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Lessons Learned

What Traditional Arranged Marriages Can Teach Couples About Work-Life Balance

We aren't all that comfortable planning our love lives to account for the strains our work lives place on them.

What Traditional Arranged Marriages Can Teach Couples About Work-Life Balance
[Photo: Flickr user Klearchos Kapoutsis]

In 2011, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg remarked, "The most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry." Her point wasn't that marriage itself is the cornerstone of every successful career. It was that a well-balanced relationship can make a huge difference for working couples: "I have an awesome husband," Sandberg added, "and we're 50/50."

As the labor market gets more precarious and our jobs become ever more self-directed, Sandberg's advice is bearing out. For those who are in long-term relationships, partners do double duty as frontline career coaches helping us to navigate financial risk, entrepreneurship, professional reinvention, and constant change.

Yet we aren't all that comfortable thinking about our love lives in a way that reflects the strains that they're likely to suffer. Romance is one thing, our careers another. But it may be worth thinking more critically about that. And when we do, we might find guidance in an unlikely source: the centuries-old tradition of arranged marriage.

Arrangements New And Old

Earlier in my career, I interviewed over 300 women who, for a variety of personal and cultural reasons, had chosen to enter into arranged marriages. One of the common themes I observed was their surprising adeptness in navigating the mounting demands of the new world of work.

Arranged marriage is a practice that's largely been rejected in the West, yet it's nevertheless the way many modern couples are still set up all over the world. The women I spoke to in my research were educated, middle- to upper-middle-class people who saw themselves as freely cooperating in a vibrant cultural tradition.

The premise of an arranged marriage is that although the couple isn't in love, affection and intimacy grow as they build their lives together. For that to occur, they need to share common expectations, life stages, and socioeconomic, religious, political, and cultural backgrounds. This isn't to advocate for arranged marriages, of course, but it's worth taking note of how that uncommon degree of alignment can help support couples when both partners work. Here are three spheres where it might.

1. Decision Making

Who you partner with shapes where and how you live, whether to have children, and how you raise them—not to mention how you spend your money and free time, and how you evolve as a person. Virtually all couples in long-term relationships can tell you that.

But what's less remarked upon is how those partnerships also have a direct and ongoing impact on our careers. A five-year Washington University study of over 5,000 married people found that a person’s spouse has a direct correlation to their job satisfaction, salary increases, and eligibility for a promotion. But just having a supportive partner was only one key for success, the study found: Who that person is matters as well.

The popular notion that real love is spontaneous tends to overlook this reality. We exhaustively research our choices in college, careers, and even our purchasing decisions, yet subject our romantic decisions to far less strategizing. Arranged marriages take a more scrupulous approach, seeing marriage as such an important decision in terms of life and career outcomes that it can't be left to happenstance or infatuation.

If one of the institution's simplest lessons holds wider value today, and it's one Sandberg underscored: Be deliberate. Who you date may very well become who you stay with for a long time. So make choices the way you would in other realms of life—based on careful consideration rather than random circumstance. (And if that sounds less romantic, well, that's sort of the point.)

2. Assessing Value

Imagine buying your dream house: There’s all the excitement as you tell your real estate agent, "Find me my place! I can’t tell you my budget or neighborhood—but I’ll recognize it as soon as I walk in."

It sounds ridiculous, but that's more or less how we've been culturally conditioned to see romance: When it's "real," we'll simply know it, and everything else will fall into place. Unfortunately, the data tell a different story, with half of all divorces occurring within the first three years of marriage, as people discover aspects of their partners they hadn’t anticipated or fully understood.

Arranged marriages are generally based on a deliberate effort to assess the values and characteristics of potential partners to determine what type of life the couple will likely lead over the long term. In fact, the process in its modern forms sometimes starts with creating a list of the key requirements or qualities that marriage candidates must have.

If you're a working professional sizing up your own personal life and choice of partner, you can do much the same:

  1. Clarify your core values. These are the tenets that fit into your life no matter what changes. Opposites may attract for the short term, but when it comes to a life partner, shared values tend to count more. Consider how you want to live, why you want to live that way, and with what kind of person.
  2. Write it down. "There’s something about writing down your objectives that makes them real," Tony Robbins writes. "It takes them from the world of wishes to the first step in creating your new reality." Outlining key objectives is a common business tactic for a reason, and while it might feel like an odd way to approach your personal relationships, it can help you get your mind around what matters to you and stick with it.
  3. Decide what kind of person you need to be. One important component in arranged marriages is making sure that each of the individuals who's looking winds up with the match they want. Know who you are and what you offer—be brutally honest with yourself so you can be honest with potential partners, too.

This exercise should leave you with an inventory of what you value. And it's those core principles that many of us tend to fall back on when the going gets tough in our personal and professional lives alike. It's all the more reason to make sure your partner shares and understands them.

3. Commitment

Divorce and separation are emotionally difficult and can hurt both our professional and financial well-being. But partly because couples in arranged marriages are asked to commit from the outset to serving much more than just each other's emotional needs, partnerships can sometimes prove more durable.

The work-life lessons for working couples are these:

  • Live in the present. The vagaries of the modern workforce and the pressures it places on our working lives can be immense. They can also foster "one-foot-out-the-door" syndrome, where we tend to look for escape hatches and alternatives when we feel most overwhelmed. One form of relationship isn't inherently better than another for dealing with those stresses, but it's worth remembering that relationships are supposed to be support structures. Some don't work that way, and that's okay. But being present enough to fully utilize your relationships (and enjoy them) through tough times is key.
  • Curate happy-couple-ism. Just as you wouldn’t hang out with heavy drinkers if you were trying to stay sober, don’t spend too much time around relationship bashers or especially cynical, bitter couples. Swap them out for happy pairs and optimistic daters.

Financial and career stress are continually cited as among the biggest drains on relationship happiness. But what the long tradition of arranged marriages teaches us—especially as those modern pressures pile up—is that being able to make complex, long-term decisions can help keep everything in balance when we need it most. The more of those factors working couples can weigh and anticipate ahead of time—together—the better off they'll be.

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