Arranged marriages are a spin on love that hasn’t quite made the jump to the so-called Western world. To most people in Western cultures, the notion fundamentally redefines the entire purpose of marriage in a less than positive way.
In the West, marriage is about freedom, choice, and, ultimately, love. An arranged marriage, at least from a superficial standpoint, involves values that are the mirror opposite of liberty and diversity of options. Love is entirely about emotional connection and chemistry, so how can you reduce it to an arrangement where the participants don’t even meet each other until weeks or days before their wedding?
When parents in traditional Asian cultures, Indian in particular, arrange marriages for their children, they factor in compatibility and long-term prospects and tend to assume that physical attractiveness or love are less important, if they matter at all. It will better inform the rest of this chapter if we first take a look at how the Indian matchmaking and arranged marriage process works. I took it upon myself to perform due diligence and survey over a dozen Indian couples who had arranged marriages, as well as an Indian matchmaker. Bear with me—the results say a lot about marriage and love in general.
Arranged Marriages and What We Can Learn From Them
Let’s take two single individuals, Neha and Kunal, who live in Mumbai, India.
They are both nearing twenty-six years old, and their parents decide they now need to take charge and help their children start their own families. It’s a decision their parents and family make, because that’s exactly who tends to take the lead in securing spouses for their children. In many cases, young Indian adults rely entirely on their parents and family for this part of their life and only make fledgling attempts at romance themselves before they begin the process with their parents.
Indian arranged marriages are approached by the parents and families like a business decision first and foremost. Both sets of parents will shine a beacon into the community and ask their friends and acquaintances if they know anyone suitable for their child, all the while selling their virtues like a beautiful piece of pottery.
Neha’s and Kunal’s parents have a mutual friend with whom they attended university, and that friend has made both sets of parents aware that there was a single young adult of the opposite sex who seemed like a good match on paper. That is, they were close in age, their families had similar standing and finances, and, most important, Neha and Kunal were both sufficiently acceptable (if not impressive) to the other person’s parents. In essence, we’re talking about a matchmaker.
The parents were put in touch, details were ironed out and confirmed, and then pictures were sent along for approval to Neha’s and Kunal’s families. Kunal was a bit more enthused than Neha by the pictures, but both agreed to meet the following week.
Neha and Kunal met at a café for about two hours, but it probably didn’t resemble any date you’ve been on. Their meeting was fairly serious and more like a discussion about whether a business partnership would be appropriate. They discussed long-term goals, values, shared morals, and questions designed to determine how they felt about certain issues. They ended the date with a handshake and went home with their parents to discuss how it went.
If the “date” and the post-date discussion with their parents went extremely well, the couple might not even meet again before agreeing to marry and notifying each other of their intent. Because the truly important factors that determine compatibility and fit (though not love) are discussed honestly and openly, combined with an extremely high degree of commitment, the marriage is deemed to have an extremely high chance of success. As you can see, nowhere in the description of that process was affection even mentioned. If they happened to have some chemistry, that would be icing on the cake, but it’s not seen as a prerequisite to marriage.
But what about love?
What is love’s role in arranged marriage? Love marriages, as they are referred to in India, are driven by connection and chemistry while family, values, and lifestyle are often drowned out and completely ignored. Arranged marriages on the other hand go in the reverse direction—they are driven by the logical, practical, and financial side of things, and once those are in place, fondness and affection are assumed to grow.riages, and that the current (:
It’s not taken into account per se, but the belief is that once the big factors involving values and worldviews are accounted for, love that starts with familiarity will take care of itself and slowly evolve. For the matchmakers, love is seen as something that grows over time as a function of a few things.
This could be explained by the proximity effect, which is a psychological phenomenon in which people who share the same proximity tend to like each other more and more with time. There have been studies conducted in which subjects rated people more favorably merely because they spent more time with them or because they had been physically closer to them. It’s why we have a certain type of affection for our neighbors, the baristas we see every morning, or the odd person on the bus you see weekly. Familiarity, then, doesn’t always breed contempt, but rather comfort.
With the proximity effect, arranged marriages find suitable matches in every respect minus love, and love and affection can then grow between any two people living and working together in close proximity.
Another thing to consider is that people who consent to arranged unions also place a high premium on commitment. This plays a tremendous role in how well the marriage fares in the future. Francine Kaye, a relationship and marriage expert, had this to say on commitment in arranged marriages:
It should be pointed out that arranged marriages work because culturally marriage is seen differently. We have a very romantic view of marriage. Theirs is more pragmatic . . . In the West, marriages are easy to get out of. But in arranged marriages, the commitment is very strong. They get married knowing they won’t leave, so when times are harder—if they face injury or trauma—they don’t run away. It brings them closer.
When a partner looks at the marriage more like a partnership or business relationship, they put more focus into making it work. They don’t see leaving or divorce as an option and are thus committed to solving issues and compromise. Having disagreements or lacking that spark are not seen as legitimate reasons to end a relationship, whereas they may be the nail in the coffin for love marriages built on attraction and love alone. This tendency to look into the future and get around problems before they appear gives arranged marriages a strategic advantage that passion-based relationships do not have.
You’re solving problems with solutions that should last fifty years, so what actions will you take to make it work? It’s going to be significantly different. People who get into arranged marriages do not look at passion or any short-term consideration. Rather, they look at whether they are going to have children, the quality of the education of those children, and other factors that look way into the future. They also look at retirement and growing old together.
There is an emphasis on problem-solving and conflict skills, which studies have also confirmed is a primary indicator of marriage longevity and happiness. The parents, who are older and have experienced marriage themselves, step in and offer their wisdom, and the family in general weigh in on a match and its attributes that go far beyond the couple themselves.
Marriages, despite what some people might present to the outside world, are never conflict-free lovefests. Even with the best of friends and lovers, there are bound to be fights. When you spend most of your day with someone, logic dictates that you don’t agree one hundred percent on everything. In fact, you can look at it this way: if you agree on eighty percent of matters, that’s just a rounding error from one hundred percent because one hundred percent doesn’t exist.
So when you hit a bump in the road, do you handle it or sweep it under the rug? If you sweep it under the rug, it will fester and leak out in the form of passive-aggressive behavior before turning into full-out bitterness and resentment? If you choose to address it, are you doing so in a way that will lead to a solution and not further entrenchment?
More successful and happy couples have open lines of communication. They can more easily deal with such issues in a productive manner because they don’t overreact or inject emotion into the issue. Their focus on commitment makes them focus on being solution-oriented. If you imagine that your marriage is indeed forever and for life, then you might as well attempt to find a solution as soon as possible instead of suffering with your problem for decades.
On a related note, there’s the simple expectation that it’s going to take work. Nothing will be easy, and you can’t simply sweep it under the rug. If you barely know someone, you know you will need to invest considerable effort, and this is the type of effort most “love” marriages don’t have—because they don’t necessarily see the need to. It’s amazing the difference expectations can make.
It may sound unromantic and clinical, but a series of studies by Harvard’s Dr. Robert Epstein led him to conclude, based on a series of tests on romantic love and passion developed by Elaine Hatfield and Susan Sprecher, that feelings of passionate and romantic love are only at about half-capacity after eighteen months in a relationship. It’s not unreasonable to project that after three or four years, those feelings are considerably more withered.
Meanwhile, love in arranged marriages appears to grow gradually and linearly and actually surpasses the levels of love in love marriages at about the five-year point. He also found that after ten years together, the affection in arranged marriages is twice as strong as that in love marriages—because of the matching values and similarities.
Additional studies were conducted at the University of Rajasthan with the same conclusion. Love marriages under one year old averaged a score of seventy out of ninety-one on a love scale, and the numbers fell consistently over time. After ten years, they had an average score of forty. Arranged marriages under one year old averaged a score of fifty-eight out of ninety-one. Yet, after ten years, they scored an average of sixty-eight. Arranged marriages might start lower, but on a long-term basis, they might indeed produce happier and healthier marriages.
It’s not a stretch to say that compatibility is about much more than chemistry and connection, both of which are destined to fade. The message underlying these differences with arranged marriages is that attraction comes as a byproduct of commitment, proximity, and problem-solving. It sounds a bit more like a relationship with coworkers.
And love marriages? Well, Epstein sums it up well:
The idea is we must not leave our love lives to chance. We plan our education, our careers, and our finances, but we’re still uncomfortable with the idea that we should plan our love lives. I do not advocate arranged marriages, but I think a lot can be learned from them.
It’s not the fairytale that we’ve been sold since our childhood, but since when has that been realistic? I’m not sure I see Cinderellas and Snow Whites roaming around the streets.
So what does all this mean for you? Returning to the four sequential steps of attraction we covered way back in the first chapter, we can see that the Western model begins with attraction and then uses that to fuel the journey to commitment and logical relationship building based on shared values. The Indian approach goes the other direction and starts with the logical and practical considerations first, laying them down and hoping that this will in turn kindle the other steps in attraction. Historically, many cultures have seen raw, unbridled physical passion as something that simply has nothing to do with marriage—it’s nice, but it’s flimsy and fleeting and no basis for a long-term relationship.
When you’re mating and dating, focus on how you two fit together in a business sense, just like the Indian process emphasizes. Even if you value physical compatibility and basic attraction, most people also want long-term security and commitment, and this requires consideration for things beyond immediate attraction. Everyone likes to be able to see the long-term view and how everything will work out years down the road, so if you can make that more salient and obvious (to yourself and your potential partners), you will be tackling the issue with open eyes.
Arranged marriages are often accused of being unromantic or downplaying love. Nothing could be further from the truth; the difference is in the role love plays and the position it occupies in the grand scheme. Arranged marriages see love as a flower that grows in time from a tree that is carefully and painstakingly planted in the right soil. Love marriages can be this too, but often they are the equivalent of finding a lovely wildflower and expecting it to grow into an enormous strong tree when you take it home and put it in the ground. It may, and it may not.
What should your approach be? This comes down to your values and preferences. It’s about your perspective and your timescale. What are you seeking in a mate—not just right now but in the future? If, like most people, you want a long-term partner that you can build a happy life with, you need to see attraction as just one part of the puzzle, and not the most important part. If you’re a romantic at heart, well . . . follow your heart! Just know that some romance stories are beautiful precisely because they are ephemeral and insubstantial. Have you noticed how the fairy stories end with “and they lived happily ever after” but you never hear the details of that living? That’s because even the grandest love stories look very different after ten years, three kids, two house moves, and several life tragedies. “Love” doesn’t matter at that point—commitment, communication, and shared values, however, do.