Monday, 30 October 2017

A Catholic Perspective on Arranged Marriages

The concept of arranged marriages is as fascinating and repulsive to the Western world, as it is natural and normal to most of India. Most of my friends’ parents had arranged marriages, most likely all of their ancestors before them. Some of my schoolmates, and many of the students I’ve given talks to have shared that arranged marriages are a normal part of their family culture, and expected of them as well. Surprisingly, many Catholics from more traditionally Indian cultures have also retained this custom.

What does this really mean? Well, it means different things for different cultures, and different generations. Most commonly it means serious parental involvement in the timing and choice of marriage partner. At a particular age, the parents of a girl (and often guy too) start ‘looking for a match’. How do they do this? Well, there are matrimonial columns, the network of relatives, weddings are apparently prime occasions to display your marriageable children, and view potential spouses. I’m a little fuzzy on the details. As far as I know, once you hear of a good match, the parents do a little research, asking questions like ‘How much does this boy earn? What kind of job? Any bad habits? Good family? Any shameful family secrets? Esteemed by the world in general?” etc. If all these are answered satisfactorily, they ask someone to approach the parents of the other side, or they contact them themselves with a proposal. (Aren’t proposals so romantic?

Then there is the ‘meeting’. The potential groom’s family comes over to the potential bride’s, and under their watchful eye, they ‘get to know each other’. (And don’t forget the tea served by the ‘girl’, as the ‘boy’ and his family look her over.) In most cases, both the man and woman have to give their okay, and if they do, the arrangements begin. Sometimes, they get to meet a few more times before having to make a final decision. In much more modern settings, the arranged marriage is more of a set-up, where the initial introduction is done through ‘elders’ or relatives or godparents, which possibly included a bio and photo, but the couple meet themselves and decide if they like each other enough to consider each other potential spouses. Not so different from dating sites in the West. 

Most non-Indians think arranged marriages are an archaic and terrible idea. And yet, I know many couples who are very happily married after having had their marriages arranged for them. For many, they went into the marriage with their eyes open, had enough in common (culture and expectations) to build a home together, and grew to love the person that they did not know well before they were married. 

Some people say it’s the luck of the draw. Many ‘love marriages’ fall apart, many ‘arranged marriages’ don’t. Marriage is a risk one way or another. You can’t guarantee happiness. Plus, arranged marriages have the advantage of helping everyone find a life partner. Expecting everyone to find their own spouse seems a little haphazard and possibly dooming many people to the single life. For someone with a Catholic perspective on marriage, what are we to make of arranged marriages? Are we for them, against them, or do we reserve judgment? 

It’s me, Sue! I never reserve judgment! :-D 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says a lot about marriage. But here’s a relevant excerpt: 1625 The parties to a marriage covenant are a baptized man and woman, free to contract marriage, who freely express their consent; "to be free" means: 
- not being under constraint; 
- not impeded by any natural or ecclesiastical law. 

1626 The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element that "makes the marriage." If consent is lacking there is no marriage. 

1627 The consent consists in a "human act by which the partners mutually give themselves to each other": "I take you to be my wife" - "I take you to be my husband." 

One of the big problems I see in many arranged marriages is that there may not be REAL freedom. Maybe there isn’t someone holding a gun to your head and forcing you to the altar, but there are other ways of constraining people- like emotional blackmail and pressure. How common is it for the parents of young women to keep at them, day in and day out, telling them it is their duty to marry, not to be picky, nobody is perfect anyway, that it’s ‘high time’ they settled down, that they need grandchildren, ‘what will people say?’, that time is running out, their chances are decreasing, and such other emotionally manipulative techniques. (It happens to guys too, but far more to girls because you know, they have shorter shelf lives.)

The poor girl feels like there is no other option, and she must make the best of the choices offered to her, whether or not she feels called to it, whether she really knows the man well, or whether she has even discerned if she is called to married life at all. 

CATHOLICS! This is not God’s plan or call for married life! We have quite happily imposed culture onto our faith, and told young Catholics- this is your duty as a good and respectable Catholic. And then we wonder why there are so many unhappy marriages, marriages built on shaky foundations, broken and unhappy marriages and family lives. If you start a marriage without a firm foundation on truth and freedom, it MAY last, but most likely when the storms of temptation and crisis come (as they will), the edifice will collapse. 

So what is the truth? What is God’s call for young (and old) men and women discerning marriage? And how does that fit into the concept of arranged marriages? 

1. You don’t HAVE TO get married. Shocker, I know! That is the first lie that can rob your freedom. God has not mandated that everyone has to get married. Some are called to religious life. Some are called to be consecrated singles. Some may never be in a position to get married for various reasons. And it is possible that some are called to remain single… unless they find the right person. The lie is that you HAVE to, and that the worst and most shameful state anyone can find themselves in is OLD and UNMARRIED. Guess what? That is definitely not the worst fate one can suffer. How about married but cheated on? How about married and abused every day by your alcoholic spouse? How about married but abandoned emotionally or physically? We all know exactly how common these scenarios are. But when you think you HAVE to get married, you may choose an arranged marriage that may not have been God’s plan or will for your life. 

2. There is no specific age that God demands you are married by: We grow up with a number in our head that is our last possible age to get married. Families who are open to their children finding their own spouse start fretting as they cross 25. And then, oh horror, if they touch 30 without finding that elusive spouse! The pressure is ramped up! The emotional blackmail and the desperation go up, and the standards go down. Now, I understand that marrying in your 20s increases your likelihood of having children, which is such a beautiful and central part of what marriage is about. And yet, the biological clock ticking is still not a good enough reason to ‘settle’. Here is a reassuring fact- you can have biological children well into your 30s, and often in your 40s, not to mention the beautiful world of adoption! 

Rolling my eyes so hard I can see my brain

3. You must KNOW the person you are giving yourself to: Do you really think you can know a person based on a couple of meetings, the reports of others, and with a bio including a list of achievements, degrees, hobbies and random adjective like ‘religious, open minded, hardworking, humble’ etc? It’s true that you can’t FULLY know a person ever, and that there will always be surprises after you get married. Yet, you can know far more of a person’s character and priorities by taking time to do so, rather than trusting on what he or she or anyone else says about them. It’s a life changing decision with lifelong repercussions! As I read somewhere, you are choosing the person who will raise your children, you are choosing your travelling companion, the person with whom you will spend most of your leisure time, the one who will most affect your happiness in this life. Isn’t getting to know this person worth taking time over? 

4. Your parents can’t choose for you: Honour your father and mother does not mean that God has delegated to them the responsibility of choosing your spouse. In fact the Catechism of the Catholic Church says “When they become adults, children have the right and duty to choose their profession and state of life… Parents should be careful not to exert pressure on their children either in the choice of profession or in that of a spouse.’ CCC 2230. How many Indian Catholic parents know this? You are not disrespecting your parents or disobeying God if you assert your right to choose your own spouse when and how you feel led to. That of course doesn’t mean you should not listen respectfully and openly to the advice and wisdom of your parents. But listen, pray about it, talk to trusted Catholic mentors, and then make your own decision. You are the one who has to live with your spouse for the rest of your life. 

So how can we take these truths and apply them to arranged marriages? 

1. Pray about the right time for you to get married: Put God first, and seek His direction for your life. Don’t entertain proposals if it is not the right time for you. Maybe God has called you to focus on Him for a while, maybe you are in the middle of a demanding course of studies, maybe you need to grow in maturity, discipline, work on your mental health, or taking responsibility for your life. Share your thoughts with your parents. Set boundaries if they are being pushy or emotionally manipulative. 

2. View potential spouses through the lens of Christ: When you are ready to meet people, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you. Ask the important questions, and forget about ‘what people will say’. Look at character, priorities, goals and faith. Everything else is fluff. 

3. Take your time: Assert yourself and tell your family and your future spouse that you want to get to know him/ her well before making a decision. “But we don’t do that in my family!” Well, you can be the first! You can do this! Change has to start somewhere. Talk to this potential spouse and plan together ways to get to know each other. Meeting over coffee or in the church compound for brief conversations isn’t enough. Do group activities together, plan a service project together, spend time with each other’s families, go on retreats together, pray together, and talk to experienced married couples together. Revolutionary, you say? Why not start a revolution? Maybe you will be the one to help your younger siblings and cousins to have healthier courtships and marriages. 

4. Feel free to say no: You are a free human being! It doesn’t matter how much anyone else wants the match, or how old you are, or even if you just want to be settled. If you see any red flags, if you see manipulative behaviour, shaky morals, a propensity for alcohol abuse, an unwillingness to communicate, or prioritize faith, don’t rationalize those things away or ignore them. The point of spending time together is to be able to make an informed decision. Even if the wedding date is set, and the guests are invited, say NO! (That goes for love marriages too.) Your life and your future happiness are more important than a temporary dramatic and embarrassing situation. 

5. If you say yes, be ready to LOVE this person: Don’t get married as a business arrangement, as a way of gaining security, or even children. Search your motives. Catholic marriage means choosing to LOVE each other. True love is willing the good of the other. You can grow that love in so many ways- asking about the other persons’ needs and preferences (and not just what you or your parents expect or want), consulting them first before making decisions, finding out their love language and using it, sharing your deepest thoughts, feelings and desires with them, and asking about theirs, and rearranging your life so that they come ahead of parents, friends, career goals, spending habits, or old hobbies. (That doesn’t mean those things and people don’t have a place anymore, just a different place.) All Catholic marriages are called to be love marriages, whether they start as arranged or not. 

The ‘arranged’ way can be a great way to meet potential spouses. Arranged marriages can be good, holy and beautiful witnesses to the unconditional love of God, provided we are willing to re-examine our cultural norms, and align them with the truth and freedom of Christ. God wants all our marriages to be good ones. Whether we are parents hoping to see our children married, or men and women seeking spouses, let’s work with Him to make that happen.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article covering every minute detail of an arranged marriage.