Does Love Always Come Before Marriage?

Arranged marriages and love marriages are sometimes seen as cultural opposites, but it’s far more complicated. Anthropology shows how love and marriage are entwined in many different ways.

Love and marriage aren’t the same thing: Passionate love is a feeling, and marriage is a social contract. But over time and around the world, the two have been intertwined in fascinating ways—not always with romance coming first.

The concept of partnering up in some kind of marriage-like arrangement is virtually universal in human societies. But the notion that romantic love should direct such partnerships has not been a constant. For much of human history, the family unit was likely organized around reproduction and social survival, which might not have always encouraged the cultivation of warm spousal affection—or monogamy.

Ethnographic studies of some tribal societies have suggested that spouses were at some points in history considered effective strangers or even antagonistic enemies, united for the main purpose of procreation. In these groups, the sentiment of romantic love seemed to be seldom acknowledged or expected, at least in public.

While the deep history of marriage is murky, sometime after the development of agriculture (around 15,000 to 10,000 years ago in some regions), arranged marriages become the norm across organized state societies. Family members and matchmakers began to arrange who should partner with whom, with an eye on factors such as economics, social status, prestige, and carrying on the family line.

The idea that marriage should be based in long-term companionship, or what we call a “forever love,” starts to turn up in books and writings much, much later: Scholars have put it as early as the 13th or 14th century in England; the 18th or 19th century in Russia; and the 20th century in China. In each culture, the arrival of this idea of “forever love” seems to be matched with a push for children to choose their own marital partners in a love match.

The result is that, in recent centuries, love and marriage have melded in new and complex ways. Our research, along with other anthropological studies, challenges the common impression that societies organized around arranged marriages are very different from those organized around passionate love. In most societies, sexual desire, loving attachment, and material interests are more deeply interwoven than is culturally acknowledged.

Today the ideal of arranged marriage remains strong in India and much of the Middle East but has declined dramatically over recent centuries around the world, especially in more urbanized societies. Firm numbers are hard to come by, but today about 95 percent of marriages in India are reportedly arranged and about 6 percent in Japan.

However, such statistics tend to gloss over a significant diversity of practices between cultures: Arranged marriages are not always what they seem.

Take, for example, a Dravidian Muslim community in Sri Lanka that was studied by anthropologist Victor De Munck. There, arranged marriage has long been the norm—but this does not mean that love matches don’t happen. In contemporary times, youth who have a similar social standing and an appropriate kin relationship can regularly meet, [ … ]

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