In Real Life Arranged Marriage is No Joke

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From Electric Lit:

How do you discuss something so intimate and uncomfortable as finding a spouse, without laughing or crying or cringing in embarrassment or fear? How do you talk about it without using the L-word? As in Luck. As in, you can plan and strategize as much as you want to, you can prepare as if you’re preparing for battle, you can organize and plan for all contingencies. There is still a certain amount of luck involved.

More on that later.

Frequently it is a different L-word. As in Laugh. It’s a laughing matter — as in when you see it on TV or the silver screen, you end up laughing at either the future groom or the bride, or perhaps both, for all of the misunderstandings and all of the foibles. Sometimes you’re laughing out of relief: As in “Thank god that isn’t happening to me.” Sometimes you’re laughing in recognition: “Been there, done that!”

There is a romantic presumption of happily ever after, of marital bliss. There are the underlying assumptions that maybe your family does know what’s best for you, that perhaps it’s not just two people getting married but two families and two communities coming together. Perhaps it shouldn’t be left to the young and inexperienced to figure out for themselves. Think We Are Lady Parts. Think Indian Matchmaking.

Then there’s the comedy of errors when the groom or bride deviates from the chosen path that is meant to make us laugh, to ease the cringing and the uncomfortable moments. Think of Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick or Nia Vardalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

But in real life, arranged marriage is no joke. 

. . . .

It is an accepted practice around the world. Most of the time, in my experience with my family and friends and acquaintances, marriages are arranged with good intentions.

In India, where my ancestral family originates, it is complicated. Here is a nation famous for worshiping female deities such as Durga and Kali, tongues out, weapons in hand. And India had its first female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, decades before the purported democratic ideal, The United States, fielded Kamala D. Harris to the nation’s second highest position. Still, India and the subcontinent remain in the news — so much violence and oppression against women. Child marriage, yes, but also dowry deaths and female infanticide and sexual assault. 

But I digress, again. 

Arranged marriage ultimately becomes something borne out of a visual medium: think picture brides. Someone posing, unsmiling, that is supposed to symbolize a potential bride or groom’s merits and seriousness. There are many stories and books about that concept  — famously, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s short story collection, Arranged Marriage, and The Buddha In The Attic by Julie Otsuka which vividly depicts the lives of Japanese picture brides emigrating to the United States and making their way in the years before World War II. Kiran Desai’s debut novel, Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard, has one of the best descriptions of the expectations of and for a daughter-in-law that I’ve ever read, and I chuckle every time I have a moment to revisit it.

For as long as I can remember the dominant American culture has looked upon arranged marriage in eastern cultures or non-English speaking parts of the world as something backward or something that was to be treated as abusive or suspicious. Of course everything in the world is a circle/cycle and there are now healthy numbers of Americans  on eHarmony or Matchdotcom or something similar trying out a more modern version of arrangement and the institution of marriage. 

My family and my husband’s family hail from similar backgrounds. We are both academic brats, children of college professors. In fact we were both raised in the U.S., Bengali in origin — and our parents are friends. Yes, we were introduced but as we are fond of saying, “We got married despite our parents and not because of them.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

11 thoughts on “In Real Life Arranged Marriage is No Joke”

  1. The title is true. Oh, how it is true! I used to see a lot of arranged marriages in my old job. I will never again believe the propaganda that these are arranged by wise elders who are thinking of the best interest of their children. Sure, it’s possible, but by default I only happened to see the failures, and my goodness what failures!

    Marry your fifteen-year-old daughter to some 30-year-old drunk with a gambling addiction? Sure! What? Let her finish high school? Is that a thing? Marry your son to someone with a mental disability so profound she can’t meaningfully consent? Sure! And bonus if you don’t bother to meet her before the wedding, so you can, you know, vet her properly. The poor man’s dad did apologize for that blunder.

    But what’s worse is that in these situations, it’s somehow disgraceful for the child — who may be an adult depending on where they’re from — to reject a betrothal. There’s intense pressure to go through with a marriage once the idiot parents arrange it. The women report that sometimes their unwanted betrothed will use the threat of r*** to gain their compliance. Because of course, she’s the one disgraced and a ruin to her family if that should happen. Ugh.

    A few years after leaving that job I later heard of a teenager burning down her family’s house (literally) to get out of an arranged marriage. The logic of that tactic seems a bit “Underpants Gnome” to me, but she accomplished her objective — so her parents claimed — so I guess all’s well that ends well. I have sympathy for her in any case.

    Truly, a lot of the parents in these situations were like unusually stupid teenagers: no standards. Beyond requiring the mate for their child to 1) be alive in their general vicinity, and 2) be the opposite sex of the child in question, they had no standards. I was gratified when a father admitted this was actually a problem; he supported his daughter’s divorce.

    Oh, and it gets worse if “consanguineous marriages” are a factor: I felt bad for one man who rejected an arranged marriage with his cousin from “the Old Country.” He was American enough to want his family tree to fork early and often, but I can appreciate it’s difficult to tell your pushy aunt you don’t want to marry her daughter.

    The man was almost a modern Mr. Darcy, with his own personal Lady Catherine de Bourgh agitating for him to marry her Anne. Unfortunately for him, he hadn’t found his Elizabeth to make his escape. So he’d have to see his Lady Catherine every holiday, and be browbeaten accordingly …

    Anyway, sorry to go off on a rant here. Thanksgiving and Christmas are coming up, so if you were dreading seeing your relatives, just remember you don’t have to marry them. Unless you do. In that case, hold fast, and keep the arson to a minimum.

    • Romantic marriage is a relatively recent innovation and mostly western.
      For most of western history marriage as an institution has been more of an economic matter, which is where dowry (by any name) comes in. Alternately it has been a tribal connection matter.

      Being a cultural affair there is no single universal “natural” or “proper” form of the custom. Much like democracy, romantic marriage is the worst form of marriage, barring all others. At least it usually brings peace for a time. 😉
      (Of course, marriage conselors and divorce lawyers tend to favor it. 😀 )

      Marriage for dummies version:

      • Granted that there are and have been many ways and reasons to arrange marriages and not all are unsavory. Nonetheless, I have to draw the line at child marriage. Sure, you can be effectively a slave to your own parents as well as your inlaws, but sex isn’t usually a requirement. Makes the term “age of consent” pointless on two counts, not just one.

        • Generally agree and not just on moral terms: human biology is odd in many ways and one of them is females are often (usually?) “fertile” before being able to safely carry to full term, to say nothing of being mature enough to fully understand the full extent of biological interactions.

          (In fact, biology hasn’t caught up to the agrarian revolution of 10,000 BC. Female pelvic width vs full term baby head size, for one. What worked in the malnourished cave years hasn’t worked as well in the better fed eras. Hence the dangers of child birth and the need for ceasareans. Among many.)

          Nonetheless marriage is a cultural artifact independent of biology and as such it is subject to the prevailing mores of the society in question. Mismatches between culture and personal inclination will always be problematic.

          • Yes, definitely a cultural artifact. There’s a good case to be made that the fondness for cousin-marriage in Muslim cultures is predisposed by the inheritance patterns of partiable-fields in the agricultural past: if a man has several sons and divides his land to accommodate all of them, his sons’ sons can grow their share of the original patrimony by marrying their female cousins in some cases.

            This creates a persistent incest-related genetic effect from the cultural practice which distinguishes descendent populations from their Christian neighbors who had centuries of forbidden cousin-marriage dictated by the Church.

            Very interesting book: (The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich)

      • Sort of. Yes, there was absolutely an economic component to it, in the sense that parents wanted to be sure that the couple could support themselves (see the Hajnal line:, but don’t confuse the mores and customs of the high muckety-mucks with the practices of the ordinary joes, as that article did.

      • Oh, I wouldn’t have cared as much if romance wasn’t a factor. Most humans did get along without it, as you note. It was the sheer stupidity of the selections that angered me.

        The standard way I understood arranged marriages before I saw them was: “This family brings X to the table and we bring Y. And the son has this character, and the daughter has that character, so this will be a suitable match. They will respect each other, and from this love may grow, but in the meantime our families will prosper.”

        But the parents in my cases were not so rational. They did not regard the character of their future child-in-law or the “assets and demerits” as it were. Rational parents do not select drunken gambling addicts for the provider role for their daughters. Especially if they expected the daughter to be dependent on him (these marriages being arranged while the girl is still in middle school or high school).

        There was typically no strategy, no accounting for the actual best interests of their offspring or their families for that matter. You’re not supposed to want to support a son-in-law to live in your basement, which is what you get if you choose one who will constantly throw away the rent money at the horse track or casino.

        The parents decided the child (who may be an actual child) needed a spouse, so they grabbed the nearest candidate without regard for the nature of that person. And made it worse by not allowing any objections from the offspring they’re arranging the marriage for. Divorce is frowned upon, or even illegal if they’re in the Old Country, so the kid is stuck with the consequences of their parents’ foolishness.

        Yeah, I know it’s a trope of romance fiction to have the heroine (or hero?) object to an arranged marriage, but it isn’t solely because the books are written by people who believe in companionate marriages. Observation of how the marriages are actually arranged and the actual consequences leads just as much to the “arranged marriages are bad” trope, apart from ideology.

        It’s not that romantic arrangements are inherently better. I have a friend who I’m forever trying to convince to take a “man-cation” so she can figure out why she chooses such lousy men. But the thread going through both the awful arranged and romantic marriages is always the lack of thoughtful standards in choosing the spouse.

        The propaganda about arranged marriages is that the arrangers are wise and thoughtful in their selections, but they’re not. There are teenagers who put more thought into their puppy-love crushes than these supposedly wise elders put into selecting their child’s spouse. Considering the consequences, it’s so galling. So appalling.

        • “But the parents in my cases were not so rational. They did not regard the character of their future child-in-law or the “assets and demerits” as it were.”

          Sorry to point it out but historically the vast majority of arranged marriages don’t at all consider the “children” other than making sure there is but one of each sex in the deal. 😉

          Arranged marriages are transactional and the couple are the currency, not the principals.

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