Most Americans react negatively to the idea of an arranged marriage. The thought creates a mental picture of a young couple forced to wed by controlling families. And so we cling to our Western idea that the way it should work is to magically find and fall in love with a soul mate without help or interference from anyone else.
But much of the world disagrees. In many places, marriage is perceived as the merging of two families, and the input from many, particularly the parents, is very important. The idea is that if your families like each other, if you have similar beliefs, similar expectations, similar economic conditions and similar aspirations, your marriage has a better chance. And there is an acknowledgment that loving parents may actually know quite a bit about what their own children might need and want to make them happy.
Maybe we shouldn’t judge too fast. Both the highest marriage rates and the lowest divorce rates happen to be in countries where arranged marriage is the norm. This is due in part to the social stigma of divorce, but most would agree that compatible beliefs, families that get along and similar family cultures are positive factors in a marriage.
And the process certainly doesn’t exclude love or choice. The way arranged marriage works among educated people in India, in the Middle East and in other places we have spent time recently is that the families (mainly the parents) communicate a lot about their marriage-age children. When two sets of parents agree that their children might be a good match, they have a big party where the young man and the young woman meet formally and where the possibility is celebrated. Then the two young people have some time to date, to have a courtship and to decide if they want to move forward with the relationship and ultimately the marriage, or if they want to veto the idea and have their parents keep looking.
One of the most charming and successful couples we have met in recent years — from Saudi Arabia — told us how their parents went through this process, how they dated for several months and how he wanted to marry but she did not. She went off to the United States for graduate school, and his family kept looking. When she came home three years later, however, the two got reacquainted and this time it clicked. They now have three wonderful kids, and the two families are best friends.
Time and again in our travels and speaking in countries where our audiences are mostly from arranged marriages, we ask if they like it, or if they wish their parents had stayed out of it. And we ask if they plan to continue the practice with their own children. These are smart, educated people, successful in their professions and widely traveled. Almost unanimously, they favor the idea of arranged marriage and plan to practice it with their own children.
So, are we really advocating a system of arranged marriage? No. But what we are suggesting is that young people and whole families would be well served by a mentality where parents are more proactive in the “looking” process, where their help and suggestion is welcomed by their children, where finding possibilities for a potential marriage is an actual goal within the whole family, and where marriage is viewed as the joining of two entire families.
A good case can be made that this open-to-help mentality gives a higher chance of success than the haphazard, independent process of trying-to-meet-the-person-I-noticed-across-the-classroom and hoping-to-find-the-one-needle-in-the-haystack-that-just-happens-to-be-perfect-for-me. Even online dating and searching rarely takes into account the compatibility of families, cultures and other things parents might look for.
In much of the developed world today, most young people don’t even date, and the surrounding culture (and sometimes their own parents' indifference) increasingly sends the message that marriage doesn’t matter. So they just hang out or hook up, hoping that by some statistically unlikely chance they will run into the perfect person to cohabitate with and perhaps someday marry.
There must be a better way.