An arrangement made in heaven?

Imagine you are a single man or woman in your early 20s, either still attending college or a recent graduate. Virtually all of your thoughts are focused on your future, mostly in terms of work and career.

In the meantime, however, imagine that your parents are preoccupied with just one issue —your “singleness.” Without your knowledge and for some time, your parents have been talking to relatives and acquaintances as they strive to find you the “right” partner. They are busy “arranging” your marriage.

Where I come from, Nepal, this is how marriage comes about.

Parents’ definition of the person “right for you” entails among other things, whether they are from your caste, educated, of good character, come from a flawless family, employed and reasonably attractive.

If you are a man, you must be at least slightly older than her, and preferably taller. Depending on whether you are from a city or village and the kind of opportunities you are exposed to, the requirements for candidacy will differ.  But it’s their job to find the perfect match.

When it’s time you “check out” your partner-to-be, your parents reveal their scheme.  You are appalled and fearful (or at least you pretend to be) or shy and confused.  “Is it really about that time?” you ask.

You are not the first one in this conundrum. You think about your parents’ desperation and realize the urgency.  You also can hear your grandparents’ familiar mantra: “We are getting old; I’d die happy if I see your marriage (and your children).”  Before you can think any further, you are checking out your potential future partner.

This turn of events can be complicated by any secret “affairs” you have going on — your parents don’t know because you are not supposed to engage in that kind of behavior or talk about it. And if you bring it up at this hour, depending upon the people involved (especially what caste), the consequences could range from reassessment of the situation to total disaster. In any case, you would have to make some hard choices and big sacrifices.

Let’s say, for the moment, you’re not involved in any affair. In that case, if you are a potential groom, you go with your parents to see the potential bride at her house. You meet the bride’s family, you drink some tea and chit-chat. Then the two of you are left alone to talk in private. In about half-hour to an hour, you try to “know” the person by gleaning all that there is to know about her.

Then you go home and talk to your parents. If you liked the woman, your parents pick a date for wedding. If you are hesitant, but your parents like the woman and the family, they try to convince you and, most of the time, you will give in. If you absolutely do NOT like her, you give your parents the trouble of Round 2.

Now if you are the to-be-bride, you check your groom out, but your opinion doesn’t really count much. After all, it’s you who is being “checked out.” So, all you do is hope that the groom that picked you is the one you like.

“How strange, scary and stupid,” you may think. But this is the tradition of arranged marriages in many parts of India and Nepal. In some places, there is greater freedom in terms of choosing a partner. We have started to see a shift in the perception of marriage from the traditional to a more Western approach, especially in big cities and in liberal and educated families.

Marriages in which the bride and the groom choose one another are getting more acceptable, especially if the parents are OK with it. Instances where the couples marry against their parents’ will are not uncommon either. Nonetheless, a vast majority still follows the same traditional system of arranged marriage.

In a culture where dating before marriage is the norm, the very idea of marrying a stranger must seem antiquated and perhaps bizarre. But before judging it, consider the long success history of arranged marriage, as it boasts of very low divorce rate of 1.1 percent.

Could it be a more appealing alternative than the Western culture of “self-choice” marriages (or love marriages) that reveal a staggering number of divorce rates (about 50 percent of all marriages in U.S.)?

Obviously, considering that divorce rate is just one indicator (although the strongest one) of a “good” marriage and given that the attitude towards divorce is different in these two cultures, the conclusions drawn from these statistics become muddled. It can be argued that “love marriages” are more appealing than arranged marriages in terms of freedom, trust, understanding and compromise in the relationship.

To be sure, an arranged marriage must seem like a scary proposition, especially for women who do not have any say. However, the divorce numbers should prevent us from making any bold statements against arranged marriages.
But the idea of marrying a person that you know you would like to spend your life with and that you think will be a good company is preferable. In that regard, the Western tradition is something one would normally choose.

Unfortunately, it is entirely possible that one could be unsuccessful in finding a partner and crave the happiness brought by a significant other. In such cases, the Eastern tradition of arranged marriage, where a larger community helps form a couple, might prove conducive.

Perhaps, a blend of two traditions, where either love of the young couple is supported by the family and society, or where the arrangement made by the parents is first followed by a longer “dating” period before the decision of marriage is made, would be a healthy approach to being happily married.

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