First of all, let me set some ground rules. It will help in understanding this essay. I am a classical liberal. That means I believe in individual liberty and social progress. I am less likely to blindly agree with traditional rules or authority figures. This is in contrast to a classical conservative who puts the group/society/family customs over individual rights, and is more likely to follow tradition and be wary of change. But supporting individual rights does not mean blindly supporting individualism. We are a social species. We need to be with people, and we should work with others. For nearly all of human history the individual has been subservient to the group. Supporting individual rights means that society’s rules do not intrude on an individual space’s and our inherent right to pursue happiness.
Secondly, people glorify their own side while minimizing any of its weaknesses, and do the exact opposite to the other side. And that leads me to talk about the sense of privilege of particular groups. For example, in the United States there is white privilege. It is better to be a Caucasian here than to be a racial minority. On Earth, there is male privilege. Life is much better for a man than for a woman. In urban India, or among South Asians living in the West, there is a privilege of choice that isn’t available to the vast majority that live in rural areas and small towns. Reality isn’t cherry picking and fetishizing toned-down ancient traditions and beliefs for modern times; instead reality is the daily lives experienced by the vast majority.
Finally, we are defensive by nature. No one likes to face uncomfortable truths about themselves or their self-identified groups. It forces us to think and make changes, and most everyone prefers to continue the status quo than rock the boat. Therefore, we tightly hold on to whatever our side has always been doing because the known devil is better than an unknown angel and the uncertainty of change.
In my culture, I repeatedly keep hearing “arranged marriage is better because there is no divorce, while love marriage causes divorce”. I have two problems with this. First, it is even embarrassing to use ‘correlation is not causation’ because it misses and ignores so many different points. Secondly, this attitude is universally used in a racist way towards the West, especially Caucasians, because of the existence of divorce in the West. This racist attitude goes along with the view that Americans are selfish, immoral, and have no sense of caring for each other or having family values. It is an attitude that disgusts me and it nearly always starts with the topic of ‘arranged marriage’.
Here is the reality of ‘arranged marriage’ – it was universal in the entire world. Marriage was, and still is in many places, a societal institution that involved the family and/or the tribe – the individuals never mattered in the marriage. It was a political deal, a business deal, or a family/tribal deal. For most of human history no one got a say in the choice of his or her spouse. It was decided for them. That is still the reality in the majority of India. Your elders pick your spouse for you. Till 15-20 years back, majority of Indian women married before they turned 18. Is there a choice when you are married off that young? Or is there even a choice when your spouse is picked for you when you are 18, 21, or 25? This is arranged marriage that is a reality for the majority of the population. And what are the criteria for an arranged marriage? It starts with religion, then caste, then sub-caste, then your state, then job/education/income for a man, and education and beauty/skin color for a woman. This is reality. As the nation is progressing, some parents are giving their children choices to look at the photographs before their spouses are finalized for them. But what happens when some wants to go against the criteria picked by their elders? I live in the United States and I have friends having to fight against family in the matter of someone being from a different caste or a state. This is arranged marriage for the majority. The person getting married has few, if any, real choices.
And why is divorce so low? Divorce has always been historically low or non-existent. But let us go back to the real India. What is the status of a divorced woman? Does society accept such a woman? Where will she go or how will she sustain herself? What are her chances of getting married again? Divorce does not exist because the woman’s life will be destroyed if her husband divorces her. The social stigma will follow her to her grave. 70% of women in India face domestic violence. Dowry and harassment by in-laws still exists, as does marital rape. The woman in rural India has no recourse to protect her rights. Yet she cannot ask for a divorce because it will be even worse for her. So the idea that arranged marriage doesn’t cause divorce is a bullshit theory propagated by those living in a fantasy land and without the moral courage to face the truth.
The singular advice I always got growing up, of how a marriage works, was this – “For a marriage to work, one person has to be submissive to the other. You can’t have two equals in a marriage. And by default and because of their ego, it is the man who has to be in charge.” It is my goal to see a world where that advice is no longer applicable. This is how marriages have lasted without divorce. Because the husband can treat his wife any way he wants and he knows there is nothing she can do. Because the wife knows the best way to make it work is to be obedient and submissive to the husband. Maybe it is good for many people and maybe they like it that way. It is their choice and I won’t stop them. But I will call out the intellectual dishonesty and hypocrisy of the low divorce rate. A close friend of mine told me another story. This is what her mother told her in college – “if you ever leave your future husband/in-laws home and come back because of problems, I will beat you and kick you out of our home and send you back.” With a mother like that, how can this woman stand up against abuse from others? The saddest story I knew in my personal life was a guy being forced by his father to marry someone imported from his home country. He loved another woman and his father wouldn’t accept it. He never loved his new wife and never wanted to be with her. His father wouldn’t even allow him to divorce her. That girl, imported to a new strange land, suffers in misery. This is the ugly reality of arranged marriage. As far as the increasing divorce rate in urban India goes, it is because women are finally standing up. With education and financial independence, many women are refusing to be mistreated by their husband and/or in-laws. They are no longer tolerating things they might have tolerated before. Divorce has become empowering for women. As much as it is better to not have to divorce, it is not always bad. I would rather see someone be divorced and happy than be married and miserable. And yes, even in my extended family I have seen divorce bring happiness and continued marriage in the previous generations bring nothing but absolute misery.
So why do so many Indians living in the United States think it is better? Well, as I mentioned, we fetishize the past and we have diluted the reality so much that it doesn’t really affect us. Whether it is here or in urban and liberal India, the proper term for ‘arranged marriage’ should be ‘match-making’. Children have much more choices, no one is forced, and most of us have the right to say no. There is absolutely nothing wrong with parents being involved in marital decisions. It is actually better that they should be involved a little because they know us quite well and can give advice that we might have missed ourselves. But this is not real arranged marriage, this is ‘arranged marriage ultra lite’. Yet even with the choices we have, many families balk when their children go out of their community – be it religion, caste, ethnicity, or nationality. That is when all this idealism of arranged marriage comes crashing down. To those who think arranged married is the most wonderful thing in the world, I have two questions – do you say it because you are in one, or do you say it because you are pretty sure you will be in one because you know your parents won’t allow it otherwise? Because I certainly haven’t heard it from anyone who is married to someone they themselves picked! And to those who are happily in an arranged marriage ultra lite – I am happy for you. But just because your situation worked for you does not mean you can make blanket statements without understanding the reality that exists for the majority.
There are basic components to make a marriage work, and it doesn’t matter whether you picked your spouse or your parents did it for you. They are – respect, compromise, communication, understanding, trust, honesty, passion and love. To paraphrase Steve Jobs – do something or be with someone you have a passion for. Only then will you be trying your absolute best all the time. When I saw the movie Gone Girl, I noticed how similar to real life it is in the sense that two people live a lie to each other. Both try to be someone they aren’t, and after a while it does become exhausting. We should be allowed to be ourselves to be in a happy marriage! As a believer in the individual’s right to pursue his/her happiness, I believe every individual must have the right to have the final say in his/her life, especially in a matter as big as choosing a spouse. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If a Caucasian finds happiness with an African, so be it. If a Chilean finds happiness with a Chinese, so be it. The presence of those basic components in a marriage is what makes it work. Otherwise there is either divorce or an unhappy everlasting marriage. If race and religion mattered, there would never be divorce or an unhappy marriage when someone married within their own group. But we all know that is not true. It is about our ability to respect the other person and our differences. It is not about which side is right, but about what is best for the two of them. It is not about teaching our children my way or your way, but what is the best thing we can teach our child for the future. These are the things that can make a marriage work. When we marry, we must also expect that our spouse might change. It would be shocking if they didn’t. So marriage shouldn’t be about marrying an idea of a static person, but growing with them and accepting them as they are exploring new aspects of themselves. Unfortunately, sometimes the change can be bad or so severe that there is no other alternative but a divorce. In such a scenario, it is better to go your own ways than be miserable with each other.
There are many reasons why marriages don’t work. People get married young and realize they made a mistake. People have unrealistic expectations or do not follow the basic components that might make a marriage work. Some people get married for extraneous reasons like to have kids or that marrying will fulfill their emptiness and boredom. Some get married because of parental pressure. These reasons can result in divorce in more liberal places, or unhappy marriages in more conservative places. My request to parents would be – teach your children how to make right decisions; do not make the decisions for them. Teach them how to choose a spouse, and hopefully you aren’t racist, intolerant, or prejudiced but teaching them how to pick a good person. Teach them how to make a marriage work. Do not tell them they are immature to pick a spouse even when they are 30, while marrying them off at 18 and expecting them to handle kids and in-laws while they are still in their teens. That idea of arranged marriage is about parental control and power, not about you caring for your child. And if you make decisions for them, they will not know how to decide for themselves when they are out of your home. They will always be dependent on someone or learn it at a later age in life when things are more important with significant consequences.
And please do not push anyone to get married. It is not for everyone. Nor can everyone do it well. It is better to be alone that ruin a second person’s life because you thought getting married is a cultural requirement. Get married to the person when you are ready. In the long run that is what matters, not a clock or an idea or other people. It is about the person we are coming home to every day, it is our partner we are hopefully spending the rest of our life with. Otherwise it is no different than rushing towards a marriage or getting married at a very young age without thinking it through. Do it for the right reasons because many lives are involved and life is too long to be unhappy or ruin your and someone else’s life.
The final point I want to make is a request to family, friends, and society not to ruin a couple’s marriage. Once upon a time someone told me – “society will not accept your marriage and you two will not be happy. We will not accept your marriage.” It is true that external stress due to relatives, poor health, finances, and society can cause marital discord. It is why divorce rates or domestic violence rates are so high among the poor and minorities. They aren’t bad people. But the stresses we face because of external factors slowly comes out in front of our significant others. Instead of supporting his daughter and her happiness, I never understood how that man can openly say he won’t support her and mentioning how miserable it is going to make her life. With a parent like that, who needs an enemy? With parental love like that, who needs hate?
There are many causes for divorce. The same rules apply to a happy marriage. Both exist in all parts of the world. So can we Indians please stop with the racist attitude towards Americans? But as someone who supports the pursuit of happiness, someone who knows what love is, I want others to have the opportunity to pursue the same thing. It is beautiful to fall in love with your best friend, to have the privilege to marry such a person. And many times in arranged marriages I have seen the couple become best friends and fall in love. I want everyone to have the opportunity and the right to the life they want, and the way they want it. Let us not fetishize a heavily diluted ancient custom and take away the freedom of choice from people. If you want your parents to pick your spouse, I wish you the best of happiness. But please do not judge those who do not want it the way you do. Please do not make it harder for others. Everyone deserves to be happy on his or her own terms. No one should sacrifice their happiness to please everyone else’s feelings or sentiments. That is not the pursuit of absolute happiness. We get one chance to live, and I want everyone to have the maximum opportunity to be absolutely happy and live the best life they can possibly live. Let us give people the freedom to choose their own life.