Arranged marriages

Next to toilets without toilet paper, the thing that most confounds Westerners about Asian cultures is the practice of arranged marriages. There are many things I do not understand yet about arranged marriages, but I have had some small amount of enlightenment on the subject at least as it is practiced in Sri Lanka.

My observations started when I got just a little bit lost on campus. My path from the Science Faculty to the swimming pool was blocked by a creek. The creek is beautiful. The creek runs through shady, tropical trees, runs under a picturesque stone bridge well off to my left and disappears from sight as it bends off to my right. I stand, admiring the view, listening to the birds, wondering which way to go.

But gradually I become aware that I am not the only one admiring the view, though maybe I am the only one admiring the view of the creek. I become aware that there are young couples amongst the vegetation, entwined together, staring longingly into each others eyes. Nothing unseemly, mind you. There was no “making out” that I observed and all clothes were un-rumpled and arranged as they were designed to be arranged. But, somehow I suspected that these young couples were not all betrothed and I strongly suspected that the parents of many of these couples were not aware that their son or daughter even had a significant other.

An aside here. I have said that this is a conservative country and people, even young people on campus and away from home, dress modestly. While I am sure that a large portion of this modesty is due to cultural expectations, most parents in the US have pretty high expectations for modesty in their children as well. But Sri Lankan parents have an ally in Nature, not available to parents in the US, to aid in keeping their children’s clothes on, especially in dark, leafy, romantic spots. I refer, of course, to leeches. Any exposed skin that brushes against vegetation is liable to acquire a leech. Kris has already had two “incidents” with leeches, much to her utter horror. In one incident, she had taken a tuk-tuk to a fancy resort hotel, the Amaya Hills, way uphill from our home in Dongolla. She changed into her swimsuit and approached the pool. The lifeguard asked her to wait just a moment before entering the pool. He then bent down and calmly removed a leech from her ankle! Wearing leeches on ones ankle is not considered haute couture in Sri Lanka, but maybe it will catch on in Paris, where I have seen (on TV) much stranger attire on the catwalks.

Back to arranged marriages. The couples lingering out of sight in the bushes are not the only couples I see on campus. Being old and worldly-wise, I can usually tell when a young man and young woman walking together have a romantic attachment. I see many such couples on the paths between the buildings, going to and from class, to and from lunch.

This led to this thought in my Westerner’s mind, “Are these couples doomed to a sorrowful breakup?” After all, what are the odds that these self selected partners will be the ones chosen by their parents for an arranged marriage?

So, I started a discussion of arranged marriages with my physics colleagues at that delightful institution of morning (or afternoon, I can’t remember which) tea. The institution of arranged marriages was well defended by my Sri Lankan colleagues. However, they also assured me that maybe 50% of the couples I see on campus would likely end up married. They were not explicit about how the system is gamed, but it was clear that it can be gamed. They said that the practice of arranged marriages, in the strictly traditional sense, is declining among wealthier and more educated Sri Lankans, but is still very much the practice in those not so wealthy or educated.

It seems to me that, in the West, we have this romantic notion that there is “the one,” the one person you  are destined to marry. This theme permeates the entertainment industry in the West. In the movies, couples in love stay together no matter what the obstacles, because they are in love and no one else will do. They live happily ever after, unless the movie is a tragedy, of course, and then they part and live out their lives in abject misery. How many movies are their where the man (often played by Cary Grant) can’t marry the woman (played by whomever is female, popular, and under thirty at the time because even though Cary Grant could play romantic leads until the day he died, no actress (no, even Meryl Streep could not carry it off in Mama Mia!) can play a romantic lead over the age of thirty) because his rich family will disown him if he marries this unsuitable (read “poor”) young woman. They decide to marry anyway and live a penniless existence. But wait! A kindly uncle dies, leaving one or the other of them (it doesn’t matter) a fortune and they can continue to live as he has always been accustomed to.

On an intellectual level, we in the West know that the idea that there is just “the one” is not true. If it were, the human race would have become extinct ages ago since, if you calculate the odds of even meeting “the one” person meant for you at raandom, you will see that it is pretty grim, and certainly unlikely to happen while both of the partners are still of child bearing age.

In fact, we know also that even if two people fall madly in love, love may not be enough to sustain a happy marriage. So family and friends in the West engage in endless discussions of the suitability of a given person’s potential mates. Many churches in the US now require young couples to undergo counseling before they can be married in the church to make sure that the couple has at least considered the problems that go with marriage to someone of a different religion or ethnicity or social class, to someone with a different expectation about the eventual size of the new family, or to someone with a different attitude about money, among a laundry list of items famously known to cause major strains in a marriage. So we know that the other Western romantic ideal, that love conquers all, is not really true.

On the other hand, the concept of the arranged marriage seems to be based on the opposite ideal, that any two people of good will can work together to create a happy, sustainable marriage, provided they share important traits. So the idea is that they should be of the same social class and of the same religion. If they do, they are likely to share many cultural expectations about issues that can break apart many marriages.

A Westerner reading the newspaper here can not help but be surprised by the marriage want ads, though given the existence in the West of “personal ads,” we probably should not be smug. The marriage ads can be so specific. “Parents seek for daughter a doctor or engineer as suitable bridegroom.” We were joking with students in the physics department how sad it was that one never saw an ad specifying a physicist. The marriage ads often spell out not only which religion, but what sect of which religion is acceptable. The marriage ads often share with Western “personal ads” the specification of an acceptable age range. Parents might advertise that the daughter comes with a house, it apparently being traditional that the daughter is responsible for providing the new family a place to live. Keep in mind that a house here costs roughly the same as a house in the US. The one thing that continues to jolt me is that  the ad requests the respondent to submit their horoscopes to see if the marriage will be auspicious, or not. Many ads are dangerously close to being over-constrained. A family might find that not only is there not “the one,” there may be no “one.”

Like when I have read the personal ads in the US, I wondered if anyone actually found a spouse from a marriage ad. It seemed too calculating for what we Westerners think of as romance. In fact they do. We have become acquainted with a young woman who was the subject of one of these ads last year. Several young men (together with their families) responded to the ad. Meetings of the couple were arranged and happened as scheduled. No mutually suitable arrangement could be made, however. The parents will try again next year. The Western cynic in me wondered if they had considered EBay, but I know the parents well enough to know that they truly want what is best for their daughter.

I suspect that, even in countries that practice arranged marriages, people know that the ideal that any two young people of good will can create a successful marriage is no more true in practice than is the Western romantic ideal of “love conquers all.” You can see evidence of this in the entertainment industry in a country, Thailand, that shares the custom of arranged marriages with Sri Lanka. Kris tells me of seeing many movies about star crossed lovers, who fight their mutual attraction, submit to their parents’ wishes, bid each other tearful goodbyes, and go to be wed to the person their parents have picked for them. Lo and behold, when the veil is removed and the marriage partner revealed, it turns out that their parents had, coincidentally, arranged a marriage between the two lovers. The two lovers live happily ever after, unless, of course, the movie is a tragedy, and then the bride finds herself wed to the leering, sixty year old, village elder with a spare rice paddy, and the two lovers live out their lives in abject misery. Back ro Sri Lanka, the evidence that the arranged marriage custom has its limits is precisely the many couples happily absorbed in each others company, strolling together down the university’s paths without their parents’ knowledge who end up getting married.

So, on one level, the difference between East and West is one of two opposite ideals, tempered by reality. In this one sense, there is not much to pick between them.

But, as a Westerner and a feminist, I can’t get past the coercive underpinnings of the arranged marriage system. While in principle, both the young man and the young woman are equally coerced, the symmetry is broken by the need for the woman’s family to provide a dowry and the couple being part of a traditionally patriarchal society. A benign view of the situation is that a marriage needs to be a business arrangement first. If poor, the new family must have the financial means to prosper or even just to survive. I have never had the experience of being that poor, but there certainly are communities in Sri Lanka that are very poor, so I hesitate to judge.

I suspect that a “middle path” is hinted at by the more prosperous and educated Sri Lankans who can both advocate for arranged marriages as the ideal, but can “arrange” for 50% of self-selected couples to “discover” that their parents have chosen “the one.” May all of Sri Lanka find such prosperity.




  1. Kris said,

    December 2, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    We are all boggled by the Romantic ideal. What is the difference between marriage arranged by your parents and marriage arranged by heavenly beings manipulating human affairs? I think we should all watch a lot of Bollywood films and compare them to Hollywood films to see if the ideals they showcase are very far apart.
    I would like to add to Tim’s comments on the churches requiring marriage counseling before the wedding–it is an important new approach to try to help people stay together, and at least know about the pitfalls common to others. How much grief could be prevented?

  2. Nikky said,

    December 3, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    Hi Tim!

    I’m a Sri Lankan national pursuing my MA in French litterature from abroad. From whatever I’v gathered while reading what u’v written, I feel that u r generalising every liitle thing that goes on in ur life in Sri Lanka. May be u still haven’t met people like me, like my parents before JUMPING into conclusions about the so called arranged marriage system. May be u still haven’t been to India to know better about arranged marriages. My parents ( my father is Christien whereas my mother is Buddhist) had a love marriage while I myself am having a muslim boyfriend for the last 3 years. I have lots of American friends as well as other foreign national friends. Sometimes I also find it tough to understand their respective cultures. But that doesn’t give me the right to criticize them as well. I believe livin in a world which is a product of globalisation, we need to have the spirit to accept different cultures and different ideas the way they r. Because these things r all relative: what is good for u someone else might find as bad. There is one US girl who’s been restricated frm taking hostel facilities because she’s abused some of her hostelmates using deregetory comments on racial issues. She’s punished by the university authorities and termed as a snnobish and illmannered person. SHOULD I term the US citizens in general as SNOBBISH and ILLMANNERED???? U might find the Asian accent of English to be funny but most of the asians can also find American accent to be v funny since most of the South Asian contries were colonised by the British and thus v r used to British English. As far as ur fears of the toilets without toilet papers r concerned, let me tell u that I’v many times come accross people who wonder how the “whites” clean themselves properly without water and soap. So plz understand that what u say can be used and interpreted in so many contexts. I’m deeply sorry for all the troubles u and ur friends had to go through…! And thanx for bearing my comments till the end! I wish that God would be kind enough to make u to see more positive things in my country! Have a nice time1


  3. Tim said,

    December 3, 2008 at 7:01 pm


    Thanks for writing. I am sorry that I am not better able to express my feelings in words, because I never intended to communicate what you read in my postings.

    I love being in Sri Lanka and I love the Sri Lankan people I’ve met. This trip is perhaps the greatest experience I have ever had in my 55 years of life. I have told several people, and I mean it, that if I die tonight, I will die knowing that I have had a full and satisfying life and my first opportunity to spend a significant amount of time abroad is part of that feeling. Being in Sri Lanka for nine months is literally fulfilling one of my life-long dreams.

    We have had some bad experiences among the good and I am sorry if it seems to you that I have overemphasized the bad. I hope that you have read a considerable number of my postings to get a sense of the balance and, if not, I hope you will. But you may be right that I have not been balanced since you have the impression that am unhappy here when nothing could be further from the truth. I have tried to make light of the trivial stuff and to recognize my own mistakes, ignorance, and lack of language skills that have contributed to my occasional misfortunes.

    Another thing that might contribute to a more negative emphasis than really intended is the progression of culture shock when anyone moves to a country with a very different culture. I have written about and am “scheduled” to be in a negative phase right now, a phase in which one comes to believe that people in the majority culture are actively hostile to the visitor. I have tried to deal with this with a sense of humor and by bringing my feelings to the surface by writing about them. I hope you stick around for several months to see if I swing back to the positive “on schedule.”

    Without making excuses for my poor writing skills, let me comment on some of the specific things you have mentioned. Let me start with your concern that I am generalizing. My intention is to write about my personal experiences. I know that my experiences will be limited both by the time I will be here and by living in a particular, small, segment of Sri Lankan society. I have tried, but obviously have not been completely successful, to remind readers from time to time that I am aware of these limitations and that the readers should be careful about generalizing from my observations. So, to the extent that I have over generalized my observations, I apologize.

    From your posting, I see also that I have failed to make my point about arranged marriages clear. I had intended to make the case to my primarily American readers that arranged marriages in fact make sense. That is, I tried to make the concept of arranged marriages understandable to those who have not had any experience with it. I also tried to express my feeling that the Western romantic ideal and, what I see as the ideal upon which the system of arranged marriages is based, *both* have flaws when they confront reality and that *both* systems have mechanisms that try to deal with those flaws.

    I will disagree with you slightly. I do not believe that “everything is relative.” I also do not believe that there is “only one right way.” In the US until the 1920’s, women could not vote. I do not hold the view that not allowing women to vote was the right policy for that era. Similarly, there are countries today that limit women’s rights in many ways (I’m envisioning Afghanistan under the Taliban or the status of women in some of the tribal areas of Pakistan) and I think that is wrong. It is not all just relative. Now, for what it is worth, the women I have met in Sri Lanka seem very independent minded to me and they certainly have their rights guaranteed by the constitution of Sri Lanka. That they keep their own names I think is symbolically very important. I certainly do not think the situation of women in Sri Lanka is anything like the situation of women in Afghanistan.

    But from my observations and my readings, I think that there are still some issues about women’s rights in Sri Lanka (and in the US, of course) and I suspect you would agree. I have decided not to write about certain negative experiences we have had here related to this subject area but I can say unequivocally that what we experienced was wrong. It is not all relative.

    That is the context for my statement that I still prefer the “romantic” method of finding marriage partners. In a traditional society where the bride (and groom) do not have the ultimate say about who they will marry, I think is wrong on some fundamental human rights level. I tried to say why it might make sense economically in order to hopefully explain its origins in history and thereby make it more understandable to an American audience. Then I go on to say that among the Sri Lankans I have met, the traditional model is changing to a much less (or even not-at-all) coercive system in practice. And practice is all I care about, really. So I see the difference between the two systems as coming together from two different directions and I tried to express my feeling that this is a good thing.

    But, many things that different cultures find puzzling about each other come just from lack of knowledge. Some things are relative and related to different customs and different circumstances. The toilet paper issue is one of those. I do not know if you have had the same reaction to the presence of toilet paper as Westerners have to its absence, but, if you have, you understand the power over our minds that habits dating back to our infancy have. I was actually planning a future posting about the lack of toilet paper in (some) bathrooms. I will spoil what may be a surprise to some by saying that, *now that I understand why this is the case*, I find that it makes perfect sense. I also will relate some of the religious teachings in this area, but, for that, I need to do some more research. Thus, eventually, I hope to help bridge the cultural divide on this issue.

    Again, thank you for taking the time to comment. I think it is safe to say that I have never written so much, so regularly, in my entire life. I am a very inexperienced writer and feedback is very helpful to me. I would hate for my poor writing skills to create misunderstanding when my intended purpose is to enhance understanding. So, please feel free write again to let me know in what ways I am not communicating clearly.


  4. Charles said,

    December 17, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    When the blind meets the blind, they fall into matrimony.

  5. January 25, 2009 at 12:01 am

    […] in comment number 3 of my “Arranged marriages” post, I promised to post more about the different toilet facilities and habits between East and West in […]

  6. February 9, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    […] steep.” Sure enough, when I typed “merle steep” into Google my posting on Arranged Marriages was Google’s number 2 offering. And, sure enough, I had misspelled both the actress’ […]

  7. BenDan said,

    January 12, 2011 at 9:25 am

    Hi, geeze I think someone got over offended by Tim’s story – I appreciate it! I have a Sri Lankan boyfriend that was forced in and out of relationships by his parents and then finally gave in and married a woman (the introduced) he didn’t love – they have a child too now! He has separated from the arranged marriage now and we are together but his parents don’t know and he is afraid to tell them (because I am white)! I am afraid that this situation is not going to last and it is so sad for both of us because we love each other so deeply – but sometimes love isn’t enough when there are so many complications. I cannot believe that parents that claim to love their children can be so terribly cruel! This is so painful and unnecessary…why cannot two people that love each other just be left in peace to live their life as they please? Nobody asks to be born and just because you have children doesn’t mean you have the right to own them…it’s foul and very selfish!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: