The Indian-American marriage institution has gone through an existential crisis for many years now. Indian-American men and women are getting married later in life. This is also a general trend in our society, regardless of culture. There is no doubt about this. Even a cursory search on the Internet shows that this is pretty much a universal realization at this point. But, specifically, why are Indian men and women facing difficulties finding a spouse? Why are more and more people of Indian heritage just resigning themselves to the idea that maybe they are meant to stay single?
At the root of it all, in a clichéd nutshell, we’re struggling precisely because we don’t really know what we want or why we want it, and, failure is not an option for us. Simply put, a lot of us are unable find that special connection with the right person because we have not been taught how to figure out who we are and what makes us tick, as people. We all live amidst a set of externally placed values, which make it nearly impossible for us to grow into self-aware people. We cannot articulate who we are at our core, or what motivates us internally and propels us forward. The consequences of this stunted growth have profound implications in almost every aspect of our lives, and on our cultural identity as a group. But, marriage, or rather, the realm of love and interpersonal relationships, is where our need for growth and change is the most glaringly apparent.
To say that Indians are obsessed with the idea of marriage is an understatement. Globally, the Indian marriage enterprise is a multi-billion dollar force that encompasses dating sites, dating coaches, wedding vendors, event planners, and a whole slew of other businesses and people. Getting one’s kids married and settled down is one of the greatest responsibilities of the parents in our community. It is a duty that has been passed down for hundreds of years through many generations. Our parents worked extremely hard, especially as minority immigrants, to give us the privilege of an exceptional life in this country. They instilled in us an almost superhuman capacity to focus and persevere until we achieve our goals. They desperately want us to succeed in life. Yet, Indian men and women are for many reasons getting married later and later. They are also finding it increasingly challenging to connect with someone who they feel genuinely compatible with. A detailed analysis of this trend is of course, far beyond the scope of a single blog post of even a series. So, the goal here is to simply start this discussion.
Two of the biggest reasons for delayed marriage have long been established – education and the availability of increased choice. This should not be surprising at all. Of course we want to finish our educational journeys and be settled in life professionally before we take on any new ventures, especially one as humongous as marriage. We are taught that financial and career stability, and the ability to be able to provide for a family trump anything else that might be relevant to a marriage. Additionally, these days we also have a greater pool of potential partners to choose from. We only need to look at the proliferation of matchmaking sites that cater specifically to Indians, to realize just how vast our options are. But, therein lies the problem. It is exactly these two factors – education and increased choice – that have led to Indian-Americans facing greater difficulties in finding a life partner.
Educational pursuits delay marriage and growth
First, let’s focus on education. Practically every parent out there in the world wants his or her children to be successful, accomplished and well settled. This is especially true of the Indian-American community, which emphasizes the need for success and achieves it with value placed on educational accomplishments. This is why the Indian-American community, as a whole, is one of the most educated groups in the United States. Professional degrees are practically a requirement for us to maintain our “Indianness”. From a very young age, we are trained to focus on our education, and only our education. Everything else in life is considered a distraction. Until we are about 21-25 years old (usually the age range when undergraduate education is completed), any ideas about anything except education and career are discouraged. This is because these other ideas may take our focus away from what is truly important – our education. We might fail at something educationally, and that would mean that our parents wasted their investment. So, social relationships are frowned upon because they are unnecessary, and might lead to failure. In fact, they are seen as obstacles that deter us from becoming doctors, engineers, IT professionals or some other elevated title in a technical field.
I remember my teenage years when my friends and I tried to talk about our problems with friends or people we might like romantically. The standard response we generally got from the parents was, “don’t waste your time on such useless matters. Your job is to study and become successful in your career. We didn’t come to this country so that you can worry about friends and love and what not.” So, we did, and we continue to do just that. Most of us focus on our education, until we meet our goals, and get to a point where our job titles and careers are the only things that define us as people. But, that’s not how life actually works. Life doesn’t happen in a compartmentalized vacuum. Our social development happens right alongside our educational development. The core traits of our personalities become permanent during our formative later teenage years. In fact, minimizing our curiosity about interpersonal relationships and the ability to explore them during our adolescence actually hurts our social, intellectual and personal development for the rest of our lives. Especially considering that marriage is such an important social and religious institution in our culture, it makes absolutely no sense that we raise children into adults without any guidance on how to navigate through interpersonal relationships. Then, when someone is 35 years old and still unmarried, their parents lament that the now grown adult child is still not married.
Well, how exactly is marriage magically supposed to happen when literally nothing has been invested in growing a child into a sociable person? Because of all of this, most of us are in now caught in this rather bewildering situation where we are all highly educated people who haven’t learned much about what we want out of life. There is so much more to be said about this, that it deserves its own blog post. But, at the end of the day, even with all of this personal baggage, we still manage to persist and make a real effort in trying to make our choices in picking a spouse.
Increased Choice in Marriage: Is that even a thing?
This brings us to the issue of increased choice in relationships. Almost every single one of us Indian immigrant children has at some point been told about how we have an untold number of choices for marriage that our parents haven’t had in their lives. But do we really? Let’s think about this for a minute. How many of us have actually had the freedom to date and figure out what we like in people, until we got to the age where we “have to” be married? When we do get to a “marriageable” age, we either aren’t allowed to date, or, we literally don’t have the time because we are so focused on our careers that we spent the last 25 years or so working towards.
Even the most liberal “Americanized” Indian parents tell us that they are okay with us finding our own spouse, “as long as they are Indian”, or, “as long as they are Hindu” or something else along those lines. Let us also not forget that our potential partners should be well-educated, fair-skinned, come from stable families, and, in the case of women, must promote Indian values.
Then, there’s the speed at which Indian parents expect a marriage to magically happen. I remember the countless number of times when my parents or other family members showed me random “biodatas”, Shaadi.com profiles or “matches” given to them by other family members and friends. I was given maybe a day before I was invariably asked, “should we go ahead? The boy comes from a good family.” Of course, my usual response of, “go for it. Let me know how the festivities turn out and take tons of pictures!!” usually resulted in me getting the silent treatment from my parents for at least a week (I never complained!)
All jokes aside though, how are we supposed to decide in a single day or two or even 10, if we are comfortable with spending the rest of our lives with the mere idea of some random person in a created profile (probably created by someone other than the person involved)? Where exactly do our choices fit in when we are operating with so many limitations set forth by our well wishers and even ourselves? If we don’t know who we are at our core, how can we find suitable mates? If we don’t know what motivates us internally (outside of our jobs), and what makes us happy, how can we possibly present the best version of ourselves to anyone else? We could spend an entire lifetime sifting through all the possible “potential matches” for marriage and not find anyone, because we don’t know what makes us who we are. We don’t know what we truly want or need, because these types of things have always been decided for us in the name of “increased choice”.
Of course, none of this is done with any malicious intent or ignorance on anyone’s part. There is no blame to be placed on anyone’s shoulders. It is simply the way things have been in our culture for hundreds of years. It is how our parents were raised, and it is how their parents were raised before that, and their parents before that and so on, all the way back to some lost moment in human history. We are simply the byproduct of centuries of a singular way of cultural transmission. We are only recognizing that this way doesn’t work for us because we have been exposed to other ways of thought, whether it is through the pressures of acculturating into foreign cultures as immigrants, or through globalization processes within India.
All of this doesn’t even begin to paint a detailed picture of where we are as a culture right now, and where we need to be to grow as people and as a community. The Indian culture is definitely at the brink of a cultural precipice that could lead to the eventual death of our cultural heritage and identity, if we don’t make some changes soon. As I said at the beginning of this post, the area of marriage and interpersonal relationships is only one facet of life where an immediate cultural evolution is critical and necessary, and where the problem is blatantly obvious. There are many other aspects of our lives to be considered in this discussion – the way we socialize our boys and girls, the way we perpetually sabotage ourselves by becoming complacent with cultural expectations, and, the way we hinder our own happiness in life by not realizing our true potential as self-aware, self-actualizing people. This doesn’t mean that we are past the point of no return, and that all hope is lost. There are simple yet profound ways in which all of us can make small changes that would still allow us to retain our core Indian values and identity, while making them more modern and applicable to ourselves and to our community at large. All of these points, and more, are undoubtedly too important, and too large (maybe even too abstract) to condense into one blog post. So, they will be addressed in several future blog posts and webinars.
Until then, happy reading!