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What I Learned About Arranged Marriage from My Indian In-Laws

"I no longer think the Western way of doing things is inherently better."

Photo by Meghdut Gorai from Flickr Creative Commons

In the house my husband Rajiv and I share, there's a wall dedicated to old family photos. My favorite is one of Rajiv's dad as a young doctor in California, in which he's wearing a plaid suit, polka-dot shirt, paisley tie, and a giant goofy grin. The outfit is eye-searing even in black-and-white, and could only exist in the 1970s. For aesthetic continuity, I hung the photo next to my parents' wedding photo, in which my dad is wearing a similarly blinding plaid suit.

Below that photo is Rajiv's parents' wedding photo, a black-and-white shot around the same time as the other two—even though it looks like it could've been taken during any year in the 20th century. The bride and groom are done up in full traditional Indian wedding gear, with garlands of flowers and tons of jewelry.

It was one hell of a second date.

I'd known that Rajiv's parents had entered into an arranged marriage, and I'd always been curious about how the arranged marriage worked. I didn't ask them about it for years, though, as it took me a while to get to the point where I could even have normal conversations with them.

I first met Rajiv's parents when I flew across the country to stay at their house for two weeks. It was not the most relaxing vacation I've taken. Rajiv's a born-and-raised, surf-shop-loving California sk8er boi; his parents, who emigrated from South India in the 70s, both have doctorate degrees and share a Newport Beach house roughly five times the size of the one I grew up in. Until we got married a few years ago, when we visited I stayed in a guest room much larger than my childhood living room.

I desperately wanted to impress them, especially since Rajiv and I had just moved in together after a year of dating. So my first visit with Rajiv's parents was tense as a coiled spring, as I was ready at any moment to demonstrate what an excellent partner I was for their son. It was exhausting, but as I decompressed on the plane ride home, I high-fived myself for not breaking character for two whole weeks. I was pretty sure I'd crushed it.

Then, a few days later, Rajiv called me at work. He'd just gotten an email from his mom saying we shouldn't move in together because we were "fundamentally incompatible."

He was furious, which was pretty uncommon for him; he said he'd told her to butt out, and that this wouldn't affect our plans to move in together. I guess he just needed to share his outrage with someone, but while I tried to prevent myself from crying in front of my co-workers, I told him never to tell me about things like this in the future.

But the phrase "fundamentally incompatible" was already burned into my brain. I got the details, and they weren't what I'd expected: Specifically, his mom said I was too messy for him.

This is true: I am a mess, and Rajiv is very clean. During the two weeks staying in his parents' guest bedroom, I lived out of my suitcase, piling dirty and clean clothes on the floor and most likely leaving some non-organic trash lying around. I didn't think anyone would see the mess, and I honestly don't remember it being that bad—but then, my messiness means I have a pretty high bar for a mess to qualify as "memorable."

However, I'd long suspected I wasn't good enough for Rajiv—to a degree, I still do—and his mother uttering "fundamentally incompatible" confirmed this for me. Regardless, Rajiv and I moved in together, and we were happy. Whenever we visited California, though, I was even more tense and on edge than I had been during the first visit. I never mentioned the email, and I was pretty sure his mom didn't know I knew about it. I became even more obsessed with demonstrating my perfect compatibility with their son.

Let me be clear: Rajiv's parents have never been anything but lovely and welcoming to me in person. After we moved in together, Rajiv's mom told me that they thought of me as one of the family, and that as a result, she wanted me to start calling them Aunty and Uncle (which is how South Indians refer to older relatives). After a few years, their unremitting kindness wore me down, and "fundamentally incompatible" stopped circling around my head. After nine years together and three years of marriage, I finally feel at home with Rajiv's family. Aunty and I text silly photos back-and-forth like I do with my own mom, and we have normal conversations instead of my feeling like I have to perform for them.

A few years ago, when we visited California while Rajiv and I were planning our wedding, I asked Aunty how she and Uncle had met. Her story made me wish I'd asked years ago, because it cast "fundamentally incompatible" in a different context and took the sting out of the phrase.

"Uncle's family and my family have a common friend," Aunty said. "As it usually happens in India, the friend said, 'Hey, you both have marriage-aged children who might make good partners.'

At the time, Aunty was 22, working in Bombay as a psychologist and about to start a PhD program. So she told her parents that if they wanted her to get married, they'd better set something up now: "If I started the program, I wasn't going to move anywhere until I finished."

Uncle didn't want to get married while he was in medical school, but when he finished, he asked his parents to find him a wife. He had just opened his practice in California. "His mom was worried sick he'd marry a white girl!" Aunty laughed.

So Uncle took three weeks off work and flew back home to meet a series of girls his parents thought might be a good match. At the mutual family friend's suggestion, Aunty flew across the country to meet him. They spent a day getting to know each other, and they spoke in English, as their two states had different languages.

"I told him, 'I don't like to cook and clean, and I want a career, so don't expect me to be a stay-at-home wife.' He said his job as a doctor meant unpredictable hours, and that he'd sometimes have to leave in the middle of the night if there was an emergency. Then we went out to dinner with our fathers. We decided it would work out, and then a week later, we got married—and it's been working out for forty years!"

How could two people possibly decide whether to spend their whole lives together based on one date? Uncle had already gone on several of these interview-dates and hadn't liked any of them; this was Aunty's third. She says that she just liked him in a way that she hadn't felt about the other two. "It's a gut instinct—like, OK, he would be compatible with me. He had a sense of humor, which was important for me. I was twenty-two and very young. That's the thing about arranged marriages—you're pretty much marrying a stranger."

Before dating Rajiv I was harboring biases I didn't realize were there.

In India, entering a relationship with someone is more cognitive than it is emotional, so according to Aunty, "I like you" is only part of it. "What makes a relationship work is compatibility—similar values and belief systems. You can't sustain romantic love. Sooner or later, it turns into companionship, respect, things like that. The romantic kind of love is fleeting." She said that many of her classmates in India had marriages based solely on love, but for her, an arrangement based on compatibility of those traits seemed much more pragmatic.

A few years later, that conversation with Aunty stands out at me when I notice how many of the questions in advice columns boil down to "I want X and my partner doesn't and we got married anyway—so how do I make my partner want X?" Americans seem to be terrible at choosing partners we're compatible with in a long-term sense. Like Aunty said, they marry based on romantic love and physical attraction, and roughly half of those marriages fizzle out in divorce. Aunty and Uncle married as strangers, but the initial awkwardness of the situation matured into one of most genuinely happy marriages I've witnessed. Keeping in mind that there's other factors involved, the divorce rate in India is around one percent, and I sometimes wonder what direction America's gross domestic happiness would head if arranged marriages were more common.

Before I began dating Rajiv, I harbored biases I didn't realize I had. As a child, I read books in which a plucky heroine escaped from an arranged marriage, and I've read a reasonable amount of adult-focused fiction that addresses the subject as well. Along the way, I developed an (incorrect) understanding that the power dynamic in arranged marriages was inherently oppressive for women because it didn't allow them to make their own choices. I'd personally hate for my parents to make that sort of decision for me, so I assumed that others wouldn't be thrilled either.

Obviously, though, I wasn't raised in a culture where that was the norm. I was raised to believe that the Western way of finding a partner was the only way to find happiness, and after meeting Rajiv's parents as well as other relatives who had arranged marriages, it's clear that's not true. From Aunty's point of view, arranged marriage is just more rational, and now that I'm able to see it from her point of view, finding a partner purely through romantic means seems more illogical—especially as I notice incompatibilities in my own relationship and the relationships of those around me. I still wouldn't want an arranged marriage, but I no longer think the Western way of doing things is better, either.

Recently, I mustered the courage to ask Aunty about Rajiv and me being "fundamentally incompatible." I was right—she hadn't known that Rajiv had told me, and she offered to explain why she said that. "When we met your parents, we felt like we were friends from a long time ago—we shared the same values," she said "Your work ethic, your values, your moral character—they match! The rest of it is individual stuff, and ultimately, these things are fixable. What I was saying to Rajiv was 'Think this through'—that's all. 'Go in with your eyes open.'"

I do sometimes wonder if Rajiv would be happier if he'd been matched with someone who didn't forget to scoop the cat box, or leave old cups of coffee around the house like moldy Easter eggs. But we both went in with our eyes open.

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