In Labor of Love, a history of dating, the writer Moira Weigel notes a tension between how we talk about love – as something that defies logic, a matter of heart and gut and instinct – and the economic logic we apply to dating.
The newly single person is “back on the market” and must be willing to “invest” in a new relationship. Some flaws are “deal-breakers”, a term favoured by reality TV contestants, others involve difficult “trade-offs”.
Weigel observes that dating customs reflect underlying economic structures – for instance, people only started dating in the early 20th century, when young single people moved away from their families and into the cities in search of work.
In a similar way, the precarity of dating in the Tinder-era reflects the economic precarity of modern gig work, Weigel argues.
“If marriage is the long-term contract that many daters hope to land, dating itself feels like the worst, most precarious form of labour: an unpaid internship,” she writes. No wonder some people are casting around for alternatives.
The hit Netflix show Indian Matchmaking hints that arranged marriage might be the solution for discontented daters in the West, though viewers might reach a different conclusion.
The star matchmaker, Sima Taparia (“Sima from Mumbai” as she prefers to introduce herself) has been married for 37 years to a man she met only once before they agreed to the engagement, and the show is interspersed with clips of other real-life couples talking about how they made their arranged marriage work.
Taparia tries to find matches for wealthy families living in India and for Indian-Americans who have decided, or been encouraged by their parents, to opt out of US dating culture. While her clients in the US are looking for “sparks”, her clients in conservative Indian families seem to, by necessity, have lower expectations.
The seemingly hapless Akshay is bullied into getting married by his overbearing mother, who blames his indecision for her soaring blood pressure and threatens to choose a wife for him if he won’t commit to accepting one of the dozens of women Taparia has found for him.
He looks shell-shocked during his pre-engagement ceremony, and while his fiancée Radhika seems more composed, I worried more for her. We do not know, after all, how much freedom she had to turn down this awkward, reluctant groom, or what her expectations are for marriage.
Even as it bills itself as an advert for arranged marriage, Indian Matchmaking serves as a reminder that arranged marriages are often inherently conservative.
Romantic love is subversive and socially disruptive, it can transcend race and class and tradition, while arranged marriage – which pairs people according to criteria such as education, profession, religion, attractiveness and, perhaps most controversially, skin colour, is designed to uphold the status quo.
Even “modern” arrangements under which the bride and groom can technically refuse a match can in practice be quite coercive.
Many of Taparia’s clients are under immense familial and social pressure to get married, but many young people in Britain or the US are not.
The reality TV wedding trend has coincided with a decline in the marriage rate in the UK: in April 2020 it was reported that the number of opposite-sex marriages taking place in the UK had declined to the lowest on record (the statistics date to before the pandemic). The marriage rate in Australia has similarly fallen to record lows.
Since the 1970s the average age at marriage in the UK has increased precipitously, so that now it is 35 for women and 38 for men (in Australia it’s 30.5 and 32.4).
That might mean that many viewers can relate to the occasional horrors and frequent disappointments of dating, but it also underlines that marriage isn’t as important as it used to be – for most people in the UK, unlike in many parts of the world, marriage is not a prerequisite to moving out of your parents’ house, to having serious romantic relationships, to having a sex life or to having children.
Taparia observes in Indian Matchmaking that marriages in India are “breaking like biscuits” (the rate was 13 in 1000 in 2018 up from one in 1000 in the noughties) but rising divorce rates can be considered a positive development, an indication that people feel free and able to leave unhappy relationships and to lead rich and fulfilling lives while divorced or single.
It finally hit me, while binge-watching Love is Blind that none of these shows are about marriage or even about love at all. They are about loneliness.
In this show – so nakedly exploitative that one writer memorably wrote in GQ that he “felt dirty watching it. Like a serf in the Middle Ages watching local witches dunked in the river to see if they’ll float or drown” – the contestants decide whether to get married to one another after 10 days of speed dating conducted in “pods” that mean they can hear but cannot see one another.
The show presents itself as an experiment to determine whether “love really is blind”: whether appearances are secondary to meaningful connection (though, of course, everyone on the show is relatively attractive). What it really seems to demonstrate is how hungry people are for a feeling of personal connection and intimacy; how little it seems to take for the contestants to finally feel like someone understands them.
At one point in the series, when the unhappy newlyweds Jessica and Mark are struggling to talk to one another, they realise they can communicate better when they do so through a wall.
In this way, they can recreate conditions in the pod, when the other person was a disembodied voice, an abstraction, someone onto which they could pin all their hopes and desires – not so much another person as a being created solely to service their need to feel heard.
Their tragic mistake is believing that marriage is the ultimate cure for loneliness. They are hardly the first people to make it.
— New Statesman