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An inside look at arranged marriage in the modern day

Most soulmates chose each other. My parents were chosen for each other. I’ve always hated romantic films.

Most soulmates chose each other. My parents were chosen for each other.

I’ve always hated romantic films. Whether it’s classics like Casablanca, icons like Titanic, or groundbreaking achievements like Moonlight or Love, Simon, I find myself supremely uninterested in the romantic storylines of coming together, falling apart and final heartfelt reunions before the curtains close. I can’t resonate with most on-screen romances, perhaps because they’re so foreign to my lived experience. The silver-screen representations of romantic love never match the deep connection between my mother and father. I have never doubted my parents’ love for each other. That’s my privilege, my luck, and my blessing: I always saw my parents as two parts of a cohesive unit, two puzzle pieces laser-cut to fit perfectly.

My mom, Lakhwinder, met my dad, Tejinder, in India in 1992. The connection was made through my father’s sister, who happened to be a very good friend of my mom. Their families, who lived in different cities, became friends, and my maternal grandfather took on the responsibility of matchmaker. This included frequent visits and meetings with my dad, hours of extensive discussion on the phone, and an eventual engagement in June 1994. During this unconventional courting period my parents met just three times and had no idea they would eventually be married.

My parents married at age 26, on December 4, 1994.

Having spent my entire conscious life in the United States, I can’t imagine getting married to someone I hardly know. But my mother felt no fear. She trusted her father, who she considered her best friend, to play mediator and find her a life partner whose concrete life goals and personality matched her own. My grandfather found that in my dad.

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Whenever I’m asked to explain my parents’ relationship, people are confused by their serendipity. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been asked incredulously“But wait, wasn’t their marriage arranged?” Most of these inquisitors are well-meaning friends who simply want to understand, but occasionally the question is tinged with judgments mined from ignorant stereotypes. Far too many times I’ve explained that no, neither my mother nor my father were forced into marriage, and yes, they love each other very much.

Studies show that my parents’ situation isn’t an outlier, and rather closely resembles the norm in arranged marriages. Particularly, a 2008 study of marital satisfaction by l. Madathil and J.M.  Benshoff published in The Family Journal compares American marriages of choice to arranged marriages in the United States and India. It concluded that participants in arranged marriages in the United States self-reported as the happiest and most satisfied with their marriage of all the participants. Choice-marriages in the U.S. and arranged marriages in India fell along equal levels of satisfaction and happiness. The study was somewhat limited; for example, it doesn’t account for the vast economic differences between India and the United States. Still, the research demonstrates that infinite factors can color a marriage, and that whether it was arranged or not doesn’t always make the greatest difference.

The study heavily emphasizes compatibility as a successful trait in a happy marriage. Madathil and Benshoff explain that “the underlying premise behind arranged marriages is to ensure compatibilities not only between individuals but also between families.” Arranged marriages aren’t really between two people, but two whole families who expect to fuse into one large, happy family. But most couples, like my parents, end up living far from their parents and relatives when they move to the states. This disconnection should splinter a relationship, but the study shows the opposite. My parents display the opposite.

We moved to the United States in 1997, three years after my parents married, and two years after I was born. This had been a long-term goal of both my parents: to move to the states and raise their kids in America, where they saw a better quality of life for the same amount of work. But this move to New Jersey for my dad’s trucking business meant a diluted community. They knew a few people, had a few friends in the area, but lived thousands of miles away from their immediate families.

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The isolation inherent in their lifestyle ultimately drew them closer together. My dad’s trucking business kept him traveling constantly, gone for weeks at a time across the country delivering produce and goods. My parents were on the phone constantly; averaging 10 to 15 calls a day. While my dad’s business has grown and flourished, he still travels extensively, and still talks to my mom 15 times a day.

I’ve asked my mom what they want for me, and she says that they’d never planned on setting up a marriage for me. Despite her own personal success, my mom doesn’t favor the idea of an arranged marriage. “I’m lucky,” she explains, “that we found someone like your dad.” While she has enjoyed the companionship of a life partner, she’s also seen women who weren’t as lucky, women who are shackled to awful men. Divorce is extremely rare among arranged marriages, with the global rate around six percent in 2017, compared to the 30 percent divorce rate in the United States.

At first I thought it was odd that my parents would want me to choose. But this attitude is the growing norm in Indian communities. In a 2016 study analyzing changing marital trends, Dr. Roshan K. Pandian determines that arranged marriage isn’t declining so much as changing over time. Most ‘arranged’ marriages aren’t what people expect; they aren’t an exercise of patriarchal power so much as a family decision. Pandian’s study reveals that 60 to 80 percent of arranged marriages in India involved joint decision making, and that most women meet their husbands before they’re engaged or married. He interprets these results, stating “these trends point to a hybridization of customary Western and Indian practices.”

I’m in no rush to get hitched. I don’t feel drawn to fairytale romances or dramatic relationships because that’s not what I’ll ever want. I want a partnership, a companionship, a solid marriage like my parents’. They spent this past Christmas Eve together in my dad’s truck, delivering some last-minute items. My dad typically travels alone, but my mother joins him when he makes local deliveries. They bring traditional Indian street food, they drink tea, and they enjoy each other’s company. What more could I ever ask for?