Getting Married – the Armenian Way

Last Saturday I went to visit Ellada’s family in the village. The occasion was a happy one: both Ellada’s older sister Regina and her aunt Gayane (her mother’s younger sister) were getting engaged. According to Armenian tradition this is celebrated at the fiancee’s home, so in order to save money they decided to make it a two-in-one.

Gayane is in her early thirties, was married once for a year or so, but that was a long time ago and the husband is no longer in the picture. I have never really asked about what happened and no one talks about it either, so this is about all I know. Anyway, a couple of months ago, a guy from the neighboring village whom they had known for some years started taking a fancy to Gayane. Unusual in Armenia, he is four years younger than Gayane. As in Armenia the husband is supposed to be older than the wife, this initially made Rada and her and Gayane’s mother Julia rather uncomfortable. Rada even asked me for “advice” about this. My reaction was a decidedly firm: “So what? What’s the big deal?”

I have only met him twice or so, and I don’t think the guy has even said three words directly to me, but from what I understand he is fairly jealous. To his credit, he is not bothered by the fact that his wife will be a couple of years older than he is. Also, at the engagement party it was obvious that he does like her, you could see from the way he would hold her hand and some other little things. So he likes her, but the most I found out about Gayane’s feelings for him is that she respects him. I have a feeling that Gayane decided to marry him because she feels that “time is running out for her” and according to Armenian standards she is already an “old spinster”.

Regina’s fiance is a guy from Yerevan with whom her older brother served in the army. The two families got to know each other that way and for a year and a half they would always go to see their sons together. The guys served with the Russian border guards on the border with Turkey near Gyumri. Regina’s brother returned from the army only a month or so ago, but this other guy, Sasha, had come back already in November. After he returned, the two families kept in touch. Apparently for a while already Sasha’s mother had been announcing that she wanted a bride for Sasha from Rada’s two daughters, Regina and Ellada.

Sasha himself had fallen in love with (or at the very least had feelings for) Ellada and had told her so shortly before she went to the hospital for her bladder-stones operation. She had told him she liked him too and they were somehow a couple. As Ellada confided to me, they had talked about getting engaged and eventually getting married after Ellada had finished studying. They had it all planned out, which scared the hell out of me! They had just told each other they were in love of some sorts and immediately there was talk about engagement, marriage and what not.

This is something I have noticed more often in my conversations with Armenian girls and young women. It seems that the concept of “being in love” is all too often being confused with love of the kind that two people have who want to spend the rest of their lives with each other. It is as if they don’t know the difference, or even that these are two different things. And it is as if when two people fall in love or get a crush on each other, this is immediately treated as love and talk immediately starts about engagement etc. It is immediately made more serious and bigger than it is.

Back to Sasha, Ellada and Regina. Two weeks ago, Rada called me to tell me that I shouldn’t make any plans for July 14, as Regina is getting engaged to Sasha. As far as I knew (and only Regina and I knew about this), Sasha liked Ellada and had told her so. So you can imagine I was kind of surprised. Last Saturday when I had the opportunity to talk with Ellada in private, I asked her what had happened. Apparently, while Sasha liked Ellada better, his mom preferred Regina as a bride. In the meantime, Regina and Ellada’s brother didn’t want either of his sisters getting married to Sasha: “I served with the guy, I spent so much time with him and I do not want you to marry him!” I don’t know the details of his disapproval, but I understood from what Ellada told me that there had been some heated discussions in their family about whether or not anyone was going to marry Sasha and if so, whether that would be Ellada or Regina.

Turned out that Ellada had been doing some thinking while she was in the hospital. Sasha and his mom had come to visit almost every day and Sasha had spent entire days there. Apparently this gave Ellada time to think and she decided that maybe Sasha wasn’t such a great choice and she readily gave up on him. And so it was decided that Regina would marry Sasha. What they actually feel for each other? I don’t have a clue. It seems that they are more like friends than like a couple.

And so last Saturday according to Armenian tradition, Sasha and his relatives (mother, grandfather, his two best friends, the kavor -godfather- and his wife and three relatives from up north who happened to be in town) came to Regina’s family for the engagement.

As I mentioned above, for financial reasons Gayane and Samvel had their engagement at the same time. Samvel’s entourage was a lot smaller than Sasha’s; it only consisted of his father and uncle.

It was supposed to be a happy day, but I don’t know, there was something wrong with that day. One thing that was off, was that Gayane was obviously not happy, but I don’t know why and I didn’t have an opportunity to talk with her in private. I have a feeling, though, that it had something to do with her and Samvel clearly being put “in the back row” and that Sasha and Regina very obviously had the spotlights. More people had come with Sasha than for Gayane and Samvel, and they had brought many, many gifts for Regina, as is apparently tradition in Armenia (this was the first engagement I attended, so I can’t compare it to anything else), mostly underwear (!), satin pyjamas (!) and other clothes.

Also, Sasha’s grandfather, who drank too much and who was not really the brightest light in the room anyway, kept toasting and referring only to one couple, Sasha and Regina. Now, this is kind of understandable because Sasha is his grandson and I guess he was proud, but he was just overdoing it, completely ignoring the other couple getting engaged. It wasn’t just me who noticed this, eventually one of the other men at the table got up and “overruled” grandpa by turning attention to Samvel and Gayane and toasting to them.

Gayane’s and Samvel’s engagement was obviously more low-key than Sasha’s and Regina’s because, as Gayane’s mother Julia put it: “They are older”. Not just that, but implicitly, I think she meant that since this will be Gayane’s second marriage, it’s not such a big deal. Julia added that Gayane’s wedding will be in August and it won’t be a ceremony or something. She will just “leave the house”, as Julia put it. Regina “will leave” in October, but in that case there will be a proper wedding with a party and all. Both newly-weds will move in with their husband’s families as is custom in Armenia.

As you probably noticed from the way things went and also from the way grandma Julia spoke, love doesn’t seem to play a big part in these arrangements. I am pretty sure Samvel loves Gayane, but I don’t know what her feelings for him are and neither do I know what Regina and Sasha feel for each other. Eventually, I know that what I think doesn’t matter in this case. I just hope that all four of them will be happy with the choices they made.

Marriages out of love are probably increasing in Armenia, but from my experience by far the majority of marriages are between a man and a woman who don’t love each other (yet) on their wedding day. In fact, I am rather sure that most of these couples don’t know each other very well either on their wedding day. I still find it hard to comprehend how someone can marry and plan to spend the rest of his/her life with someone s/he hardly knows. But then again, I think the key difference is that I grew up in a society where by far the majority of marriages are between people who married out of love for each other and who had known each other and had had a relationship before they actually tied the knot.

On the contrary, in Armenia (as in many other parts of the world) I would say that marriage is more an economic bond, a way to cement ties between two families, a necessity or just plain to ensure the continuation of the family line. Love plays a relatively small part in this. I think it’s not the lack of love that bothers me in these kinds of marriages (after all, love doesn’t necessarily guarantee the success of a marriage, does it?), but what I am amazed about is how unfamiliar the partners in Armenia often are with each other at the moment of their wedding. In the case of Regina and Gayane it is slightly different, as they had known their fiances for several years “before anything happened”. How can you know whether your future husband/wife and you are compatible if you’ve only met and talked a few times?

To end on a less cynical note I am posting a picture of Ellada, the girl with the million dollar smile. She’s the one in the center.

There are more pictures of this day at my Flickr-page.

13 thoughts on “Getting Married – the Armenian Way

  1. Right. I think that in this part of the world its all about surviving,
    We Dutch are raised up in a society which gives us opportunities, choices…
    Btw, Turkey ranks as a country with one of the highest divorces..afer the USA…

  2. You’re right, Hans, we grew up in a society of opportunities and plenty of choices. But with those choices come completely different expectations and ideas about success. My guess is that, for example, the expectations of marriage and the ideas of what makes a marriage successful are rather different for Armenians (and I suppose also Turkish people in general) than for Dutch or Western people.

    I had no idea that the divorce rate in Turkey ranks so high. You keep feeding me with interesting bits and pieces of information!

  3. Myrthe, I think that many people i this area first are looking for shelter, and the possibility to leave ‘home’. Living independt of their parents.
    We are from an area which gives us the possibility to have relations, sexual contact etc. without being forced into marriages.
    Some more facts about Turkey:
    they, with Egyptians and people from Thailand watch TV the most: 20 hrs a week average.
    And, in general a Turk reads one book a year…)) Wile Dutch reads on average 26 books a year.

  4. I would say that Armenian young people are not necessarily looking to leave home or become independent. In Armenian one of the sons traditionally stays with his parents after marriage, his new wife moves in with her in-laws.

    Maybe some young couples in Yerevan are trying to start a more independent life, but for most young people in Yerevan it is too expensive to buy or even rent an apartment. Salaries in Yerevan are generally not high enough.

    Outside the cities it is even harder (both because of finances and of traditions) for young people to leave their parents’ or in-laws’ homes and start a core family of their own.

    Apart from this, in general I find that Armenian young people stay dependent on their parents very long (too long) also when it comes to making decisions, developing opinions, maturing, etc.

    So in that I don’t necessarily agree with you about young people looking to become independent etc., but in one aspect I do tend to agree with you. As a result of the situation I just described, there is little or no privacy for young people in Armenia to develop intimate relations with someone of the other sex. And I am not even necessarily talking about sex now (women are not supposed to have sex before they get married anyway…), but just plain having a boyfriend/girlfriend. Many young people have to get kind of creative if they don’t want their parents to find out (yet) about their relationship.

  5. Then in overall, Turkey, especially Istanbul, Izmir, Antalya and Ankara are more Westernized.
    I see more and more young women and me living on their own. Having sexual relations etc. before marriage.
    Turkey is maturing, only some taboos can be discussed face to face but not in the press, although they also are maturing.
    Today election day. The Armenian Patriarch is supporting the current government.

  6. Myrthe.
    I read yesterday that women are almost not represented in Armenian parliament?
    In Turkey it increased to 50 now, 10%, still too low.

  7. You’re right, Hans. In the previous parliament there were 6 women out of 131 Mps. I am not sure how many female MPs there are in the new parliament (there were elections las May), but I think it is about 11 or 12, not much more.

    There is one female minister (of Culture) and that’s it.

  8. I’ve been to quite a few engagements and weddings in Armenia/Artsakh and only was there one I thought there was no love (see:

    Relationships before the wedding night do happen (mostly in secret with the help of friends and siblings) and I know of couples that had a full-term birth after 6 or 7 months of getting married, but those kinds of things really don’t seem to be talked about since it really does not bring any good to the family. I also know of forced relationships, as happened in the story I linked above and that in itself is a very sad subject that is different from this story.

    I was at one village wedding that the couple was so much in love that they danced the whole night looking in each others eyes and it almost looked like they didn’t notice that the guests were present.

    As for the couple I suspected were not in love, they now have two children and at least in public you would think that they are very much a couple.

    I am still waiting to hear about the divorce of a couple whose wedding I attended.

  9. Have you heard about an old though forgotten Armenian tradition called “Bhashiqyartma” (a Turkish word, incidentally) ? It is when by the accord of two families they engaged their new born babies and they had to merry after some age, regardless of love and other related factors, otherwise it’d be a shame for those families.. Guess, what you posted about is somewhat the reflection of the development of this tradition through history in modern times. Getting married without knowing each other is mainly true for villagers where the Armenian traditions are more preserved and the only aim is to have children, love will come along with the time, they say. History of each nation has its reflection on the current life style of that nation. Armenia is not an exclusion. And being a crossroad country, at the moment Armenia undergoes different types of influences of multiple cultures, good or bad. I characterize it as a “vinigret”, type of a sour salad with every possible things not for anybody’s taste.

  10. I had heard about this tradition, Zara, but I hadn’t thought of it in terms of a stage in the “development” of traditions of wedding, starting a family etc. I think your historical point of view is interesting. And you are very right noting that Armenia is a country on the crossroads of different cultures, that is so true and for me that is one of the things that make Armenia such an interesting place.

    One of the things life in Armenia does to me, is that it makes me think about or question values and ideas that I grew up with in Western-Europe. This whole love-marriage-relationship thing is one good example of that.

    By the way, I do think that the couples I wrote about in my main post, will be doing just fine. 😉

  11. Is this not all about culture relativisme; we do this for ages, so why change this?!

  12. And it is as if when two people fall in love or get a crush on each other, this is immediately treated as love and talk immediately starts about engagement etc.

    I know that Armenia has some differences, culturally, with the diasporan Armenians from the Middle East (some of whom have emigrated to Armenia), but in my mom’s family (she is from the Middle East), there was no such thing as “boyfriend.” You were either engaged, or you were nothing (maybe a casual friend, but you didn’t often see opposite sex friends there). Obviously, this is greatly influenced by the Muslim culture there, but I wonder if some of that has trickled into Armenia as well? When I was dating my husband, my aunts didn’t really know what to call him. They would tell me, “Say hi to your fiance, or whatever.” There really is no such thing as dating – at least, there wasn’t 30 years ago.

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