Arranged Marriage Culture: You Know Even Less Than You Think

Someone posted something on that endless source of schadenfreude, r/AITA (Am I the Asshole?), that made the rounds yesterday. Most of the responses I saw to the situation rubbed me entirely the wrong way. I immediately saw the situation as one arising from arranged marriage culture, likely Desi, and few to no responses seemed to take that into consideration.

I know, big surprise. Reddit, known for harboring mostly white people and coddling the worst of white men, doesn’t understand Desi arranged marriage culture. At the same time, the responses I saw on Twitter and Facebook were no better, even those from non-Desis who claimed to understand arranged marriages.

It turns out that I 100% called it. The AITA OP revealed herself to be Indian several updates in. If you’re not from an Indian or similar culture, you’re probably missing a great deal of context and understanding, and therefore misinterpreting a great deal about the post. I don’t care how many Desis you claim to know and love.

While this is just one post on the Internet, the way people interpreted it reveals a lot about the difference in mindset between typical Western dating/love marriage culture and Desi arranged marriage culture. While I wouldn’t say OP is some kind of angel, she’s not exactly the mustache-twirling villain Reddit and others decided she is.

Read the post first (this is an archive link in case of removal). Note your reaction to the terminology, people, and dynamics involved. Now, let’s break it down.

Arranged Marriage

The general response’s disregard for how OP’s now-husband was engaged as part of an arranged marriage situation stands out to me. I saw multiple non-Desis claiming that arranged marriages aren’t so bad as per their Desi friends, who said they had a lot of agency in the process. There was an assumption that if someone is in the US, as in the case of OP’s cousin, then they have complete free will and agency and aren’t subjected to pressures from their home country.

Because OP (and frankly most Desis) are invested in rendering arranged marriage culture palatable to outsiders, they’ll often paint it with a softer brush. They also assume outsiders are subjected to the same level of social pressure to conform as Desis are.

The reality is obviously more complicated. The details of how an arranged marriage works depends on the family and community in question. There is a lot of variation in how much pre-marital contact is permitted between prospective spouses, how empowered someone feels in saying yes or no to a particular match or to any matches at all, whether someone believes their family would accept a spouse they found for themselves, etc.

There are some things that are generally different for arranged marriage culture, which greatly affect what people from dating culture might think about the situation.

Dating

In arranged marriage contexts, when your parents introduce you to someone and you say yes to dating them, you’re not saying “Sure, I’ll give it a shot! Let’s see how this goes, shall we?” You’re saying “My initial impression of this marriage prospect is positive, and we’ll get engaged soon unless spending some chaste time together reveals a big red flag I can use to gracefully say no to them.”

Dating, then, isn’t an end in itself. You don’t date to find someone you might want to be in a relationship with, then maybe eventually promote that relationship to an engagement, which you then hopefully end by marrying the person, and then perhaps stay together rather than divorce. This type of dating is meant as a straightforward path to a lifelong marriage. You’re dating on a deadline with all eyes on you.

Those eyes are often literal. Dating may be chaperoned either directly by a person or indirectly by social norms, meaning very little or no chance for sexual activity and other forms of intimacy many people associate with dating. Even if the opportunity comes up, one or both members of the prospective engaged couple may not feel it’s worth the social risk to get physical.

Cheating and Ending A Relationship

A lot of responses said that OP buried the lede and that, as a filthy dirty rotten cheater, she should expect not only for her father-in-law to loathe her, but also for her husband to cheat on her and everyone to revile her forever. Why didn’t OP have her now-husband break up with his fiancee first?

The answer, of course, is that it wouldn’t have been easy for him to call off his engagement after having already agreed to date and then become engaged to OP’s cousin.

In an arranged marriage context, one half of a couple doesn’t get to just end a relationship. Everyone and their mother is, at that point, already involved with the relationship, which is seen as a union between two families. Even if he had said “Mom and Dad, I’m in love with someone else and need to end my engagement,” they likely wouldn’t have accepted his feelings as a valid reason to break it off. The cheating was probably his only truly viable escape hatch. His parents couldn’t refuse his decision if he’d already been caught with someone else.

Getting caught cheating with someone probably limited OP’s socially-acceptable responses, too. Word gets around. Just being “too picky” or willful about offers of marriage as a woman is frowned upon, so imagine the damage that having a clandestine affair did to her reputation. She may have felt that marrying him ensured she could get married at all.

On a related note, for all the blanket, aggressive condemnation of cheating I see from dating culture, cheating is used as an escape hatch within it, too. In dating culture, to “fight” for a relationship that’s harmful to both parties and dead in the water is seen as a virtue; longer relationships are seen as valuable based on their longevity alone with no thought as to the happiness of the people involved. Given that you’re supposed to stay in a relationship no matter what and are seen as a morally-superior person for doing so, it’s no wonder people cheat to get out of a relationship.

“Inappropriate” Relationships

Context makes OP’s suspicions about the relationship between her father-in-law and cousin both more and less understandable.

One the one hand, since breaking off a relationship is a bigger deal involving more people in arranged marriage culture, it might make sense that the father-in-law would maintain contact with a young woman he looked forward to having as a daughter-in-law.

On the other, there’s a lot of social precedent for being suspicious of this type of relationship. Having a close relationship with someone of the other binary gender who isn’t a direct relative is seen as inappropriate, period. This is especially true when considering a man’s investment in a prospective daughter-in-law. Older men marrying their sons off to women with the intention of sexually coercing or assaulting the daughter-in-law is a known phenomenon, and more likely given how common it is for a new couple to be living with the husband’s extended family.

Less sinister (though no less creepy) is how prospective fathers-in-law might evaluate a future daughter-in-law’s suitability. These men aren’t generally picking future daughters-in-law based on deep personal connections or conversations. They’re probably using superficial criteria including, if not always limited, to physical attractiveness.

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Arranged Marriage Culture: You Know Even Less Than You Think
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