The Internet romance trade is booming. Utter the term ‘mail-order bride’ and you are likely to be met with mixed opinions, some seeing it as a natural phenomenon in an ever-globalising world of online dating and others harkening to the horror stories of romance scammers or sex-trafficking. But while the industry is often laced with negative connotations the ubiquity of finding your perfect partner online has stimulated the growth of international marriage agencies.

Stereotypically, the concept preys upon the lonely single who is exhausted of looking for love in their home country. They decide to seek the help of an international marriage broker who can facilitate online and face-face meetings with exotic partners eager to immigrate to the West. Subscribers are usually enticed with free registration but are subsequently required to pay varying membership and service fees to correspond with women online and embark on romance tours to the country of the potential mail-order bride.

Natasha Druzhinina and her partner, Mark Whittock run a international matchmaking service – Happy Couple Match – which facilitates meetings between Eastern European women and Western men, mainly from the UK. They have been running their business from the UK and St Petersburg for the past 15 years and employ a small team of relationship experts, interpreters and travel coordinators to help create suitable foreign matches. Unlike many online agencies, Druzhinina and Whittock meet many of their clients in person and subsequently create meetings between suitable matches.

Druzhinina stresses that the industry’s negative reputation has not and should not discourage people from using these services: “Our couples are our best promotion, I think people have more chance of forming long lasting relationships compared to those who meet at a younger age.”

She believes victims of online scams often haven’t taken enough time to research the agencies and these cases should not tarnish the reputation of the industry: “We need to give positive advice to people and not put them off; there are so many people on their own who are not able to find the right person.”

But why are young, intellectual women turning to marriage and moving to a foreign country with a partner who could potentially be 30 years their senior? “That’s the question men always ask,” confesses Druzhinina.

“It’s not that they want to meet men from another country, they just want to meet the right person and they don’t care whether he lives next door or in another country.

“I am very glad that Eastern Europe, and Russia in particular, is becoming less reserved in this respect.”

The disproportion of men and women in Russia has often been seen as an instigator for women using these services to find a husband. Druzhinina says the outlook of middle-aged men, particularly outside the big cities in Russia, is very different to that of the women: “There is still a big problem with drinking, middle-aged men are not thinking about families any longer, whereas many women of that age look lovely and are ready for new relationships.

“We have more active women than men.”

While it is not possible to collate statistics for mail-order brides, the majority of women advertised come from Russia, Ukraine and the Philippines. According to the Commission for Filipinos Overseas (CFO), 92 percent of married migrants are female and are most likely to be married to people from America, Japan and Australia. Joseph O’Connor lives in Thailand and runs an Internet company and Thai dating site – ThaiLoveLines – which helps facilitate international relationships. Although middle-aged men typically drive the mail-order bride market, O’Connor believes this stereotype is changing and a younger market of male hopefuls is emerging: “If you’re a young man in the UK, you’ll find girlfriends and you’ll live with women but marriage is a serious business, marriage is a dangerous proposition for men.

“Our market is predominantly 40-year-old men who are divorced, but there is a growing market of younger men who want to buy out of the situation, they want a different sort of relationship.”

marriage-migrat_23826011_8d579e2a7b199350989c71ea8be9e93a135ca4ecO’Connor set up the internet company in Thailand following the breakdown of his relationship in Ireland and subsequently met his Thai wife after she subscribed to his website. International marriage agencies are prohibited in Thailand but O’Connor says this has not prevented men and women seeking agencies to help facilitate foreign matches. His website now has over 300,000 subscribers. While he acknowledges the existence of romance scammers he says this should not stigmatise the industry, especially when proper regulations are in place. Conflating international dating sites with trafficking and domestic abuse is preventing people from fixing their broken lives, he believes.

Historically, mail-order brides were seen as a positive step in ensuring societal prosperity during colonial times. Marcia Zug is a professor of law at the University of South Carolina. Last year she wrote a book on the international marriage industry entitled, ‘Buying a Bride: An Engaging History of Mail-Order Matches’, which tracked the origins of mail-order brides in America. She said the reason international marriage remains so popular is the opportunities it offers to foreign nationals: “For women this might be best opportunity for change, for leaving the country that they’re in and the social and economic situation.”

Zug says the stereotype of the desperate and uneducated woman is not a true reflection of mail-order brides: “Most of the women that come over tend to be highly educated, often more than the men that they marry.

“It’s not usually the poorest most desperate women who do this.”

She adds: “When they come over to America, they can work, they can take classes, they have the ability to get jobs. Against the stereotype most of the guys are quite happy with that…there is a big difference between a one and two income family.”

Although there are no official statistics for mail-order marriages worldwide, divorce rates between American citizens and foreign nationals are reportedly lower than the nation as a whole. Zug suggests the old-fashioned tradition and culture of mail-order marriage means couples are more aware of the sort of relationship they are entering into: “People know what they are getting with a mail-order marriage… it’s a bargain for exchange.

“What happens in the Western love style marriages is that it’s all about the passion, then you’ve been married for two years and there’s not the same passion there.

“[Mail-order marriages] are more old-fashioned, people marry for love, economic stability and the division of labour… and those in some ways are more stable marriages.”

But international marriage can also be a breakaway from tradition. Urvi Shah runs an international marriage bureau in India that facilitates matches between gay and lesbian couples. Since setting up the company in December 2015 they have registered clients from all around the world. While the number of subscribers is relatively low compared to agencies catering for straight couples, 25 of the couples who used Shah’s service are now married and 83 couples are in a relationship. Shah says: “Getting married to a foreigner connects you to additional hundreds, if not thousands of people.

“Different culture means a different way of thinking different values, different beliefs, different lifestyles and so on.

“Living together with someone from a different culture will empower you to approach issues from different points of view.”

So although the industry may be seen to be catering for a minority of people looking for their perfect spouse, the longevity of international matchmaking shows that love truly can flourish beyond geographical and cultural borders.

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