A while ago, I wrote about reasons why many Indian arranged marriages, conducted in the modern way with autonomy and involvement by both bride and groom in decision making, are successful. Based on available data and decision making research, I concluded that such modern arranged marriages are just as likely, if not more likely, to be successful as free-choice marriages, where the burden of finding the potential marriage partner, courting him or her, popping the question, and getting married lies solely with the individual. I discussed all this in my blog post “Why Are So Many Indian Arranged Marriages Successful?”
Despite the success, however, I have noticed one peculiar thing about Indians (and Indian-Americans) who are in happy, long-lived arranged marriages. They tend to be reticent, indeed even ashamed, to reveal they married their significant other by arrangement. And this is the case even after a decade or two of being happily married. I will tell you how I know this.
When meeting new couples, a common ice-breaker in social events tends to be “How did you two meet?” Those of us who married through free choice will happily reminisce about how we met our spouse, often elaborating and embellishing the facts, and enjoying ourselves. Such stories bring out the narcissists in us. But I have observed those who married by arrangement usually hate this question. They shrug it off, grin sheepishly, or apologetically mutter something along the lines of “Oh we had an arranged marriage, we only knew each other for two weeks before we got married.” Further, this sort of abashedness seems to be equally common in both men and women.
In this post, I want to consider why Indians who are in successful, long-lived, arranged marriages spanning decades, are ashamed about how they got married, and why they shouldn’t be.
The Indian arranged marriage is what marketers call a “severely tarnished brand”. Ralph Lauren is probably not too thrilled that a New York gang called Lo-Lifes is partial to its clothes. The gang association tarnishes the brand. The same is true of arranged marriage. There is a deep stigma associated with arranged marriage for at least two reasons.
First, when arranged marriage is mentioned, most people, and especially Westerners, tend to associate the process with a forced marriage (also known as “full arrangement” by some researchers). As feminist scholar Sherene Razack observes (describing how Norwegians view arranged marriages in Muslim cultures):
“The practice of arranged marriage is considered to be itself proof of coercion… Arranged marriages are declared to be a patriarchal custom and part of the culture of honour and are practiced only in those places where women’s status is low.”
In a forced marriage, the woman (almost always) and the man (less frequently) has no say in choosing their partner. The woman’s parents or elders pretty much decide who she will marry. All she can do is cooperate, show up on her wedding day, marry a total stranger, and hope for the best. Forced marriages don’t often lead to favorable outcomes for women. One study found that close to 50% of Indian women who were forced into marriage this way experienced some form of physical or sexual violence from their husbands after marriage.
However, the form of Indian arranged marriage I am referring to is drastically different from this sort of exploitative slavery in the guise of marriage. In urban areas of India, and among the teeming educated middle-class and upper-class Indians and Indian diaspora, arranged marriages are common. Family and friends (perhaps with the help of a matrimonial website) take the place of Tinder, Match.com, or speed dating and find a list of prospective candidates. Women and men are given a list of prospects by their families and have autonomy in rejecting any or all of the prospects, until they find someone they like. A courtship follows, which is usually much shorter than what we are used to here in the West. Basically, the individual “outsources” the initial stages of the marriage decision making process to elders.
Despite major differences, the strong association between the concepts of forced marriage and the modern arranged marriage means that even years later, telling someone you got an arranged marriage feels like you are admitting you got forced into a marriage (or forced someone to marry you).
In western and westernized cultures, finding a romantic partner or spouse is an individualistic and largely self-motivated activity. The individual is expected to socialize with potential romantic partners (or learn how to do so), muster the courage to ask someone out on a date (or send a message through Tinder), engage in dating rituals, pop the question after an appropriate, extended period of courtship, and then get married. This is the “normal” way to marry.
In the modern arranged marriage, however, many of these activities such as finding potential partners, gauging their interest in marriage, etc. are outsourced. Regardless of the reasons for outsourcing or the positive outcomes that follow, the fact that the individual has not done these things themselves is what economists call a “signal of weakness.”
It raises questions about one’s own capabilities in an important domain of social life which can never really be answered (assuming the person never tries a free-choice marriage in the future). Would he or she have been able to find and attract a spouse if the parents hadn’t intervened? This doubt is another reason for the reticence associated with being in modern arranged marriages
Over decades of research, social psychologists have shown that much of our knowledge about ourselves is rooted in misperceptions that have no basis in reality. This is the case with the modern arranged marriage. When both marriage partners have autonomy in the final selection process, modern arranged marriages have little in common with forced marriages in which women are coerced, and forced into what amounts to slavery. The fact that someone married by arrangement says little about their abilities to woo a potential romantic partner, but a lot about their cultural milieu, family and community mores, and the expectations placed on them about the “right way” to marry. Such misperceptions are tricks of the mind and it is up to the individual to change them, confidently telling people who ask how the outsourcing process worked that culminated in the arranged marriage.
I teach pricing and marketing to MBA students at Rice University. My forthcoming book is How to Make Good Pricing Decisions: A Guide for Managers and Entrepreneurs. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter @ud.