Of the questions  that Americans ask that can annoy me, one of the most irritating is likely to be “Is yours an arranged marriage?” which trails only the legendary “Are there really elephants on the road?”
I still clearly remember hearing that question for the first time.

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Soon after arriving in America for my masters program, I visited a beauty salon. Although, I truly couldn’t afford a visit to a salon as a fresh off-the-boater with a meager RA salary, I scraped off a few pennies here and there to look more presentable during a close relative’s wedding and my own engagement.

After learning about my upcoming trip to the East Coast and my engagement, the beautician, with her eyes filled with apprehension, asked me “Is your engagement an arranged one? By your parents?” Blushing, with a smile and beaming with pride, I answered with an emphatic “No way! I would NEVER go through an arranged marriage. Ours is a love marriage!”

I still remember the sigh of relief on her face before she moved on to “So exciting! How did you guys meet?”

Two decades of experience have now taught me that the beautician’s concern over arranged marriages was unwarranted. Now I understand that the success of a marriage doesn’t solely rely on the moment and circumstances of how one meets one’s spouse.

I am still thankful to my parents who allowed me to wait for the right person. While I am happy that I arrived at a “love” marriage that is still filled with love, I have also come to respect any strong, stable, and symbiotic marriage or long term relationship.

To be fair, I find that the question “Love Ya Arranged?” is quite prevalent within Indian social circles too.

The question is somewhat inaccurate since it implies that you can have only one or the other!

Looking back I realize that, while I had rejected a “suitable boy” here and there on grounds of “chemistry” and “connection” or lack thereof, my strong desire for love marriage was not romanticism inspired by cheesy Mills and Boon fictions or by Disney styled princess fairy tales. I opposed arranged marriages because it seemed like an impersonal and elaborate system of choosing the most important person in our lives. It also seemed like a cookie cutter approach to match making.

I remember one wise uncle lecturing me, “There should be 10 points on the checklist for any boy and if you can check off six or seven off them, he is good enough!” He implied that connection and chemistry were baseless ideas and would leave me a spinster for the rest of my life! I am confident that my two lovely children will have a good laugh when they hear that story at an  appropriate age.

Just by the fact that the practice of arranged marriages is still around gives validity to the functions and outcomes of the system. But, at the same it time, it must be acknowledged that the system has huge holes.

The checklists for consideration of prospects don’t account for individual characteristics, personalities and sensitivities. A well educated girl may not score high on those checklists if she were dusky. A wealthy boy with bad habits or substance dependency could easily score higher than a hardworking middle class boy. Let’s not even get started on the caste factor, let alone religion or astrology.

The issue with arranged marriages is that it doesn’t always guarantee a thorough examination of a candidate. Some factors trump others when it comes to the desirability of the match.

One case in point is the attractiveness of access to America. If there is a green card or H1 or F1 or even an illegal chance of emigration to America then many a time even the checklists are abandoned.

I know of a case where parents happily gave away their girl to the family of a boy with H1/F1 despite the fact that the families met for the first time just a week prior. What happened to the usual insistence on families getting to know each other because “marriage is between two families?” So it seems that rules are easily shaken by a whiff of a green card or buck.

That makes me wonder about matchmaking in the United States.

Dating in the west is an elaborate system with its own rules and protocols. There are many dos and don’ts, how tos, and columns offered by “experts” that guide the naïve through a veritable “jungle.” Expert advice ranges from “what to wear on a first date” and “how to converse to making a lasting impact” and “the right amount of eye contact during the date” to “who should pay.”

Just like the way a well-meaning aunt advises the young girl on how best to roast a papad without a single blemish, the dating expert advises on colors, necklines, and styles to wear on dates.

The barrage of protocols follows through the afterlife of the first date. If you call too soon, you are desperate, and if you take your time the other person has moved on. In essence, we conform to many preexisting norms in order to be successful.

The process of evaluating a dating prospect is similar to the checklist analysis of arranged marriages, except that there is no support system of parents and aunts to help do the homework.

In the case of arranged marriages, there is at least a clear verdict on the success of the match, transmitted through the friendly neighborhood aunt. Daters, on the other hand, simply have to keep looking at their phones obsessively for that “Gr8 fun. Wanna hang out L8R?” text to arrive.

Then there is the virtual world of matchmaking through the likes of Match.com, eHarmony.com, Zoosk.com or OkCupid.com, Dil Mil and more.

Among these services, eHarmony.com is responsible for a whopping one million marriages and an additional million long term relationships within just 15 years of its existence. The company claims that the divorce rates amongst its users (customers) is very low compared to the average. A meager 3.8%—roughly a tenth of the normal divorce rate in America, which ranges between 30% to 50%. While the success of a marriage in any society should not be measured by the divorce rate, yet  it offers a significant insight on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to long term relationships.

So how does eHarmony do it? They have an exhaustive questionnaire with up to two to three hundred questions, based on psychological and clinical research and data, that the user needs to fill out. Based on information provided by the user, it’s complex algorithm matches users based on the compatibility factor rather than what the user thinks she or he prefers. Sounds awfully familiar doesn’t it?

That lengthy questionnaire in essence is merely a weeding out list.

I’ve learned that whether one gets to know one’s partner through a friend or complex lines of code, it still is only a starting point.

How long and how strong you run that marathon is still going to be up to you. The key is to remain true to yourself.

I intend to give that advice to my elementary school going children a few decades from now so when someone asks them, “Is yours a love or a digitally initiated empirically aided algorithmic compatibility matched marriage?” they won’t be annoyed.

Shachi Patel is an engineer by training and a program manager by profession. A lifelong volunteer, she was one of the original voices on Bay Area’s first South Asian radio station. She explores the outdoors with her family and writes from her abode in Silicon Valley.

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