A tale of two (arranged?) marriages

I was chatting with someone recently who might have been my therapist. She’s helping me with some somatic experiencing not related to my marriage but it’s hard to think about your life without thinking about your spouse so I gave her the elevator pitch. Now it’s your turn.

I summed-up my marriage as two distinct arranged marriages. Sort of.

In India, the practice of arranged marriages is a robust part of the culture and it is adapting to modernization in creative ways. Traditionally, young men and women were brought together by their families and introduced once — if at all — before entering matrimony. Nowadays, a surprising majority of young Indians still declare a preference for arranged marriages wherein they retain the right to consent or refuse. They are introduced by their families, often with the help of a matchmaker (or a matchmaking website), go on dates and decide if they want to take the jump together or not.

(Here’s an arranged marriage first date scene from Netflix’s “Lust Stories”. The clip doesn’t have subtitles but Vicky Kaushal is such an adorable nerd, it’s still cute. You can watch the whole scene with subtitles plus the following marriage and honeymoon night on Netflix. It starts on the 1:30:00 mark.)

Even in Bollywood, where love marriage is King, several stories portraying the urban educated youth of India have elements of matchmaking thrown in. In “Manmarziyaan”, Rumi agrees to marry “the first loser her family finds her” if she can’t convince her boyfriend Vicky to propose. Her family finds Robbie, a young successful Indian living in London. He is returning home to Amritsar to find a wife. The rest of the movie is an emotional exploration of love (pyaar) and lust (fyaar):

Attraction and love are considered separately and neither is seen as necessary to have the other. Love can grow from a good match and can disappear from a passionate encounter. In “Manmarziyaan” again, Robbie finds out early in the story that Rumi is involved with another man. When asked why he wants to marry her regardless he answers that having agreed to marry him, she must be looking for something else, something that Vicky can’t give her. He’s smitten enough to take the challenge. Love marriages are seen as happening in the margins of extended family life, with eloping leading to forgiveness. Love marriages happen in the “Better ask for forgivenes than permission” space. We see this in the modern classics “Khabi khushie khabie gham” and “Jab we met.” In fact, “Jab we met” lead actor Shahid Kapoor chose an arranged marriage for himself, saying:

“I am a big supporter of arranged marriages. It’s simple, really. You start with zero expectations and once you hit it off, every day is better than the previous one and all the highs come in the course of marriage. In romantic relationships, you reach the peak of your romance before marriage. And then you are left thinking where all the love went and why everything has become so mundane. So I feel the graph in an arranged marriage is better in the long term.”

(The emphasis is mine)

You have to admit, he has a point.

Paul and I started dating when I was almost 20, the Summer before I started Law School. We didn’t live in the same city: I was in Gatineau and he was in Petawawa, an army base about 160 km away. When I got pregnant a year later, we had never even talked about marriage. We were just two people attracted to each other, with a baby on the way and a military deployment looming. We decided to make a go of it and got married a week before he left for Bosnia. I was 22 weeks pregnant.

The decision to marry when we did was a practical one. In the Armed Forces — this may have changed with the times — it was easier to receive support as the wife of a deployed member than as a girlfriend. We didn’t have a plan, we didn’t even have an apartment: he lived in the singles’ quarters on the base, I lived with my parents. We were two people in love with a baby on the way and a commitment to try our best.

I’d be lying if I told you that everyone was as hopeful as we were. I was a full-time student, he was a young army officer with a bright career ahead of him (the kind of career that wreaks havoc on marriages), we were expecting our first child 4 months into a 6 months deployment. You would be forgiven for seeing this as a shaky start at best, a trainwreck in the making at worst. But I think that — as Shahid Kapoor said — starting with no expectations, we really met along the way. As I mentioned in my previous post, the secret to a long-term commitment is the willingness and ability to change with the other. When your marriage is born out of nothing but a promise to figure it out, it sets the tone.

It served us well 7 years later when we hit the first sharp corner in our marriage. Paul and I do nothing slowly and coming to a 90-degree turn at 100 km/h, we flipped the car and burned it down with 4 children in the backseat. It wasn’t pretty. Everyone said “It was always a trainwreck in the making…” but Paul and I decided to build a new marriage from the ashes of the first one. It was not an emotional decision, it was a practical decision. We had 4 children and neither of us was ready to see them only some of the time. But also, having 4 children meant that our lives were inexorably intertwined, whether we liked each other or not. We would have to plan our holidays together, our major expenses together, our careers together, our moves together. It was immediately obvious that we would have to work just as hard on splitting-up as we would have on staying together.

We didn’t want the old marriage back. That one was broken. We wanted a new, happy one. This was our second arranged marriage. It was transactional, it started from somewhere even farther than being complete strangers because we had baggage. Strangers don’t trust each other because they don’t know each other. Paul and I didn’t trust each other because we had reasons not to feel safe. And to this day, it’s not entirely clear how we climbed out of that hole and went on to have 5 more children. Hard work for sure. A lot of self-awareness. A willingness to move on without needing to assign blame. An understanding — from both sides — of the difference between forgiving and forgetting. An ability to let the other heal without picking the scab. And a metric ton of prayer from friends and family who were rooting for us. But the experience of walking into our first marriage with an openness to receive whatever life threw at us was the template on which our second marriage was built.

In “Bridges of Madison County,” Francesca (Meryl Streep) explains to Robert (Redford) that she can’t erase her life.

Sometimes, we don’t want a new life. We want our own life, but happier.