What I've Learned From My Parents' Arranged Marriage
When I tell people my parents had an arranged marriage, I get a number of different reactions. Most people have the wrong idea of exactly what that looks like, and those who do have the right idea often wonder if my parents can even understand what dating is like, given they've never experienced it. I've heard people assume that my parents' arranged marriage meant they were completely unable to help or give advice when it came to my dating life, and I've found the opposite to be the case; the advice my parents gave me about dating was as valuable as anything I found anywhere else, and allowed me to pass that advice on to my friends. Growing up hearing their story taught me a lot about what was important to know about myself before I started dating anyone, and how a good couple functions and grows together. I found that much of this is less commonly talked about when it comes to Western dating, and so I want to share their story and what I learned from it with you. For background, I'll start with telling you what arranged marriage is actually like.
Although some parts of India still do the traditional "bride and groom don't meet until the wedding", these tend to be remote and rural parts. Most arranged marriages today function a little more like a blind date, but with your parents and their network finding you a match rather than your friends. On the more traditional end, families may set up a "bride viewing", which today functions like a first meeting where the parents introduce each half of the couple, then leave them alone to get to know each other. They later tell their parents if they agree to the marriage or not. On the more liberal end, a couple may go on many dates before agreeing. In some cases, young people will date and fall in love, and the parents will meet after and decide to "arrange" the marriage if all parties agree to it. In the case of my parents, my dad's cousin (who he was very close with) met my mother and thought they would be a good match due to compatible philosophical interests and tastes in literature. My mother had, at that point, not dated at all, despite being in graduate school; it is normal for young people in India to feel marriage is not something they have to worry too much about because they trust their families will find someone good for them. The fact that my dad's cousin met my mother and immediately thought of my father points at another way arranged marriages affect the culture: people are always on the lookout for a good match.
When you ask someone who has had an arranged marriage about love, the first thing they say is that the love will come naturally once the couple is married. As a child, I always found this thought strange. As I grew older, though, I noticed the truth of this in the stories my mother told me about her relationship early on with my father. When they married, he was living in the US, and she was finishing her master's in India; for the year it took to finish her degree, they wrote letters. The way they did this nourished their love for each other, and fostered growth in their relationship. Western romance is described as something that happens on accident, but arranged romance happens on purpose. Even relationships that start with falling in love can benefit from growing and deepening that bond in the same way. This happens because you water love like a plant, and give it the right kinds of nutrients so it can grow.
One of the values that my mom spoke to me about more explicitly is that of cultural compatibility. In India, marriage is arranged through the social network of the parents. Traditionally, this focused a lot on social standing and religion, because of the idea that families of the same groups will raise their children similarly, and have similar values. My parents both grew up valuing learning and knowledge. They would have been far less compatible with people who were more focused on material wealth, or spiritual minimalism. Because their families had similar values, they were each instilled with similar values. This is reinforced by the fact that India is a more collectivist culture, and thus it is thought that your family knows you better than anyone else. Those who know you best are more likely to have a sense of who you would get along with, whether they're related to you or not. Further, getting along with the people your partner cares about most is important in any long term relationship. The fact that my mom got along well with my dad's cousin was a good sign; my mom connected more with the rest of my dad's family after the marriage, even though my dad had to go back to the US. Whether the relationship is arranged or not, fostering individual relationships with the people your partner cares about helps strengthen your relationship.
Compatibility includes not only what you value, but also what you want. Around the time my mother was getting married, many people her age were talking about wanting to move to the US. She was one of the few who wasn't fussed; she felt she'd be just as happy continuing to live in India. Of course, when she met my dad, that changed. For the right person, she was willing to move. There are people who wouldn't have been willing to make that move for anything, and there are those who wanted to move so badly that they didn't want to marry anyone willing to stay. This can be applied to anything one might want out of life, from living situation to religion to children, and more. In Western romantic media, this is often portrayed as being heartless. Ultimately, though, it's about trade-offs. Does your love for the person really overpower how much you want something? That answer differs for everyone. You can say that love conquers all, but a mismatch in this type of compatibility is one of the most common causes for divorce in the US. Knowing what you want your life to look like before you find the person to spend it with is going to be easier than trying to convince someone else to change what they want.
Of course, compatibility is nothing if you're not also complementary. This is where modern dating begins to look like marketing: know your target audience, and know what they want. If you know what kind of values you want your partner to have, you might already have a vague sense of what they would be like as a person. Knowing what you provide is crucial, especially when it comes to things like online dating. Traditional gender roles cover this well if you fit neatly in to one or the other, but things don't work that way for everyone. Give that my dad lived in the US, the fact that he could provide citizenship was huge. But he would not have been satisfied with a marriage with someone who saw this as his biggest asset. The fact that my mother was not obsessed with moving to the US meant that their complementary focus had to happen elsewhere. They shared the value of intellectual engagement, but my dad was always more focused on abstract ideas, while my mother tended to think more concretely. Here was where they were able to complement each other, which gave their life together more balance, and helped foster their growth individually as well. Finding someone whose traits and skills complement yours can help cover areas of life you struggle with, provide perspective when needed, and encourage you to grow and learn new things.
As a child, I didn't see the story of my parents as a love story. Love stories were about falling madly, hopelessly, and deeply, all at once, and my parents never really had that. But as I grew older, I noticed the details of their relationship. When my dad bought her a nice dress, it was as much because he wanted to see her in it as it was because he knew she hated shopping. When she challenged his ideas, it was out of love and respect, more than anything else. When we did things together as a family, they made sure to take time to connect with each other as a couple, even if it was only briefly. And as I became more independent, they were able to spend more and more time together. Love that lasts over a lifetime doesn't stay the same; it grows and changes with you as you grow and change. Falling in love doesn't happen once, but again and again.