Essay #2 – “Love and Marriage”
By Kannamma Shanmugasundaram '99
Managing and Valuing Cultural Diversity
Dating has been mentioned as the training ground for building a marriage relationship, for learning how to relate to someone of the opposite sex. While dating, people learn early that once they don’t like someone, they can drop them. This not only hurts others but…can possibly cause young people to learn that once they don’t like what they see in another person, they then can get out of the relationship…In marriage, one can’t be thinking like that, or everyone would…[be] divorcing. Unfortunately, this is already happening.
~ Jay Lang, Online Bulletin Board
Then most non-Asians hear of arranged marriages, they think of instances where individuals are sworn over to each other, never meeting until the day of the wedding. Such a custom is often looked upon with doubt and inhibitions, wariness and disbelief. “How can you marry someone you’ve never met?” “What happens if you don’t love them?” I have been fortunate enough to be witness to both love marriages-the kind more common in the United States-and arranged marriages—which are quite common in India. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. 1 have also been able to quell a great many of the misconceptions that may arise regarding one or the other. Arranged marriages have been the custom in India for many centuries, and are still practiced to this day. It is an arrangement between families, however, not between individuals. It is not entered into blindly, as many may think. Instead, a family, usually the groom’s, will send a go-between (usually a trusted family friend) to investigate any potential bride’s family. The go-between finds out information not only about the woman but about her family as well. In India, it is believed that marriage not only connects two individuals, but both of their families as well, and therefore it is imperative that both be of good status. Financial standing, medical history, and social class are all investigated. In addition, both the boy’s and the girls (for this usually occurs while both individuals are in their mid to late teens) astrological signs are examined to ensure compatibility.
Once the two young families have met, they set up a meeting at the girl’s house so that the boy’s family can actually meet the girl. In preparation for this visit, more information regarding the girl and her family is disclosed. Is she willing to adapt to any differences that may arise in the boy’s family pattern of living? In India, equality between the sexes is far from reality. Women are expected to leave their families, in a sense, adopting the man’s family as her own. She is to obey her mother-in-law, serving her and conforming to her expectations. She is also to serve her husband in all of them to cook, clean, care for the children, and stay at home. The man is expected to provide for her and protect her.
The caste system was especially powerful in earlier generations, and although not as common to many, it still plays a large role in possible matrimonial unifications between families in India. Marriage between social classes is frowned upon, and with this in mind, it is of little surprise to discover that many arranged marriages arc inbred.
Not much has changed in Indian society today, although the rules of arranged marriages have acquired some flexibility. Now the bride and groom are allowed to speak before the wedding and in some cases, are even allowed to go out once or twice unchaperoned. In addition, some women are even allowed to reject the choices of their parents. In the past, what die parents decreed was required to have been executed. Now, however, tradition is making way for new Western ways of thinking.
Actual “love” marriages are more common than before, yet they continue to exist only in a small portion of India’s high-class urban residents. Perhaps the most famous Indian love marriage was that of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who married Sonia, an Italian woman. These types of marriages are increasingly popular as college students seek freedom and their own individuality. The Western ideals of modernization and independence have resulted in “liberal attitudes toward mate selection among the college students,” according to one 1973 survey.
Surprisingly, love marriages were not common in the United States until about three hundred years ago. According to the book, May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons by Elisabeth Bumiller, it has only come about as a result of “courtly love in the Middle Ages and also from the impact of Christianity.” This Anglo-Saxon religion is thought to have “deepened the bond between husband and wife by likening it to the relationship between man and God.”
Perhaps the most crucial element in understanding the difference between an arranged marriage and a love marriage is the respective society’s differences in defining the concept of “love.” Most Americans are familiar with the phrase “falling in love.” There are those, however, who question the truth in this common term. What exactly is “love?” Can one “fall in love?” What about “love at first sight?” Does it exist? Can someone learn to love another? This final question provides the meat and truth to the surprisingly incredible success of arranged marriages. Being exposed a great deal to the culture of tire United States, I have learned that romance and dating in this country are all about expectations. People are asked, “What do you look for in a boyfriend/girlfriend?” and a list of required qualities is rattled off. If someone does not fit those qualities, they are deemed unacceptable. “Well, I like him as a friend, but….”
In an arranged marriage, no expectations exist except for mutual respect. Neither the bride nor the groom, has had a chance to really “get to know” the other. After all, what happens in most Western marriages or relationships? Initially, there is an intense admiration and respect for each other. Usually, positive characteristics arc emphasized and focused on. Negative traits are ignored, overlooked, or brushed aside. Then, the more time you spend with someone, the more you begin to notice little things about them that annoy you. The way they leave the cap off the toothpaste or the way they never put their duty clothes in the hamper becomes irritating.
In successful love marriages, couples have to learn to look past these imperfections and remember the reasons why they married each other in the first place. They must be able to accept the fact that neither one of them is perfect. Successful love marriages need to set aside these superior, seemingly impossible expectations and be willing to compromise, settling for some good and some bad. If you don’t know anything about the person, you begin to sec both his/her positives and Ms/her negatives at the same time, making the situation slightly more tolerable. Since I have never been in a relationship (love or arranged), I may not be the most ideal person to make such a statement. From what I have observed of others in relationships, this seems to often be the case. With fewer expectations, there are fewer disappointments.
This brings us to another reason why the Western culture often looks with disapproval upon the ancient tradition of arranged marriages. Even a general overview of the Western cultures show that they tend to emphasize independence and the sense of “leaving the nest.” Parents seem to be respected in a much more visible way in most Eastern cultures, as we see a greater occurrence of extended and nuclear families living under the same roof. Perhaps this is why Eastern cultures tend to be more open to the concept of having their parents arrange their marriage. There is a greater sense of respect and reverence towards elders in the Eastern cultures.
Falling in love is often said to actually be falling in “lust” or “awe.” Immediate physical attraction can blind a person to the faults of another. Many love marriages are based on this physical attraction. Note not all love marriages, but many. Physical attraction certainly doesn’t play as immediate and as large a role in arranged marriages. I personally have found the phrase “beauty comes from the inside” to be true, almost literally. I have friends who some may not find attractive, that even 1, upon first meeting them, did not consider to be particularly good looking. However, after knowing them, finding out more about their personalities, and the goodness of their character, 1 have honestly been able to see them in a new light, and they seem more beautiful to me physically as well. This seems to support the theory that arranged marriages’ successes are based on: love is a growing process and an emotion that is acquired. Love isn’t necessarily what individuals raised in the Western frame of thought assume it to be.
My personal opinion on arranged marriages has certainly changed; I feel it has matured. I once thought that love marriages were the best way to truly get to know the person you would be spending the rest of your life with. It would be extremely difficult going into a marriage, not knowing anything about the person, and expected to live together for the rest of your lives. I must admit, it was a very close-minded perspective.
Lately, however, as I have grown older, and closer to the “normal” age of marriage (in India women are usually married by the time they are 30), my opinions have broadened. The first prospect of marriage for me occurred with my grandmother when I was 14. She had mentioned that I would soon come of age (approximately 16 years for Indian girls) and that it was time to start looking for a husband for me. I remember turning to my mother in shock and disbelief. My mother only shook her head. “No, we won’t be doing that for awhile.” But the implications were clear. Eventually, they would. They would look for someone for me. They weren’t expecting me to find someone on my own.
My parents’ marriage was not an arranged marriage, although I believe that by Western standards, it is considered to be an “inbred” relationship. My parents are actually first cousins. My father had approached my mother’s father (his uncle) requesting to marry my mother, and then he had gone to talk to my mother. My mother had ignored his calls and letters because she thought it would be improper of her to respond to a man’s courtship without having her father’s approval first (she didn’t realize that my father had already spoken to her father). My parent’s marriage is not perfect, but then no one’s really is, right?
After graduating from high school, the topic was brought up again. My parents are not in any hurry to find a suitable mate for me, but they are certainly keeping their eyes and ears peeled, as are the rest of my relatives. Most Westerners (myself included at one time) question their parents’ motives. “Do they not trust me?” “How do they know what kind of person I am looking for?” “Just because they pick someone they like doesn’t mean I will like them.” These doubts ran through my mind initially as well. Yet from what I’ve read and what I’ve experienced, parents only want what is best for their child. They want someone who is not only financially sound but someone who will respect and take care of their child as well. We trusted our parents to care for us when we were infants, when we become adults, we lose an element of this trust. I think part of the reason this is so hard to do, especially in the Western world is that there is such an emphasis on independence. Young people get used to being “on their own,” thinking for themselves. They do not feel secure having their future decided for them, and therefore want the selection of their mate to be a decision they make for themselves.
The unique thing about my situation is that if I were to go with an arranged marriage, I would cling to my Western views of female independence. I know my parents understand the influence that growing up in a Western/American society has had on me. I have a free spirit and enjoy my independence. I would not be happy staying at home, playing the “traditional” female role, and my parents understand that and are taking that into consideration when searching for a suitable groom. They are looking for someone who will be able to provide for me, but at the same time, someone who will allow me to further my career if that is what I choose to do.
This is a wonderful example of the differences in thinking and teaching styles of the Western culture, as opposed to the Eastern culture. The key to understanding both types of marriage is being able to keep an open mind and understanding the source of the difference of opinions. I feel that another key way to do that is to find a way to compromise, as my parents and I have done, compromising the best of both worlds, so to speak. We maintain the traditional respect in terms of allowing the parents to choose the mate, but also letting the son or daughter make the final decision and maintain a sense of their valued freedom.