The Problem with Arranged Marriages in YA Fiction
This post is part of a collaboration with several bloggers to discuss romance tropes and the philosophy behind them. Stay to the end to check out the other participating authors’ posts!
I have a problem with the arranged marriage trope in YA and NA fiction, and it’s not the issue you might think. I have no objection to portraying arranged marriages in fiction, even to portraying them to a (reasonably) young audience. In fact, my problem with arranged marriage in YA fiction is that it is almost always portrayed in a negative light.
Before you get too worked up, allow me to say that I don’t think arranged marriage is necessarily the ideal these days, and it can be problematic. I don’t believe that arranged marriage is always right, I don’t deny that the system can be abused. But it is a system that has been used (and used properly) for millennia and I don’t think it’s always bad, either. While arranged marriage has its potential pitfalls, I believe it also provides an opportunity to explore some powerfully positive themes and it doesn’t have to make your romance read any less sweet.
So let’s get into a few of those themes I mentioned and why I would like to see more arranged marriage stories portrayed in a positive light.
Trust in Family
A common objection, not only to arranged marriage scenarios but also to more middle-of-the-road structures like courtship, is that of parents not knowing—or caring—what’s best for the young people involved in a relationship. Unfortunately, there are situations in which this is the case. Again, not all situations are perfect—or even healthy at all. However, that is not true of all situations as it often seems in YA’s portrayal of arranged marriage. There are loving parents, conscious of their children’s needs and desires, who arrange marriages very much for their children’s benefit.
The positive portrayal of these healthy arrangements supports the portrayal of healthy families in general, and specifically highlights the theme of trust within families. A father who has his daughter’s best interests at heart, who protects and provides for his family well, will have a daughter who trusts him to provide for her and keep her needs and desires in mind as he chooses a husband for her. Likewise a son whose father has exemplified provision and love will raise a son who trusts that father to provide him with a fitting wife.
Trust is an important part of healthy family dynamics, and that’s something we should be showcasing in fiction—perhaps most especially for the sake of young adults who may be in a stage of questioning their parents’ judgment, or learning what that trust should look like for the first time if it hasn’t been fostered in their own family.
(Plus, if you’re a fantasy writer, arranged marriages can be quite telling of the cultural family structure within your created world.)
Many arranged marriages in YA fiction involve princes and princesses who are being “married off” for the sake of their kingdoms. Which is almost universally painted as a bad thing. But why? Why do we see taking responsibility and sacrificing personal pleasure for the sake of something greater as a bad thing?
(I have a particular peeve with stories in which this is the scenario and the betrothed isn’t even remotely unpleasant. I just want to tell the main character—or love interest—to get over themselves.)
Whether there’s a whole kingdom at stake or a character is merely beginning a household as a part of becoming an adult in their society, arranged marriage—in some cases, as simply as any marriage—is an opportunity to portray characters taking responsibility for something and someone beyond themselves. It’s a matter of growing up, putting others before yourself, and doing something difficult because it’s important.
We see very little of this type of responsibility in YA fiction. Characters may take on unusual responsibilities like battling dark lords or overthrowing corrupt governments, but even these don’t always carry the same weight or the challenge to grow in character and long-term responsibility. Characters are too busy trying to decide which guy to date mid-battle, and after the dark lord is defeated, life goes back to normal without any grownup responsibility.
Arranged marriage—for that matter, marriage at all—provides a prime opportunity to reveal the reality of this responsibility and encourage young adult readers to treat real-life responsibilities with the gravity they require.
Growing in Love
Love isn’t always easy. This is true even when people are married because they’ve “fallen in love”; eventually the enchantment fades and love comes down to choice. The choice to put the other person first. The choice to have the hard conversations. The choice to remain faithful to each other and the purpose you’ve taken up together.
In arranged marriage, this work is acknowledged from the beginning. The betrothed couple may not have feelings of affection for each other to begin with, but their commitment will still speak volumes—and in many cases, affection comes along with steady choices to love. (Remember what I said about your romance being no less sweet? This is where that comes in. Just think of it as strangers-to-lovers but they’re already married from the beginning.)
Arranged marriage stories are a great place to emphasize the commitment and work of marriage, as well as the rewards of that faithfulness.
Another frustrating element of many arranged marriage stories is a lack of healthy, adult communication—between parent and child, especially, as well as between those betrothed to one another. I don’t care if you don’t want to be in an arranged marriage… so long as you communicate about it maturely and don’t go leading people on because you want to get out of it without just owning up to that fact.
I would be far more tolerant of negative portrayals of arranged marriage stories if it were used as an opportunity to promote healthy communication—especially between parents and their children. This really goes back to the matter of trust that we started with. If the parent and child have a healthy, trusting relationship, discussions are much simpler and easier. And even if the young character doesn’t have that kind of relationship with their parents, you can highlight responsibility and maturity with characters who communicate anyway.
Have your betrothals end, have your characters “escape,” but at least have them understand it and talk about it first.
In case you couldn’t tell, I’ve seen very few portrayals of arranged marriages that haven’t neglected the points I’ve laid out. But there are two that come to mind as exceptional.
Daughter of Dusk* by Livia Blackburne really highlights healthy communication and responsibility in its portrayal of an arranged marriage. That was the first book that really made me happy with an arranged marriage storyline.
Harbinger of the End* by Nicki Chapelway is an excellent example of an arranged marriage done well, highlighting almost every one of these points. I had the privilege of proofreading Harbinger and absolutely loved it, and I recommend it to any fans of Norse mythology and/or the arranged marriage trope.
*This is a BookShop affiliate link; purchases made through this link earn me a small commission at no extra cost to you, plus support local U.S. bookstores!
There you have it. My thoughts on the arranged marriage trope. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments! What do you like or dislike about the trope?
Don’t forget to check out the other bloggers participating in Romance Week!
Grace A. Johnson – Enemies-to-lovers
Kellyn Roth – Second-chance romance
7 thoughts on “The Problem with Arranged Marriages in YA Fiction”
I 100% agree with everything you mentioned in this post, especially your point about trust in family and growing in love!!! We definitely need more YA books that show this!!! (And I also LOVE this collaboration mini series idea!!!) Enjoyed your post!
I’m glad you enjoyed it! The collaboration has been really neat; I’m excited to read Kell’s post tomorrow!
I agree with all these points, unless you hate your family and they are abusive creeps then why don’t you trust them to find a good partner for you? And there is absolutely nothing wrong with making sacrifices for your responsibility. Honored that you included Harbinger of the End in your list of recs! Loki and Sigyn’s relationship was so much fun to write about.
I genuinely LOVE how you wrote Harbinger. It’s exactly what we need more of, and you did an excellent job with it. <3
YES YES YES YES YES YES YES. I knew this post was a good idea.
Amazing post!!! You brought up some great points, especially about communication and trust ;) This trope is a great way to showcase those qualities and remind readers of their importance!
Thank you! I fully agree; there’s so much potential overlooked.