Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Arranged Successfully

This story of the Indian woman coming to America by way of arranged marriage to an NRI would not be representative of the average H4 wife story but is a good assessment of what makes such marriages work. Like the author, I believe in arranged marriages even though mine was one and lasted less than two years.

As the author points out, the norm in the West is to expect to go to bed on the third date and it seems as if an arranged marriage allows the very same outcome only you are married by then. Traditionally, there is an initial meeting between the prospective bride and groom, if all goes well they meet another time to get engaged and then the third time to marry and therefore go to bed as a couple. There is a reason for the third-date sex rule.

The need for physical intimacy to precede emotional closeness seems to be the unifying thread in both customs in both cultures. Whereas in the former, several older family members have had a chance to meet the individuals getting married and assess the strength of the match, in the later the two are on their own and without guidance. Often times in India a shrewd uncle or grandmother will size up the prospect and veto a match and the family with comply simply because they trust their wisdom.

Marriages suffer where tradition is forced to make way for "modernity". Extended families are not privy to the match-making and decisioning process. The bride, the groom and their parents make a commitment without input from anyone else. The relatives find out only when the marriage invitations are sent out. This mode of operation is typical in a nuclear family and is a departure from tradition that ill-behooves the success of the marriage. The couple is missing out on the wisdom of those who have known them since birth and yet have no vested interest in finalizing the match.

Likewise, when engagement periods are extended to allow the prospective couple to "get to know each other" in the Western style, the strength of tradition is eroded to the detriment of the final outcome. Most people have a certain mental image of a life-partner. When they meet someone as a prospect they are about to tell at once if what they see is in stark dissonance with that mental image. In a dating situation, people will forge ahead hoping that time will bring out some hidden aspects of the other's personality that will render their initial impressions invalid.

This is a recipe of failure and heartbreak. Time brings out many things good, bad and unexpected but what it can never do is alter who you seek as a spouse. In arranged marriages, families might force the choice without lending credence to that vague feeling of discomfort. Families can be a pillar of strength in arranged marriages and also the weakest link. While it is healthy for them to bring their collective wisdom and life experience to bear on the decision, ultimately the individuals must be free to follow their own instincts.

The increasing rate of divorce among Indians both home and abroad can be attributed to the anachronism of the arranged marriage system - a social custom that has failed to meet the demands of modern times. But that might not be wholly accurate. The arranged marriage requires the active participation of an array of people and not just the individuals getting married. The priest, the astrologer, the match-maker, friends, relatives, neighbors and much more. It takes a village. Increasingly, one or more of the key players are not willing or able to play their part.

Back in the day, the nature, temperament, vice and virtues of the prospect could be verified by several independent sources. It was no shot in the dark. Of course, mistakes were made and lives were ruined but it was more exception than norm. Much before boy met girl, several senior family members had met and interviewed them and arrived at their conclusions.

Some of them had weighed in on several dozen weddings in their lives so their experience was invaluable. They wore no rose colored glasses of romance so they saw things that a couple in love is very likely to miss. When we stick to a tradition without the wherewithal to do it right, we are set up for failure but that does not make the institution itself any less robust or dependable.

When you are on your own, you must make mistakes time after time until you get it right. The village is not there go shield you from the hurt, pain and disappointment. Dating is one way to make these mistakes, going through an arranged marriage without the support systems in place to do it successfully is another. Instead of dispatching the arranged marriage to the dark ages where it belongs, maybe we should revive the ecosystem in which it can thrive.

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