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.

Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage: 7-year cycles

Continuing down the list of suggested blog topics, marriage was a recurring suggestion in different forms:

– Maintaining a healthy marriage despite the chaos

– Grey divorces

– That time you were thisclose to divorcing your spouse

– Sex after marriage (as in sex in a long term committed relationship with children, not as in abstinence until marriage)

Writing about marriage is a tall order, especially when it involves sex, because, well, I have other people’s feelings, perspectives and boundaries to respect. Anyone who has ever bought me coffee — and even some I bought coffee to — knows that I hold nothing back in private conversations. Blogging is a different kettle of fish but I’m ready to tackle it (tackle, fish, geddit?)

I learned a lot about marriage through my own experience and through watching other people do it. Some are inspirations, some are cautionary tales, everyone has something to teach everyone else. In my writing about parenting and family life, I strive to avoid the word “should.” If I learned anything in my 22 years of parenting — and as many of married life — it’s that there is no recipe for a happy and well-adjusted family life. There are broad lines — don’t hit or shame people, give plenty of physical affection and healthy foods — with room to adapt our own circumstances. Families are made of a mish-mash of different personalities, temperaments and life experiences. Some apples don’t fall far from the tree, some apples are adopted into foreign orchards, and some apples pull DNA three generations removed. And of course, as my children noted with horror, you marry someone you’re not related to. (Lucas, when told he could not marry his twin sister: “I’m not marrying someone I don’t know!!!”)

The truth is, there is more I don’t know about what makes a happy marriage than what I know. One thing I noticed is that when couples find an easy magic solution to marital bliss in a book or at a conference, it’s almost always the calm before the final storm. Because there is no easy path to long-term marital happiness. It’s a work of constant reinvention and acceptance

One of the keys to maintaining a healthy relationship through the ups and downs of a long-term commitment is to accept this constant reinvention, of ourselves and of the other. It takes resilience and flexibility to accept that the person we married will not always be the same, and to make the decision to love whoever this person becomes. In one of the better-known scenes from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Rochester tells Jane:

“I have a strange feeling with regard to you. As if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you. And if you were to leave I’m afraid that cord of communion would snap. And I have a notion that I’d take to bleeding inwardly.”

I love this image of commitment as attaching to something deep within the other person, something essential that exists independently of appearances, goals, and ambitions. As the years pass and life acts on us like a river molds its banks, what matters to us may change. The ability of a marriage to withstand this constant reinvention is to connect somewhere under the left ribs, to the heart of the other. It’s to accept the other for the other’s sake rather than for what the other brings us.

When we fall in love, the dance of hormones and emotions makes connecting easy. It makes connecting necessary. We love, we thirst, we need the other to feel complete. As we age and family obligations take their toll, we look back on the ease of the early days and wonder “If he/she hadn’t changed, would things still be easy?” and we answer in the affirmative because our minds are like water, always rushing through the path of least resistance. But the dance of hormones and emotions was never supposed to last. Its purpose was to get us naked and reproducing. Now that the deed is done, the rest is up to us, and it’s hard work.

Marriages turn on a 7-year cycle. Breakdowns — whether they are permanent or not — happen at the 7-year mark, the 14-year mark and the 21-year mark. These cycles are not written in the stars, they correspond to inflection points in our personal growth. The first 7 years are a blur of babies, chaos, and sleep deprivation so deep we’re not even allowed to impose it on hardened criminals. The next 7 years are spent getting to know the new adult version of ourself and our spouse. At the 14-year mark, our children are now teenagers. After 21 years, the children are leaving and we take stock of where we are, sometimes wondering if this is really where we were meant to be, with a crushing sense of the merciless march of time.

Paul and I often joke that we front-loaded all the marriage trouble at the 7-year mark, so we didn’t really feel 14 and 21 pass us by. But what I think really happened is that having failed to love the other for the other’s sake through the first 7 years, having relied too much on the forces of attraction and too little on hard work and understanding; having made a decision to stay together and do it better for the next 7, we gave each other permission to change. We supported each other through questionable choices, new ambitions and sharp turns. We gave each other permission to stumble and a hand to grab on the way down.

Falling and flying are almost the same until you hit the ground. The difference between a thud! and a smooth landing is a bit of air, moving at the right speed, in the right direction.




The gift of unconditional love

On May 13th, my parents celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary. As a child, I remember looking at their wedding album with fascination. I could see my older cousins as children, lining-up on the Church’s gravel path as flower girls and pages: the boys wearing matching suits, the girls wearing handmade smocked dresses. I marveled at my parents’ youth and beauty. My father’s light-coloured plaid suit and his honeycombed tie screamed 1972 but almost as to tell the story of two worlds colliding, everything about my mother was timeless and classic. Her white dress had no adornments but round pearl buttons complementing the single pearl she wore around her neck. She had eschewed the traditional veil for a tasteful updo, held together by a wide white bow falling in loose coils down her shoulders. My parents had met in the United-States and were married in France in my mother’s hometown before moving to Canada, my father’s home. I always felt a strong attachment to my mother’s homeland and my parents’ wedding album was a key to the mystery of dislocation, of never feeling settled, of belonging to two worlds and, at the same time, never being home.


On their anniversary, when my children announced — upon checking Facebook — that my parents were celebrating 45 years of marriage, my first exclamation was “This is impossible, I’m not that old!” but sadly, yes, I am. I was born 18 months after my parents’ wedding. Firstborn to a francophile and a Frenchwoman, I grew-up in the blissful ignorance of my deviance until I started school. There, my lovely accent, a bastard of France’s clear enunciation and Quebec’s slur — one Quebec humorist once described the French accent as “speaking French with teeth” — attracted taunts, laughs and calls to “go back to where I came from.” Teachers would ask me to speak just so they could laugh. My family’s fashion sense, always tasteful and timeless, became old-fashioned. Creativity became delusion, daydreaming was a punishable offence and public shaming an acceptable mode of righting the wrong, straightening the crooked, homogenizing the colourful.

I grew-up as “the other” in a community that was so overwhelmingly White-French-Canadian that the white France-French kid was considered the outsider. I lived in an interesting dichotomy where everything that was ridiculed at school — my speech, my clothing, my imagination, my creativity — was celebrated at home. My parents’ marriage, with their worlds colliding, had created a place where being different was safe, even desirable. It was a safe-haven from the rejections and mockeries of my friends and teachers. The stark contrast between the artificial conditional love of the world and my family’s unconditional love was a school in the pain that lies in the hearts of hurtful people.

My parents’ marriage wasn’t the stuff movies are made of. It had no artifices, no false pretences. Buoyed by the intrepidity of youth, my mother had left home and family in Europe for a life in Canada at a time when plane tickets had roughly the same face-value they have today on a dollar that was a lot harder to earn. Long-distance phone calls across the Atlantic were priced in dollars per minute. My mother raised us without the support of family, save for the regular handwritten letters she would get from her mom and sisters. I saw how the ocean grew wider as her parents grew older and sicker; and wider still today as her siblings are reaching the end of their journey. My parents cared for each other in ways that were not always perfect. But they held each other by the force of commitment and the willingness to make way to the needs of others.

I always understood without being able to articulate it that my mother had chosen a man, not a country. She struggled to retain as much of her French identity as she could in a society where it was viewed as snobbish and pretentious. She was called “nice, for a Frenchwoman.” Almost fifty years later, she still speaks with a French accent and has never tasted poutine. At my parents’ 45th anniversary dinner my siblings and I cracked jokes about the poutine story, shaking our heads about “those immigrants who refuse to integrate…” My mother still has a foot in both worlds and I always knew that her family, the one she had made in Canada with my father, was her anchor. Without it, she would float away eastward to the Atlantic and over back to France. Her love was freely given, yet its cost was always in plain sight.

The gift of unconditional love is my secret weapon as I move through the world today, raising my own family. It was given to me by my parents, inscribed in my DNA. I soaked in it in the quiet ignorance of the womb. It caught me when I tripped as a toddler. It wrapped its arms around me when I was cold and alone. It patched me up when my heart was broken. It reassured me when I was mocked and ridiculed. I did nothing to earn it and yet, it weights on every aspect of my life.

Unconditional love is a disposition of the heart expressed in the simplest words and actions. Yet, we struggle to understand how to love our children. Driven by guilt we grasp at anything that resembles unconditional love whether it’s a new diet, a new opportunity, a participation trophy. We need to make love tangible, measurable, when we know, deep down in our innermost heart, that it cannot be. We rip a page from our children’s playbooks, confusing their wants and needs, unable to separate the wheat from the chaff, as if the need for food and the want for organic local food were one and the same.

My parents’ marriage is my gift and my inheritance. Quiet and unassuming, love changes the world one family at a time.