The Indian-American marriage conundrum — The Indian SCENE

The Indian-American marriage conundrum

How exactly is marriage magically supposed to happen when literally nothing has been invested in growing children into sociable people?

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To say that Indians are obsessed with the idea of marriage is an understatement. Globally, the Indian marriage enterprise is a multi-billion dollar force comprising dating sites, dating coaches, wedding vendors, event planners and a whole slew of other businesses and people. Getting one’s kids married and settled down is one of the greatest responsibilities of the parents in our community. It is a duty that has been passed down for hundreds of years through many generations. Yet, Indian men and women are for many reasons getting married later and later. They are also finding it increasingly challenging to connect with someone that they feel genuinely compatible with.

Two of the biggest reasons for delayed marriage have long been debated and researched: education and the availability of increased choice. First, let’s focus on education. Every parent wants their child to be successful, accomplished and well-settled. This is especially true of the Indian-American community, which emphasizes educational accomplishment as a path to success. It’s why the Indian-American community, as a whole, is one of the most educated groups in the United States. For many of us South Asians, it can seem as if professional degrees are practically a requirement. From a very young age, we are trained to focus on our education, and only our education — everything else in life is considered a distraction. Should we fail at something educationally, that might mean our parents wasted their investment. So, social relationships are frowned upon because they are seen as obstacles that deter us from becoming doctors, engineers, IT professionals, etc.

I remember my teenage years when my friends and I tried to talk about our problems with friends or people we might like romantically. The standard response we generally got from our parents was, “Don’t waste your time on such useless matters. Your job is to study and become successful in your career. We didn’t come to this country so that you can worry about friends and love and whatnot.” We took their advice, leaving us at a point where our job titles and careers are the only things that define us as people.

But we all know that’s not how life works. Life doesn’t happen in a compartmentalized vacuum. Our social development happens right alongside our educational development. The core traits of our personalities become permanent during our formative teenage years. In fact, minimizing our curiosity about interpersonal relationships and the ability to explore them during our adolescence actually hurts our intellectual and personal development for the rest of our lives. If marriage is such an important social and religious institution in our culture, it makes absolutely no sense that we raise children into adults without any guidance on how to navigate through interpersonal relationships. It lends itself to a kind of irony: when a son or daughter is 35 and unmarried, their parents lament that their child is still single.

How exactly is marriage magically supposed to happen when literally nothing has been invested in growing a child into a sociable person? Many of us are in now caught in this rather bewildering position of being highly educated people who haven’t learned much about what we want out of life.

Increased choice in marriage: Is that even a thing?

Almost every single one of us immigrant children has at some point been told that we have an untold number of choices for marriage that our parents never had in their lives. Do we really? How many of us have actually had the freedom to date and figure out what we like in people? When we get to a marriageable age, even the most liberal of our parents tell us that they are okay with us finding our own spouse…“as long as they are Indian” or “as long as they are Hindu.” Let us also not forget that our potential partners should be well-educated, fair-skinned, from stable families, and hold certain “Indian values!”

I remember the countless number of times when my parents or other family members showed me random “biodatas” or Shaadi.com profiles. I was given maybe a day before I was invariably asked, “Should we proceed? The boy comes from a good family.” In my mind I always thought, proceed with what exactly?

How are we supposed to decide in a single day or two, if we are good with spending the rest of our lives with the mere idea of someone (on a profile probably created by someone other than the person involved)? Where exactly do our choices fit in when we are operating with so many limitations set forth by our well-wishers and even ourselves? If we don’t know who we are at our core, how can we find suitable mates? If we don’t know what motivates us internally — outside of our jobs — and what makes us happy, how can we possibly present the best version of ourselves to anyone else? We could spend an entire lifetime sifting through all the possible “potential matches” for marriage and not find anyone because we don’t know what makes us who we are. We don’t know what we truly want or need, because these types of things have always been decided for us in the name of increased choice.

To be sure, rarely is this done with malicious intent or ignorance on anyone’s part. There is no blame to be placed on anyone’s shoulders. It is simply the way things have been in our culture for hundreds of years. It is how our parents were raised, how their parents were raised, their parents before that and so on. We are simply the byproduct of centuries of a particular way of cultural transmission. Only now are we recognizing that this way may not work for us as we become exposed to other ways of thought, whether through the pressures of acculturating into foreign cultures as immigrants, or through globalization processes within India.

The area of marriage and interpersonal relationships is only one facet of life where an immediate cultural evolution is critical and necessary, and where the problem is blatantly obvious.  There are many other aspects of our lives involved in this discussion — the way we socialize our boys and girls, the way we perpetually sabotage ourselves by becoming complacent with cultural expectations, and the way we hinder our own happiness in life by not realizing our true potential as self-aware, self-actualizing people. We aren’t past the point of no return, not all hope is lost. There are simple yet profound ways we can retain our core values and identity, while making them more modern and applicable to ourselves and to our community at large, especially right now, during minority mental health awareness month. All the resources that we could have access to are even more readily advertised and promoted. So let’s take advantage of it, and take back our control of our mental wellbeing and our sense of self. Let us work on ourselves and evolve our futures into our ideal situations for empowerment, relationships and happiness.

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3 thoughts on “The Indian-American marriage conundrum”

  1. Hello Dr.Aparajita great article but I don’t agree with many things said here. Without proper understanding of parents responsibility and the pressure of raising children abroad one can have opinions. Many times the true facts will be realized only one goes through parenting and understand the nuances and the unconditional love towards our children. Agree some things can change but our culture is built profoundly on inter personal relationships and being altruistic many times with the concept of extended families. The path to getting married may look like not very sophisticated but the underlying principle of support and care will eliminate many psychological problems which we are seeing in society today.

    1. Thank you Sudha for your comment and your thoughts! I completely agree that the foundation of our culture is deeply embedded in the interconnectedness of our interpersonal relationships. The expression of this philosophy can get distorted though, because of the intricacies involved. Not in spite of them. I personally think there’s still space for an emphasis on personal growth and development that can make interpersonal relationships and the value of community even more meaningful and impactful, both within our communities, and in our interactions with the world. I’m definitely going to be thinking about your insights as I move forward in this space.

  2. Aparajita,
    I agree with you that it does sound weird when our parents ask us if we should proceed with the match and then they also mention how they heard that the boy comes from a good family. I wish I could go back in time and say please don’t proceed. I knew about this match since 2013 but we finally proceeded in 2016. Well the fact is we proceeded two years ago and I got married on my 29th birthday in 2016. It took about a year and two months when I petitioned for my husband to come to America. My husband finally came to America in 2018. He spent a couple of months with me and then his friends convinced him to move to live with them so they could all work together. We spent a month together in India from November to December when we visited my in-law’s. I came back in December and he came back in January. Just two days after he came back from India he moved back to Maryland. Flash forward to Father’s Day 2019 and I come home from work to read an email from my husband telling me that he wants a divorce. Keep in mind that he is only in America because he married me a United States Citizen. I’m feeling betrayed because I was raised on believing in marriage and the fact that marriage is for life. Why did he marry me and not even try to work out our marriage? Why are there so many stories of Indian men marrying Indian women and divorcing them for really dumb reasons? Many green card marriages are happening and I just don’t want to hear that another woman is going through the pain and betrayal that I have been going through for almost two months.
    Nandini

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