, an estimated half of all first marriages and two thirds of all second marriages fail. It has long been claimed that the Jewish divorce rate is substantially lower, but reliable data is hard to find on the subject, perhaps because of the premium placed on privacy in many Orthodox communities. That premium has forced Dr. Epstein to conduct most of his research on arranged marriages in non-Jewish setting like India and Pakistan.

In those countries, as in many Orthodox Jewish communities, the traditional definition of arranged marriages is blurred into a hybrid of sorts between arranged and love marriages. The parents or matchmaker suggest a date, and the young couple then exchange correspondence or go on several dates to decide themselves whether to marry or not. This is the system in non-Hassidic Orthodox Jewish communities and among Chabad Hassidim, where adults of marriageable age are set up on “shidduch” dates, with the assumption that after a dozen, sometimes less dates, the two will be ready to decide to marry or not. The practice is conceptually far from a forced marriage, illegal in many Westernized countries, in which parents decide on a spouse for a child with no input from the child himself. As opposed to forced marriages, “In arranged marriages, there is a choice, and it is respected” said Epstein in an interview with The Algemeiner. “The parents and the son or daughter make the decision together; everyone is interested in everyone else’s benefit.”

And therein lies the system’s advantage. “It means that there’s a third party involved, there are other perspectives in the matching process.” Epstein said. Whereas the prevailing attitude is one of chance- “we stumble across somebody in a bar on online, a poor basis for a marriage”- arranged marriages add an outsider’s opinion-“it brings our intellect even just a little bit into the process.”

Others are not so fond of the idea.

Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained At Last, an organization whose stated mission is to “help women leave arranged marriages”, was in an arranged marriage herself, and claims that the matchmaking culture of current Jewish society is not conducive to informed decision-making. “There’s all this societal pressure. People aren’t allowed to meet others themselves, and they have to wait for a matchmaker to deal with them, so they have a limited time to decide” she told the Algemeiner. “They have to get married at a young age, with not enough experience, and they aren’t given the tools they need to make a proper decision.”

Ms. Reiss said she was motivated to form her organization, the only non-profit of its type in the US, from her personal experiences with arranged marriages. “It’s a business transaction. It’s not about love” she said, adding “The choice you make is not a choice at all. Its societal coercion.”

Ms. Reiss is dedicated to helping women marginalized by the arranged marriage system, and it is clear that such women exist. These “coerced” are unable to assert their independence and are boxed into a life they are unwilling to live and unable to leave, as was the case with Deborah Feldman, author of the bestselling book Unorthodox, an expose on the Hassidic community that has brought its author minor celebrity. But the dearth of data has left it unclear whether women like Ms. Feldman and Ms. Reiss are outliers in a generally successful system, or are indicative of the system’s patent failure.

Francine Kaye, a British divorce therapist self-styled as the Divorce Doctor, thinks the former is the truth. “When it is done properly, and both families are aware what the other’s beliefs and values are, there’s a lot to be said for arranged marriages” she said to the Algemeiner. Ms. Kaye, who has been featured on CNN and the BBC, sees arranged marriages as a good way to ensure similarities between people looking for relationships. “Compatibility is so important. In the Orthodox Jewish community the parents carefully look at compatibility- they do their homework on their characteristics, their goals, and values.” In this capacity, she sees arranged marriages as not unlike online dating, in that they single out people whose proclivities are similar in vital relationship areas.  “Truly what is the difference between an arranged marriage and a dating site where you need to fill in a long form about your preferences?” said Ms. Kaye.

Dr. Epstein, for one, has decried online dating sites like JDate and Jewster because they objectify people, as well as contribute to enormous amounts of online deception. “The number of people who lie on these sites- women usually about their ages and weights and men about their incomes and marital status- could be as high as ninety percent.” said Dr. Epstein, citing a study he personally conducted into this area.  But the central idea of compatibility is nevertheless a strong one, and important for a marriage’s long term stability. People who are compatible can commit to a life together, and will stay married even through rough times, whereas those who marry for love often overlook crucial differences and separate when their initial passion burns through.

For this purpose Dr. Epstein has designed AreWeGoodTogether.com, a website aimed at pinpointing and matching the pivotal characteristics that determine people’s compatibility. Through this he hopes to glean the benefits of an arranged marriage while circumventing its drawbacks.

“An arranged marriage is not perfect, but in some respects it’s better than a love marriage” says Epstein. “I’m not saying we should practice it, but I do think we can learn from it.”


22 Comments

  • Yitzchak Shlomo

    I’m am a baal teshuva (someone who wasn’t a religious Jew and became religious – myself at age 24). I got engaged to my wife of 3.5 years after 2 weeks of dating, which was arranged. I have no issues with the system. I dated for 2.5 years using the system and had rabbinical guidance along the way. I was almost engaged to another girl but in the end it was the wrong match. My wife and I are happily married. Our love and appreciation for each other has only grown since we we met. Sure there are challenges, sure there are things we each do that gets on the others’ nerves, but there is no such thing as the text book fairy tale happily ever after marriage. As far as I’m concerned the shidduch system works better than anything else out there in the western world.

    I’d also like to comment about Fraidy Reiss and Deborah Feldman and offer the perspective that perhaps it’s not the arranged marriage part that is most challenging in the orthodox Jewish world, but rather the pressure to remain married in what may be an unhealthy and even harmful marriage. It’s not the end of the world to get divorced, and it is most certainly true that amongst orthodox arranged marriages there is a drastically lower divorce rate than that of the average American marriage. But there is also a stigma around not getting divorced, and I imagine that people feel judged and ‘coerced’, to use Ms. Reiss’ term, to stay in a marriage that simply is not working. That is unfortunate. But I do not believe that says anything significant about the state of shidduch system itself.

  • kevobx comments are a distraction in the context of this newspaper’s intended audience. I hope the editors will find a way to filter them out

  • I am part of those orthodox jewish community that had an “arranged” marriage.
    I can vouch that i am very happily married and love my husband for 5years.

    and so are all my siblings.

    It is working in our communtiy for years.
    Yes there are some people that can’t live with each other for various reasons and there are exceptions to every rule.
    But the arranged marriage with the girl and boy having a say in the final decision does work. Out of my highschool class of 30+ girls. only one girl is divorced.

    • Honestly, 2 people out of 30 is a lot. In my village out of 1000 people only 2 couples I know of are divorced. I am catholic so we don’t practice arranging marriages. I have been with my spouse for many years and I can’t imagine living without him. I didn’t look at his money or violent things I look at how good he is, how he treats other people. We spent together few years and got to know each othher. If my parents tried to find me a spouse I would never listen to them.

      • 1st: She said 1 out of 30, not 2.
        2nd: Both of your “evidence” is anecdotal, and therefore inconclusive.
        3rd: I’m not quite sure how your trust issues with your parents have anything to do with the matter.

      • if your hsubind is acting voilently i think most people jewish and not would recomend a divorce, there is nothing wrong with divorce, it merly means a mistake was made and its time to try again

  • Just about anything that deprives women of decision-making with respect to choosing partners is a good thing. Left to their own devices, they tend to either harem up with rich men, or choose violent thugs.

    No solution is ideal, but today’s models – riding the alpha cock carousel until they are 35, or getting knocked up single – are clearly a failure with respect to creating healthy, long-term relationships.

  • Interviewing 70 people is called “research” these days? Is this the type of researchers Harvard is producing? This is a joke. When he creates a large sample maybe we can take his research serious. Another real problem is honesty in these interviews. Can you really expect a Hassidic couple to talk honestly about their relationship with some stranger? Their Rebbe will never allow them to admit any marriage problems to some psychologist doing research. Cultures that practice prearranged marriages tend to be extremely conservative or in controlling religious communities where freedom of thought and expression is not allowed. Who would believe an Afghan bride that was married off at 14 or a Hassidic woman that was married off after 3 dates at 18 that they love their husbands and their marriages are like Disneyland story, when they are not allowed to express honest feelings and have to pretend that their way of life is God’s will and is perfect.

    • If you read the article well you will see….. It has long been claimed that the Jewish divorce rate is substantially lower, but reliable data is hard to find on the subject, perhaps because of the premium placed on privacy in many Orthodox communities. That premium has forced Dr. Epstein to conduct most of his research on arranged marriages in non-Jewish setting like India and Pakistan……
      The fact that the research is so difficult in the Jewish community it is done in Pakistan and India.

    • You appear to know little, if anything, about Chassidim (not “Hassidim” by the way). They don’t have to run every decision they make past their Rebbe.

      Your implication that Chassidic communities are cults is uninformed at best. Morally irresponsible at worst.

    • Actually, I myself am a chasidic girl with an arranged marriage and I want to clear two misconceptions:
      1- The Rebbe does NOT tell us what we may or may not do. A Rebbe in any normal chassidus is there to give support, advice when asked, pray for his chassidim and more but he will not rule your life. If someone has a problem with his or her chassidus he or she can leave on a whim. There is no coercion.
      Secondly, while it is true that we are a private community, the reason why that is is not because we have anything to hide, but because modesty is a big thing by us and a personal thing like marriage is NOT something that should be hung around like wet laundry. I think the fact that we are private about marriages is a big reason why they are so successful.
      I wish you all much happiness.

  • Love is : Care, Respect, Responsibility and Knowledge. Some environments are more condusive to love than others. Shidduchs have a big and important job to do. Orthodox marriages whereby the couple genuinely commit to something greater than themselves, i.e. G-d and service to humankind have more oomph and drive. The couple generally don’t get stuck in narcissism, egocentricity, hedonism and what the French call “Egoism a Deux”.

    Many people are confused about love. If there is an attraction between a man and a woman, a commitment to care about each other, safety, some material wellbeing, loyalty and a commitment to serve G-d together, the sexual dynamic will unfold. A good shidduch will get this ball rolling, but it is up to the man and woman involved to tango. I also like the fact that Moses and those in the Sinai were probably not “married” in the glitzy ways of today. G-d’s planning, kindness, sharing a common situation, faith and grace would have led to feelings of gentle affection and then companionship between the men and women. No internet dating, pushy families and nasty relationship competitiveness would have graced the desert plains as couples snuggled each other under the stars.

    Bliss !

  • Love is : Care, Respect, Responsibility and Knowledge. Some environments are more condusive to love than others. Shidduchs have a big job. Many people are confused about love. If there is an attraction between a man and a woman, a commitment to care about each other, safety, some material wellbeing, loyalty and a commitment to serve G-d together, the sexual dynamic will unfold. A good shidduch will get this ball rolling, but it is up to the man and woman involved to tango. I also like the fact that Moses and those in the Sinai were probably not “married” in the glitzy ways of today. G-d’s planning, kindness, sharing a common situation, faith and grace would have led to feelings of gentle affection and then companionship between the men and women. No internet dating, pushy families and nasty relationship competitiveness would have graced the desert plains as couples snuggled each other under the stars. Bliss !

  • Esther Massouda

    Arrange marriage is not good for nowaday. That all what I can tell you.

  • The blessings of the twelve tribes *Deuteronomy 33:2 And he said, The Lord came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them; (The Rabbi said, Torah is from Sinai, check out Galatians 4:25) *Genesis 36:9 And these are the generations of Esau the father of the Edomites in mount Seir. *John 8:33 They answered him, We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free? By reading out Exodus 13:3. By the way, the asses, and mules belong to Esau’s sons and their descendants. Jesus himself rode the ass colt, and they cruficied him, not knowing God is he *John 8:24. Jesus is not the Son of David, but they cried *1st Samuel 18:22.

  • NotO’Malley

    The problem with doing research by asking people how they feel is that people frequently lie to themselves, so they will certainly lie to researchers. Societies that have arranged marriages often also have strong proscriptions against divorce. People who cannot get divorced are going to be more hesitant to admit to themselves that they are in a loveless marriage because they cannot do anything about it than those who can get divorced.

    If you want to understand whether people are in love, or have any other feeling, instead of asking people how they feel, one should come up with behaviors that correlate to that feeling and observe the frequency of those behaviors.

  • I got those numbers off the Scientific American MIND article quoted in the beginning of this piece. You can access it at http://drrobertepstein.com/downloads/Epstein-HOW_SCIENCE_CAN_HELP_YOU_FALL_IN_LOVE-Sci_Am_Mind-JanFeb2010.pdf
    its on the third page (28 in the magazine).
    It may very well be that different statistics argue; i doubt there is one definitive number that everyone agrees on… But if indeed those numbers are patently wrong I’d be happy to emend them. thanks

  • Abandoning Eden

    “In the US, an estimated half of all first marriages and two thirds of all second marriages fail.”

    What is the source of that statistic? Cause I’m a family demographer, and that is super wrong. Divorce rates for first marriages are closer to 1/3rd and for second marriages closer to 1/2. The internet website you are quoting, quotes some random family therapist on that statistic, who has apparently not published any actual research on the topic. Try searching google scholar instead of just plain google next time.

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