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Can friendships based on arranged marriage principles work? This group tried it.

Several years ago, Ari Honarvar began a friendship group based on principles of arranged marriage. The group includes, from left, Mikaela Kooiker, Carolyne Ouya, Jessica Harmer, April Nurse and Mindy Swanson.
Several years ago, Ari Honarvar began a friendship group based on principles of arranged marriage. The group includes, from left, Mikaela Kooiker, Carolyne Ouya, Jessica Harmer, April Nurse and Mindy Swanson. (Ari Honarvar)

An earlier version of this article inaccurately said that the United States ranks second-to-last in work-life balance scores. This version has been corrected.

Shortly after my husband and I had a baby in 2008, we moved to California. I didn’t know anyone, and for years, I struggled with making friends. I had no luck with chance meetings or joining clubs. Socializing with other parents rarely evolved into real friendships. All this got me thinking about arranged marriages.

I grew up in Iran where such unions occurred and many turned into good and long-lasting relationships. So, why couldn’t a similar arranged approach work for friendship?

About three years ago, I asked some women I knew and several I had just met if they wanted to join me in an experiment. They all said yes. We started with nine and had a commitment ceremony, where among other things we described the attributes and strengths we perceived in each person. Since then, we have met regularly as a group and done activities one-on-one or in smaller configurations. Our arranged friendship has survived the pandemic, while others have been destroyed.

What makes it work are key elements borrowed from arranged marriages: commit first, lean on structure, and allow for fun and intimacy to emerge and sustain the relationship. This experiment is reproducible because the stakes aren’t as high as a marriage, and the framework provides a container within which friendships can thrive. Plus, the arranged bit takes the guesswork out of finding friends.

Many approaches to friendship don’t seem to work. People have told me how hard it is for them to make new friends. For me, joining the PTA and a book club, and attending artist gatherings, an improv class and tango lessons didn’t yield results. Acquaintances played matchmakers, but I ended up as bewildered and disappointed as I would’ve been on the strangest of blind dates. In an entire decade of modern adulthood, only a few seeds I planted actually germinated into friendships.

Even before the pandemic, people in America were grappling with a harmful epidemic of loneliness. A recent Cigna survey showed that more than 3-in-5 Americans were lonely, and this loneliness was increasing. Devices are one culprit. Meanwhile, the United States ranks 29 out of 40 countries in a work-life balance scores, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. We don’t have enough time to maintain our current relationships, let alone extra bandwidth to make new friends.

What makes forging new connections particularly tricky is that they can be fragile — a disappointing meeting, one misunderstanding or even one social media comment could end a friendship. In our initial ceremony, we vowed to be as supportive and loving as ideal friends. We also promised that if we were hurt by another’s action, we would talk about it, so mending could ensue. Awhile back, I had a small misunderstanding with one friend. Our friendship most likely would’ve survived without mentioning it but our conversation has led to a greater intimacy. Relying on a framework helps guide our actions as our relationships grow.

“Structured friendship and ritual were so different from anything I had encountered with friendships before,” says one of our group members, Jessica Harmer, 46, from Oceanside, Calif. “It allows for a richness and the beauty of each of us to be added to the mix. I loved it instantly.”

The seven of us, who have been part of the group since its inception and are of diverse ages and backgrounds, have different definitions of what constitutes a friend. For some, it’s someone you count on during difficulties. For others, it’s a person you’d want to spend your free time with. But when we gather, there is enough form and flow to satisfy our friendship needs — we’re honest, attentive, and playful.

“This arrangement gave me a space to hear and be heard in a way that felt authentic,” says another group member, April Nurse, 36, from San Diego. “There’s no agenda, no competitive drama, no race to be won.”

Before joining, Nurse had envisioned meaningless small talk, surface niceties and awkward silences. Like the rest of us, she wanted a supportive group and a container for unfettered and engaging communication. Nurse finds the ceremony at the start of every group meeting — in which each of us describes our internal landscape, what we are celebrating and where we need support — especially helpful. “The ritual of giving thanks, releasing angst and peppering the air with unfiltered laughter is everything I need and more,” she says.

But not all arranged marriages or friendships last. We started with nine, but a few attended one gathering and decided this wasn’t for them. One person moved.

Within the core group, we’ve had our own obstacles. At the start of the pandemic, we held a virtual meeting but a few left with Zoom fatigue, and we decided to meet only in person. Rather than monthly gatherings, we’ve met only a handful of times during the pandemic.

Despite the challenges, our connection remains resilient. We’ve dealt with breakups, job insecurities and deaths in our families.

When I was diagnosed with Lyme disease, one friend cleaned my house. Others sent homemade remedies that helped with ­nausea.

Some of us had a particularly hard time during the lockdowns and protests that were met with police brutality. Our friendship provided healing and relief.

“I could speak of my fear during the protests and my anger during so much of it,” Nurse says. “Society never seems to offer Black women a safe space to feel anything, especially anger.”

No matter what happens, we can now count on camaraderie, community and fun waiting for us in the oasis we’ve created in the friendship desert.

“There in somebody’s garden on a star-filled night, food was nourishing, drink was sweet and stories felt more magical,” recalls Nurse of our last meeting. “In my anger, my fear and in the midst of my world falling apart, all was well.”

Ari Honarvar is the founder of Rumi with a View, dedicated to building music and poetry bridges across war-torn and conflict-ridden borders. She is the author of “Rumi’s Gift Oracle Cards” (2018) and “A Girl Called Rumi” (2021).

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