Relationships. They’re complicated, aren’t they? And dating—the default system in American society for two people seeking a marriage partner—is often clumsy, ineffective, and painful. How well can you get to know someone in an artificial situation where both parties are showing their best sides or, conversely, may be extremely nervous and therefore are showing their worst sides? Online dating is another way of meeting potential partners, but it is plagued by many of the same problems as traditional dating. Arranged marriages have their limitations as well. With an arranged marriage, you are likely to find someone with similar values, which might eliminate the conflict that results when people from very different backgrounds marry. But surely there is more to finding a spouse than shared beliefs or heritage?
Fiddler on the Roof comes to mind when I think about marriage. Who can forget the “Matchmaker” song: “Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make me a match! Find me a find! Catch me a catch!” The father, a poor Jewish milkman named Tevye, has five daughters whom he hopes to marry advantageously. Alas for Tevye, he also has a sympathetic heart, so, one by one, his daughters pair off with the men whom their hearts desire. Interestingly, “each one’s choice of a husband moves further away from the customs of his faith” (“Fiddler on the Roof,” Wikipedia, 9/30/2017): Tevye’s oldest daughter marries a poor tailor instead of the wealthy butcher her parents had chosen; the second daughter makes her own match with a radical thinker while the third daughter falls in love with a Gentile. Reflecting on his own arranged marriage and its lack of romance, Tevye can’t bring himself to force a loveless union on his beloved daughters.
Tevye’s love for his daughters and his bittersweet feelings about their growing up and getting married come through in the melancholy song “Sunrise, Sunset”: “Is this the little girl I carried? Is this the little boy at play? I don’t remember growing older: when did they?” That song has been sung at many a wedding; memorably, I heard it performed at a wedding by a group of older women singing a cappella. The effect was lovely–it might have even been the song to which the bride walked down the aisle? Neither of my daughters has married yet, but both have now dated a bit, which is why I find myself reflecting on the seeming randomness of how people find their lifelong mates these days.
Online dating didn’t exist back in my dating days, and the unspoken rule was that the guy got to do the asking. The flip side of that arrangement was that the guy was also supposed to treat the girl; however, if the guy and girl got together on her initiative or if they were hanging out rather than on a date, the couple might go Dutch. Since most of the guys I went out with in college didn’t have much money, I rarely was taken out for a full meal: often, I was fed dessert at a nice restaurant after we’d ushered at the symphony or opera so that we could get in free. (Presumably, we’d had dinner at the college dining hall before we drove to the concert.) Not a bad deal for the guy, who got the benefit of beautiful music and the companionship of a girl dressed in her best concert-going attire—all for the price of a little gas and a piece of French silk pie! The girl benefited, too (particularly if she didn’t have a car and enjoyed getting dressed up and going to concerts). And maybe the guy and girl got a little closer to figuring out if they enjoyed one another’s company? Still, that was just a baby step on the road to a relationship.
In my freshman year of college, I caught the eye of an older English major who wrote me poetry and did me the great favor of taking me to Spring Banquet, which was sort of a glorified prom (no dancing at my conservative Christian college, although that rule has since been changed). Being asked to Spring Banquet meant a lot because no one had asked me to my prom—or to any dance in high school, for that matter. Girls didn’t go stag back then, so a good friend and I hung out together on the night of Senior Prom. Misery doesn’t exactly love company, or I wish it didn’t, but it sure did help that someone else was in the same boat. Both my friend and I are happily married to wonderful men now, by the way, so not having a date to Senior Prom did not mean that I would never be in a romantic relationship (although it felt like it at the time).
While I appreciated the attentions of that older, poetry-writing guy who took me out during the spring of my freshman year, he graduated, went on to grad school and seminary, and essentially exited my life: we wrote letters for a while—both of us being English majors, they were long and articulate letters—but that relationship was not to be. I wasn’t ready for a serious relationship: college itself was the real attraction for me. Impractical though my degrees (double major in English and history and minor in music) have turned out to be, I enjoyed writing, researching, reading, singing in the choir, playing last-chair violin in the tiny chamber orchestra, talking philosophy with friends, taking long walks by myself or with others, going to concerts and plays, performing piano solos at recitals, posting editorials on the “Wittenburg Door,” contributing to the college newspaper, making midnight doughnut runs, penning poems in the most atmospheric way I could contrive, solving the problems of the world in late-night discussions, and, above all, learning and thinking. Life was grand in college, aside from the occasional round of unrequited love, and I don’t regret not having dated any one guy consistently at that time.
Still, it does amaze me that our awkward modern dating system yields any successful results. No wonder there is a great deal of miscommunication and misreading in the world of dating. But I’ll save those thoughts for another day. Perhaps I’ll even share the story of how my husband’s ridiculous request that I be his “backup date” for the med school Christmas party led to our marriage—if I’m feeling humble, that is.