There were red flags right from the start. When she attempted casual physical contact with him, he flinched. When she tried to approach him sexually, he implied she was desperate. She married him anyway. It wasn’t long before she found herself at the door of Narendra Kinger, a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist and marriage counsellor. There she told him how she had been advised to test her sexual compatibility with the man her parents had ‘chosen’ for her, and how uncomfortable his rejection had made her feel. Yet, she bought the party line that things were bound to get better after marriage—only they didn’t.
“His behaviour should have set off alarm bells right then, but she ignored it. Thanks to the social conditioning about sex in India, my client assumed he was being gentlemanly,” Kinger told HuffPost India. Also, she couldn’t find the appropriate language to convey what the ‘problem’ was to either her family or the man she was set to marry. Months after her wedding, she is considering divorce.
Young people in India continue to opt for arranged marriages, with more than 1,500 matrimonial websites thriving in the country. However, clinical psychologist Anindita Chowdhury explains that despite the popularity of arranged marriages, many women are wary of such relationships—she has even had clients who’ve hired private investigators to learn more about the prospective groom. While their fears are abated to some extent because they have a greater say than was the norm before, young, educated and financially independent women continue to feel the pull of cultural expectations and rely on the ‘wisdom’ of elders. Here are some reasons why arranged (or ‘semi-arranged’) matches are such a frequent choice for Indian women.
1. ‘Parents know best’ mentality
Women in India feel more assured of their family’s support if they marry men chosen by the parents. “The combined wisdom of family members allows young women to feel more secure. If there should be any issue, they assume the entire family will mobilise to solve the problem,” says Dr Nirmala S. Rao, director, Aavishkar Centre for Self Enrichment.
When Sanchita Guha (name changed), 34, from Chandigarh broke up with her live-in partner around nine years ago, she lost faith in herself and in ‘love’ marriages. “I had been staying with this man for a year and had failed to judge him for what he was. I realised I was not capable of making a wise decision for myself. So, when my family asked me to meet a man they knew and approved of, I did not hesitate. I knew it would be for my best,” says Guha, who is now happily married and a mother of two.
According to Rao, women often let go of their love interest if they feel the family may have reservations. Priya Kapoor (name changed), 26, from Delhi agrees. Although her parents were not completely against the man she was dating, she realised they would be happier if she married someone they approved of.
“After dating him for more than three years, I began to feel it was only me who was fighting for the relationship. When he told me he wasn’t ready to marry, I decided to move on. I spoke to my parents and told them that I needed a companion. My parents know me better than I know myself, and so I trusted their judgement,” Kapoor says.
She ended up marrying the first man they helped pick for her. “In our six months of courtship I felt more loved than I ever did in my previous relationship. My fiancé, who is now my husband, respected my parents and was encouraging of my career goals. Though I told him about my ex, he said he did not care about my past. I have been happily married for six months now. Clearly my parents knew what was best for me,” she says.
2. Not meeting the right man at the right time
“Where do we even meet interesting men we might want to marry?” Anindita Chowdhury, clinical psychologist and reproductive health consultant from Kolkata, has often had clients ask her. These clients, she told HuffPost India, are often young, well-educated and financially independent women. Corporate policies sometimes do not allow them to date male colleagues they might find interesting. In addition, demanding work schedules leave little time and opportunity to meet men outside work. Weekends often go in a blur of catching up with friends and family and completing household chores, leaving little time to actively look for marriageable partners.
“By the time the women are ready to marry they are already 30, which is quite late as per Indian marriage standards. Most men they know are already married or dating. This is when the women ask their parents to find them a suitable partner. While they would ideally have preferred to marry someone they knew and loved, my clients say they felt that that ship had already sailed,” Chowdhury says.
Also, an independent working woman expects to have a partner who is doing as well as her, if not better. According to Kinger the arranged marriage set-up works because it happens after a lot of ‘digging’ into the man’s past and career. The girl’s family are able to evaluate his “financial stability, character, market reputation, living conditions, educational and occupational background”.
“Many women agree to marry someone they don’t know after going through a painful break-up... As a result, women lose faith in themselves and they question their choices,””
3. Heartbreak or a failed romance
A failed relationship can also compel women to consider an arranged marriage. Sahely Gangopadhyay, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist from Kolkata, has frequently witnessed this dynamic in her 10 years of practice. “Many women agree to marry someone they don’t know after going through a painful break-up. Long-distance relationships, due to career choices, have become very common. Unfortunately, very few of these relationships last. As a result, women lose faith in themselves and they question their choices,” Gangopadhyay says.
Sanchita Guha says she felt exactly that and more. “I felt like a fool when my live-in relationship did not work out. I started introspecting and noticed a pattern in all my love affairs. All the boys I had dated were so much like me: fun and happy-go-lucky.” The man chosen by her family, now her husband, was the complete opposite—quiet, reserved, and respectful. After seven years of married bliss, Guha thanks her parents’ wisdom and choice.
Many Indian women consider an arranged marriage the best way out of a heartbreak. “It is almost like a rebound effect,” says Gangopadhyay, adding that the longevity and quality of a marriage depend on the couple’s ability to connect with and understand each other.
4. Rejections by other prospective partners
In India, a woman’s value is often measured in terms of her marriage. Women are conditioned to believe that being accepted by a man makes her more worthy, beautiful, socially acceptable and desirable. So, when the family starts looking for a prospective groom, instead of scrutinising the man and his family, the woman desperately wants to be accepted as the ‘appropriate’ bride.
Poorva Zaveri (name changed), 34, from Kolkata was 26 when she got married. She was doing well in her job and enjoying living by herself in Hyderabad when her parents decided it was time she started a family of her own. “I am happily divorced now with a six-year-old child,” she tells HuffPost.
Zaveri says she had ignored all the red flags during the courtship period. “It was so clear that we were incompatible, yet I went ahead with the marriage. The reason was my own insecurity at being rejected by two other boys that I was introduced to by my family before him. When my ex-husband accepted me, I felt validated. I was young and foolish, and was not taught to love and accept myself unconditionally,” she says.
Zaveri says that if a woman agrees to an arranged marriage, she needs to accept rejections with grace and understand that every man will have his preferences, which are not a reflection of the woman’s worth.
5. Discouraged to ask questions from a young age
Most households in India teach the girl child to accept what family members tell them to. They are not encouraged to question elders, especially the men in the family. When a young girl is advised to not mingle too much with boys, she does as she is told. When she is told she cannot join a company because it might require her to work late nights, she nods her ahead. So, when the family asks her to marry a man she doesn’t even know, she follows her lifelong script and acquiesces. Her life so far has turned out pretty okay, she tells herself. So, why should it be any different now that she has to live with a man her family has selected for her?
Separated after eight years of marriage, Poorva Zaveri says she should have shared her fears with her family instead of making assumptions about their response. “I went ahead with the marriage despite all signs telling me not to because my father had already invested a lot of money in the ceremony and preparations. I assumed that if I called the wedding off, my parents would die of shame and be in a financial mess. Today, when I am living with them again along with my child, they tell me that nothing mattered to them more than my happiness. I wish I had known this before,” Zaveri says.
This inability to question others’ decisions or motives does not change even after marriage. Kinger tells us of a couple who had come to him for consultation. When the husband was asked why he had married the woman, he said he had seen a hundred girls before picking her. The wife knew about this and looked suitably impressed that he had rejected so many women and chosen her. Kinger says, “I pointed it out to him that if he had chosen her out of so many women, he must have seen something exceptional in her. His answer was quite shocking. He said ‘there was absolutely nothing special about her’. He told me that meeting so many women had been tiring and he did not want to go through the selection process again. He repeated that he saw nothing exceptional in her. The woman was absolutely devastated. Ideally, she should have asked him his reason for marrying her right at the beginning,” Kinger says.
6. The stigma of inter-faith/caste marriages
In India, many young girls and boys are indoctrinated to believe that their own faith/caste/community are superior to all others. Families forbid inter-caste or inter-religion relationships or marriages and children grow up imbibing this bias.
“Marrying into one’s own caste or community is still seen as paramount… it will take a few decades before these boundaries are broken by inter-faith marriages across social classes,” Kinger told HuffPost India.
Swati Rai (name changed), 29, from Mumbai was in a long-distance relationship with a man from a different caste. Even though he was willing to meet her family, Rai says she could not gather the courage to talk to her parents. “When my family wanted me to marry and settle down with someone of their choice, I went along with them. It was heart-breaking for both me and my ex, but I knew my family would never agree to our marriage. I could live my life without him, but not without my parents,” she says.
Ultimately, many Indian women believe that the support of the family that brought them up means more than any connection they could forge for themselves.