Digital disruption: Arranged marriages adapt for Indian-Americans

By Justin Deffenbacher, Medill, Immigrant Connect

[Read companion story – Arranged marriage: A tradition endures among Indian-Americans]

After sitting through hour after hour of speed dating seminars and potential matches, Pooja Pendharkar finishes her first day at an Indian Matchmaking conference in northern New Jersey. She strolls out of the last seminar, exhausted from listening to redundant speeches about just how important finding the right partner is. For Pendharkar, the conference means little more than an attempt to appease her parents in response to their marriage inquiries.

Being single at the age of 30, Pendharkar is well beyond the average marital age for an Indian woman. Yet, Pendharkar and the expanding millennial generation of Indian immigrants aren’t worried about this increasing trend, a fact evident by an increase in the average marital age of Indian immigrants, according to the Times of India. However for her parents and the generation prior, the changing landscape of marriage as well as arranged marriage is troubling.

Justin-marriage graphic“Marriage is now uniquely more messy. There is no procedure, no decorum, and no etiquette. People are meeting with a bunch of people at the same time, marriage counselor Bhuvaneshwari Bhagat said. “The understanding of what marriage should be is different and much more complex than it has ever been.”

For generations, the marriage landscape could be boiled down to a simple formula: Indian guy is introduced to an acceptable Indian girl and they get married almost instantly. Yet the millennial generation has been drastically reshaping and challenging traditional norms for marriage in the Indian community, not only in terms of when people get married, but also through the way they meet.

“We shouldn’t really call it arranged marriage anymore. It’s much more of a collaborative process of finding your partner. We are moving towards the western model where you find someone to take home to your parents,” Bhagat said.

Changing landscapes shift away from tradition

Well past the era of traditional arranged marriage where a matchmaker, parents, and family members coordinated a search to find the perfect spouse, the 21st century has embraced the digital age, developing new ways and opportunities to meet partners.

“Traditionally people searched a lot more by word of mouth, asking if a candidate is right for their child. Now you see people initially connect through the digital space where they are able to see digital pictures, communicate, and see what is exactly in the package. It’s really a direct access to that person,” Bhagat said.

That direct communication arises from popular Indian matchmaking sites, such as Shaadi.com, that operate on the same platforms as U.S. dating sites such as Match.com and eHarmony. By finding similarities in both party’s profiles, these sites are able to determine if a couple would be a good match. In addition, these sites allow users to narrow their search to certain regions or castes in India, which is unique to these sites. Shaadi.com claims to have facilitated more than four million marriages.

Psychologist Saunia Ahmad is optimistic that a shift toward the digital model is promising and believes that by narrowing the search radius, more like-minded people are going to be paired.

“It’s the South Asian diaspora. They are looking for like-minded individuals but they can’t always find that next door. By using these sites to find those values, you create the best matches,” Ahmad said.

The digital space has altered matchmaking as well. Julia Bekker, who owns her own matchmaking firm, believes the industry has begun a shift away from arrangement towards giving their clients choice.

“Today it’s about searching for long-term relationships that can turn into marriage whereas in the past, arranged marriages end with a proposal within a week or month. You choose who you want to be with and who you want to date,” Bekker said.

Parental roles enter the digital space

The older generations have also adapted to the digital forms of matchmaking by connecting with matchmakers and creating profiles for their children on these dating sites. Shaadi.com features a search category that specifies if the profile was made by the child or parent.

“I have found a ton of profiles for guys created by their parents. Mine could create one for me. I’ve actually had some guy’s parents reach out to me and say that I would be a great match for their son. Some parents are still taking a hands on approach through the internet,” Pendharkar said.

Although the means by which matchmaking occurs has changed, Boston College psychologist Pratyusha Tummala agrees that parental involvement remains strongly intertwined in the Indian marriage process. These digital sites serve as a way to bridge the divide between generations.

“There is still a very strong preference that parents play a big role in choosing a partner. The online mechanism is a new way to meet people but it hasn’t changed people’s mindset on what they want in a partner and how to go about meeting that partner, Tummala said.

However Pendharkar disagrees that parental involvement has the same influence, claiming the younger generations of Indian immigrants aren’t responding to their parent’s digital efforts.

“I don’t think a lot of people my age are taking those sites seriously besides the parents. My parents hounded me to create a profile and sent me to a convention. The question you have to ask is: Are the people from this convention getting married? No. The more you see this push and pull, the less you see a response from my generation,” Pendharkar said.

A generation gap wedges between first and second-generation immigrants

The digital space has gradually increased the control that children have in choosing their partners. By choosing to sidestep the matchmaker and parental involvement, the Indian community has seen a shift toward the western model.

“There is such a wide range in the second generation of south Asian immigrants. A lot of the time they meet people on their own, but still consult their parents. The biggest change is they want to get to know the person longer than their parents’ generation. In that way, it’s a bicultural experience, a hybrid model of what traditional arranged marriage and U.S. dating culture would look like,” Tummala said.

As this model combines with arranged marriage, Bhagat believes there won’t always be cohesion. Instead arranged marriage will be replaced as newer generations assimilate to western ideals. Additionally this has created a shift toward interracial marriage in the Indian community, which has increased to over 7 percent in the last decade, according to asian-nation.org.

“By another couple of generations or so, traditional arranged marriage won’t exist in America. India is a different story because they are a bit more traditional, but they still have been affected by the digital age. In the west, immigrants are more accepting of what should be culturally assumed. This creates a space of incredible friction when you are talking about a generation of parents who have a different sense of their cultural background,” Bhagat said.

Arranged marriage may be down but it’s not out and it’s making a comeback

In fact, Indian dating sites have responded to the shifting perspectives on marriage and dating. Shaadi.com recently updated its mobile app to resemble Tinder, allowing users to swipe left or right on potential marriage candidates.

“Shaadi has really worked towards the western model and I think that’s just a reflection of their audience. They are trying to traverse these cultural barriers, while at the same time catering to a more western audience,” Pendharkar said.

Not all of the millennial generation is ready to accept the transition to a new model of dating. The increased pressure to succeed academically in the Indian immigrant community has created a generation that places little value on dating, according to Bhagat.

“While you go through this whole motion of working hard and focusing on school, it becomes hard to recognize love outside of the family. I have a lot of clients where the children come back and want the parents to do something. Parents think something is wrong when their child is a successful doctor but is 35 and can’t find a girl. They don’t know how they have gotten into this situation,” Bhagat said.

For Karan Kairon, a 20-year-old immigrant from Punjab, India, arranged marriage is an expected part of life. For Kairon, parental involvement in major decisions was something that ingrained at a young age.

“I realize arranged marriage is what my parents want for me and that’s okay. It’s a cultural practice we’ve done for decades and I trust my parents enough to know me, and what I want out of a relationship,” Kairon said.

In addition there have been backlash movements among the Indian community in the U.S. and India. The shift toward the western model has created tension in an immigrant group trying to maintain its identity, according to the Times of India.

“Many people in India, even young people, are trying now to find ways to keep the practice of arranged marriage intact. It is too early to say whether they will be successful, but it would be a tragedy for the world if arranged marriages were replaced with inferior practices. No matter what the Hollywood movies say, the Western-style love marriage has a low success rate,” Harvard Psychologist Roger Epstein said.

Recent promotions by counselors and sociologists have attempted to formulate opinions that neither favors nor condemns either model. Regardless of the future of arranged marriage, the primary goal has been to highlight the benefits of both models and the importance of marriage itself, rather than the process by which it is created.

“I think marriage involves a great degree of chance whether you’ve been dating for five years or you just met before your wedding. We rarely know what is in store and at the end of the day, it’s about two human beings trying to make a home and build something,” Bhagat said.

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