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Marriage is arranged between bride and groom? Come on! We choose our own spouse. Or do we? We are programmed by parents and by society and make predictable choices to find a suitable prospect.


 
Home / Lifestyle Experiments  /
The Arranged Marriage Delusion
arranged marriage

More of us are in arranged marriages than we think, content to believe in an idea of marriage freedom we never practice


Last December I received an invitation from a groom-to-be for his wedding in India. It was to be held outside Delhi and promised to be an extravagant affair. Hundreds of dishes. Over a thousand guests. His mother is a prominent Indian political official and plenty of political big wigs would be in attendance.

I'd met Sanjit barely a year before when I was passing through Delhi. At that time, he was not dating anyone. He was not placing profiles on dating columns. He'd come to Thailand with five friends in July and e-mailed me several times with travel questions. No mention of a girlfriend back home, of love blooming amidst the Indian monsoons. Then, all of the sudden, in November, I found out he was getting married.

Sanjit's marriage was arranged. When I first met him, in India for another wedding, he was in the company of his cousins, all of a similar age between 27-28. There was talk then of Sanjit having to get married before his cousin Ajit, who in turn had to be paired off before his other cousin Eashan. Sanjit was several months older than Ajit, and Ajit several months older than Eashan.

Extended Indian families ban together to find a prospective match for the next kid in line, all based on age. When one is found, there ain't a lot of waiting around time before the wedding happens. By now, Ajit may be married.

I'd heard about arranged marriages decades ago, long before I ever set foot in Asia. I pictured a poor young guy forced to the altar by his parents. Then and only precisely then did he get the first glimpse of his bride. Were she obese, ugly, stupid, a lisper – too bad. This was who he had to marry, and if he didn't like it, tough s—t!

The arranged Indian marriages I'd personally witnessed were nothing like that. The parents of both parties might already know each other or have a mutual friend. The potential groom and bride meet each other, often in the company of their parents. If neither likes the other, the courting goes no further. If they do, a few more meetings take place and then the impending marriage is announced and planned. From meet to marry could take a month.

These match ups are not forced upon the young. Sanjit's uncle told me that Sanjit, Ajit, and Eashan were free to go out and find their own brides as age 30 approached. None of the boys seemed the least bit interested in manipulating his own destiny. Ajit told me there was no point. Since he knew a suitable prospect would be arranged for him one way or the other, why lose any sleep over trying to find a prospect himself?

After Sanjit got married, I e-mailed him my congratulations and asked him a few questions about the bride he'd only just recently met. Sanjit explained it very well. At his age, all his peers, all the friends he's grown up with, are getting married or already are married. All around him, from every corner, he felt this pressure to conform. He was free to remain single. His parents would not disown him. But by staying out of the marriage circles beyond the culturally proscribed limits, he could be disowning himself of marriage possibilities down the line. The older he got, the more questionable a choice he'd make for a prospective Indian bride.

I could understand Sanjit's point of view, even though personally I had never experienced it. I got married very late in life by most people's standards, at a time when many are on their second or third marriages. The buds I hung with in high school got married over twenty years ago and started families. The crew I knew in college would've been married ten to fifteen years back. Pretty much all my friends, family members, and peers, save for my younger brother, had already tied the knot. The fact I was single all through the Noughties never bothered me. I did not feel any pressure from anyone, likely because I'd been given up as a lost cause by anyone who cared. Most importantly of all, I didn't feel any pressure from myself. I didn't meet anyone worth marrying, so I was happy not to get married.

I didn't comprehend at the time how 'revolutionary' that philosophy really is. Everyone spouts the same lines about holding out for the “right one” when s/he's 21. By 25-26, especially for girls, the definition of 'right' shows a lot more latitude. As 30 rolls in, the word 'right' isn't mentioned anymore. By 35, many of the still single are putting up their profiles on dating sites, hoping to snag anyone 'suitable.'

When the average youthful Westerner hears about an arranged marriage, s/he recoils. A marriage forced upon you, the partner chosen by one's parents, smacks in the face the idea of marrying for love. People should have the freedom to marry whomever they please, they shout. Does anyone remember the movie Pretty Woman? It was a box office smash back in 1990. It's about a wealthy businessman visiting Los Angeles who pays a prostitute to be his escort for the week. At the end of the movie, when the businessman climbs the fire escape of the prostitute's apartment to proclaim his true love for her, the audience is in raptures. Somehow, we're all suckers at heart who believe that love can overcome all, even bridging the great divide between a slick New York City businessman and an L.A. hooker.

Once I became a couple with my present wife, we would go out with other couples, and I would never cease to ask the others how they met. Excepting an unusual story here and there, the answers were always the same: they met at work. Because my wife and I and plenty of the people I queried live in countries not native to any of us, it was normal for the man and woman to be from different countries. The nationality differences were the most interesting part. Other than that, the stories were remarkably bland.

Love didn't seem to trump all. Rather, at ages where marriage made sense or the pressure to get married was so intense, two people stamped their current relationships as permanent. I very much got the sense in most of these stories that if these people had been working in different countries and had, therefore, encountered different dating prospects, they still would've gotten married at around the same times in their lives, just to different people.

This is very much borne out by a Korean couple I happen to know. They're both hoteliers and met in China. They later relocated to Thailand and got married. While I'm sure they're happily married by the standards set down in Korea, I'm also sure that if they had been working at separate hotels in China and never met each other, they would have met a suitable Korean prospect of marriageable age at their other places of employment to end up just as happy and just as content as they are now.


When I review the stories of people I knew in bygone decades, I come up with similar outcomes. Many met their spouses in college or graduate school. Had they gone to different schools, I suspect they still would've gotten married plus or minus a year or two of the actual date, but to a different spouse. Some of the more eccentric married well beyond the average marriage age, to partners they met on dating web sites. Again, these hookups seem more a matter of timing than anything else. The dating profile posters were all ripe for a permanent relationship, and it was just a question of who suitable would come forth first.

There just isn't a sense of destiny to any of the stories, any more than there was a sense of destiny in the way Sanjit finally ended up with his wife. Shouldn't those with the freedom to marry whenever and wherever be brimming with exciting courtship and marriage stories? We watch Pretty Woman and marvel how sweet it is that a tycoon finds true love with a street walker. Love knows no boundaries. Anyone can find and end up with anyone. But we all know that's a fairy tale. Very few of us, in reality, exercise the freedom to marry anyone we please.

Take Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump's oldest daughter. Surely, she of all people is in a position to marry anyone she wanted. Her pick: the rich son of another real estate mogul. Who would have predicted that? We know Prince Charles of the British royal family wasn't marrying his first choice when he was paired up with Diana. He had to marry her. Much is made that Charles' son William found his true soul mate in Kate Middleton, and maybe he has. That doesn't disguise the fact that William also had parameters on whom he could select. Kate Middleton is not your average commoner, as the press might suggest. Her family has a fortune of around £30m. The Daily Mail wrote an expose tracing Kate's roots back almost 250 years to document how wealth has flowed through the family for years. She's grown up as privileged as William.

The vast majority of people's marriages are arranged by which schools they select and jobs they take. My friend Marcus met his current bride at the University of Texas during his second year in university and her first. My sister met her husband her first year in business school. The director of sales & marketing at my wife's hotel met his own wife performing similar duties at a hotel in New York. There is a natural filtering mechanism working here. People of similar class and education attend similar schools and work similar jobs and end up married to each other.

So I ask, how is that a whole lot different from the way a suitable wife was arranged for Sanjit? Wouldn't Sanjit's family and his spouse's family have been looking to match up two people of similar class and educational background? In fact, I would argue that Sanjit being presented with multiple choices up front could lead to a better overall outcome than Sanjit doing the sourcing himself. People are rarely objective about their own talents and shortcomings. It would've taken Sanjit a year minimum to date a girl to assess whether he'd want to propose to her, and then his parents and her parents would have to approve the union. With the girls presented to Sanjit one by one, Sanjit had a number of choices to select among at the same time, all of whom already met the approval of his parents. Without even trying, I can think of four friends back home who would've wound up with better spouses if their parents (or some other informed parties) had been actively involved in the initial selection process.

It's a real pity such a system wouldn't work in the West. In Asia, marriages are seen more as an alliance between two families. As it is common for the bride to move in with her husband's family, it becomes more of a necessity that she get along with the entire family. In the West, a bride and her husband move into their own apartment or home, possibly a considerable distance away from both their families. It is not necessary that either gel perfectly with their spouse's family. The fact that parental/family approval is, more or less, optional in the West leads to a lot of doomed marriages and/or fragmented families. A childhood friend of mine married a woman ill suited to be his spouse. This is not just my opinion, but the unstated opinion of his own family, my family, and anyone I know who knows him and is willing to talk about it. His parents have never been happy about his choice, but they have to grudgingly accept it for fear of alienating him and their grandchildren. A number of his friends, like me, have let the friendship slide since we don't want to deal with his wife. Had the parents adored his spouse, this would have provided some measure as to how compatible she was with him.

Parental/family approval, in and of itself, is an absurd concept in the West today. I remember seeing old movies and TV shows from the 1950's and early 1960's where the groom asks for approval from the bride-to-be's father before proposing. That was back in days where the groom was liable to be living close to his future-in-law's, and even then, I'd say a lot of this parental approval stamping was just symbolic. Most Western marriages aren't seen as alliances by the greater family. The two sets of in-laws are only likely to see each other at family events that have something to do with their children or grandchildren. There is a greater disconnect between parents and their kids such that the parents are incapable of being sound selectors. If my mother and father were trying to set me up with a girl, they would not be looking at the bigger picture. The girl would simply have to be 1) the right religion 2) the right age and 3) single. Odds are my parents would never have met the girl or her family, let alone seen a picture of her, to assess if she would be remotely compatible with me or the rest of the family. Knowing that the parents have done zero due diligence, why would any Western kid trust his parents to select his spouse?

Say what you want to about the freedom to marry whomever you please and condemning those who don't seem to have it, but most of us never get around to practicing our so-called freedom. We settle for suitable and predictable candidates we meet in suitable and predictable surroundings at suitable and predictable ages. The Indians are at least up front about that and throw wedding receptions that never fail to disappoint.


If you liked reading this, consider:
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 Hanging Out By Appointment
 The Complete Article Index

arranged marriage