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Critical Thinking Of Arranging A Marriage In India

In a recent blog post, I wondered why so many Indian arranged marriages are successful. I based the discussion on my observation that even in a rapidly modernizing India, most educated, upper-class Indians, men and women, prefer to marry in the traditional way, with significant parental involvement and minimal courtship, when selecting mates. Many readers pointed out that this was a rather narrow and naïve view of arranged marriages in India. According to them, the truth is a lot darker. What applies to empowered, educated Indian women does not apply to poor, illiterate, rural women that comprise the vast majority. That is a fair point.

In this post, I want to consider arranged marriage outcomes for a broader pool of Indian women. I will limit my discussion to women because as we will see, Indian women are by far the more vulnerable party in a marriage, whether it is fully arranged, free-choice, or somewhere in between.

Let’s start with a proper definition of arranged marriage1. For our purposes, it is a marriage in which the woman’s parents or older family members play a significant role in selecting a mate for her and finalizing wedding arrangements including the provision of dowry2. What does recent research have to say about arranged marriages of Indian women?

The North-South Divide & Fully Arranged Vs. Semi-Arranged Marriages

Within India, there are significant differences in marriage customs between the economically advanced southern and western states such as Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, and the less developed northern states such as Bihar and Jharkhand3. In one large study of close to 14,000 young married women4, a vast majority or 91% of Northern women got “fully” arranged marriages. They had no voice whatsoever in selecting their husbands. Their parents and elders chose for them and they had to cooperate and marry a stranger without any prior interaction or knowledge of their soon-to-be-spouse. In these marriages, grooms from the same caste and religion are considered and the bride’s parents weigh his education, profession, social and economic standing with their ability to afford the corresponding dowry amount5. In contrast, in the economically advanced states, close to 50% of the women had at least some say in selecting their husband, engaged in supervised courtship, or chose their mate themselves. Not surprisingly, the less educated, poorer, and rural Indian women are the ones that are subjected to a fully arranged marriage, usually before they have turned 18.

Does participation in selecting a husband lead to better outcomes?

Where longer-term outcomes are concerned, the data indicate that getting a fully arranged marriage has terrible consequences for a poor, rural Indian woman. Compared to a free-choice or  a semi-arranged marriage both of which are extremely rare in poor and rural India, even years later, getting a fully arranged marriage is associated with lower levels of communication with the husband on such things as how to spend the household’s money and when to have children6.  These women also have significantly lower autonomy on mobility like traveling outside one’s neighborhood or making decisions about household purchases.  But it is not clear to me how much of this has to do with the method of marriage vs. other social factors.

Indian Married Women & Physical and Sexual Violence

Now here is the really bad news. In one recent study, the authors found that regardless of how they got married or their economic or educational status, fully 45.5% of all Indian women experienced some form of physical or sexual violence from their husbands after marriage7. Those who got a semi-arranged marriage were less likely (34.8%) to have experienced sexual violence than those who got a fully-arranged marriage (49.4%)8. Another study using a larger sample of 28,000+ married women from the 2007 National Family Health Survey data reported that 35% of women had suffered such intimate partner violence. Across the studies, these numbers are shockingly high. If you are an Indian woman, there is a 1 in 3 chance that your husband will physically or sexually assault you after marriage. Choosing your husband yourself only slightly reduces this chance. What is more, being assaulted by the husband is associated with an increased likelihood that you will get infected with the HIV virus9.

Having a Sister Has Insidious Effects On the Woman's Future

Indian tradition dictates that if one has two or more daughters, the oldest one has to marry first, then the next oldest, and so on. Additionally, once you leave the upper class, the marriage age for women falls off a cliff. For example, even today, between half and two thirds of all young Indian women are married before they turn 18. On the other hand, if you haven’t married by the age of 25 and don’t live in a big city, your chance of marrying is close to zero10. These unwritten rules have harsh consequences for both older and younger siblings.  

A recent study11 by economist Tom Vogl used data from close to 150,000 South Asian12 families to study the effects of having a sister on arranged marriage outcomes. With meticulous analysis, Vogl found that in multi-daughter families, parents rushed to marry the older sister off quickly so that her younger sister(s) could be married before her marriage window shut down. This rush led to two outcomes: (1) the older sister attained a lower level of education and (2) she married a man with lower education, occupational, and economic status, when compared to women without sisters. Younger sisters did not do so well either. Their marriage was delayed and they ended up marrying a lower-quality man than they would have in the absence of an older sister. The pernicious effects of arranged marriage are amplified for Indian women who have sisters.

If Arranged Marriage is This Bad, How Else Can Poor, Rural Indian Women Marry?

Relatively speaking, while it is better to play a role in choosing one’s husband, the news from these studies is rather dismal for all women in present-day India. Over half of them will marry before they turn 18, and close to half of them will be physically or sexually assaulted by their husbands after marriage. Yet despite these shocking statistics, it is not clear that there is an alternative method widely available to poor, rural Indian women to find a husband and marry him. After all, the dominant cultural mores require every Indian woman to marry. Anthropologist Peter Phillimore observes:

“Women who never marry are exceptionally rare throughout rural India. Among Hindus and Sikhs, both sexes popularly consider it an unfortunate and demeaning eventuality for a woman to remain unmarried, reflecting badly on the woman herself, her family, and most of all her father. An unmarried adult woman belongs to no recognized social category and consequently lacks a definite status in her home village or in the wider local community.13

The institution of arranged marriage along with its accompanying well-accepted aspects such as marrying at a young age, the provision of dowry, and rigid definitions of gender roles before and after one is married are so entrenched in Indian culture that quick change seems impossible within rural and poor India which consists of some 880 million people14. The only small silver lining to this cloud is that in a fraction of cases (1 or 2 in 100), poor, rural, Indian women are stepping outside their prescribed role and are playing a more active part in choosing their husbands.

If you enjoy reading about Indian arranged marriages, you may enjoy my other posts on this topic:


[1] A longer description of arranged marriage in the Indian context is provided here.

[2] Dowry refers to a payment, either in cash, or in valuable objects such as jewelry, consumer electronics, vehicles, etc. from the bride’s family to the groom’s family at the time of marriage. There is lots of interesting discussion about its benefits and harms, such as this paper by Siwan Anderson: Anderson, Siwan. (2003), “Why dowry payments declined with modernization in Europe but are rising in India,” Journal of Political Economy 111(2), 269-310.

[3] A detailed discussion of regional differences in rural marriages, see Jejeebhoy, Shireen J., and Shiva S. Halli. (2005), "Marriage patterns in rural India: Influence of sociocultural context." The changing transitions to adulthood in developing countries: Selected studies.

[4] Jejeebhoy, Shireen J., K. G. Santhya, Rajib Acharya, and Ravi Prakash (2013), “Marriage-related decision making and young women’s marital relations and agency: Evidence from India" Asian Population Studies, 9(1), 28-49.

[5] See Allendorf, Keera, and Arland Thornton (2015), "Caste and Choice: The Influence of Developmental Idealism on Marriage Behavior" American Journal of Sociology, 121(1), 243-287.

[6] These issues are studied in length in the Jejeebhoy et al. (2013) paper.

[7] The question about physical violence asked the respondent whether her husband had ever slapped, pushed, kicked, beaten or choked her; twisted her arm; pulled her hair; thrown something at her; intentionally burnt her; or attacked her with a weapon. The question about sexual violence was whether she had been forced to engage in sexual relations against her will at the time of first marital sex or anytime thereafter.

[8] These group differences may have more to do with socio-economic factors than the arranged marriage itself. After all, most Indian women do not have a say in whether they will have a say in choosing their husband.

[9] This point is made in this 2008 study: Silverman, Jay G., Michele R. Decker, Niranjan Saggurti, Donta Balaiah, and Anita Raj (2008) "Intimate partner violence and HIV infection among married Indian women." JAMA, 300(6), 703-710.

[10] See Jejeebhoy, Shireen J., and Shiva S. Halli (2005), "Marriage patterns in rural India: Influence of sociocultural context." The changing transitions to adulthood in developing countries: Selected studies.

[11] Vogl, Tom. (2013). Marriage institutions and siblingcompetition: Evidence from South Asia. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 1017-1072.

[12] This study used data from the Demographic and Health Surveys conducted in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan between 1990 and 2007.

[13] Phillimore, Peter (1991), “Unmarried women of the Dhaula Dhar: Celibacy and social control in Northwest India,” Journal of Anthropological Research, 331-350.

[14] The World Bank reports the 2014 Indian population to be 1.295 billion people, of which 68% live in rural areas, see this.

I teach core marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.

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During my two plus decades living in the United States, I have seen many changes occur in my native India.  The country eradicated the scourge of polio, sent a rocket ship to Mars on a shoestring budget, built modern highways crisscrossing the country, and flexed its economic muscles, raising tens of millions of people out of poverty.

One phenomenon that hasn’t changed, however, and continues to puzzle and intrigue many people (including me) is the institution of the Indian arranged marriage. Even today, a vast majority of Indians and Indian Americans that I know, including family members, friends, acquaintances, and my students, many of them among the highest educated and westernized strata, choose an arranged marriage over a free-choice one.

How does a modern Indian arranged marriage work?

A typical modern arranged marriage works as follows. For both men and women, the individual’s parents or older family members screen for and find prospective mates for further consideration through their social circle, community, or by advertising on matrimonial websites or newspapers. There is an initial meeting in a family gathering, after which the couple has a few opportunities for chaperoned courtship. At this point if neither party has vetoed the match and if they are so inclined, they may spend some time together alone. And then it is time to make the decision. It is not unusual for the process from initial introduction to the final yes/ no decision to unfold within a few days. A 2013 IPSOS survey found that 74% of young Indians (18-35 years old) prefer an arranged marriage over a free-choice one. Other sources report that as many as 90% of all Indian marriages are arranged.

In this post, I want to explore two rather interesting and reliable statistics related to Indian arranged marriages. The first is that Indians have an astonishingly low divorce rate. Despite doubling in urban areas since 2007, only about 1 in 100 Indian marriages end in divorce. This is one of the lowest divorce rates in the world. Even more impressive is the second statistic, about the high levels of satisfaction reported by those in arranged marriages over the longer-term.

A recent study of relationship outcomes among Indian-American couples married either through free-choice or arranged marriages for about a decade found absolutely no differences. Those in arranged marriages were just as satisfied with their marriage and loved their partner as intensely as those who wed through free-choice. Other studies have found similar results. Despite criticisms of self-selection and small sample sizes leveled against some of these studies, this is the best available evidence and it suggests that Indian arranged marriages are at least as successful as free-choice ones.

How can this be? How can two people who barely know each other make such an important decision that will affect their joint futures so quickly? And even more surprising, how can a decision made this way lead to positive outcomes for so many couples?

I want to propose three factors that might help explain this puzzle. These have to do with relinquishing difficult aspects of the choice, choosing with relatively little deliberation, and starting the relationship with lower expectations. Let’s look at each of these factors in detail.

Relinquishing Difficult Aspects of the Choice

From a decision making perspective, choosing a marriage partner through arrangement has at least two major advantages. The first is that people that one respects and trusts, AKA parents or elders prescreen the available options, leaving a small and manageable choice set.

In free-choice marriage decisions, one of the hardest challenges is finding a good set of options to choose from. From those interested in marriage, complaints about how hard it is to find a good man or a good woman are commonplace. Just as problematic, when left to their own devices, people tend to use prescreening criteria that emphasize outward appearances (looks, possessions, etc.). These are short-term oriented but may not necessarily contribute to longer-term marital outcomes. For instance, social psychologists have found impressive evidence for “attractiveness matching” in which daters give heavy weight to physical attractiveness of potential partners, and favor those whose attractiveness is comparable to their own.

A second difficult challenge is choice set size. The question of how many potential partners to date before marrying someone can be answered by math (the answer is the square root of n, where n is potential lifetime dates, the solution to the “optimal stopping problem”) or computation (made famous by the big data-driven process used by mathematician Chris McKinlay on OKCupid). But for most people, it is difficult to figure out when to stop searching and just as hard not to begin again once they have settled for chosen a partner.

When a marriage is arranged, both these problems are solved. Prospects come vetted. What is more, they share many characteristics such as social class, religion, caste (yes, even today, for Hindus), and educational attainment that signal similarity and may be important predictors of longer-term marriage success. The vetting process also limits the choice set size and puts a grinding halt to further search once a choice is made. Making others you trust do all the hard work in the choice process pays off.

Choice with Relatively Little Deliberation

The conventional wisdom about decision making is that the more time and effort we spend in making a decision, especially for important issues, the better our decision will be and the happier we will be with the outcome. But this is not always the case.  There is a whole body of research that points to the exact opposite conclusion. It shows that for complex decisions, people are better served by not thinking too much and relying more on gut feelings. In one study of IKEA furniture shoppers, for example, researchers found that those who thought less about which furniture to buy were happier with it a few weeks later. Another negative consequence of thinking too hard about different options is that people get attached to them so that choosing one option produces regret at having lost out on others (what psychologists call as the “choosing feels like losing” effect). Nowhere is this truer than in dating and marriage decisions where potential partners may have different attractive qualities, and none may have all the qualities one is looking for.

My hunch is that what applies to IKEA furniture also applies to choosing a husband or a wife. In an arranged marriage, the speed with which one must decide whether or not to marry the person they have been introduced to doesn’t leave much time for careful thinking or comparisons. Instead, it encourages going with one’s gut feelings about the partner, which in turn may leads to more satisfying outcomes. In free choice marriages, on the other hand, the long and elaborate dating process provides lots of time and opportunity to judge potential partners critically and deliberately, and long for the ones that got away.

Starting the Relationship with Lower Expectations

A third reason for positive outcomes in arranged marriages is the expectation level of participants. By and large, a couple entering an arranged marriage simply doesn’t know each other that well compared to those beginning free-choice marriages. (The only exception is a free-choice marriage to a stranger during a Las Vegas trip.) Consequently, the expectations from each other at the relationship’s outset will be lower. This is because in-depth knowledge is crucial to forming accurate expectations, and more knowledge produces higher expectations.  In Indian arranged marriages, in particular, many people give greater weight to compatibility and financial security over romantic love, further contributing to restrained expectations. As research on satisfaction judgments shows, when expectations are low, they are more likely to be met or exceeded, leaving the newly-wed highly satisfied. In a free-choice marriage, in contrast, high expectations often develop during an elaborate dating period, with the culture placing great weight on the romantic love ideal. This sets people up for a let-down after the honeymoon period is over.

The Indian Arranged Marriage Puzzle in Cultural Context

A terrific amount has been written about Indian arranged marriages, of course. While I focused on reasons why some aspects of its decision making process favor positive longer-term outcomes, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that this is a superior method of finding someone to marry. Rather, I see the positive outcomes as a puzzle. There are many important aspects of arranged marriage that I didn’t discuss such as its roots, supports, and long history in Indian culture that make it socially acceptable. But just as there are heartwarming success stories about marriages between strangers leading to lasting love, there are stories of exploitation and suffering of women. One could easily write a lengthy dissertation examining the negative aspects of Indian arranged marriages.

If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy my other posts on Indian arranged marriages.

I teach core marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.

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