Several years ago during an all-female seminar I was startled to hear a young woman at my lunch table announce: "I’m looking for a husband. So, when you go back home, keep me in mind." Surprise and amusement – it was my first experience of such a direct approach – soon gave way to the thought, "Why not?" Miss X was in her thirties and didn’t have any time to waste in finding Mr Right. Attractive, extroverted and accomplished in her profession, she could have landed a date at the office or among the gym crowd with no trouble at all. But she was a practising Catholic and wanted to meet someone who shared her values before she would consider dating them. Anything else would be a waste of time.
I was reminded of Miss X (now, happily, Mrs Right) by a recent New York Times article describing courtship arrangements among American Muslims. Here is another faith community, much more socially defined than Catholics, but also immersed in a secular culture more or less unfriendly to its sexual values and customs. Coming from a tradition of public segregation of the sexes and arranged marriages, observant Muslims are struggling to maintain the sanctity of marriage and the family while recognising that their children will choose their own mates. As far as possible, they want those mates to come from within their own community.
One scheme they have come up with is the "matrimonial banquet" – a form of speed dating (though they reject the term) that proved extremely popular at a Muslim gathering held earlier this month. According to the Times: "The event was one of the big draws at the Islamic Society of North America’s annual convention, which attracted thousands of Muslims to Chicago over Labour day weekend, with many participants bemoaning the relatively small pool of eligible candidates even in large cities.
"There were two banquets, with a maximum 150 men and 150 women participating each day for $55 apiece. They sat 10 per table and rotated every seven minutes. At the end there was an hour-long social hour that allowed participants time to collect email addresses and telephone numbers over a pasta dinner with sodas. Organisers said many of the women still asked men to approach their families first. Some families accept that the couple can then meet in public, some do not."
The encounters take place under the keen eyes of parents – especially mothers – who are corralled off to one side of the reception hall to prevent interference, and who "alternate between craning their necks to see who their adult children are meeting or horse-trading bios, photographs and telephone numbers among themselves." Some remain sceptical, though, and organisers of the convention could only claim "at least 25 marriages" over the past six years.
The dating trap
What the Muslim parents fear above all is the American dating scene, which they equate, quite reasonably in view of the evidence, with pre-marital sex – a grave sin in their book (as among Catholics, truth to tell). At the Chicago convention there was a seminar on how families could "save" their children from dating, and one panellist suggested that Muslim mothers could band together as "Mothers Against Dating" – just like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Morally, they believe, it’s that dangerous.
But even setting aside the criterion of sin, one has to ask how helpful dating in its popular form is. Not very, judging by the growing gap between the number of people who say they want to be married and the number tying the knot. Gallup polling indicates that, while marriage remains the state or the goal of 91 per cent of Americans, the proportion who actually are married has fallen from a high of 77 per cent in the 1960s to an average of 53 per cent since 2000. Of the balance, 11 per cent are divorced and 24 per cent are single or living together – up from 9 per cent in the 1960s.(1)
Stories abound of 30-something singles yearning for a soul mate, and of anxious mothers taking matters into their own hands. A recent survey of women over 40 by the British magazine, Woman & Home, shows that many worry their young adult children will choose an unsuitable partner. The Wall Street Journal reported a couple of years ago that one mother so disliked the men her daughter was dating that she set up a profile for her with an online dating agency – and scored a match.
Logging on for love
Driven by the failure of pubs and clubs to produce the goods, online dating has become a boom industry, with hundreds of websites and a market worth hundreds of millions of dollars. British dating service Parship claims that 50 per cent of single people believe they will meet a suitable partner this way(2), but that is probably wishful thinking. There is plenty of room for deceit in online dating: fake or non-current profiles, and real but air-brushed ones misrepresenting age, looks – just about everything. And there is no guarantee that a person is looking for more than a sexual relationship.
More reliable, perhaps, are the bigger players such as Match.com, who stake their reputations on a scientific approach (one involves a 146-item questionnaire based on the old idea of four personality types), and specifically matrimonial sites, including those serving particular faith communities. But there are distinctions to be made even among the latter.
For example, the US site CatholicMatch, which began life seven years ago as StRaphael.net (St Raphael being the archangel who guided Tobias to Sarah), is the initiative of a couple of devout Catholic geeks who wanted to set matchmaking within a wider online singles community, "a place that helped create friendships, marriages, and even vocations to the priesthood and religious life".
Muslima.com, by contrast, is just one of many specialised dating sites, most of them with Cupid in the name, operated by Australian-based company Interactive Connections. It offers the chance to find "a Muslim life partner or a Muslim single for marriage" – a distinction the older generation of the community might not appreciate.
If all this seems too impersonal or long-winded, there is always speed dating – the group introduction method the Muslim convention used for its matrimonial banquet. The heir of old-fashioned formal matchmaking, speed dating is credited to Jerusalem Rabbi Yaacov Deyo who devised it as a way to ensure that more Jewish singles met each other in large cities where they were outnumbered by non-Jews.
These structured events, which have caught on in Japan and China as well as in the US and Britain, have certain advantages over general mixing and mingling, but they tend towards superficiality. A 2005 study at the University of Pennsylvania of a speed dating event found that most people made their choices within the first three seconds of meeting. Issues such as religion, previous marriages, and smoking habits were found to play much less of a role than expected.
Limited though they are, these findings tally with research showing that younger adults are approaching the question of marriage on a largely emotional level, and this may explain why their quest is so often unproductive.
Marriage – but for what?
Five years ago the Marriage Project at Rutgers University devoted its annual State of Our Unions report to the findings of a survey on the attitudes of 20- to 29-year-olds about love and marriage. It showed that young adults are looking above all for a "soul mate", someone with whom they can make a "deep emotional and spiritual connection … for life". But most of them think they can do this without giving any weight to the other’s religion or to the prospect of raising children: only 16 per cent in the survey agreed that the main purpose of marriage is to have children, and the young women saw economic independence as a necessary prelude to marriage. Also, 62 per cent thought living together before marriage was a good way to avoid a divorce – a belief that is increasingly contradicted by reality. "Taken together, the survey findings present a portrait of marriage as emotionally deep and socially shallow," the authors concluded.
It is difficult to see such a narrow and individualistic idea of marriage as other than a dead end. Although the personal and romantic dimension has long been integral to Western marriage, as recently as a generation ago the social dimension was still important. A couple made a public commitment to each other for the purpose of founding a family. Without this the whole exercise seems rather pointless and the search for a soul mate doomed to failure.
Where does this leave young people who do want marriage in the full sense? What good does it do them if they seldom come across anyone else who does? For some time now people have been fond of the saying, "It takes a village to raise a child." Even more, perhaps, it takes a village to make a marriage – a village, or its equivalent. Faith communities, in particular, need to take a more proactive role in bringing young people together. And a more imaginative approach – we are not talking about socials at the parish hall.
Maybe the Muslims are onto something with their matrimonial banquets. Maybe the Catholic online community or the Jewish speed-dating events have something to offer. Nearly a century ago, in Catholic Bavaria, Pope Benedict’s parents met through personal ads Joseph Ratzinger senior placed in the local newspaper. Good marriages often need a helping hand, and that can take many forms.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet
1. USA Today, May 30, 2006
2. "Are we addicted to love?", Spiked, March 28, 2006