The reality of arranged marriages first came to my attention when I moved to Japan in the 1980's. At that time it was estimated that 30-40% of marriages in Japan were arranged. And it made sense. A man of marriageable age was totally consumed by his job and virtually unable to meet (and have the time to court) young women.
He and his parents would go to a marriage broker who would have a database of eligible women and the engagement was soon sealed. During my years in Japan I went to a number of weddings of my staff, many of which had been arranged.
I started to go to India for business quite frequently about 15 years ago, and met quite a few professionals. All of them, men and women, told me they were in arranged marriages. Their parents had met other parents of the same religion and caste. Soon a meeting between the children was arranged. The children were always told that they had the right to turn down the pairing, but only once or twice. If they turned down too many they would get a bad reputation and no one would want to meet them.
I asked many of these people if they loved their spouse, and the answer was always the same. No, they didn't love them when they first got married but grew to love them over time. They told me that they learned from their parents that love was not an individualistic, personal thing, but something that involved family and responsibilities.
These Indians, of all ages, made fun of what they called the selfishness of Westerners when it came to love and marriage. You Westerners, they would say, you think only of your own passions. You fall in love with others without knowing their background or family history. No wonder your divorce rate is so high.
This was a shock to me. I had always thought that the western concept of two people meeting, falling in love, marrying etc was universally accepted. It wasn't.
I did business for a while with a famous Indian tennis player. In the 70's and early 80's he was ranked in the top ten worldwide and became such a celebrity that he was once featured in a James Bond movie. He lived an international lifestyle, sleeping with a huge number of women.
He told me one night that when he turned 28, the same age his father was when he got married, he went to his dad and asked him to arrange a partner. I asked, how could you do that, you lived all over the world, had women of many nationalities stay with you, why didn't you pick your own?
Ah, he said, that was fun, but now I needed a partner for life, and didn't trust myself to make the right decision. My parents were better able to choose a wife for me.
(As an aside, the tennis player had created such a bad name for himself as a playboy that no respectable Indian family would marry their daughter to him. He finally had to settle for a woman from Sri Lanka, where I had met him. He told me the story that he was with his wife in a lift in Claridges Hotel in London when a gorgeous blond got in. She shouted his name with glee, and said "My god I haven't seen you since that one wild night we spent together in Marbella. Here's my room number and cell phone, come over and we'll relive old times." She left and the tennis player turned to his wife who was huddled in the corner of the lift. "Don't you start on me", he shouted. "I'm going to have a hard enough time explaining you to her!")
These thoughts all came back to me a few weeks ago as I was having lunch with a young Sikh in Bangkok. His family was one of the wealthy Indian families who own many of the hotels in Bangkok. We do business together, and usually chat about his love life over lunch. He dates quite a few women, all of whom are and must be Sikhs, but he hasn't yet found the one he is ready to marry. They are either young and silly, or concerned only about his wealth. He said they are great for a good night out, but he couldn't imagine taking them home to his parents. When he gets married his wife will be expected to live with or close to his parents, and take care of them as they age. Compatibility with his family is his key attribute in finding a mate.
I asked him what he will do. He said he will give it one more year, and then ask his parents to arrange something.
In Southeast Asia, arranged marriages used to be more common but as more young people leave their villages for the big cities, they tend to marry on their own. Ten years ago, when my Thai girlfriend was 17, her mother decided that her daughter had no future and set about to marry her off. She put word out that the girl was ready, and several weeks later an older man from a neighboring village knocked on the door and offered himself. After checking into his background, the marriage was arranged. The week before the wedding, my girlfriend found him in bed with another woman, told him to f&@$ off and hopped on a bus to Bangkok where she got a job.
But even today in Thailand, where arranged marriages are not so common, the concept of marrying someone who can and will take care of you and your family remains paramount, sometimes even above the concept of love. For girls, especially from the poorer provinces, this is even more true. We all know that many girls have children from other men, and taking care of those children and their parents are without any doubt the most important thing to them. (I would even say it differently. If you meet a girl who says she cares only for you, and not for her family, I would advise running away, as she has been brought up badly and is most likely a very damaged person).
An old submission of mine (Finding and Keeping a Thai Girlfriend) received some criticism when I suggested that you / we will be fifth priority to our Thai ladies, after their parents, children, family and friends. Perhaps I was exaggerating a bit to make a point, but the general point is still true. After seven years with my girlfriend I still believe her family comes first, but I have moved up the pole and probably now rank just behind them.
Does she love me? A few years ago I would have had to truthfully answer no, but now I would say that she does. Her / our love grew over time as I began to appreciate her many qualities, and she began to understand that I was not here just for a short time. Taking care of her family, loving her older sisters children, respecting her parents, all of this has contributed to making her love me. If I were to say to her today, I have no more money to give you, I believe she would say, ok, come live with us, we don't need money, you have given us enough.
For a young Thai girl from the provinces, love is not the key concern. While we in the west are brought up with the idea that love conquers all, and all you need is love, there is a very different feeling in Asia. As my Indian friends would often tell me, love grows over time. Beware of love that happens too quickly.
There's a lot of hard truths in here and while I certainly would not say it is the best way to go, there is something to be said for arranged marriages – especially given the absolutely dreadful choices some Westerners make in South-East Asia!