Reflecting on my arranged marriage

DEBIE THOMAS
Last updated 05:00 19/08/2013
Arranged marriage
MARRIAGE: Debie and Alex on their wedding day. “We wonder whether our culture has asked too much of us,” she says 17 years later.
Arranged marriage
ARRANGED MARRIAGE: Debie and Alex today

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The first time I met Alex was on my parents' doorstep, the winter after I graduated from college. He was Prospective Groom No. 3, or 7, or maybe even 12; by the time my parents met him at the bus station and drove him to our house, I had long lost count.

For more than a year, my extended family had been labouring on my behalf, receiving and rejecting proposals. Things were getting desperate; I was 22, and apparently throbbing with marriageability. Old-maid-hood loomed.

As per custom, I met Alex at the door with averted eyes and a guarded smile, feeling ridiculous in the traditional Indian garb my mother insisted was appropriate for the occasion. Over the course of the next several hours, I served him tea, sat across from him at dinner, and answered his questions about my education and interests.

When my father at last gave the two of us permission to be alone, I ushered Alex into our family room to chat for a quick 20 minutes and decide whether I'd marry him.

By the time my parents drove Alex back to his Greyhound bus a day later, he was my fiancé.

When I tell people in America that I have an arranged marriage, they react in one of two ways. Some love my story because it appears to confirm their belief that America is doing it wrong: "Kids nowadays - having sex in middle school! All the single moms! The institution of marriage is dying! Your culture is just so beautiful."

Others are more cautious. If Alex happens to be around, they appraise us both, searching for signs of trauma or misery. Eventually, they lean in and whisper, "Well, it ended up just fine, right? You're both happy? You've made it work and it was all for the best? Right?"

These aren't really questions. They're Statements Designed to Make Everything OK, and I know my cue well enough by now to smile big and say, "Yes! - Yes, of course."

The "yes" is not exactly a lie. Alex and I have been married for 17 years, and our relationship is stable. But the life we live together is still difficult for me to reconcile. For one thing, the words "arranged marriage" conjure up images that have nothing to do with me.Child brides and dowry burnings on the one hand, or henna and Bollywood on the other.

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I grew up in the United States, a product of New England suburbia, evangelical Christianity, Wellesley College, "Pride and Prejudice" and "When Harry Met Sally." I was the bicultural kid who wore salwar kameezes during the day, read "Sweet Valley High" at night, and swooned over "happily ever after" stories.

But I always knew my marriage would be arranged. Dating was absolutely forbidden in my family. Still, I dated secretly in high school and college, hoping that my parents (conservative, first-generation immigrants from India) would change their minds and terrified at the prospect that they wouldn't. I pleaded. I prayed for a miracle.

But by the time I turned 20, I knew my arranged marriage was set in stone. Saying "no" (though I still longed to) was not an option - the stakes in our honour-and-shame-based family were too high. Yes, I know this is hard for most Americans to understand, but it's true.

During my senior year of college, my parents contacted a network of friends and relatives, and an international community came together to find me a husband. We received proposals by mail, by phone and in person. I thumbed through "bio-data" sheets with my mom. Everything American in me protested: How can love be arranged? Isn't romance a wild, unruly thing? How will it thrive if it's coerced?

When I told my family I couldn't fall in love with a stranger, they told me Indians don't have to fall like "poor, helpless Americans." "We choose," they said triumphantly, as if their notion of choice would make me feel free. "We're not at the mercy of falling and feeling. We choose to love."

Perhaps. But I didn't choose Alex. My family did. Yes, he and I picked each other out of the proposals our families offered us. Based on those 20 minutes in my family room, I decided he was a likeable guy. But what can "choice" mean in such restrictive circumstances?

In ways I'm still coming to understand, it's our not-choosing that has reverberated across the years of our marriage, breaking us in ways we can't mend, and recreating us in others. Arranged marriage, as I've come to experience it, is far more complicated than either its champions or its critics understand.

In the months leading up to my engagement, my parents talked a lot about compatibility. As they flipped through photographs and resumés, they looked for men with educations, professions, family backgrounds and religious beliefs similar to mine. At one point, my mother asked me straight out: "What are you looking for in a husband?" Since I wasn't allowed to say, "I'm not looking," I said, "A soul mate. A best, best friend."

This was the wrong answer. A naked, American answer, sentimental and embarrassing. What my mother wanted was something along the lines of, "A man younger than 30, with a minimum of a master's degree in the medical field, who has a lucrative job, a close-knit family, and high standing within our community." This was an answer I was incapable of giving her. Not because a stable job and a tight-knit family were bad things, but because our basic visions of what marriage is - what marriage is for - were incompatible.

Alex and I weren't married three months before our differences - the kinds of differences we couldn't have discovered in each other's CVs - started to baffle us. He disliked my seriousness. I found him shallow. He craved adventure. I craved stability. He resented routine. I thrived on it. Though it took years to parse these differences, it didn't take long at all to recoil from them.

The point, of course, is not that two people with this constellation of differences can't marry each other. Couples do it all the time. The point is that something compelling (Love? History? Common interests? Great sex?) has to transcend the differences. Arranged couples start out with none of that. When Alex and I got married, all we had was our raw selves.

Conventional Indian wisdom would say, "It doesn't matter. You adjust to each other. You sacrifice, you compromise, you accommodate. For the sake of preserving the marriage, you change."

I don't disagree, exactly. All marriages, arranged or not, eventually hinge on compromise and change. But accommodating a spouse is an entirely different activity from enjoying her. Yes, we've changed, and yes, we've accommodated, but isn't framing marriage in terms of adjustment and compromise (instead of pleasure, or even affinity), an admission of defeat from the get-go?

No, my elders would say emphatically, it is not. It is a clear-eyed insistence on reality. Delight fades. Feelings come and go. Affinities shift with age and circumstance. Love, though - the practical, everyday love we choose in spite of our differences - is unwavering. But do I have that kind of love?

Neither Alex nor I, when we describe our first meeting, use words like "attraction," or "love at first sight," or "romance." I don't say, "My pulse raced when you walked in the door." He doesn't say, "I got tongue-tied every time you asked me a question." Neither of us says, "I really wanted to kiss you when we said goodbye."

In my case, what arranged marriage took away early on was the thrill of pursuit. Alex didn't pursue me; in the economy of the arrangement, he didn't have to. I, meanwhile, wasn't allowed to pursue him. Since neither of us freely chose, neither of us tasted the deep pleasures of being freely chosen.

On the other hand, I'm married to a good man who is my partner and my equal. He's a committed provider and a loving father to our two children. We have a comfortable life, rooted in tradition, family, and culture. My parents would say I've hit bedrock, a foundation far stronger than the shifting sands of American romance.

But the losses are significant, and Alex and I still grieve them. On the rare occasions when we talk about this, we express sadness on each other's behalf: "I wish you had married a best friend." "I wish you'd found a spouse who excites you more." "I wish delight would replace acceptance." To arrange a life, after all, is to control it. To write its script so exhaustively that there's little room left for improvisation. And a lot of good stuff happens when you are improvising.

Yes, at times we think about quitting. We wonder whether our culture has asked too much of us. We worry about the questions our very American children might ask about our marriage. But something always pulls us back.

To arrange a life is also to love and protect it, to put every bit of scaffolding in place to prevent collapse and chaos. It's an ongoing tension, messier than the words "arranged marriage" would suggest. This is how we manage our lives. We try to do it well.

-Slate 

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