“At the end of our date, he asked whether we could get married that December,” a young woman anonymously told CNN. “Get married? I wasn't even sure I wanted to have dessert with him.” A first date and a marriage proposal—for some women, this is the face of a modern arranged marriage. And though arranged marriages may seem like a relic of a bygone age, they are still surprisingly popular around the world. It’s estimated over half of marriages worldwide are arranged—and that over 20 million of those unions exist in the world today, a surprising fact given that we almost never hear about arranged marriages unless we're discussing their famously low divorce rates. In the U.S., while the divorce rate hovers around 40 or 50 percent, the divorce rate for arranged marriages is 4 percent. In India, where some estimate that 90 percent of marriages are arranged, the divorce rate is only 1 percent.
Are low divorce rates a sign that arranged marriages work? Or just a sign that those involved in them are also the type of people who are, for one reason or another, unlikely to file for divorce? The closer you look at the world of modern arranged marriages, the clearer it is that things have changed—but only for some.
A Modern Take on Tradition
It’s unsurprising that technology has changed and influenced the way arranged marriages are formed. “I’m in my thirties, and in their quest, my parents have discovered a dizzying array of websites: shaadi.com, indiamatrimony.com, etc,” Anita Jain wrote in NY Mag. “Within these sites are sub-sites for Indian regions, like punjabimatrimony.com. Far from being a novel approach to matrimony, these sites are a natural extension of how things have been done in India for decades. Even since well before the explosion of the country’s famously vibrant press in the fifties, Indians were coupling up via matrimonial ads in national papers (“Match sought for Bengali Brahmin, wheatish complexion,” etc.).”
But perhaps the biggest change is how some young people are given in their arrangement. While we traditionally think of an arranged marriage to mean showing up at the altar to meet your spouse for the first time, the modern take has more negotiation. While the family influence is still key—and indeed, it is often the family choosing the potential partner—some people are given a power of veto. "Today's arranged marriages place much more emphasis on free choice," Pamela Regan, a professor at California State University in Los Angeles, tells The Knot. "People are saying, 'I'm willing to let my parents find someone, but if I don't like him, I have the right to say no.'" There is an expectation that all parties will have an opinion, an opportunity to decline. This is not only the case in the west, where immigrant parents may have children more resistant to such arrangements. In areas of the world where arranged marriages are still popular, certain circles are moving toward giving the children more and more say in their partner. But that is only in certain circles.
However for Some, Nothing Has Changed
If you look at arranged marriages for any length of time, you see that for some women there is no choice at all. Arranged marriages are often code for forced marriages; in many cases the brides are under 15 years old, with countries like Niger and India having particularly disturbing rates of child brides. These girls are often pulled out of school and isolated, left with no choices or opportunities. So while on the one hand the modern trend has been to grant more autonomy to those involved, it’s important to remember that in many cases it is still a veneer, cloaking abuse in the name of tradition.
There are plenty of positive explanations for the low divorce rates of arranged marriages. Couples feel more inclined to work through issues and are more dedicated to each other. Mutual admiration develops. They don’t make rash decisions to marry someone because of passion or lust. And maybe that’s true in some cases. Maybe it’s even more true as some people are given more influence and say in their own arranged marriages. But you can’t ignore that—for the so many young women and girls in these positions—the lack of divorce is just a sign that they have no other options and are essentially trapped.
Yet, there are heartening trends in arranged marriages—and some people even prefer that their parents do a lot of the legwork, leaving them to just give the final “yay” or “nay,” introducing a blend of tradition and modern independence that allows people to find matches that make all parties happy.