My first encounter with arranged marriages (excluding story books and historical accounts of royal and political marriages) occurred about a month into a past relationship with a man of Indian origins. We somehow got to talking about the topic of marriage and how, shockingly to me, arranged marriages still sometimes happened in India (though I don’t think either of us knew to what extent). He then told me, jokingly, that he was betrothed to a girl in India whom he had never met. At first, I didn’t realize that he was joking and felt a little upset, the romantic in me thinking–why was he spending time with me when he has another (perhaps I experienced for a few short seconds the way a woman feels when she discovers that she has been seeing a married man)? I then realized that he was joking and we had more than a few a good laughs…
As one can assume from this anecdote, the concept of arranged marriages has always been foreign to me. Like many Westerners, I was brought up on fairy tales and Disney and always had the notion that people fell madly in love, dated for a while, and then married. And, if for some reason their parents didn’t approve, the couple would run off to Las Vegas or Niagara Falls to elope. The couple’s parents would eventually come around, and everyone lived happily ever after.
A Western perspective of arranged marriage?
With this mentality, arranged marriages happening in this day and age seemed so bizarre and almost impossible. I know arranged marriages happened historically, and could accept that they happened in backward villages in developing countries (usually involving children, of course), but today?– amongst middle and upper class individuals? Doesn’t everyone want to fall in love?
When I arrived in India, I was in for quite a shock as nearly everyone that I met either had or was going to have an arranged marriage (I could accept members of my parent’s generation having arranged marriages, but my own?!). As this topic fascinated me, I questioned and probed into the lives of as many people as possible to find out the procedures, customs, and thoughts regarding arranged marriages. In this post, I hope to provide stories and share my changing insights and perspectives on the practice.
The first person I questioned about arranged marriages was an educated man in his fifties with knowledge about Western culture. He told me that in India, arranged marriages worked out well as the families would form a partnership on which they could agree. This meant that Christians would marry Christians, Muslims Muslims, and Hindus Hindus. It also meant that families would be in the same general socioeconomic class and might even run in the same social circles. There is also the idea that if the families can get along, the children (the married couple) will be able to sort out any issues that might arise. And, if the couple has problems that they can’t deal with on their own, both sets of parents offer counsel and assistance for the troubled couple. This family orientation, he insisted, is one of the main reasons that India has such a low divorce rate (divorce is also seen as incredibly taboo and, in most incidences, women cannot remarry without intense social consequences. Also, as India is so family oriented, the idea of being divorced and without a family is often worse than suffering through a troubled, unhappy, and even abusive marriage).
Next, he told me the reasons why “love-marriages” often don’t work. First, love doesn’t always follow the rules of society and an upper-caste girl could fall in love with a lower-caste boy (or the other way around) causing both families turmoil and disgrace. Similarly, a Christian could fall in love with a Hindu, and the all important extended family would argue over which religion the future grandchildren should follow, and the families would have to explain why their daughter or son did or didn’t have a Church wedding. Thus, love marriages often don’t work because the pivotal role of family in marriage. And, as family plays such an import role in the lives of Indians, eloping is often out of the question as one does not want to create distance or separation from family. Also, as parents often know their children better than the children know themselves (so the belief goes…), parents have the ability to better select an appropriate spouse than their children. Yet another problem with love marriages is that once the love runs thin and problems begin to arise, the young couple will not have the same support structure created by a partnership between two families.
So, family plays the all important role in marriage in India–and it favors arranged marriages.
After receiving this insight from a man who has arranged his own daughter’s marriage, I began probing into the lives of my Indian peers, discussing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences regarding marriage.
Nice to meet you?! Almost…
When I asked one recently married couple about their arranged marriage, the man told me how he came to meet and marry his wife. A few months ago, the man announced that he wanted to marry a woman with an MBA degree. One of his father’s friends recalled another friend who had a daughter that was just finishing her MBA. This friend contacted the man with the daughter and gave the future-father-in-law information about his future-son-in-law. The future-father-in-law approved. The young couple exchanged photos and phone numbers, then Skype IDs, and, a few weeks later, finally met. About two months after the initial contact, the couple married. I met the couple about a month after their marriage and it was both sweet and strange to see a married couple behaving towards each other with the innocence of highschool sweethearts.
I had another interesting interaction with an unmarried Christian man of twenty-six. He was going to wait a few more years to marry so that he could settle into a career before starting a family. Discovering that Western societies had different marriage customs, he asked me how it was possible to marry without an arranged marriage. So, I censored myself as best I could to be as least offensive as possible and explained, “Well, we meet people through classes, colleagues, or friends and, if we like each other, we exchange numbers and arrange a time to meet. Then, we date for a while (generally a few years) and, if we both still like each other, at some undefined point in the future, we marry.” Knowing his conservative Indian and Christian background, I edited out all offensive and heretical topics such as pre-marital sex and living together before marriage (aka “trial marriages”). I was shocked when, after my simplistic and seemingly pious explanation of Western marriage practices, he vehemently declared that dating was a sin! I guess I had forgotten to factor in that in the vast majority of Indian marriages, couples even in their twenties and thirties go on supervised dates, thus having no unsupervised time alone until their wedding night!
However, as India is influenced more and more by the West, marriage customs are slowly beginning to change, especially in large cities and amongst the wealthy. While arranged marriages are still the norm, more and more frequently children are shipped off to other cities for university or job opportunities where they meet potential suitors. These suitors are then brought home to meet the parents, such as they would in the West. In this case, the suitor is generally of the same social class (and caste doesn’t play much of a role in educated, wealthy, city dwellers) but still has to obtain parental approval. Finally, the sets of parents meet, and, if everyone agrees, the couple is married. Someone told me that the wealthier or more educated one is, the decision to marry is made more and more by the child than by the parent, even in the case of an arranged marriage (the child has more veto power).
Perhaps also stemming from Western influence, online dating, in the form of matrimony sites, has made it to India. These sites are very similar to the online dating sites in the West, with the exception that they are used for the purpose of selecting a spouse rather than Friday night’s date. While I am not 100% sure what happens in the selection process and after contact details are exchanged, I would not be surprised if family played an important part in both selecting and approving potential future spouses.
While I am thankful that I have been granted the opportunity to explore the hearts, minds, and bodies of potential (or not) suitors, the Indian system of marriage leaves some room for jealousy. Firstly, how many of us have dated someone our parents can’t stand? In arranged marriages where one’s parents select a partner, this nightmare isn’t an issue. Secondly, with the high divorce rates seen in the West (come on, America, over 50%!?), India’s low rate of divorce looks pretty good (although perhaps all the potential reasons behind it don’t). Thirdly, after having spent the last several weeks in and around a fertility clinic, I know more than I care to about the increasing rates of infertility and about how fertility decreases with age. As someone who might want to have a family in the future as well as a career, when combined with the elevated rates of infertility and a strong personality, the chance of finding a suitable partner during the small window between career and fertility is far from a guarantee. Where in the Western system of love marriage you may spent your life wandering aimlessly (or with unrealistic aims) never finding a partner, in the Indian system, you are practically guaranteed to find a partner by the age of thirty (or shortly after should you wish to be slightly non-traditional). Despite the advantages of arranged marriage, the romantic in me is happy to experience the ups, inevitable downs, and personal growth associated with dating.