Arranged Marriages

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Editor: Jodi O'Brien
Date: 2009
Encyclopedia of Gender and Society
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Arranged Marriages

Marriages arranged by parents or elders in the family were the worldwide norm until the 18th century. While such marriages have declined in the West concomitant to the ascendancy of individualism and the nuclear family, vestiges are still visible among aristocrats, royalties, and minority religious groups. The practice is prevalent in many countries of Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. For example, until the mid-1990s, nearly 80 percent of all marriages in India were arranged by family elders. Communities that have migrated to the West from these countries have imported the custom with them, thus converting certain pockets of Europe and North America into populations that practice arranged marriage.

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Definition and Salient Features

Arranged marriage may be defined as a marital union in which intended spouses are selected by parents or respected elders of the bride and groom. However, the Page 41  |  Top of Articlesystem is not homogenous and can be complex in its variations and in different social contexts. In the best of circumstances, an arranged marriage meets with the approval of all involved parties, and in the worst, it may be forced on one or both intended spouses. Arranged marriage is ubiquitously contrasted to marriage based on romantic love. As globalization of goods, information, and media affects nations, arranged marriages are transitioning to various forms of quasi-arranged marriages. Therefore, rather than viewing marriage as a dichotomy between arranged marriage and one based on romantic/passionate love, it might be more meaningful to understand it in terms of the degree of control allowed to intended spouses. Accordingly, the marriage system may be categorized as follows: (a) The bride and groom have no say in the matter; (b) the bride and groom have the power to refuse; (c) the bride and groom make the choice, but parents/elders have the power to reject; and (d) parents/elders have no say in the matter.

The evolution of the arranged marriage system may methodically occur in the above order. However, the changes in the process might not be gender symmetric; that is, the control that intended spouses are able to wield over the selection of partners might not be equal for men and women. The intended groom may be allowed to veto his elders' selection and even choose and/or express interest in a particular woman, while the intended bride may be expected to obediently and silently accept the arrangement made by her parents and elders.

Societies that practice arranged marriage believe marriage to be an alliance between families and not an individual enterprise; hence, the intended spouses have little to contribute to the decision. Concurrently, these societies make distinctions between premarital romantic and postmarital conjugal love, and the former is generally derided as selfish and imprudent. Cultures that endorse arranged marriage also emphasize familial and social obligations and collective identities and have strong prohibitions against divorce. In arranged marriages, familial relationship is given higher priority than the conjugal bond, and duties within a marriage are stressed much more than any love that might develop between the couple. For example, a couple's strength of partnership is socially judged not by their love for each other, but by their steadfastness in taking care of elderly family members, financially supporting poorer siblings, and raising children with unwavering devotion.

Cultures that defend arranged marriages believe that such unions are stronger than “love” marriages. The low divorce rate in these societies is usually cited to substantiate the point. Proponents presume that when parents and elders select partners for their children, they are calculative and clear-sighted regarding the compatibility of intended spouses. Various social and economic features, such as caste, class, age, education, income, personality, religion, and family background, are examined and compared in negotiating a match. In addition, some families may appraise horoscopes of the intended partners to get a peek at the level of long-term success of the marriage. These advocates believe that young individuals smitten with someone of the opposite sex are hormone driven and are oblivious to the nuances of decision making, and consequently make mistakes in judgment. Thus, it is best to leave these important decisions to the worldly wise parents and elders in the family.

However, it may not be that arranged marriages endure due to infallible assessments of older decision makers. The cultures that sponsor arranged marriage also stigmatize divorce and make it nearly universally inaccessible. Even when marriages do not work, partners are expected to compromise and cooperate for the sake of the family. However, with the increase in young people's engagement in activities outside the home, such as the job market and entertainment, arranged marriages are dwindling in many traditional cultures, such as Korea and China. Simultaneously, divorces among young couples are mounting at an alarming rate; for example, in China, divorces have increased 500 percent since the late 1980s.

Marital Satisfaction and Conjugality

Individuals in arranged marriage nations tend to begin their lives with little or no expectations of their partners and view this as the key to lasting marital unions. They attest that in premarriage romance, partners have high expectations of each other that often lead to disenchantment after marriage and result in divorce. A common saying is that “in romantic marriages love comes before the marriage, and in arranged marriages it comes after.” Studies of marital satisfaction yield ambiguous results as to which is more conducive to contentment and happiness, “love” or arranged marriage. Couples in successful arranged marriages are as delighted with their partners as couples who have fallen in love and then married. In cases in which Page 42  |  Top of Articlesatisfaction is mediocre, men do not seem to find any difference between love and arranged marriages, but women in arranged marriages tend to blame their dissatisfaction on the type of marriage. Although arranged marriage is routinely assumed in the West to be an underlying reason for domestic violence, there is no verifiable connection between the two. Despite imbalanced gender dynamics often visible in arranged marriages, such marriages do not seem to cause intimate violence—nor are “love” marriages immune to it.

Historically, arranged marriages occurred within a family's relational networks and through known matchmakers. Pictures of intended spouses and information about families were exchanged and investigated before agreements were authorized. These processes may be continuing in rural regions, but people in urban areas have long been utilizing the print media, professional matchmaking services, video, and the Internet to advertise for their sons' and daughters' matrimonials. Global labor migration has also made it necessary for communities that practice arranged marriage to innovate new and hi-tech ways of reaching pools of potential spouses from afar. In the arranged-marriage enclaves in Western countries, the system continues to undergo modifications in response to ever-greater demands of autonomy from the current generation. In many groups, arranged marriage now takes the form of suggested marriage, in which parents introduce their children to each other, hoping for them to click; short-listing of potential spouses, in which the sons/daughters make the final decision; and community-wide parties, in which youngsters of marriageable age meet each other. Most of these adjustments tend to favor men, while women's choices and conduct are policed more stringently.

Immigration and Marriage Arrangements

In immigrant communities in the West, arranged marriage is often taken as a symbol of traditional values that are at risk of obliteration by the dominant society's encroachment. Thus, many immigrant groups spend serious efforts to instill respect for the custom of arranged marriage in their children. Besides, many find the precursor of “love” marriage—dating—unacceptable. First-generation immigrants who are unfamiliar with dating seem to conflate it with sexual promiscuity and accordingly deter their children from engaging in it. As children of immigrants raised in the West reach marriageable ages, intergenerational conflicts around dating and marriage become prominent. However, in contrast to their parents' interests, most second-generation youngsters state that romantic love is the most important factor in their deliberation of marriage.

Arranged and forced marriages are closely linked. In countries where arranged marriage is the norm, women and men are frequently coerced to marry according to their families' decisions. In cultures that regard girls and women as parental and paternal property, daughters are routinely compelled to marry according to their fathers' and brothers' wishes. These marriages may be determined by the “bride price” the family would receive, whether a profitable marriage swap could be agreed upon for men in the family, and the exchange of debts and penalties that a girl's family might owe the potential groom's family. In highly patriarchal social structures, girls and women are socialized to obey their parents and men in the family; but they also may be physically and emotionally abused to comply. A rebellious daughter may even be killed to protect the “honor” of the family that has been tarnished by her defiance. However, women are not the only victims of forcible arranged marriages. In cultures and religions that do not recognize same-sex attraction, homosexual men may be forced to marry against their will as a cure or to save face for their families.

Human Survival and Arranged Marriage

During times of war, ethnic massacre, social unrest, and crushing poverty, marriages have been arranged between displaced and refugee women and men who were living in safe and prosperous countries. With the survival of cultures and ethnicities at stake, many marriages were arranged by friends, relatives, and matchmakers and confirmed even before the potential spouses had a chance to meet each other. For example, an aftermath of the Armenian genocide in 1915 to 1923 was the pervasive “picture bride” marriages for Armenian men living in North America. Between 1908 and 1924, 20,000 Japanese and Korean picture brides arrived in Hawaii and the United States to be married to immigrant men who could not take time off to return to their countries to get married. A different version of this practice is continuing today in the practice of “mail-order bride,” whereby women who wish to move to developed countries through marriage are listed in catalogs circulated in North America and Page 43  |  Top of ArticleEurope by matchmaking/marriage agencies. Both the picture bride and mail-order bride practices have gained notoriety because of the many abuses women have suffered in these unions.

Shamita Das Dasgupta

Further Readings

Myers, J. E., Madathil, J., & Tingle, L. R. (2005). Marriage satisfaction and wellness in India and the United States: A preliminary comparison of arranged marriages and marriages of choice. Journal of Counseling & Development, 83, 183–190.

Zaidi, A. U., & Shuraydi, M. (2002). Perceptions of arranged marriages by young Pakistani Muslim women living in a Western society. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 33, 495–514.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3073900039