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A Bengali Take on Marriage

I first met your aunt, along with her family, when I was 25...and we were married within

a month! My uncle explained to me that even on their wedding day, he didnt know too much

about my aunt. In Bangladesh during the 1980s, arranged marriages were one of the most widely

accepted forms of marriage there were. Such an idea may seem very strange in modern day

America but in Bangladesh, marriage is primarily an institutional union between two people

formed on the basis of family affiliations, status, and economic stability. On their wedding day,

even though my uncle didnt know too much about his wife-to-be, he knew enough. He knew she

was of a well known family and that her first priorities would be her children, household and

husband. My aunt also knew that her future husband met the necessary requirements which

included agreeing to support the family economically as the sole breadwinner and devoting his

time to raising their future children. When it comes to arranged marriages, assessing whether or

not these fundamental requirements are met on both sides is the key to deciding if the marriage is

viable.

I was rather shocked at how little time there was between their first meeting and their

marriage day. My uncle explained that during the 1980s in Bangladesh, people did not marry for

love or the satisfaction of individualistic needs, but rather to organize social hierarchies, become

economically stable, and to maintain an unbreakable lifetime commitment. To this day, he

believes that a marriage is established for the means of mutual support and the continuing of a

family lineage by having children. In a society where marriage is so institutionalized, if you are

not married with at least one child, society unmercifully ostracizes both you and your parents.

This ideal of marriage is portrayed in Stephanie Coontzs theory in Marriage, a History, which

states that marriage has been an easy way for people to organize life, kin obligations, property

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ownership, and inheritance. Supporters of the arranged marriage would agree with Coontz that

marriage is a way of getting in-laws, of making alliances and expanding the family labor force

(Coontz). When I inquired about the role of love in marriage, my aunt said that they fell in love

after marriage. Once married, they had the rest of their lives to get to know each other.

Opposite to the childrens playground song that insinuates first comes love, then comes

marriage, it seems that in an arranged marriage love is actually a result of marriage. Falling in

love marks the transition from an institutional marriage to a companionate one for my aunt and

uncle. My uncle expressed that he could not be happier that the person he knew so little about

turned into a person with whom he could connect with emotionally as a partner. Coontz would

explain that it is marital love that kept their marriage strong for so many years.

While its always fun to discuss the happy endings that come with a marriage, it is also

important to acknowledge the challenges along the way. It was apparent that other than a few

times of financial difficulty, some of the hardest times of their marriage were after their first

child, my cousin, was born. Early parenthood can be physically and emotionally exhausting

which leads to a lot more crankiness as my aunt puts it. Along with this, they were unable to

devote much time to their marriage because most of their time and energy was directed towards

their child. Since their marriage started out as a highly institutionalized marriage, the importance

they put on child rearing is expected. In Patterns of Marital Change During the Early Childhood

Years, Belsky and Hsieh state that co-parenting becomes more difficult for couples with the

birth of their first infant. My uncle and aunt support Belsky and Hsiehs claim by stating that

they had more arguments around this time. While they agreed on most things, arguments would

occur about things such as dietary habits and whether or not Pre-K was essential in their childs

education. Arguments are a normal part of any intimate relationship because it is expected that

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two people will not always agree about everything. What is important is how the disagreement is

dealt with. If the interactions during a dispute are validating, then the argument will most likely

have been a successful one in which engagement is promoted. My uncle and aunt expressed the

idea that you should not continue an argument for the sake of arguing. You should aim for a

compromise or resolution of some sort and to do this, both parties must be engaged in the

conversation. By trying to sort out their differences in a validating manner (as opposed to hostile

or undermining one), my aunt and uncle were able to keep their relationship strong.

Even when times were tough and they were arguing more than usual, both of them agreed

that divorce was not an option that entered their thoughts. They both firmly believed that

marriage was a lifetime commitment that you make with your spouse. They both insisted that

marriage isnt supposed to be easy but you cant just give up on it without trying. In addition,

my aunt said that she couldnt recall anyone in her family who had actually gotten a divorce. It

just didnt happen in her family. It is clear that her family, along with Bengali society, have both

had a large impact on how she views marriage and divorce. After speaking to my aunt and uncle

I can say it is safe to assume that having a child complicates a marriage. The emotional stress of

it may cause some to seek alternatives in order to pursue their individual happiness. In other

cases the child serves as a barrier; a parent may stay in the relationship for the sake of the child.

Speaking to one of my eldest cousins in Bangladesh who has been married for 14 years, I

was disappointed to hear that she did not always want to remain married to her husband. I love

him as the father of my children, she stated. However, she would sometimes think about the

alternatives available. On the other hand, she believed that her child would not thrive without a

father figure. Her marriage is based highly on commitment. When comparing this to Sternbergs

Triangular Theory of Love, it can be said that her marriage has high commitment but is

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lacking in intimacy and passion. This would be classified as empty love. Their marriage would

be an example of when arranged marriages do not always lead to falling in love. Dating and

premarital sex are not deemed appropriate in a strict Bengali society. It is believed that love

should only be a result of marriage. Therefore my cousin, without any prior knowledge about her

fiances habits, personalities, and lifestyles, was essentially marrying a stranger 14 years ago.

Then, as they got to know each other with time, they realized that they did not have too much in

common, and there was low compatibility. In such a case where there is empty love the

arguments when the first child is born are harder to deal with. The arguments are less likely to be

validating and more likely to be hostile and undermining. Such interactions can then lead to

ultimatums, stone-walling and getting defensive all of which can be detrimental to a relationship.

While my cousin did say that she loved her husband because he has supported her for so

long, she knows the difference between loving someone and being in love with them. The choice

she has made to stay married is based on cultural and family values of marriage. Due to the fact

that divorce is so looked down upon in Bangladesh, it is not something she considers as an

option. This mostly relates to Stewart/Brentanos statement in Divorce: Causes and

Consequences that the status of divorce in other nations varies according to religious beliefs and

social traditions (18). They remain married in order to please both of their families and for the

benefit of society; a key indicator of an institutional marriage. If they were to get divorced they

would face disapproval, and my cousin would fear economic instability since she is currently a

housewife. This keys into the social exchange theory described by Stewart/Brentano, that people

evaluate their relationship in costs and benefits, social rejection, downward mobility as well as

other aspects before deciding whether or not to separate (29). In America today, the thought of

being in a marriage with empty love for 14 years seems unreasonable and bizarre. A woman

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can support her child as a single mother and provide for the family without relying on a husband

to be the sole breadwinner. Social forces such as womens rights movements in Bangladesh are

making women more aware of this. Therefore, while it is still frowned upon, more women have

the option of divorce.

While my cousins marriage was arranged just as the one between my aunt and uncle, the

results of the two marriages were different. While marital love exists in my uncles marriage, the

love that exists in my cousins marriage is mainly for her children. Both of the marriages are

similar in that they were arranged in order to satisfy cultural values. However, my friends older

sister, Afi, who has gotten married recently did not want to adhere to these societal conventions.

Born and raised in America, Afi holds different values on marriage than my cousin even though

they are both Bengali. Afi believes that arranged marriages may have worked in the past, but

should remain a thing of the past because today it is essential to know your spouse before being

married. Afi met her husband in college through mutual friends. They spent time together during

group outings and got to know each others personalities ahead of time. She was then able to

clearly assess if she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. Getting to spend time together

before marriage may be one of the reasons why their marriage has been successful so far. While

she is happy and has no reason to doubt their marriage, she strongly believes that if things get

bad in a marriage, to a point where you are simply living like strangers and are not content,

divorce is acceptable and concerns due to emotional and economic ties should not keep you from

separating. Another way in which Afi deviates from the conventional Bengali wife is that she

does not expect to be a housewife. While her mother has taught her to do household chores from

when she was young, she is also in the process of getting her nursing license. She expects to

work alongside her husband to provide for their future children rather than relying on him to

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support them economically. She chose not to follow in her mothers footsteps in getting an

arranged marriage or remaining a stay-at-home wife. The difference in her views from that of her

mother when it comes to marriage, is a result of a generation gap and a clear difference in the

two cultures they were brought up in. Afi is not held into her marriage by any sort of economical

barrier the way that my cousin in Bangladesh is. This is because Afi is pursuing a career which

will allow her to take care of herself if she needs to.

Raised in New York City, my own views on marriage have been molded by my

surroundings along with the marriages of my family members. Like Afi, I believe that one

should get to know their spouse before committing to marriage and that the aim should be to

achieve consummate love. This would allow people to communicate and allow for attunement

where they take their spouses emotions into account when disagreements arise. Without such

aspects in a marriage, the marriage dwindles down into two strangers sharing a household such

as in my cousins marriage. Since I also grew up hearing many of the traditional values on

marriage from my mother, I probably would not choose divorce as my first option. However, if a

situation calls for divorce, I do not believe that people should be looked down upon for it and no

one should feel that they must remain in a relationship due to societal barriers. In this way, I

view myself as an individualist like Afi; I will consider divorce if my partners impedes my

growth as an individual. The traditional values I have inherited from my parents and the more

individualistic values I have adopted from my surroundings can at times be confusing and seem

to contradict each other. However, I do believe that it is possible to find a balance of the two and

find a happy medium.

According to Sternbergs Triangular Theory of Love, Afis marriage has consummate

love because there is a balance of commitment, passion, and intimacy. Consummate love is what

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most people hope to have one day when they get married. However, it is not something that is

guaranteed or can be predicted at the start of a marriage. Looking at three different marriages of

people with Bengali backgrounds, there is not a clear pattern of success and failure. Two

marriages may start out the same way, for example as arranged marriages, but end up in

completely different places. My uncle and aunt were able to take their institutionalized marriage

and turn it into a companionate one as they fell in love. On the other hand my cousin who also

started with an arranged marriage stayed in a fundamentally institutional marriage as the

marriage had high commitment but low intimacy and passion. Afis marriage started as a

marriage based on love and has been great so far. However, they have yet to face the challenges

that come with having a child. I started out thinking that if you were to look at marriages across

people with a similar background, you would find similar patterns of marriage. Counter to my

expectation, the three marriages all coming from people of the same ethnic background have

very different stories and results. It goes to show that while there are ways to classify the types of

interactions, feelings, and relationships, marriage overall is a tricky thing that cannot always be

planned out perfectly from the beginning. You may be equipped with all the right information:

knowing the difference between validating and invalidating arguments, being able to identify the

types of love in Sternbergs Theory of Love, all of which will help you understand why a

marriage is or isnt working, but you cannot simply predict the outcome of every experience with

your spouse from the day you meet. There really is not a recipe for the perfect marriage;

sometimes people click and sometimes they do not.

Works Cited:

Belsky, Jay, and Kuang-Hua Hsieh. "Patterns of Marital Change during the Early Childhood
Years: Parent Personality, Coparenting, and Division-of-labor Correlates." Journal of Family
Psychology 12.4 (1998): 511-28. Print.

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Charuvastra, Anthony. "Children of Divorce." Course Lectures. United
States, New York City.

Clarke-Stewart, Alison, and Cornelia Brentano. Divorce: Causes and Consequences. New Haven
Conn.: Yale UP, 2006. Print.

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin,
2005. Print.