In my interviews with families in Delhi regarding marriage, one of the most interesting finding has been related to the persistence of the system of arranged marriage. National data shows that arranged marriage is far from retreating in Indian society. While there has been a decline in parent-only arranged marriages, there has been little increase in self-arranged marriage over the past 60 years (Allendorf and Pandian 2016). Rather, arranged marriage is taking new forms which allow for greater involvement of individuals in their partner selection while still giving parents a significant role in decision-making leading to a system of quasi- or joint-arranged marriage.
In fact, the young people that we spoke to were some of the most outspoken advocates for the system of arranged or quasi-arranged marriage. None reported that they wanted a “love marriage,” the term often used for self-arranged marriages. A number of reasons were given for why they felt it was important that their parents participate in selecting their marriage partner.
Young people often reported that it was their love for and sense of duty to their parents that made them feel that arranged marriage was the best route. They spoke about how elopements and love marriages against one’s parents’ wishes was a form of “betrayal” and caused “hurt” to family members. During an interview with an 18-year-old female college student, she explained:
“I’ve seen a lot of love marriages, but I don’t agree with them, because it hurts parents a lot. They’ve loved and supported you your entire life, but now you’re just not asking them and getting married- you’re betraying them.”
This desire to defer to parents’ choice may also come from a place of respect for their parents’ wisdom. As one male college student emphasized, “if they’re saying no, that person is not good for you.” This respondent is expressing a belief that parents generally know best when it comes to who their children should marry. Ignoring this wisdom is not only disrespectful but ill-advised.
A related reason given by young people for why they wanted their parents to select their marriage partner is due to a desire to share the burden of responsibility for the life decision. Some respondents spoke about the magnitude of the decision and how the arranged marriage process provides more insurance that the couple will stay together. Here, romantic love was described as volatile and irrational, too unpredictable to form the basis for marriage decision-making. To them, the marriage arrangement process is more likely to lead to an optimal result because both families inquire into the character of the potential spouse and the family. The decision is not blinded by emotions of attachment, which they fear could lead them down a wrong path. Furthermore, because families are involved, there is a greater guarantee that both families will put pressure on their children to make the marriage work.
A young male respondent described how young people face extra social scrutiny if they select their own spouse,
“But then when you choose someone, you have to be their guarantor, because you chose them. If my mother chooses someone, that’s easier, there’s more scope for compromise. I can blame her. It’s like if I break a mirror, I get yelled at, but if my mother breaks it, no one says anything.”
This respondent describes how, if his parents select his bride, then he does not have to take full responsibility for the choice. Social censure of love marriages especially elopements in India is high. People are often eager to look for any indication that the love marriage was a mistake. In this way, failed love marriages are frequently made into examples of the perils of moving away from the arranged marriage system. These examples become important rhetorical tools for preventing more self-arranged marriages. The respondent above does not wish to expose himself to a marriage of heightened scrutiny and elects to instead go for an arranged marriage, where he is less likely to be “blamed” if marriage issues arise later.
The desire to protect oneself against the event of an bad marriage takes on a special meaning for women. The same young woman quoted above goes on to say:
“Later the boy says things to the girl about leaving her family, and can have any demands later, there’s nothing the girl can do or say, because she chose this, she didn’t do it with her parent’s permission … If we do something with our parents’ permission, then we know they’re there, if the boy tortures you or something, you can tell your parents, they can help you.”
Here, the young women describes a situation where the husband mistreats his wife, criticizing her moral character because she left her family, even though she left her family to be with him. She explains how, because the woman chose to elope, her family would refuse to provide her support or refuge if she faced trouble in her marriage, such as in the event that her husband “tortures” her. In India, women often rely on their parents and other family members as protection from domestic violence or other adverse situations in their marriage. It is not uncommon to find young women returning to their parent’s household after an especially bad marital dispute. In fact, Grover (2018) calls this the “right of refuge” and describes how marital disputes are usually negotiated through both families. Electing to elope often, though not always, closes off that “right of refuge” to women, placing them in a more vulnerable situation in the marriage (Grover 2018).
Allendorf, Keera, and Roshan K. Pandian. 2016. “The Decline of Arranged Marriage? Marital Change and Continuity in India.” Population and Development Review 42 (3): 435–64.
Grover, Shalini. 2018. Marriage, Love, Caste and Kinship Support: Lived Experiences of the Urban Poor in India. Second. New York: Routledge.