I recently attended a wedding reception here in Paris. A friend had tied the knot with his new love at the 4th arrondissement’s mayor’s office in a simple, charming civil ceremony. The reception was held at a local art gallery, owned by another friend. It was a joyful, fun afternoon filled with laughter, tears, joy, and optimism.
Simultaneously, I heard about the divorce of another friend in the states, after a number of years of marriage. That event was attended by tears as well, I’m sure, no laughter, perhaps a sliver of relief (I don’t know), and very little optimism.
The two events converged in my mind, an moving image of identical trains, passing each other on two separate tracks, going in opposite directions, toward two very different destinations, with passengers on both.
I then thought of all the advice I have given, on this blog and privately to friends and strangers alike, that I have rarely been approached for advice by anyone about to get married. I’m sure they feel like they know all they need to know about the road ahead. I have spoken with people who are somewhere in the process of divorce. They don’t solicit advice, either. They have learned much of what they needed to know, I guess, through experience. They are, however, much more aware of all the things they don’t know, and therein lies a lot of wisdom.
Still, it breaks my heart when a marriage doesn’t work. I search for social structures, traditions, and rituals that contribute to couples having a good shot at a good marriage. One rule I start with is to date someone for 3 years before you marry them. Time, to paraphrase Mick Jagger, is on your side. Another is to get engaged and marry later in life. Get some education, some life and work experience, some independent adulthood, some perspective, some money, then get married and start a life together if you want. A third is to never go on a single date with someone whom you would not marry. Why? Because things happen.
Those are steps an individual can take regarding their dating and marriage practices. What can parents and other concerned parties do? What should they do? Well, that’s a tricky question, but fear not: I’m just reckless enough to wade into those shark-infested waters and splash an opinion or two around.
My first suggestion is to start talking to your teenager about relationships and marriage early on. Casually point out the pitfalls of marrying someone based on simple ‘chemistry’ as opposed to having a lot in common with that person. Site examples in your own marriage–compromises, common interests, or shared values–that can give life to the discussion.
My second suggestion is to require that your daughter invite any boy she’s considering dating over to your home for family dinner first. This is, in reality, the ‘first date.’ This ritual will give the young man the distinct impression that he’s not just dating a girl; he’s entering into the circle of a family. This experience is a telescopic lensing moment: here’s what it’s like, a year or two down the relationship road, with this guy, sitting at the dinner table with the family.
Your daughter will get a glimpse into that possibility. The young man she’s dating will get a glimpse into that possibility. The entire family will get a glimpse into that possibility. Does he fit in? What are his plans for the future? What’s his family background? In the words of a Texas friend of mine who makes this ritual a rule for each of his three daughters, “It’s not just about trying to first base with my little girl. It’s standing out there on the pitcher’s mound all alone and getting a long, hard look at the whole damn ballpark. It thins the herd quickly.”
The biggest, most effective social mechanism I see at work in Old Money families that contribute to lasting marriages is the Steering Committee. This group is composed of the parents, extended family, friends, schools, churches, and country clubs or private clubs. One of the coordinated functions of this network is to steer the young lady or young man into a good marriage.
Start ’em early. (Photo Elliott Erwitt)
It starts early. Many of these children get the same education. They go to the same prep school dances and ball games. They go off to college, where sororities, fraternities, and social clubs form a dating pool whose members share the same backgrounds, interests, and aspirations. Those who don’t fit in, don’t get in, harsh as it sounds. Still, if someone is ‘in’, but the family and close friends don’t like the person, odds are the romance will be short-lived. The Steering Committee trumps all.
After graduation, these same young people enter the working world. They attend business events and social events with other educated friends and colleagues. Their weekends are filled with sporting or cultural activities. Alumni associations and vocational organizations further reinforce and ‘steer’ them into interactions with people like them.
In the minds of their parents and others involved in this steering process, all of these limit the young person’s chances of making a serious mistake in choosing a marriage partner. Most of the potential candidates for marriage will have an education, will be from a similar background, and will likely share many interests, aspirations, expectations, and values. This, the Steering Committee believes, will offer the best chances for a young person to meet a partner who is best fitted for the joint adventure of matrimony. “You can fall in love with a lot of people,” says an OMG I know. “But you can’t make a life with that many people.”
I know this social process sounds incredibly calculated and not a little snobby. It may be. It may be unfair to the young people involved, whittling away at their personal choices and freedoms through manipulation. It may also be that their parents know the dangers of allowing their children to be unduly exposed to fortune hunters (the term may be antiquated; the profession is, sadly, alive and well), or simply swept away with their emotions to the point where they make a huge, bad decision.
The costs of a bad decision are substantial. Divorce, alimony, financial settlement, custody, support, visitation, suffering, pain, loss. Not a pretty laundry list for missing the mark. Is ‘steering’ worth it, in order to try to avoid these? Or do we let love take its sometimes wonderful, often unpredictable course, independent of subtle or obvious outside influence?
Full disclosure: my wife and I did not meet due to the efforts of a Steering Committee. That said, the best matchmaker in the world could hardly have put two more compatible people together. We got lucky. How?
We ‘steered’ ourselves. We dated selectively before we met. And, when we met, we soon began dating exclusively. We went slowly. We dated for, yes, three years before getting married. It was not an ‘arranged marriage’, but through our protocols, we arranged it ourselves.
So, my question to you is this: is a lasting, healthy, happy marriage just a matter of destiny and luck? (sometimes I think it is). What factors contribute to finding the right mate? Can a young person in their 20s know or recognize these factors? And finally, is the concept of a ‘steering committee’ composed of family, friends, religious, social, and educational institutions a good thing?
Looking forward to a lively discussion. Come on in! The water’s fine!