Premarital Counseling for Arranged "Left Overs"?

Premarital Counseling for Arranged "Left Overs"? November 12, 2012

I could use your suggestions on a matter.

We recently met with a couple soon to be married. First, there are a few things one needs to understand about how Chinese view the “getting married” process. Chinese faced extreme pressure to get married by the age of 30. There’s even a word for unmarried women 30 or older––剩女, which means a “left over woman.” Men face similar pestering though it’s a bit less intense. For Chinese believers, the pressure is compounded by the fact that China proportionately doesn’t have a lot of Christians. Even if there were a thousand single Christians in your city, it’s not like people walked around with “耶稣是我的男好友” (Jesus is my homeboy) T-shirts.

Something akin to arranged marriages is pretty common here. I wouldn’t call them “arranged marriages” in the sense that their mate was somehow predetermined by the families irrespective of their own choice. Perhaps you might think of a dating service among friends and family. You have a matchmaker whom you trust and knows two parties well. Then, the couple basically interviews each other and meets their families. If all goes well, you get married. It’s intentional and efficient. There is no illusion of romance. There is no Titanic music in the background.

The couple we met last night we both in their 30s. I found this out when I asked why they liked (oops, even said love) about one another. Their answers were encouraging but sober. Atypically, their first answers were that the other was a strong believer with character. (Even for Christians, this is not the normal thing that determines who one marries.) On the other hand, they said they knew their ages and this was a practical step. The man recently lost his job (within the past 6 months) and does not have the money to buy a home (买房子), which is typically the first thing one any parent’s list of qualifications for a potential spouse for the child. I cannot overstate how important this is for Chinese: first buy a home, and only then can you get married. Well, her parents were willing to wave that condition just so shed at least get married. After all, this guy had a pulse.

So, here we are giving premarital counseling. So much pre-marital advice from the West concerns dating the right kind of people, that is, if you haven’t already kissed dating goodbye. Sadly, so much centered on the romance of getting married and not the realities of being married. Naturally, there are numerous things we have to talk about that affect every marriage––how to solve conflict, relationship to in-laws, parenting philosophy, sexual relationship, etc.

However, I would be curious what issues may be unique to these sorts of marriages. Maybe there aren’t a lot of extra considerations. In some sense, they come in with less baggage than others. Nevertheless, I don’t want to presume. Perhaps you have some ideas of questions to ask or issues to explore that relate to their situation in particular.

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  • glee

    I’m not sure if you are saying this couple you met were arranged or not, but I think the greatest challenge for arranged marriage (and non-arranged marriage) would be managing expectations. I’m sure there are a lot of hidden expectations that any new couple would have a hard time talking about. Not having a home is the least of their concerns. Having good Christian character is a good start but there are things like likes and dislikes that are not matters of sin or being spiritual. This is particularly why I love how 1 Corinthians starts off as saying love is patient. A Chinese Christian couple would do well not only seeking the blessings of others prior to their marriage, but also reminders that relationship together takes work. This practically plays out in the way they live in a parents home before they can move into a home on their own or when faced with questions of whether they should take on work that would separate them being physically apart.

    • glee,

      You make a great point. Since dating often functions like a personality contest, that dynamic is usually well thought out before marriage (in non arranged situations). I would agree that people underestimate the importance of fitting personalities when possible. On another note, it’s quite easy to confuse personality with character, weakness with sin. Thinking back to our meeting with the couple, the woman has a habit of wanting to talk about major things she’s upset about late at night. However, he is not a night owl. So, he is too tired to handle it and this only brews greater conflict. Those are adjustments that aren’t necessarily fixing a “sin” issue.

      Thanks for your comment. I hadn’t made this connection so explicitly in relation to arranged couples.

  • LEB

    When we were with you I recall we talked a little about these kinds of marriage situations. I don’t know enough about these “semi-arranged” marriages to be sure what unique circumstances they face. I hope someday to learn more :) I tend to agree with your initial thought that the couple, in some ways, might come into marriage with less baggage. However, if they have been exposed to much western culture (movies and TV) they might develop certain “Disneyland”, “happily ever after” expectations that may need to be addressed.

    Here are a few thoughts your post generated in my mind, that I continuously reflect on in my own marriage, that might apply here.

    Whatever unique cultural components exist the couple still needs to be encouraged to think in big, biblical picture terms of what God has done for them and where the power to live the Christian life comes from before focusing on the specifics of what they should be “doing” in marriage. For example, Paul’s teaching about marriage in Ephesians 5 is couched in the much larger context of what he is communicating in the whole book (categories like Glorifying God, Guilty before God, Grace from God resulting in Growth through the Spirit — including properly functioning marriages). Typically the marriage teaching gets severed from the bigger context (which I have done myself) which to some degree lessens the overall impact of his message.

    To me there is no way our marriage relationships (or theirs) can function in a biblically healthy manner if our relationship with God is spiritually sick or understanding of God’s marriage plan is seriously skewed. Many problems in our homes stem from spiritual problems in our hearts.

    As couples consider getting married in China or in America they need to be encouraged/challenged to see the foundation of marriage as not primarily about meeting “their” needs, but rather, as being about big picture concepts like glorifying God by reflecting the relationship of Christ and the Church as well as, at some level, reflecting the Trinity to the watching world.

    After that comes the specific, day-to-day living issues you mentioned above that may in part be understanding and accomadating preferences, dealing with our sinfulness in its Oh so many forms or, perhaps, dealing with specific cultural issues.

    • I particularly like your comments about marriage meeting one’s “own” needs. Human all go into marriage with some degree of this thinking, as if the other person would appreciate “me” as much as I do. It’s standard human idolatry. Chinese, however, is especially pragmatic about relationships. All the more so in like of their being arranged. Their whole approach was shaped by a functional view that has in mind certain goals and needs. This is natural in any marriage but all the more so when other things like “infatuation” aren’t present to take over. Accordingly, one could take a contract-mentality and demand my needs be met with even greater veracity.

      I like that you say that in view of the purpose of marriage being God’s being glorified. How easily we forget the greatest competitor to God’s honor in our lives is the ordinary, daily kind of stuff.