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.
New Comment
16 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:30 PM

Don't have much to add but I liked this. I'm reading through Legal Systems Different From Our Own, and found this sort of an interesting complement to that (this isn't a legal system, but it seemed like a similar genre of "here is a different way that a culture has solved a particular coordination problem, and why")

I generally like the post genre of "things obvious from some cultural lens which most LW readers haven't experienced", and would like to see more like this.

Thanks for sharing. Good story and happens to give me encouragement as I seems to be falling into a (for now) LDR relationship with somebody in another country. It feels more "doable" based on this.

So glad this could give you hope! :)

Don't mean to sound harsh and this will certainly sound unfeasible if you're deep in love or lacking the resources to spark new ones, but a person, man or woman, can get much, much better than a LDR, and I make myself sorry to read about one.

If I was in you place and valued my time at all, and the expected benefit of my time alive, I'd drop the relationship and get a new one.

The One is a myth. In need of love we'll accept a lot of things we think we now think we can't, and get over them or even come to love them and think our old preferences were ridiculous. You'll probably be extremely sad for a while. If you don't make identity of it and move on with action (ie actually seeing other people, not just telling yourself 'I Need To Move On', which has the opposite effect), you'll be better off.

The One is a myth.

Yes, 100%. But really good chemistry comes in grades, in this case I feel really really good chemistry. There are probably partners "above the acceptable threshold" nearby, and if I date date long enough I might feel the same about someone else, but in this case LDR is a temporary inconvenience, I just want to make it work in LDR format until I feel good/convinced enough to turn it into N(ear)DR, which is well in my power to do.

Making my upvote known. I wish you well and hope you’ll be able to figure out what’s real and what’s self deception when it comes to chemistry, as often it’s superficial things like “he/she resists me”, which disappear sooner or later, that drive your impression.

Everyone is different, and I'd avoid hyperbole like "if I valued my time at all". I know of a number of 15-year or longer marriages that included long distances for part of the courtship, and sometimes parts of the marriage. On the topic of this post (existence proofs for unconventional courtship success), I got 'em for LDRs.

But you should acknowledge that it's a burden, and both you and your partner will have to work harder to develop and maintain bonds when you're not near each other most of the time. And you should have a pretty good hope that the distance is temporary - I don't know of any successful cases where the couple permanently lives apart.

Agreed about the hyperbole although don't have mental energy left for reasons xyz. The question about LDRs isn't whether they exist, which they obviously do, but about whether they're not easily replaceable for a much higher reward situation, ie love in the same location.

I can now see why this comment is problematic; hidden judgements, not just facts and reasons. I’m maintaining it because I lost karma for it and don’t want to de-incriminate myself. I’m planning this comment will make me look good but not expecting karma back although I obviously want it.

It's an LDR that I intend to turn into NDR. LDR temporarily. Hope that helps.

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

Not retracted (I guess no more delete feature) just expanding longer comment elsewhere

I'm sorry, but you cannot really learn anything from one example. I'm happy that your parents are faring well in their marriage, but if they didn't would you have learned the same thing?

I've consulted a few statistics on arranged marriage, and they all are:

  • underpowered
  • showing no significative difference between autonomous and arranged marriages

The latter part is somewhat surprising for a Westerner, but given what you say, the same should be said for an Indian coming from your background.

The only conclusion I can draw fairly conclusively is that, for a long term relationship, the way or the why it started doesn't really matter.

I'd agree that the null hypothesis (most common mechanisms work equally well) probably applies in the marriage game. I don't think Squidious was making a claim that arranged marriages are better (and I note that Squidious isn't using their parents to arrange a mate), just a claim that it can work pretty well.

Also, a less-explicit claim that many western narratives about love and marriage are misleading, in that they focus too strongly on finding a perfect match, and not enough on creating and maintaining a bond with a good-enough match. I agree with this claim, but also agree with MrMind that individual examples are existence proofs that something is possible, but not evidence for how common or available it is.

I find it funny that without data, I could easily argue either way.

  • Arranged marriages cannot work, because other people including your family members don't understand you and your priorities perfectly. They will likely look for a person they would want to live with, not a person you would want to live with; in the best case they will look for a person who fits their idea of you, which is still not the same as you.
  • Western marriages cannot work, because we have this meme of "true love" as something completely beyond our control, so when any problem comes, instead of "I should pay more attention to my relationship" people are more likely to go "this means it is not the true love; I quickly need to divorce / break up, and go seeking my real true love". You may verbally oppose this meme, but it is in most of stories you read and movies you saw, so it likely drives your expectations anyway. Also, it takes two to tango, so even if you succeed to overcome the cultural programming, unless your partner does the same thing, your relationship will fail anyway.
  • But there are probably also people in India who take relationships passively, something like "if our parents arranged this, it must be okay; no need for me to do the extra work".
  • Actually, feeling too much personal responsibility for your relationship may also be bad. It may mean that you enter a relationship or stay in a relationship with a wrong person despite obvious red flags, because you feel like it is your job to make it work anyway.

From your experience of meeting people in the US and within the social groups you have had exposure to, do you think that American parents have the ability to make good matching choices?