Are arranged marriages more successful than 'love' marriages?


Sushi Das

Sushi Das is an opinion editor with The Age newspaper and author of Deranged Marriage (published this week).

When parents or other family members apply emotional pressure to protect family honour, is consent still part of the deal?

When parents or other family members apply emotional pressure to protect family honour, is consent still part of the deal? Photo: Getty Images

So you've got the car, the job and quite a nice flat. The only thing you haven't quite nailed is the elusive Mr Right.

Maybe that's because he's busy ''hooking up''. If we're to believe the so-called relationship experts quoted in the media recently, relationships are dead because young people, especially men, prefer to ''hook up'' in bars, get drunk and see what happens. As US screen writer Mike Werb said: ''Most of the men in this town think monogamy is some kind of wood.''

It's understandable that Western women in their thirties who ''can't find a bloke'' look over to the East and wonder whether things might have been better had they only lived in a culture where parents organised arranged marriages.

In places like India, arranged marriages have been part of the culture for centuries and they are predicated on the idea that parents know best, so why not let them choose? No waiting by the phone, no wondering whether the relationship's serious now. Parents make it practical.


The logic goes something like this: First, choosing a life partner is a huge undertaking and parents are better equipped to do this as they have more life experience and therefore wisdom. Second, accepting someone your parents have picked shows respect that ultimately maintains order in a community. And third, the coming together of two individuals is important but not necessarily the sole aim of marriage. The future economic stability, prosperity and longevity of both families are the real purpose.

That doesn't mean there's no love in an arranged marriage, it just means love grows after you tie the knot. It could actually make falling in love much easier since you know your parents have already checked that he's educated, earns a decent income, has good personal habits and values family life. In fact they will do a much better job of finding the right person for you because their judgment won't be clouded like yours would almost certainly be if you were swooning over a new lover.

The arranged marriage system sounds good, yes? Especially when it seems so hard to find the right person yourself. After all, you can trust your parents more than you can trust, say, a dating agency. Perhaps that explains why many people think arranged marriages are more successful than love marriages.

Well, arranged marriages might be a good system, if what I've described was the whole picture. Unfortunately it's not.

In cultures where arranged marriages are the norm, parents are not simply match-makers and marriage isn't just a private thing that happens between two people. What's more, an honour code that protects family reputations can place expectations on women's behavior and stop them from making free choices.

Right-thinking people accept forced marriages are wrong because they involve duress, but arranged marriages are considered acceptable because, on the face of it, consent is part of the deal. But when parents or other family members apply emotional pressure to protect family honour, is consent still part of the deal?

And emotional coercion has many faces: ''We've found you a nice boy – don't forget the family's honour is at stake''. ''Your mother will die of shame if you turn this boy down – you know she has a weak heart.'' Look below the surface. What lies behind arranged marriages looks suspiciously like an entire social system that has its roots in the subjugation of women.

And when divorce is considered unacceptable, things get much harder. If the society in which you live frowns upon divorce, as is the case in large sections of the Indian community, then leaving, say, a violent husband, is so much harder.

When divorce is taboo and the gauge of a successful marriage is a low divorce rate, then of course arranged marriages appear to be more successful. There is simply no reliable data that shows arranged marriages are more successful. A better measure might be one that gauges happiness, but no one has invented a happy marriage index yet, so the divorce rate is the only measure we have to work with.

Of course, none of this means arranged marriages can't be happy and successful. Millions of people around the world have had arranged marriages and live quite happily. Just like millions of people live contented lives after they fall in love, date and then marry.

East or West, arranged marriage or love marriage, all you really have to remember is that ''hooking up'' with someone in a bar to find out what happens when you get drunk is unlikely to be a winning formula, and that monogamy is not some kind of wood.

Sushi Das is the Opinion Editor of The Age. Her new book Deranged Marriage - A Memoir is out now.