Like a lot of mistakes, there's a certain truth in this. A lot of the work that it takes to stay happily married is similar to the work that it takes to get along with other people in less chosen relationships (parents, siblings, children, co-workers, etc.) You know:
- Don't make that frustrated statement that begins "You always..." or "You never..."
- The satisfaction of making that angry crack now will be much less than the pain of dealing with the fight it will cause.
- Don't keep tally of who does the most, because you always over-count what you do and under-count what you don't do.
Those kind of things.
So yes, the work you need to do to get along with your spouse on a daily basis is a lot like the work you to have to do get along with anyone else. But that doesn't mean that attraction isn't important. While "falling in love" is not all that it takes to be married, it does give you a very strong reason to want to do the right things. When you share a house and kids and bank account and bed with someone, you could find an awful lot of things to be frustrated about. One of the things MrsDarwin and I will find ourselves saying to each other at moments when we're dealing with trying circumstances is "I wouldn't want to do this with anyone but you," and that attraction to the person (interests, personality, looks, the whole thing) is a hugely helpful motive to keep doing the right thing.
This struck me with particular force reading this Atlantic piece by a woman whose marriage was arranged by her family:
When I tell people here 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."It's worth reading the whole thing. It's both sad and kind of inspiring at the same time.
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.
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.
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?
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.