Arranged marriage is an old concept. It existed long before people accepted love (that occurred before marriage) as a valid reason to marry. The process through which this changed is reflected very well in the movie ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. It has taken several generations for different families to accept love over tradition. And a few more decades for all this, at least in Western society, to be ruined by the chaotic ways of the Hippie movement.
In the flow of this change, I would say the Eastern countries (speaking primarily for India) are now where the American media portrayed themselves to be in the 1960s before the Hippie-movement. Living together before marriage and pre-marital sex are unacceptable to a large percentage of the urban Indian population. However, love marriages are a lot more common than they were a generation ago.
Marriage used to be considered a social event rather than between two individuals and one’s match was often determined by economic, legal or political/power related reasons. In many cultures it was normal for people to marry relatives to keep the money/land ‘in the family’. In the Indian subcontinent, when the caste system became exclusive, the available matches were cut down to include only those who follow the same ‘dharma’ as one’s own family. Throughout history, factors such as nationality, religious beliefs, cultural background, socio-economic class, social power and level of education have been important in arranging a match.
One of my German friends told me about the way her grandparents approached marriage. She described what they shared as ‘solid respect’ for each other and the roles they played. He would bring in the money, she would take care of the house and children. Both roles were equally important for a functioning family and the well-being of the children. Did they love each other? This question reminds me of when in Fiddler on the Roof the main character asks his wife if she loves him. Very likely, the word love has evolved in it’s meaning over time too. The love they had for each other could otherwise be described as respect and unfaltering commitment. I know other older couples who stayed together purely out of duty and obligation or because financially, they didn’t have a choice to separate. But women gained a sense of identity and increased their ability to rely on themselves financially, people started feeling like the modern version of love was more important a reason to marry and stay together since the old reasons were outdated. The importance of socially identifying factors also became less important.
The shift from Arranged to Love marriages has been a by-product of a slow change in thinking patterns of people from being more socially conscious and family oriented to a more individualistic way of thinking which allowed for more personal freedom. I wouldn’t say one of these is better than the other. In fact, I believe that a balance is best.
Now I will try to draw out what happens seems to happen in modern urban Indian Arranged marriages. Depending on the level of conservativeness of the family, the young adult may be given an option to bring home someone whom they think is right for them. If this doesn’t happen, or there is a disagreement about suitability from either side, the parents ask around to others from their community for anyone who their friends or extended family may know who may be a suitable match for their son/daughter. Simultaneously, if the chances of such a match turning up is low, they register on a matrimony site. There are plenty out there, some more popular than others with varying sophistication of profile details and search options. These sites are not that different to a dating site found in the west, except that some of the search options and details would be more about their social identity which wouldn’t be found in a dating site. Also, the people who register are looking for long term relationships rather than ‘trying out’ various options.
In these websites, once someone is interested, first contact is made and depending on the insistence of either side’s parents, horoscopes are matched and photos are exchanged. If this step passes well, the two young adults are introduced and they may chat, email or skype and if they are lucky enough to live in the same city, they will meet in person. Within a few such sessions, they will be able to tell if they like each other enough to continue and have enough things in common that even after the initial spark dies, they can still function as good team. Meanwhile the parents will also be getting to know each other and if they have the means, background checks may be done at this point. I suppose at some point, the two young adults will feel satisfied with the match and agree on a date to get engaged. The two families would have tried their hardest to find a family similar to theirs in terms of jobs of the parents, number of siblings, economic status and how conservative they are in outlook. This is supposed to ensure that the two adults have enough common background to be able to relate to each other and are able to understand what the other means by words denoting certain important concepts. As much common ground as possible is established as early on as possible.
This is a rational and logical way of planning a partnership for life.
However, there is a small problem. This is the issue of the spark. One may have everything in common with someone but simply not feel a spark. In which case, does on go on with the commitment and expect the love to build over time like in the old days? Or does one wait for someone who they feel a spark toward? Parents agree that the spark or attraction must be there but this is not something that one can match by any logic or reason or the talents of an astrologer. If one chooses to go against the need, one is getting an Arranged marriage in the old form, whereas, if one chooses to wait, what they have followed is a process of arranged dating, more organised but not very different to falling in love.
In movies and books, the dramatic declarations, the irrational flight stopping and dialogues and misunderstanding because one is too afraid to bare open their heart, gives romance a sense of thrill and suspense. This element of spontaneity is wholly done away with in arranged marriage and of course it is a pity. But the honeymoon phase of a relationship lasts only a few years and then it needs more than faffy romantic love to carry forth. So perhaps the question of Arranged marriage vs Love marriage is more a question which asks you to decide your unique proportion of your heart and your brain. Everyone will make this decision differently.