The clients, they want everything.
So fickle-minded and fussy.
No matter where in the world you are matching, the clients are the same: difficult.
So says professional matchmaker Sima Taparia from Mumbai (“Sima Aunty” to her clients). In some ways, Sima is the star of Netflix’s documentary/reality-TV show Indian Matchmaking: she is “larger-than-life, charismatic, and so incredibly blunt,” says the show’s creator Smriti Mundhra. But the main attraction is really the institution of marriage itself. It’s what every young client is aiming for, what every Indian parent is praying for, and what Sima is getting paid for.
You Get 60–70 Percent
Sima has a vast archive of biodata—client profiles (matrimonial CV’s) that she relies on to make her matches. She meets with each client and their parents in person to hear exactly what they’re hoping for in a potential mate. Finding a life partner is typically a group project in Indian culture, and upwards of 90 percent of Indians go the route of an arranged marriage. Before matchmaking became an algorithmic science for dating apps, it was an art, a matter of intuition and careful consultation of astrological charts (“Ultimately, my efforts are meaningless if the stars are not aligned” is Sima’s disclaimer). Matchmaking, whether it’s done by one’s extended family or whether it engages the help of a very well-connected woman, is designed to bring two families (not just two individuals) together for life.
But Sima’s job is getting harder, in large part because of a growing generational divide. The kind of people Sima is tasked with finding matches for are highly educated, successful, upper class men and women in their thirties who are looking for a spouse as an addition to an already full (though perhaps unfulfilled) life. Many of these individuals have settled habits, strong preferences, and extremely high standards for a potential mate.
Sima listens quietly and nods along as each client presents their criteria. As the list gets longer and more specific, we watch her eyebrows go up, her chin tuck in, and her fingers and feet begin to tap (the show’s playful background music contributes to the sense that things are getting a little bit ridiculous). We wait for the inevitable sigh that precedes her universal advice:
- You are going to have to compromise.
- If you get 60 – 70 percent of what you’re looking for, that’s good enough.
- You can’t be too picky or you’ll never get married.
- Focus on one person at a time or you’ll get confused.
- Don’t rule someone out completely until you’ve met in person.
Sima’s call to compromise struck some Indian viewers as sexist. “Flexibility” has a gendered edge to it in traditional Indian culture and is commonly used by parents toward their marriageable daughters, by mothers-in-law toward daughters-in-law, and by husbands toward wives. And yet, despite claims that Sima only tells the ladies in the show to be flexible while giving the picky boys a pass, my perception was that she applied her thou-shalt-compromise pressure equally to both sexes. She doesn’t wield “compromise” like a cudgel against vulnerable young women: she’s attempting to take “the customer is always right” entitlement of her clients down a peg, reminding them that engaging a suitable life partner is not a mere “addition” to one’s fully established life: marriage is a transformation.
Not surprisingly, her advice is universally unwelcome, triggering some version of “I really think I can get everything I want in a partner, and I deserve it. I’m not lowering my standards, and I know my type.” Sima nudges her clients toward greater self-awareness by making them revisit their priorities and unrealistic (and sometimes even shallow) expectations, something that benefits them and helps them to mature whether or not they end up in a permanent match under her guidance.
From Marriage “Meh” to “All-or-Nothing”
Sima’s lovingly meant criticism of her clients is balanced by her efforts to find someone who’s truly a good fit, no matter how long “The List.” But when she says, “The clients, they want everything,” she’s not exaggerating. People throughout the world are still getting married as before, but they are getting married for different reasons. A shift in living conditions in the modern era has created a shift in the desires, expectations, and criteria of those seeking to marry. As psychologist Eli Finkel explains, “[I]t’s no longer enough for a modern marriage to simply provide a second pair of strong hands to help tend the homestead, or even just a nice-enough person who happens to be from the same neighborhood. Instead, people are increasingly seeking self-actualization within their marriages, expecting their partner to be all things to them.”
We want our spouses to help us grow personally and professionally, to be not only a lover, friend, co-parent, and co-worker in the trenches of life but also to be a personal life coach, enabling us to maximize our potential and become our “authentic selves.” This has led to a situation of “all-or-nothing” marriages, in which the lucky few who are perfectly matched and put in the time and effort have beautiful partnerships that are stable and fulfilling, while everyone else muddling along in a “meh” marriage is at a higher risk of divorce. “Meh” is being stigmatized at the same time as divorce is losing its stigma.
Finkel says the greatest problem facing modern marriages isn’t conflict anymore: it’s boredom, as in, “He’s a wonderful man and a loving father and I like and respect him, but I feel really stagnant in the relationship. I feel like I’m not growing and I’m not willing to stay in a marriage where I feel stagnant for the next 30 years.” But the closest analogue we have to marriage is not that of a life coach or a therapist with a client: it’s the sibling relationship between a brother and a sister, which our language readily reveals (Why else do you call your spouse’s parents “Mom” and “Dad”? Why do you both become and gain siblings-in-law?). Like siblings, a marriage is a functional male-female partnership of peers with overlapping (but non-identical) interests, having just as much potential for friction and tension as for connection and support. A spouse isn’t meant to be the fulfillment of all your desires: he or she is the unchanging partner with whom you must constantly negotiate competing desires to arrive at consensus. In the past, if your marriage cultivated this sibling-like solidarity and provided you with a home and children, that kind of loyalty and practicality would be a worthy achievement, a strong foundation. But today, such stability is seen as a death–knell (we can thank Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique for likening suburban family life to a concentration camp for women1). The arranged marriages of the past, and of much of India today, are a matter of “satisficing”—finding someone who hits that 70 percent, saying “Good enough for me,” and relying on family and community for both support and stigma against separation.
But today’s marriage seekers are happiness maximizers out for 100 percent or bust, with stigma redirected toward “settling for less.” “In the past, matchmaking was easy, but it’s become tough for me,” Sima says. “Some clients, it’s years I am working, and still they are unmarried. And when they come to me, they have a lot of criterias [sic]. They want everything.”
What Marriage Was (Originally) For
According to Indian feminist Vidhi Bubna, one of the biggest flaws with Indian Matchmaking “is how uncomfortable it makes one feel as it glosses over the dark and deeply entrenched roots of arranged marriage and glorifies it as a harmless quirky alternative to dating.” While I take Bubna’s point about the dark side of arranged marriage, in some ways she has it exactly backward. Arranged marriage has been around for thousands of years and has been practiced by large and small societies across the globe: its antiquity and ubiquity speak volumes about its versatility and usefulness. Dating to find a life partner (with the underlying assumption that first comes love, then comes marriage) is really the quirky new kid on the block.
To discuss the process of finding a mate accurately, we must see the self-chosen love match as the alternative rather than as the default human practice. That, or make the dubious claim that nearly all marriages prior to 200 years ago (and over 90 percent of marriages in India today) are immoral and misogynist simply because they involve communal and practical interests beyond personal romantic preference. As I’ve written about elsewhere:
Our ancestors weren’t as romantic as we are about marriage, but they knew that a firm foundation is a broad one, supported by many pillars. The fact that we gain a whole new family on the wedding day is not an unfortunate bug in the system that Adam and Eve were lucky enough to avoid, but is actually a necessary feature of marriage, according to historian Stephanie Coontz: “[S]ince the dawn of civilization, getting in-laws has been one of marriage’s most important functions.” The idea that extended family is a burden, a liability, or an intrusion (rather than a necessity) is another modern innovation.
Many of our beliefs and practices regarding marriage are time-bound historical phenomena, not unchanging universal ideals. Marriage is a formidable and flexible institution: it has always been around, and yet it has always been adapting to conditions on the ground. Marriages of the past (and of places today that have not fully adopted industrial capitalism, democracy, and romanticism) were bound by the inevitability of pregnancy, the struggles of subsistence living, and the need for tribal security and alliances. They were eminently practical.
Marriage was mostly about managing sexual asymmetry: only women get pregnant, and this means women need more care and support than men do. As pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote, “there is no such thing as a baby. There is only a baby and someone.”2 A baby can’t exist on its own, but is essentially part of a relationship. This means that mothers, too, will also need “a someone.” Marriage is a culture’s way of ensuring a man will “stay and pay” rather than simply “sow and go,”3 a costly disaster for everyone except the heel who gets away with it. Marriage is not an invention of “the patriarchy” to oppress women (far from it): it’s a mechanism for communities to protect women from the subset of men who would use and discard them, providing social support for men to be their best selves.
Compared to polygamy and polyamory, monogamy is by far the most egalitarian and the least violent mating arrangement: the more men are brought into marriage and family life, the more men are “tamed” and the more society stabilizes. Monogamous pair bonding is meant to turn potential cads into good dads by making marriage the only societally sanctioned way to enjoy sex, British feminist Louise Perry says, creating a social world in which children can flourish. Marriage may be “old, clunky, and prone to periodic failure,” Perry admits, but it’s a time-tested social technology that meets a legitimate human need.
Elaborating on this fundamental familial need, marriages of antiquity were also organized around questions like “Who gets the goats when I die?” and “Which in-laws would be the most advantageous?” Marriage had more in common with a business partnership than with love or psychological fulfillment.4 That strikes us today as utilitarian only because we have the luxury of not needing to think in survival terms: we’re not morally better than our ancestors, we’re just WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic), and young, educated urbanites in India are increasingly aligning themselves with this modern approach over and against what their parents (and much of rural India) still value.
Big Romance and Self-Actualization
When Christians think about marriage today, we’re typically assuming the “Big Romance” model that developed in the 18th century as a byproduct of industrialization. When productive agrarian households (in which men and women worked side by side with children in tow) were replaced with bourgeois industrial households, with the husbands away at work and the wives at home, women lost economic agency. Work was taken out of the home while upper and middle class women remained in it.5 These women responded to the increased precariousness of their position with some feminine rebranding. They pitched themselves as “angels by the hearth” and maternal guardians of morality—a boost in status and significance to compensate for being left at loose ends in a home now geared toward consumption instead of production. They also became beloved wives, cherished for their individuality.6 “These two things together form the core of Big Romance,” reactionary feminist Mary Harrington argues, “the idea that it’s fine for women to be economically dependent, because we’re loved, cherished, protected, and indispensable to thriving family life.”
The love match wasn’t just an ideal in the industrial era, it was part of how women survived. The husband who left subsistence behind for a day job just didn’t need his wife quite like he used to down on the farm, and women’s increasingly one-sided dependence was offset by the comfort of knowing that he won’t leave me because he loves me.7 This trade-off works pretty well if you marry a good man who is devoted to you and you enjoy being a mother—hence conservative Christianity’s lasting affinity for the breadwinner/homemaker model.
Since the advent of the Pill and the Women’s Movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Big Romance began to give way to a less dependent (and less stable) successor that provided women with more options: the marriage of two career-oriented spouses as a vector for individual self-actualization. In the Self-Actualization model, spouses become fungible: sexual differences are minimized and papered over, which paves the way for same-sex marriage—something that would have been unthinkable and nonsensical according to marriage’s original procreative purpose. Marriage as an arrangement that evolved to solve the perennial problem/blessing of fertility, the raising of children, and the need to survive, got exapted and repurposed for psychological ends. Democracy, industrial capitalism, and contraception have drastically changed marriage’s meaning, for better and for worse.
Part of the oddity, and to some, the offensiveness, of Indian Matchmaking is the way in which an older, more communal, and more practical model of arranged marriage coexists with Big Romance and Self-Actualization models of marriage. Watching the strange juxtaposition of “something old and something new” in the show highlights the trade-offs we’ve made in the modern world—trade-offs many young Indians think look pretty good from where they’re standing.
For many Indian and Indian diaspora viewers, the show is revealing in a cringeworthy way: some feel angry and ashamed that such a “backward” practice like arranged marriage still obtains in their culture, especially because arranged marriages in India can sometimes be suffocating, coercive, and emotionally manipulative. This darker side of arranged marriage can be seen in Preeti’s unrelenting pressure on her son Akshay in season 1, and also in Smriti Mundhra’s documentary A Suitable Girl,8 which follows the marital journeys of three Indian women (including Sima’s own daughter). But for those unfamiliar with and outside of Indian culture—for those of us steeped in stories of romantic, companionate, egalitarian, self-actualizing, and self-directed marriage arrangements—this peek into the past is revealing too, but in the opposite direction. It shows us what we’ve lost in the name of love and authenticity.
The Customer Is Always Right
The beauty and power of a self-expressive “love match” is that it is based on personal preference, individual choice, and mutual attraction. When it works, it’s truly amazing. But this very emphasis on the individual, this elevation of personal emotion over the needs and desires of the community (represented by one’s parents), debases the substrate on which marriage depends for its perseverance: duty. Lifelong marital solidarity requires that you downplay your feelings for the benefit of others, that you consider the needs of the family you’ve created (especially the children) over and above your own. The marriage that’s initiated solely because of romance and personal growth is fragile, prone to dissolution when feelings peter out and growth dwindles.
The culture that gave us first romantic and now self-expressive marriages based on personal choice and individual autonomy also gave us a host of troubling side effects: easy no-fault divorce (which contributes to the feminization of poverty), serial monogamy, increased promiscuity facilitated by cheap and reliable contraception, hook-ups, Tinder, Only Fans, internet porn, sugar daddies, legal (until recently) abortion, same-sex marriage, and the normalization of single motherhood. Individualism and personal choice are not unequivocal goods: they involve trade-offs. The romantic and sexual freedom our culture has championed as an alternative to arranged marriage not only includes the freedom to screw up your own life; it also includes the freedom to screw over others. We’re in love with the “all” this freedom promises us, but those stuck with “nothing” at the end of it are feeling duped, and even nostalgic for the stability of “good enough.” As the collateral damage of the Sexual Revolution piles up, “meh” marriage starts to look like a haven (any port in a storm, right?).
Arranged marriages are all about “good enough.” In the framework of a traditional culture where the good of the group is valued over the preferences of the individual, a highly specific and lengthy list of mate criteria will be seen as an impediment to happiness: it will be framed as pickiness, entitlement, and an unwillingness to compromise. But in the framework of modern liberalism, which sees the individual as the basic unit of society, undergirded by capitalism’s championing of consumer choice, a lengthy list of criteria will be seen as the only true path to happiness. The greatest mistake a person could make would be to “settle.” Isn’t the customer always right? And what is easy no-fault divorce if not returning a product (Wrong size? Item no longer needed? Not what I expected?) to the mating market shelf with the goal of exchanging for a better fit?
Indian Matchmaking’s creator, Smriti Mundhra, says:
In the show, what really defined both the diaspora and the Indians living in India is that the current generation is more individualistic than their parents were. But ultimately, our culture is so rooted in tradition and family and that’s where the tension lies. We want to marry someone that will allow us to be our full selves with our family but still want someone who is going to check all those boxes we want as individuals—that’s what makes it hard for matchmakers.
Indian Matchmaking straddles the line by giving each client the space to express their desires, while also framing The List with a touch of humor containing an implicit critique. We are supposed to blush, smirk, scoff, and roll our eyes over what men and women want from each other. There’s something cringeworthy about saying the quiet part of our desires out loud, especially if that list reveals a preference for “fair skin,” a man bun, tattoos, or a personality that gets along well with your dog; a prejudice against bald men, short women, or divorcées; or language that serves as code for money and prestige (like “doctor,” “lawyer,” “ambitious,” or “self-made”). Laughing at something is often the first recognition of an uncomfortable (or unspeakable) truth: most men are picky about looks, most women are picky about status, and most people are hesitant about marrying too far afield from the familiar.
To those who think that the show is obligated to explicitly condemn participant preferences based on skin tone, caste, class, and physical appearance, the show’s creator maintains a “show, don’t tell” approach: holding up a mirror to what we humans are like and what we want (a “nuanced portrayal of a practice in flux”) is enough to start an honest conversation, Mundhra says. This is entertainment, after all, not a sermon, and selecting a spouse is nothing if not discriminatory.
The implicit critique runs both ways: the older generation is prone to colorism and casteism, while being flexible about many other details. The younger generation is open to differences in caste, color, and religion but is dead set on finding someone who will fit in seamlessly with their bespoke life and cause sparks to fly on a first date. And everyone is concerned about money.
Icon, Sacrament, Sanctifier
The grand ambition of modern love is to discover and secure The One who makes you happy, to unite security and adventure in one relationship by forging a “passionate marriage,” something that would have been considered a contradiction in terms for most of human history. This grand ambition (ignoring for a moment my criticism of how its free pursuit has wrought havoc) is so compelling in part because it is an earthly icon of a heavenly reality. Our longing for faithful and fruitful marital union, in which we are captivated by desire for a worthy lover, cherished in our uniqueness, and challenged to grow beyond our faults into greater virtue, is really a religious longing that no mere human or human institution can satisfy.
The Bible is saturated with romantic, marital, sexual, and procreative imagery in which the Creator woos and weds his creation. The union of heaven and earth (Rev. 21), of Christ the bridegroom and the church his bride (Eph. 5:21-33), is (to me) the most beautiful of the numerous metaphors in Scripture for the mystery of our salvation. Traditional liturgies are structured with nuptial symbolism in mind, hence the Eucharistic invitation: “Blessed are those called to the marriage supper of the Lamb,” as the male priest (in persona Christi) makes a sacrificial offering for the good of the feminine (bridal) church. Some Christians even consider marriage a sacrament, something that goes beyond a merely human institution and a durable social technology, to become a means of God’s grace. It’s not just a picture of heaven and earth’s nuptial union but an active participation in it.
A good marriage (whether viewed as a sacrament or not) is grounded in lifelong fidelity that can metabolize the “meh” that’s bound to come over the years. It cultivates intimacy, welcomes children with hospitality, and enables the spouses to sanctify one another (sainthood being a better goal than self-actualization), while being embedded within the larger context of parents, in-laws, and community. Whether it’s arranged or not, and whether love is the starting spark or the culmination of a slow burn, is more a matter of logistics, historical context, and culture than morality. If there is one non-negotiable for any person’s matchmaking criteria, it ought to be virtue—the only true foundation of happiness.
All three models for marriage (pragmatic, romantic, self-actualizing) contain something true: our need for a practical arrangement and communal interdependence; our need for intimacy and cherishing the individual; our need for personal growth into our full potential. Rigid adherence to one set of these values at the expense of the others is a mistake. We can’t undo the changes that have brought us to where we are now; we can’t go back and Make Marriage Great Again. Neither should we fall for a naive progress narrative that turns up its nose at the past. “You have to adjust a little,” Sima says, “then the life becomes beautiful and smooth.”
Having been happily married for 22 years myself (and having been set up with my husband by a mutual friend who played the unofficial matchmaker for us), I can attest that compromise, flexibility, and “adjusting” is never just “a little,” or merely a one-time thing; nor is it solely a feminine duty. It is a mutual daily practice—a whole family habit, really. (If you find compromise difficult with two people, try six.) And even if life remains bumpy rather than smooth, mutual flexibility rooted in love does indeed make life beautiful.
Settle or Be Settled?
And this is why, regardless of the criticisms leveled at Indian Matchmaking, I love the show and its playful attempt to bring multiple marriage models and family generations together. It is equal parts touching, awkward, and hilarious, as single people choose to consciously include the wisdom and perspective of their elders and put themselves into situations where they might have to be more flexible than they envisioned.
I’ve enjoyed watching it with my teenage daughter, and talking about the various personalities, dreams, family dynamics, dates (both delightful and disastrous), cultural differences, and relational mistakes the show contains. It’s a good springboard into discussions of dating and marriage, of expectations and pitfalls, while holding up a mirror to both traditional Indian practices and modern American assumptions.
We laugh at The Lists, cringe at the awkward dates, nod along to Sima’s advice, cheer and clap at her one-liners, and cross our fingers that these endearing young people will find love, so that their parents (who don’t want their children to settle, but to be happily settled) can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
- Betty Friedan’s caricature of the traditional housewife’s role as dangerous: “It is urgent to understand how the very condition of being a housewife can create a sense of emptiness, non-existence, nothingness, in women. There are aspects of the housewife role that make it almost impossible for a woman of adult intelligence to retain a sense of human identity, the firm core of self or “I” without which a human being, man or woman, is not truly alive. For women of ability, in America today, I am convinced there is something about the housewife state itself that is dangerous. In a sense that is not as far-fetched as it sounds, the women who ‘adjust’ as housewives, who grow up wanting to be ‘just a housewife,’ are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps—and the millions more who refused to believe that the concentration camps existed.” Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique: 50th Anniversary Edition (United Kingdom: W.W. Norton, 2013), 325.
I personally find such rhetoric both ridiculous and offensive, not only to women who work at home and raise their own children, but to the actual victims of concentration camps who suffered and died. Boredom, frustration, and restlessness in willingly chosen caregiving is not comparable to genocidal torture, degradation, and death. ↩︎
- Donald Winnicott on “a baby and someone.” Louise Perry, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2022), 173. ↩︎
- Brett Weinstein on two male modes: “Sow and go” or “Stay and pay” in the YouTube video “Marriage as an evolutionary phenomenon.” ↩︎
- Esther Perel, TedTalk called “The Secret to Desire in a Long-term Relationship.” ↩︎
- Ivan Illich, Gender (London: Marion Boyars, 2009), 3-66. ↩︎
- Mary Harrington, Feminism Against Progress (Regnery Publishing, 2023), Chapter 7, “Abolish Big Romance.” ↩︎
- Ibid. ↩︎
- Amrita on the experience of arranged marriage: “I came to Nokha for Keshav, I’m doing everything for Keshav, my world revolves around him. You lose your identity when you get married, and that’s the one thing I never wanted to do. More than 80 percent of people who come to [our] home would not even know my name. They just recognize me as Keshav’s wife. And that’s one thing, I’m like, “Yes, I am Keshav’s wife, and I am proud to be. But I do have a name, so you can call me Amrita.” A Suitable Girl. ↩︎