Saturday, April 21, 2018

Marrying the Right Person

To continue the discussion from my prior post on Arranged Marriage I will report on a 2015 article from Psychology Today, authored by Utpal Dholakia. David Foster, of the Chicago Boyz blog, linked it in the comments section yesterday and it is well worth our attention.

Dholakia offers an astute and valuable analysis of how and why the custom of arranged marriage works in India. Evidently, the custom does not force young Indians to marry someone they do not want to marry. At the same time their parents do not just send them out on their own, with only their adolescent judgment to guide them. Parents participate actively in the selection process.

One must emphasize that the terms, arranged marriage and free choice marriage, are slight misnomers. In an Indian marriage, young people have a free choice among several options. They can choose one or even none. In what is called a free choice marriage, it’s more like a free-for-all. You can choose anyone you want from a myriad of possibilities.

In India parents take charge of the situation by choosing a small number of acceptable mates. It makes a certain amount of sense, since the new spouse will become part of a family. People do not see marriage in terms of coupling two individuals, but as an alliance between families:

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.

It matters that most young people prefer to arranged marriage to free-choice marriage. And that the arranged marriages yield a very low divorce rate and a high level of satisfaction:
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.

If this form of arranged marriage works, the question is why? Enquiring minds want to know.

Dholakia looks at the decision-making angle. I addressed the same issue, but in slightly different terms. He writes:
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.

The couple is not flying blind. They do not have to spend untold months trying to judge each other’s character. Moreover, as I mentioned, decision making is easier when each person has fewer options.

Dholakia continues:

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.

And also, people who have too many options tend to overthink the issue:

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.

Whereas parents choose prospective mates according to objective criteria, young people operating according to a free choice system tend to emphasize more subjective criteria, like looks, attractiveness and feeling:

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.

Evidently, but not to evident not to mention, when parents choose the dating pool, their children are meeting prospective mates with whom they have the most in common. This might tamp down passionate intensity, but it is a better predictor of marital durability:

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.

As it happens, young people who are meeting prospects chosen by their parents do not really go out on dates. They do not engage in a courtship ritual. They spend time together, first chaperoned, next on their own, to see whether they find each other suitable and presumably, sufficiently attractive. So much of the process has been taken care of already, that very little remains:

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.

I would be more careful about saying that the young people are following gut feelings. Just because you have only spent a few days getting to know a person, does not mean that your judgment is gut-level. Allow me also to mention that these young people are not engaging in very much pre-marital sex. Since our current culture tells young people that they must have premarital sex, to see if they are sexually compatible, the point deserves emphasis. Dholakia does not mention it, but it is worth noting.

 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. 

Finally, Dholakia explains that couples who have chosen mates selected by their parents have lower expectations from marriage and are less likely to be disappointed. They are also less likely to see marriage as a long term love affair, and more likely to understand it as a cooperative enterprise:

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.


David Foster said...

Also in India...

Ares Olympus said...

The other feature of Indian marriages I recall is a wedding isn't a single day, but like a week long event for a whole community, and families will save for decades to be able to host them. One Indian coworker described his caste as "one step below royalty" so his descriptions might not be average. It did show an older sense of wealth - where your generosity is the measure of your social status, not just the size of your house or car. OTOH, my coworker told me he was chastised by his uncle when he'd visit home for giving money to children or beggars. He also said between weddings, funerals and religious celebrations, it can seem like one big continuous celebration which is fun growing up but also overwhelming.

Ares Olympus said...

--> 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)

Maybe the same as "Buyer's remorse" where the worst state is having two seemingly equally attractive and incompatible options, like Frost's two roads diverging in a yellow wood.
While rationalization is apparently the best strategy after a decision.

Or maybe the best strategy can use randomizing factor like flipping a coin (yes/no or A/B). At least resentment against a coin for a less than happy decision is better than resentment against a parent's advice.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that question (Did I marry the right person) can be answered until the end however that may come.

Margaret Ball said...

You beat me to it, David; I was about to mention that a box of matches is cheaper than a divorce.

sestamibi said...

@David Foster

Where's Sir Charles James Napier when you need him?

David Foster said...

Re the argument about too much choice making people unhappy: this argument could also be made about lots of other things in life: career choice, where to live, etc. Why not just return to a traditional feudal society, in which the family you are born into controls many aspects or your life, and the local Lord controls the rest? Gets rid of all those troublesome choice problems...

Ares Olympus said...

David Foster, choice seems to be a divergent problem, potentially oppressive if you have too many, or if you have too few. Adam Curtis looked into choice in his "Century of Self", ending with the predicament "Although we feel we are free, in reality, we have become the slaves of our own desires."