The unlikely winner of the Great British Bake Off TV show was a wife and mother of Bangladeshi origin who surprised many by being a well adjusted Muslim at ease with her British/Bangladeshi identity. She also appeared recently in a long running radio show, Desert Island Discs, in which the guest imagines being cast away on a desert island and selects eight recordings that they would like to take with them.
Interspersed with excerpts of the music the interviewer chats with the guest and Nadiya Hussain proved to be a charming and likeable wife and mother with no professional experience in baking who had entered the competition on a whim.
In the course of the conversation it emerged that her marriage had been arranged by her family and that she had only corresponded with her fiancé by phone until the day of their engagement when they met for the first time, despite that her 11 year marriage has proved to be successful.
To the Western mindset an arranged marriage seems completely alien. In our culture romantic love has always played a central role in art, literature, drama and music. Just about every pop song is about love, unrequited or otherwise and it is central to most movies. TV is awash with romance in soaps and popular dramas and advertisers use it extensively in order to sell products.
From the Middle Ages onward the western notion of romantic love has had an uneasy relationship with sex; for much of the time in drama for example it was disguised with coded messages that an audience could understand but that didn’t offend religious piety. However in response to Victorian prudishness, during the 20th Century sex has become progressively more overt and we now live in an age of explicit pornographic sex that runs parallel with the idea of romantic love.
We are of course evolutionarily programmed to procreate and in all societies cultural and social practices (like marriage) have evolved in order to provide the best environment for rearing young. Human offspring require many years of nurture before they are able to flee the nest and the cooperation of the two parents has proved the most successful environment since they have the closest genetic relationship with their children. Romantic love provides a means by which mates are selected as well as being an adhesive bond that keeps couples together for the duration.
But traditionally marriage was also a cooperative and financial arrangement by which the man would support his family leaving the woman with primary responsibility for child rearing. However during the last 60 years everything has changed: contraception, feminism, male work opportunities and even an acceptance of single sex parents has resulted in a rethink of what constitutes marriage and the family, what was an evolutionary imperative has become a lifestyle choice. In this chaotic environment the increase in marriage failures and break-up of co-habiting couples has increased, 40% of all marriages now ending in divorce. This is often a disaster for children and creates a burden for society with single parent household often requiring welfare payments.
Under pressure from the media and their peers’ even couples with modest incomes expect their wedding day to be spectacular and often have an unrealistic expectation of marital life and men in particular are seldom prepared for the dramatic shift in the couple relationship when babies are born so perhaps it’s time to look again at romantic love as the only driver for marriage. The marriage of Nadiya Hussain was arranged by her parents who clearly had her best interests at heart. She was young and possibly ill equipped to make decision that would affect her entire life and her parents used their life experience to guide her to the “right” choice. They had identified a husband who they considered to be a good match for their daughter but she had no opportunity to fall in love with him before they were married.
To western eyes the idea that two people who had not even met but would be bound together in a life-long union is an anathema, it seems more like a business arrangement, devoid of romance and running counter to our “natural” instincts and culture and I’m not about to propose that we should adopt arranged marriages, Nadiya herself says that she doesn’t want this for her own children (at least that’s what she says now). But her experience does offer another narrative and exposes a weakness in our society that encourages us to believe that it is possible to meet a stranger, fall in love and live happily ever after as invariably unrealistic.
It is still a mystery why we find someone attractive but most of us will have experienced the powerful emotion that is romantic love. We are led to believe that “love conquers all” but it can and does often blind us to the reality of a permanent relationship. We don’t know how we will feel 5, 10 or 20 years hence and there is also the temptation of being attracted to another once the excitement of being newly wed wears off so making the right choice is critical for the individual and society.
As we acquire so much of our own behaviour from our family environment it’s not surprising that a couple who have experienced the failure of their parents’ relationship find themselves ill prepared to make a success of their own. Nadiya’s choice was made by her parents who tried to find a partner who was a perfect fit for their daughter. I imagine they were diligent in their task or perhaps they just got lucky.
For most of us the choice of partner will be based simply on mutual attraction and for men in particular a major part of it is sexual attraction so how can we improve the decision making process in order to reduce marital breakup? In England children receive personal, social and health education PSHE, (it is devolved in the remainder of the UK) that is intended to help youngsters navigate the sexual turmoil that is adolescence and teach them about forming relationships. This clearly isn’t sufficient to counter the continuing level of marriage failure.
Marriage without God
Falling Church attendance along with polling and Census data suggests that for the majority of British people religion plays little or no part in their lives, the exceptions are invariably those from immigrant communities, like Nadiya so the obligations associated with a marriage sanctified by God are largely absent and many choose to co-habit and not marry at all.
To the non-religious the idea of an obligation to a third party is somewhat anachronistic but in any relationship, especially marriage, it should be an important component. In this case the obligation is to your partner often in the form of vows and in absence of religious ones many couples compose their own. However without any objective appreciation of what married life will be like these are easily ignored and violated in the years to come.
Many couples live together for some time before making the long term commitment of marriage however the data suggests that this doesn’t increase the likelihood of their marriage lasting either. Although mediation and counselling are available they tend to be sought when relationships have irretrievably broken down. So perhaps the only way of improving the prospect of an enduring marriage is training couples how to deal with the problems that will inevitably arise.
So I propose that in addition to PSHE in schools an additional component should be Relationship Training that would include conflict avoidance and resolution and would be beneficial in many other areas of a youngster’s life as well as helping to prepare them for marriage (or co-habiting) in the future. It should also include the practical issues like financial management, the effect of pregnancy and child care on couples and of course the significance of sex within marriage.
The family is the heart of all human societies whether primitive or modern and there are obvious reasons why it should be nurtured and supported particularly in relation to public policy. Marriage or it’s equivalents in which the birth parents cooperate in the rearing of their offspring is clearly an evolutionary development but it has also become a social convention that fosters the love, security and continuity that are essential for the wellbeing of children and therefore for us all.
Footnote 1: These comments should not be taken as criticism of adoption of children by Gay couples as this clearly is successful when dedicated and loving parents nurture a child with whom they have to biological link, however from a purely evolutionary perspective this is an aberration.
Footnote 2: The ubiquity of pornography is too big a subject to include in this article but does have a significant effect on the topic.