In the United States, we think we know about arranged marriages: Your relatives choose your husband or wife, or present you with a limited pool of candidates, thereby diminishing your options and, ultimately, the chances that you will live happily ever after.
But that's not what researchers at California State University found when they put arranged marriage to the test.
Psychology professor Pamela Regan and her co-authors looked at the marriages of 58 Indian-Americans living in the U.S. About half the participants (28) said their marriages had been arranged, either by relatives or professional matchmakers. The remaining 30 described their marriages as love-based. When researchers had the participants complete questionnaires on love, relationship satisfaction and commitment, they found something rather remarkable.
"We found absolutely no differences whatsoever, and we're not really sure why," says Regan, whose results were published in Psychological Reports.
"Certainly the nature of marriage is changing more and more around the world," she said. "More and more people are making their choices on the basis of attraction and love, and even in those cultures with a strong tradition, like India, of arranged marriage, (many) partners now have sort of veto power: My family might choose my mate for me, but if I meet him and I don't feel that special something, I get to say 'no.'"
It's possible, Regan says, that the self-identified "arranged" marriages in her study were actually these hybrids of free-choice and arranged matches.
In her study, one of the few to compare outcomes for arranged and free-choice marriage, members of both groups reported high rates of love, satisfaction and commitment. The study was relatively small, and the authors caution that U.S.-based arranged marriages are probably different from arranged marriages in rural, traditional societies. We asked Regan about the implications of her research. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: I didn't realize there was so little research on arranged marriage.
A: In societies that have that history of arranged marriages, we don't have a lot of social psychology or relationship science, and so it makes sense that we don't know very much. People just haven't been able to ask the questions.
Q: You talk about free choice in American arranged marriages. What about the power of parents in free-choice marriage?
A: We often forget how embedded we are in the relationships we have with others, and the extent to which social influence operates on our decisions. We believe we are making individual decisions. (But) we know from research on high school and college students that their social network members, and that includes their siblings and their parents and their friends, exert an enormous influence on their relationship choices. It's hard to go out with someone your best friend hates, isn't it? And it's hard to date someone who your parents absolutely hate. You might date them for a while, but the truth is, that puts a huge pressure on any relationship.
Q: So parents do have an influence in free-choice marriage?
A: Our parents do affect our choice of spouse. They just don't arrange it. They do, of course, affect it. So do our siblings. So do our friends. To think of free choice versus arranged is probably kind of inaccurate. There's probably a big overlap between the two. Every supposedly free-choice marriage still, to some extent, requires the approval of the social network.
Q: I'm thinking of when I brought my future husband home to meet my family. It was a huge thing.
A: Maybe, whether we seek it informally or we formally get it, we all need approval of social network members. It's just that in some societies, that approval has been formalized: "I'll help. I'll give you 10 to choose from." You essentially did the same thing. You took your future mate home, held him up and said, "Is he OK?"
Q: Poor guy!
A: Yes! And we all do that. That's why, still, we make movies about (meeting the parents), for heaven's sake. That is still an enormous hoop we have to jump through.