The Science of Love

Everything you want to know about love, sex, and marriage

Arranged vs. Love-Based Marriages in the U.S.—How Different Are They?

Not as different as you might think

This month my research assistant, Carlos Anguiano, heads off to Washington State University to begin a Ph.D. program. He’s been an important part of my lab for two years now, and it seems only fitting that I dedicate this month’s entry to him and the collaborative research project we’ve completed this past school year.

Using data collected by a former thesis student, we sought to determine whether the relationship experiences of people in arranged marriages differed significantly from those of people in love-based (free choice) marriages.

This wasn’t an easy study to conduct. Arranged marriage — a form of marriage in which partners are selected by family members or professional matchmakers — is not the norm in our contemporary Western culture, and so it's fairly challenging to find people in the U.S. who have entered into that type of marital arrangement. And even in societies with a longstanding tradition of arranged marriage (for example, south and east Asia, the Middle East, and South America), prevalence rates have been on the decline for years, making it increasingly difficult for researchers interested in arranged marriages to find participants for their studies. Nonetheless, one of my intrepid thesis students managed to find a sample of adults living in the U.S. who were in arranged marriages contracted by their family members or professional matchmakers. She also identified a comparison sample of adults in love-based, free choice marriages in which they had personally chosen their spouses on the basis of love. On average, these men and women were 35 years old and had been married for 10 years; all were of Indian descent and most were Hindu. Each marriage had been contracted and had taken place in the U.S.

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Now, because we were interested in comparing the relationship outcomes and experiences of men and women in these two types of marriage, we asked each participant to complete four commonly used questionnaires: (1) the Passionate Love Scale created by Dr. Elaine Hatfield (University of Hawaii) and Dr. Susan Sprecher (Illinois State University), which assesses the essential features of passionate, romantic love; (2) the Companionate Love Scale created by Dr. Sprecher and myself, which captures feelings of affectionate, friendship-based love; and (3) the Satisfaction and (4) the Commitment scales created by Dr. Caryl Rusbult (http://www.carylrusbult.com/), which assess people’s satisfaction with and commitment to their spouses and marriages.

Once we had collected the data, it was time for Carlos and me to analyze the results. First, we found that men and women in both types of marriage reported high levels of satisfaction, commitment, and passionate and companionate love. This result didn't really surprise us — surveys conducted in the U.S. consistently find high levels of satisfaction and well-being among most married individuals. That is, most married people are pretty happy with their marriages and their partners, most of the time — and our study participants were no different.

What did surprise us was the number of sex differences we found. Specifically, despite the uniformly positive experiences reported by our participants, the men in our sample reported significantly higher levels of passionate and companionate love for their spouses and commitment to their marriages than did the women. This finding was unexpected; other researchers generally have not found the same pattern of results. We have no real explanation for this — all we know is that for whatever reason, our male participants loved more passionately and affectionately, and felt more commitment to their marriages, than our female participants. [Keep in mind, though, that ALL participants scored fairly highly on those measures — it's just that men scored higher.]

Our final — and most important — finding also was unexpected. We found absolutely no difference between participants in arranged marriages and those in free choice marriages on the four measures we included in our study. Regardless of the nature of their marriage — whether their spouse had been selected by family members/matchmakers or had been personally and freely chosen — the participants in our study were extremely (and equally) happy with their relationships.

The bottom line? Love, satisfaction, and commitment appear to be common outcomes in both arranged and free choice, love-based marriages, at least among Indian adults living in the U.S.

This study, like all research investigations, is not without limitations. It’s important to keep in mind, for example, that these marriages were contracted in the U.S. by men and women living in an urban, industrialized environment. The dynamics of marriage (arranged or otherwise) in other countries, in other environments, involving other people, might be very different. In the U.S., the line between "arranged" and "free choice" is probably a blurry one. People entering arranged marriages here may have veto power or the ability to say "no" to a potential spouse who doesn't please them or for whom they feel no attraction or affection, and people entering free choice marriages often are influenced by the wishes and feelings of their friends and family. Thus, there is an element of choice in arranged marriages contracted in the U.S., and an element of social influence in U.S.-made free choice marriages. We might expect to find greater differences in love, satisfaction, and commitment in cultural contexts that support a clearer division between the two types of marriage.

I hope that our findings (which were published this year in the journal Psychological Reports) offer some insight into an important and little-studied type of marriage. I invite you to read more by visiting http://www.amsciepub.com/doi/abs/10.2466/21.02.07.PR0.110.3.915-924.

And to Carlos — you’ll be missed. Good luck in graduate school and best wishes to you and your family as you enter this exciting new chapter in your life. You’ve made me very proud.

Pamela Regan, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Cal State Los Angeles. She is the author of Close Relationships (Routledge).

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