Recently, we concocted the valiantly optimistic plan that we would go for a weekend trip with both sets of our parents: Amol’s Aai and Pappa, who were visiting the U.S. from India, and Lauren’s Mom and Dad, who live here in the States. We rented a rustic mountain cabin for the six of us, and were delighted to discover that our parents easily overcame the language barrier through their shared interests in cooking (in the case of our mothers) and table tennis and chess (in the case of our fathers). After one particularly delicious meal consisting of a Maharashtrian entrée (pav bhaji) and a Southern American dessert (salted watermelon), we arranged ourselves in the living room to chat.
“So, Mr. Ralph,” said Pappa to Dad, “now that our children are engaged, shall we plan the wedding for this December?” Lauren’s dad hesitatingly explained that, no, this December was too soon. The fathers went back and forth for some time, each making a case for why we should get married this December (in the case of Pappa) or next December (in the case of Dad). Sure, logistical reasons came into play, but the main point of contention was how to explain the courtship to their fellow friends and family. Back in India, such an extended time between the decision to marry and the wedding itself is ideally as brief as possible. In practice this means that the majority of Indians actually spend practically zero time together before they get married.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the average length of time people spend in a relationship before getting married is around 2 years. And getting married before having spent this requisite amount of time together is often seen as reckless or the result of being blinded by the cocaine-rush of a “new” love. That was certainly the concern of Lauren’s father. As we watched this after-dinner discussion unfold, we realized that our fathers were playing a different kind of chess: Dad’s strategy was what we’ll call the Western cultural model of love, whereas Pappa’s was the Eastern cultural model of love. Though each set of parents is thrilled about our impending nuptials, they see radically different timelines for going about this marriage.
We saw this illustrated during our engagement ceremony too. Typically during this ritual in India, the bride-to-be’s parents declare their intentions for and support of the couple. At our engagement ceremony, Lauren’s dad kindly wished us a happy, long engagement period. It could have been a slip of the tongue, but we now realize that this well-meaning comment reveals the Western cultural presumption that an engagement period is part of a “trial run” in which the couple waits as long as possible before taking the matrimonial plunge.
By contrast, in India, the length of the engagement period is really a function of two things: (1) how much time the two families need to plan the multi-day, 500+ guest affair that constitutes the typical Indian wedding, and (2) when the next auspicious day – as decided by the local, trusted astrologer – is available for a wedding (such auspicious days are infrequent and book up fast). If these two things align such that the wedding can take place next Tuesday… Great! It takes place next Tuesday. In fact, many couples hold the engagement ceremony mere days before the wedding rituals.
The Western model of love sees “marriage” as the final destination in the long journey that is a relationship. To get married is to have reached the summit of a prolonged and difficult hike. This is why when Westerners say “congratulations” upon learning that someone is getting married, they are actually congratulating the couple for reaching the peak of relationship success. Yet in this model, relationship success is achieved by rigorously testing our partner to make sure they’re a perfect match: we go on dates, we become physically intimate, we move in together, we adopt a pet, we become financially stable, and then and only then is it alright to get married. Put another way, we submit our prospective mate to a battery of tests in order to see if they measure up as a friend, a lover, a roommate, a caregiver, and a breadwinner before committing to them for life.
Because marriages in the West have a relatively high probability of ending in divorce, the Western cultural model advises us that it is better to be absolutely sure about our partner before getting married. Hence the long and arduous process of putting our maybe-future mate through as many “test runs” as possible, including a lengthy engagement period. If our partner handles the stress of picking a buttercream frosting filling, they’ll surely be able to handle bigger, thornier issues down the road once we’re married, we figure.
Yet the Eastern model of love sees marriage as the beginning of a journey, rather than its conclusion. Marriage is the first step of a marathon in which two people learn to run together. But that’s not to say that compatibility doesn’t figure into the equation. Most Indians get married through some form of “arranged marriage” in which they either consult with their parents in order to choose their future spouse or their parents choose for them. And this choice is often made on the basis of what kind of job the person has, their professional ambition, if they’ve cultivated any vices, their overall character, their family status, and, often, their caste and religion. Although this may seem like a cold or mechanical way to choose one’s life partner, research shows that these fundamental social characteristics are some of the most important predictors of whether a couple stays together or gets divorced. The way marriage gets “arranged” means that there’s no trial period, and no series of “tests” that partners put each other through.
This is the case because Indian marriages are premised on the assumption that they will never fail. (Indeed, only about 1% of Indians ever experience a divorce). Thus, finding the “perfect” partner is never the focus. Instead of a trial run aimed at uncovering their would-be mate’s weaknesses and deciding whether those are “deal-breakers,” Indian marriages are based on the fundamental assumption that there is no perfect partner. Marriage is in fact understood as the very process of accepting and assimilating one another’s differences. Both partners basically run headlong – and blindfolded – into a marathon, but they go into this marathon expecting uncertainty and being equipped with the unrelenting faith that any differences will be settled over time.
For Amol’s parents and Lauren’s parents, the cultural model of love and marriage that they grew up with seems like the only way relationships are possible, and therefore the best way to proceed. When Amol told his parents in May, “Aai-Pappa, I’ve met a girl. We want to get engaged in July,” it never even occurred to them to ask, “But how long have you been dating?” Meanwhile, the length of our relationship inevitably crops up as the second or third question we get from our Western-raised friends and family.
There are certainly pros and cons to both the Western and Eastern cultural models of love, and we fully intend to explore them in future posts. But for now, suffice it to say that we have convinced our parents to go along with a syncretic model: some aspects of our marriage will follow the Eastern model, while other aspects will follow the Western model. So for now the chess game ends in a draw.