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Arranged Marriages

Billions of people live in arranged marriages. Why?

After a lecture I gave at a university in India in the 1990s, two professors asked me to evaluate the curriculum vitae of an Indian psychologist with a recent American Ph.D. I assumed they were considering him for a position in their department. Not so. It turned out that the professors were married to each other, the other man was planning on staying in the United States, and they were trying to decide whether to arrange for their daughter to marry him.

In Western cultures, the choice of a spouse is up to the individual. We have institutions like dating that give young people a chance to accumulate relevant experience over a number of years so that they can make an informed decision. In a way, dating offers the kind of experience with intimate relationships that summer jobs, externships, and volunteer work provide for youth making career decisions.

In traditional societies, parents or other designated individuals choose a person's spouse (and occupation). These are sometimes called arranged marriages, in contrast to love marriages, though there are many varieties of each.

A common rationale for arranged marriages is that young people are too immature and impulsive to make a wise choice, and experienced elders are likely to do better. In addition, in the West, one chooses a partner to fulfill oneself, while in non-Western collectivist cultures, one's primary responsibility is to the group—to one's parents, kin group, ancestors, and others—all of whom have contributed to making one's current life possible and to whom one is obligated.

A study in Jaipur, India, a few decades ago found that people in love marriages were more in love for the first five years, while those in arranged marriages were more in love for the next 30 years. (Of course, since Indian love marriages are viewed as immoral, their difficulties may be due at least as much to social stigma as to poor matches.) People do not expect to love their spouse at first—love is seen as something that develops (when it does) over time and through shared experiences.

Because the choice of spouse is not up to the individual, some traditional cultures keep young men and women apart to prevent sexual temptation from wreaking havoc. In public, a variety of devices from chaperones to burkhas maintain this separation. In some cases, the bride and groom may meet for the first time at the wedding. Even after marriage, gender segregation may continue at home, where—except for the married couple—women's social life exists behind closed doors and away from men.

Traditional cultures consider marriage as primarily an economic arrangement, and sex—apart from providing children—as a potential threat to larger and more important issues, such as feeding the extended family and caring for grandparents in their old age. For the same practical reasons, divorce is strongly discouraged. While these views seem unromantic to Americans, we are also aware that pregnant teens and divorced parents can look forward to harder economic times than monogamous couples.

I gave the Indian professors a candid appraisal of their prospective son-in-law's academic credentials. Different strokes for different folks.

(I also wrote a follow-up piece on "Arranged Marriage and Intermarriage." Also, readers who found this piece interesting might want to see my discussion of the 2012 rape protests in India.)

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