Arranged marriage: A tradition endures among Indian-Americans

By Alexandra Holterman, Medill, Immigrant Connect

[Read companion story Digital disruption: Arranged marriages adapt for Indian Americans]

Shabnam Ali was engaged the day she was born to a man she didn’t meet until her wedding day.

She married her cousin, Masood Ali, 38 years ago. Their marriage was arranged by their grandparents, and despite never meeting until the day they were wed, both consider their marriage successful.

“I feel it was very good and a good feeling for me, that from childhood I was engaged with a person,” Shabnam Ali said. “Even when I was living in Saudi Arabia, and he was in Pakistan, I always had news about him because my parents went there…So I had good dreams. My parents liked him, so I thought in the future I must also like him.”

Although arranged marriages might be considered strange to many Americans, Ali believes arranged marriages are just as successful—if not more successful—than love marriages.

“Nowadays [they’re viewed as] tradition and people don’t accept this thing,” she said, “but I think the people who have arranged marriages have a good and successful life. Even now.”

In fact, a 2012 study – “Relationship outcomes in Indian-American love-based and arranged marriages” – published in Psychological Reports found from a community sample of 58 Indian participants living in the U.S. that Indian-American couples in arranged marriages were just as happy as those in love marriages.

“I think what mainly the issue comes down to is a person’s view on marriage and what the purpose of marriage is,” said clinical psychologist Dr. Saunia Ahmad. “For some people, it’s fulfillment of their individual needs… as opposed to a lot of people who have arranged marriages, who tend to have a more traditional outlook on marriage. The person engaging in a marriage is doing so to fulfill social obligations.”

This might then lead the individual to feel happier or just as happy as couples in non-arranged marriages, as they are fulfilling what is culturally and societally expected of them, according to Ahmad.

Nusrat Halim is another woman whose marriage was arranged. Unlike Shabnam and Masood Ali, however, Halim’s marriage is what Ahmad refers to as an “intermediate” arranged marriage, as Halim was able to meet her husband before the wedding and give her consent. She was twenty-two when she married and moved from Pakistan to America.

“It was a hard time, because I was alone [in the U.S.],” she said. “Nobody in my family is here, and all my husband’s friends were bachelors. So it was a very hard time.”

Despite the initial hardships, Halim said her marriage remained positive and comfortable, a fact she attributed to the implicit support she felt from the family members who had arranged her marriage.

This added support of family members might make couples in arranged marriages more comfortable with their significant other, said Bhuvaneshwari Bhagat, an Indian marriage counselor and owner of Desicounseling.

“I think the reason most people think arranged marriage couples are happier is, first and foremost, there’s a tremendous social sanction,” she said. “In arranged marriages, you are so much more liberated, in the sense to know that your parents are reassuring you that this person is fantastic and they’re the right fit for you. So then, actually, if anything goes wrong, you actually have a support for it.”

Masood Ali explained that, to him, this support is evident when solving marital disputes.

“In a love marriage, you can only go [talk to] friends who have the same maturity as you,” he said. “But in an arranged [marriage] you can go to each other’s fathers, and they can tell them, and the family then can play a part in the dispute, and will go to them and help decide.”

Jasbina Ahluwalia, Indian matchmaker and founder of matchmaking company Intersections Match, agreed that family support is important to the success of a marriage, especially an arranged one.

“Certainly there are many partnerships where the family didn’t approve and they’re doing okay, but [the lack of support] isn’t helpful,” she said. “It’s helpful to know that those family members are supportive, as in a marriage at least the idea is the families come together.”

In addition, arranged marriages between family members and friends might be more successful than love-based marriages as the parents “know the good qualities and the bad qualities” of their children’s potential spouses, according to Shabnam Ali.

“Arranged marriages last long, and the main reason I feel is in love marriage [courtship] you only see the external part of the person,” Masood Ali said. “In arranged, you yourself might not know anything more about the person you’re marrying, but your parents know exactly how you behave, how you look, what is your actual education, and who would complement you.”

Indeed, experts estimate that the divorce rate among Indian-Americans ranges from 1 percent to 15 percent, much lower than the average American divorce rate of 44 percent, according to  in a 2015 Washington Post article.

However, divorce rates might not adequately tell the whole story, as it is possible that unhappy arranged marriage couples might stay together due to the taboo of divorce or lack of resources.

“One of the social obligations inside the marriage is to make the marriage work, no matter what,” Ahmad said. “Even when things get tough, you make the marriage work, because it’s not just about yourself, it’s about your family and everyone else who’s involved.”

Nevertheless, many South Asian immigrants living in America today are diverging from the strictly traditional path of arranged marriage. Nowadays many are more apt to find a “blend of the east and the west” more appealing, said Ahluwalia.

“[Intersections Match is] really an alternative to arranged marriages, so it’s sort of interesting, and in that way it’s sort of a different angle,” she said. “Nowadays, many people want to be the person that is selecting their partner, more so than deferring to their families.”

Whatever method one takes to get married, Bhagat believes that the problems couples face remain the same across the board.

“The [potential] problems with arranged marriage don’t start with the marriage,” she said. “The marriage problems are going to be universal – communication, intimacy, all kinds of adjustment issues.”

As Halim put it, “marriage is marriage.”

“Whether it’s a love marriage or arranged marriage, after [you’re married], you have [to] only compromise,” she said.

 

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