I Wanted to Marry My Soul Mate. My Parents Had Other Ideas. Seventeen Years Later, Here’s What Happened.

Snapshots of life at home.
Aug. 16 2013 12:19 PM

My Parents Chose My Husband

Seventeen years later, I’m still married to him, still grieving, and still trying to figure out why I stay.

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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?

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Debie and Alex's wedding

Courtesy of Debie Thomas

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Alex and Debie on vacation a few years ago

Courtesy of Debie Thomas

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.

Debie Thomas holds an MFA from Ohio State University and lives in Palo Alto, Calif. Her essays have previously appeared or are forthcoming in the Kenyon Review and River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. She is currently writing a memoir about arranged marriage.