Read an Excerpt
First Comes Marriage...Seriously?
Are you sick of random dates that seem to go nowhere? Ready to move on to the next stage in your life? Wondering why you never seem to meet your Mr. Right or find the commitment you want? Or are you in a committed relationship and worried that your boyfriend or fiancé may not be the perfect soul mate you always dreamed of?
If any of these sound like your current experience, then this book has some answers for you answers and insight that come from arranged marriages.
When it comes to dating and relationships, the arranged-marriage approach has only one focus: fostering commitment and marriage. It's not about dating for fun or dating for the experience, or wasting months or years agonizing over the issues you need to overcome before you think you can get what you want out of both life and love.
It's not about hotties, cuties, sexual chemistry, or soul mates.
Instead, it's about finding the right partner, making the decision, and getting on with building a life of purpose and marital contentment together. That's pretty much what arranged marriages are all about. And this book is all about sharing concepts, tips, and strategies from arranged marriages in a way that all of us can use to identify an ideal mate and maintain a happy relationship, not just for now but for life.
These are life- changing lessons that will work for you, regardless of your age, culture, or past relationship experiences. And don't worry; it's not about convincing you to have an arranged marriage (I didn't!), but about understanding how you can make that approach work for you.
Relationship advice from arranged marriages?
I know, I know. The idea of dating or relationship advice based on or even in the same time zone as the arranged-marriage experience seems completely strange. Backward. Ancient.
If that's what you're thinking, I don't blame you at all. Until quite recently, I would have completely agreed with you. But keep reading and you'll see how and why the arranged-marriage approach is both a proven route to a stable and happy relationship and particularly insightful when it comes to many of our contemporary dating and love dilemmas.
So if I didn't have an arranged marriage, how did I learn so much about this approach and how it can help us?
I learned these lessons through five years of research and more than three hundred interviews with women in arranged marriages. And along the way, I found that arranged marriages have a lot to teach us about dating, love, and long-term happiness. From finding a great partner to falling in love, sharing a home, building a family and yes hot sex, arranged marriages offer amazingly practical and effective relationship strategies. And the best part is that you don't actually need to have an arranged marriage to feel the benefits.
No matter how counterintuitive it may sound, the arranged-marriage approach to relationships offers lessons and guidelines that are increasingly relevant to the modern dating scene. But until now, these lessons have been largely ignored and overlooked, even though they are lessons that many of us can benefit from tremendously.
I firmly believe that there has never been a better time to be a woman than right now. Think about it: compared to any other moment in history, we have unlimited freedom for opportunity, fun, and sexual adventure. And then, when we decide we're ready, we can also have a stable, fulfilling marriage and family. But there's one catch: finding and sustaining and enjoying marriage seems to be getting harder and harder. That's one reason why women are increasingly taking lessons from alternative models from the past (remember The Rules, anyone?) and, as in this book, using these models to modify their approach to commitment and lasting love.
According to Marian Salzman, coauthor of Next Now: Trends for the Future, "Today is the era of the arranged couple who fall in love around the birth of the first child. It sounds traditional, but in some ways so much of the future is back to the past, turbo-charged."
Increasingly, both men and women are realizing that the fantasy of randomly meeting and instantly recognizing "the one" is unlikely to happen on its own. So instead of passively waiting, they are deciding that practical, pro-active measures must be taken. Just as in an arranged marriage, these are measures that take a more direct, down-to-earth, and ultimately successful approach to long-term relationship success. "This is about picking a marriage partner not about falling into bed for a world-class romance," says Salzman, whose trend forecasts are based on pattern recognition and the issues that style makers are talking about. "There is a newfound interest in letting someone else solve the love dilemma," she explains. "We're on option overload, and we're maxed out in terms of time, and we'd all love a partner. So it makes sense to enlist those who know us best to forge a proper and satisfying match."
Much of this is thanks to the Internet. From chat rooms to online dating services, the Web has essentially become our electronic yenta. Time magazine estimates that approximately 40 million Americans regularly log on to dating websites and services. Online ads, matchmakers, and speed dating are no longer considered to be the hallmark of people who are "desperate." The old stigmas that came with using these methods to find a partner are quickly disappearing, especially since the participants are often confident, busy professionals who are increasingly trying to search out partners the way they would a new job.
The statistics are compelling. For instance, a 2005 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project showed that 15 percent of U.S. adults knew someone who had had a serious relationship with or married a person whom he or she met online, and 31 percent knew someone who has used an online dating service.
Some websites even feel like modern versions of ancient traditions. Consider how social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn act like social registries where you can "verify" a potential mate's social standing, appearance, and future prospects. On these sites you can even ask a mutual friend for an introduction to a complete stranger as is the custom for arranged marriages.
A Marriage Arranged by America?
If the idea of your parents or extended family picking out your husband seems strange, then just imagine leaving it to a group of network executives or worse the American viewing public!
In her book The Meaning of Wife, Anne Kingston discusses the success of Fox Network's Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, or, as she describes, "The commercialized update of the Cinderella tale." This was the show where fifty women between the ages of 19 and 43 were selected from a pool of over a thousand women who sent in videotaped biographies. The lucky fifty then got to compete to become the bride of a millionaire they had never met. Oh yeah, and they also got to take home an Isuzu Trooper and a $35,000, 3-carat engagement ring! So how was the bride selected? Well, the groom, a motivational speaker cum stand-up comic cum real estate tycoon, asked the women a series of questions, ranging from what they would do if they found a woman's name and phone number in their new husband's pocket to whether they wanted to have children.
The success of this show (the final episode on February 15, 2000, drew more than 22 million viewers) led to several other spin-off shows along the same lines, including The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, Joe Millionaire, Married by America, and Race to the Altar.
Why am I bringing this up? My point is that arranged marriages aren't as foreign as you might think. The overwhelming response to these TV show setups seems to indicate that more and more people are interested in alternative methods for finding a life partner. Although I'm not sure how I'd feel about millions of people voting on my future happiness!
Online dating, matchmaking, and other assisted-dating services are growing in popularity (come on, admit it: you've watched The Bachelor or at least The Bachelorette!). Why? Because, sadly, most women in our society have been groomed to think that one day our wealthy, handsome Mr. Right will just walk into our lives (with little or no effort on our part) and lead us away to blissful lives of happily ever after. We have been taught to believe in a fairy tale, and many of us spend our twenties, our thirties, and even our forties waiting for that fairy tale to come true. And when it doesn't happen, we turn to the Internet.
Could it happen? Well, theoretically it could. Will it? Probably not. But the belief or hope, however faint, that it might is what leaves so many women unhappy and alone. I want to change all that for you and for anyone you know and care about who's stuck in this situation. And I know that the answer can be found in these love lessons from arranged marriages. Here's why.
- Arranged marriages don't leave love up to chance.
- Arranged marriages don't require you to passively wait for love to find you.
- Arranged marriages are suited to each person's unique relationship and life needs.
- Arranged marriages offer women an approach that is proven to lead to stable and fulfilling relationships.
No matter what you know, or think you know, about arranged marriages, it's time to pause and give them a chance to show you what you can learn from their success especially since the secrets I will share are proven strategies for finding and creating a fulfilling, happy, healthy relationship.
What, Exactly, Is an Arranged Marriage?
Before we go any further, let's get clear on what arranged marriages really are. Unless you grew up with or have some firsthand experience of them, I'll bet that the words "arranged marriage" don't conjure up visions of happy, committed couples or loving families.
Instead, "arranged marriage" too often conjures the unfortunate vision of very young poverty-stricken girls crying as they are forced by their families to marry older men. The HBO series Big Love and its creepy compound also come to mind. Tragically, this sort of thing does happen. However, that's not an arranged marriage; it's a forced marriage, and that's something completely different. Unlike forced marriages, arranged marriages are entirely based on the consent and full cooperation of both parties.
One of the reasons most people know very little about arranged marriage is that it's a topic that's been negatively represented (or, at best, ignored) by the media. While movies like The Namesake are starting to change this, it's going to be a very gradual process.
Really, probably one of the best-known mainstream examples of an ultimately happy arranged marriage is between Apu and his Indian bride, Manjula, on The Simpsons (bear with me here for a moment!). Despite trying to wiggle out of the arrangement, Apu is won over after meeting Manjula on their wedding day and the two are shown falling in love. Their marriage is generally portrayed as being both happy and loving despite the birth of octuplets, his workaholic ways at the Kwik-E-Mart, and an instance of infidelity by Apu with the squishy lady (not that bad when you consider that Homer goes on a drunken bender in Vegas and ends up married to Vegas Lady).
Besides cartoon characters, do any other positive portrayals of arranged marriage come to your mind? Probably not. And the misunderstandings, stereotypes, and lack of knowledge around arranged marriages are among the reasons that the wisdom of this approach has (until now!) been largely overlooked.
Basically, an arranged marriage can be defined as a marriage organized by a third party and based on considerations other than love, intimacy, and physical or sexual attraction. In other words, arranged marriages pretty much exclude everything that we normally associate with the idea of marriage!
As with any relationship scenario, the exact details of how couples get together can vary greatly. However, the way it generally works is that once a person agrees to have an arranged marriage, his or her parents, relatives, and close family friends preselect and investigate possible candidates. They do this by consulting biographies, third-party testimonials, photos, and possibly even horoscopes. The final decision is based on a variety of criteria, including age, education, professional prospects, and family.
The idea behind arranged marriages is that although the couple is not in love when they enter the relationship, feelings of affection and intimacy will grow as they start to build their lives and their family together.
Their common expectations, as well as their shared socioeconomic, religious, political, and cultural backgrounds, contribute to this process. As Dr. Robert Epstein, editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, commented in a 2003 Psychology Today article: "Research suggests...that many people in arranged marriages fall in love over time. A study by Gupta and Singh, for example, shows that love in romantic marriages declines steadily over a ten-year period, but that love in arranged marriages increases over the same period, surpassing that of romantic marriages after about five years. So the experience of people in arranged marriages shows that love can be learned."
Today, many couples who decide to have an arranged marriage try to meet or speak at least once or twice before deciding whether or not to commit to the relationship. I've even heard of a trend among wealthy Indian families of discreetly allowing the arranged couple to go away for a couple of days together. This takes place after the engagement is agreed to, but before it is announced publicly. The (ever practical!) idea is that it saves on the cost of lavish engagement parties and weddings, just in case one party backs out of the arrangement for some reason.
However, many couples from previous generations and still today never actually see or speak with one another until after the wedding ceremony. It sounds crazy, but it works. In part, the success is due to the expectations of the couple. Arranged marriages work because both parties come into the relationship believing that they are well matched and that they can and will be happy sharing a life together in a lasting and mutually beneficial partnership.
Research published in Psychology Today confirms this. In the study, sixty complete strangers were paired into couples and told at the outset that they were very similar to each other. Following this briefing, all of these men and women immediately fell into comfortable and intimate exchanges with each other. Their behavior prompted the researchers to conclude that the feelings and behaviors that make up a sense of closeness emerge very early in a relationship, possibly within the first ten minutes, and that they are clearly heavily influenced by each person's initial expectations. Philosopher Alain de Boton even asserts that low expectations are one of the major predictors of happiness the lower your expectations, the more likely your life is to exceed them!
So What Do I Know About All of This?
Okay, okay, I know. No matter how it's explained or rationalized, the idea of marrying a person who is effectively a stranger (no matter how much someone tells you you'll get along) still seems more than a little crazy, doesn't it?
I agree! And that's probably why I've been completely fascinated with arranged marriages since I was 8 years old and first realized that my parents, unlike those of my friends or the people I saw on TV, had never actually dated. In a family not ordinarily known for our speed or efficiency, my parents nonetheless managed to become engaged after two brief meetings (never alone). Two weeks later they were married and moved from India to Canada.
But beyond having parents in an arranged marriage, what actually makes me qualified to share the benefits and lessons of this life choice? I'm not trained as a psychologist, a relationship counselor, or even a journalist (I actually went to law school). And while my parents did have an arranged marriage, I didn't grow up in an overly traditional Indian family. I started dating in high school, lived with one of my boyfriends after college, and spent a lot of my early twenties thinking about meeting "the one." Really, all fairly typical.
But I have always been incredibly interested in arranged marriages. Whether it was a cousin having one, a family friend looking for prospects, or just my brother and I teasing each other about possible matches, I couldn't get arranged marriages out of my mind. Maybe it was the dichotomy that I felt existed between my life and my mother's: the fact that in the all-white suburb of New Jersey where I grew up, I was the only one of my friends with parents who had never dated each other (and, interestingly, also never divorced). Or maybe it was just plain curiosity and an undeniable love of gossip. Whatever the impetus, I have been captivated by arranged marriages for years.
And by captivated, I mean I have wondered about everything from the logistics...
If you've only met a few times, what's the sex like? And does it ever get better? If you don't meet until after the wedding, how do you start the conversation? And then where to from there?
...to the bigger questions.
Are these couples actually happy or are they secretly pining for someone else? And if they are happy, what does that say about the whole idea of falling in love and getting married?
(If you're wondering about the same things, I promise that this book will satisfy your curiosity about these and many other aspects of arranged marriages.)
At the family events I attended growing up, I would (and to be honest, still do) try to observe the differences between the arranged-marriage group and the love matches. I was hoping to see a blatant distinction between the two and felt that the love couples should somehow radiate a sort of blissful glow of compatibility or exhibit some incredible chemistry. But of course they never did. Which I found even more fascinating and which led me to question my beliefs about love, relationships, and lifelong compatibility.
So, in 2000, I decided to start interviewing women in arranged marriages to learn more about them. My initial idea was, very generally, to start collecting their stories, both out of interest and in the hope of finding answers to the sorts of questions I had always wondered about (but would never actually ask my own mother).
Despite having grown up around arranged marriages that seemed happy including that of my parents who, after over thirty-three-years of marriage, always seem to have something to laugh and talk about I hadn't actually expected that the overwhelming majority of women I spoke with would seem so genuinely satisfied, happy, and confident about their marriages. To be honest, it was a complete shock.
An even greater surprise was the way in which their suggestions and advice seemed so applicable to the relationship issues and problems that I and the other women I knew at the time were facing as single, urban women drifting from date to date, not really sure where we were going or what we were looking for.
To be honest, it took me a while to accept and acknowledge this since the idea that they (women in arranged marriages) would end up teaching me (a modern, liberated woman) anything about dating, relationships or marriage was just about the last thing I expected from these interviews! But that's exactly what happened. And the results of my interviews were so unexpected and paradigm-shifting that I felt I had to share them.
My lifelong curiosity on this topic led me to speak with over three hundred women who all had chosen to have an arranged marriage. The women spanned the economic range. The youngest was just barely in her early twenties and the oldest was in her late eighties. The interviewees ranged from women who worked in bakeries, to Indian royalty, to New York bankers and suburban moms.
Some, particularly the younger ones, had dated and had relationships before deciding on an arranged marriage. A few had been divorced or widowed, while others had had little or no relationship or sexual experience before marriage. I met my interviewees through ads I placed online, in newspapers, in community centers, and in ethnic grocery stores in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. They were members of my family, the mothers of friends, friends of friends, their family friends essentially, anyone and everyone who was willing to talk to me about this topic and share their personal stories and experiences. I met with some in person over the course of a few days or weeks; with others we spoke over the phone or through e-mail. Since I was doing these interviews out of personal interest, I let the conversations evolve organically, with no set times or mandatory questions.
Although we don't hear much about it, arranged marriages are actually still the norm in India, Pakistan, large parts of mainland China, and throughout Africa and the Middle East. Because of my own Indian heritage, I had the easiest access to women of this background, and about 85 percent of my interviewees were women of Indian descent. When I expanded my goal from general learning to writing a book, I reached out to a more diverse group of women in arranged marriages, including women of Chinese, Moroccan Jewish, and Egyptian backgrounds. Stories from each of these groups appear throughout this book and inform my theories and advice.
What I Learned
As I've said, when I began speaking to women in arranged marriages, it was purely out of curiosity. I never intended my interviews to be a scientific or sociological study which they aren't! The idea for this book came about because of the themes I began to hear over and over again in the conversations I was having. For instance, the overwhelming majority of women in arranged marriages seemed to describe themselves as being happy and fulfilled in their marriages and genuinely pleased with the marital choice made for them. Not only was this not what I'd been expecting, but it was in complete contrast to the general relationship angst and culture of divorce that surrounds us in the United States.
In 2005, USA Today ran a greatly hyped article that the overall divorce rate in the United States is down from its previous rate of 50 percent. However, experts are saying that the decline is simply the result of the rise in couples choosing cohabitation over marriage.
In contrast, arranged marriages have an incredibly low divorce rate (estimated at approximately 5 to 7 percent), but even more than that, longitudinal studies (for example, a 2005 study by Jane Myers et al. in the Journal of Counseling and Development) actually show that over time, parties in arranged marriages report being both happier and more satisfied in their marriages.
I should acknowledge here that divorce is particularly frowned upon in South Asian cultures. This means that lack of divorce is not necessarily an indicator of happiness or satisfaction. However, my interviews included only a few instances of unhappy marriages. Admittedly, this group may have been self-selecting, but I believe that a similar group of three hundred love-match relationships would most likely result in fewer positive reports. It is certainly a point open to debate. While I may not be able to provide or extract statistically significant insight from my interviews, the anecdotes, observations, and advice I collected and share in this book provide plenty of evidence of this happiness.
The women I interviewed also were generous in sharing their strategies and advice that the rest of us can apply. Their advice certainly worked for me. When I began my interviews, I had just come out of a failed and much-dragged-out five-year relationship, after which I had spent most of my time and energy actively dating an ever-increasing array of Mr. Wrongs and Mr. Just-For-Nows. But the novelty of dating was definitely wearing off and I was ready to move on.
Over time, I noticed that my interviews started to change both my approach and perspective toward how and whom I was dating. And after I began applying the lessons you'll find in Secrets 1 and 2, I started to see results quickly meeting the man who is now my husband and becoming engaged to him...on the seventh time we met in person! No, it wasn't love (or lust) at first sight. It was actually the result of both of us having figured out what we were looking for in a partner, being at the same life stage, recognizing that the other person had the potential to have the qualities we wanted and then, as my husband describes it, "exchanging over a hundred thousand words on e-mail" to confirm it. By the time we next met (he was in London and I was in Toronto), we both knew it was the right thing to do despite how it looked to our friends and family! We were married less than five months later and, now, we have been happily married for just over four years and have one adorable son.
Using This Book:
The Arranged-Marriage Approach to Dating
Lesson number one: Skillful and strategic dating and a great relationship are learned behaviors.
In the 2003 Psychology Today article, "The Life of Love," Diane Sollee, the founder and director of Smart Marriages, an organization with the mandate to "help make love last," says, "Everyone wants their relationship to work. It's a goal that every single person has." As a 2005 Time magazine poll found, this goal is probably due to the fact that relationships and family connections are the primary source of our happiness.
It's a view that our society actively encourages particularly the idea that we should aspire to building a family with another person. Despite this focus, we are provided very little in terms of practical advice or models of how to do it. Put it this way: so many of us spend years and thousands of dollars learning the skills to pursue the career or business we want, but we somehow still expect that our relationships should magically "just happen."
And when it comes to love, we rarely think ahead. As a general rule, we are not trained to think about how our feelings will change or evolve thirty or even three years into the future. We are not taught to consider what we might expect and want from our partners and relationships after the initial flush of infatuation wears away, or as we age or have children. This is one of the reasons that arranged marriages are such a valuable model: they have evolved specifically with these questions and concerns in mind.
As you read through the stories and suggestions in this book, you'll see each secret is adapted from the arranged-marriage model to apply to modern, nonarranged relationships. I promise you that this book is most definitely not an attempt to convince you that arranged marriages are the better way to go! Don't worry I'm not suggesting that you enlist an old aunt or nosy friend of your mom's to find you a guy to marry next month. That would be a bit much! No matter how successful arranged marriages are as a model, I believe that having an arranged marriage is a culturally specific decision. And although I grew up around arranged marriages, I myself didn't actually choose to have one. But I have absolutely chosen to live by their success secrets.
The terminology I'll use to describe the application of arranged-marriage strategies to modern, nonarranged relationships is "the arranged-marriage approach." This term involves seeking and entering into relationships and marriage with a different perspective from the traditional vision of just happening to meet and fall in love with "the one" and living happily ever after with a white picket fence and 2.3 kids.
As you will see throughout the coming chapters, taking an arranged-marriage approach to relationships involves rethinking your current attitudes and expectations about love. It asks you to question whether the beliefs that you have are helping or hurting your ability to find and meet a life partner and secure a satisfying relationship. You will also find some exercises to help you apply these tips to your own life and practice the strategies presented.
This book will provide you with the lessons and principles that I've learned from my interviews with women in arranged marriages. The concepts are adapted in a way that fits with most women's modern lives, incorporating key lessons from arranged marriages into a realistic approach that any woman single, dating, or married can apply. These secrets will empower you to have more relationship choices, to make better choices when you are in a committed relationship, and to find greater happiness and fulfillment for the rest of your life.
See? You really can live happily ever after. Read on to learn how.
Copyright © 2008 by Reva Seth
Your Man Doesn't Have to Be Your Best Friend
Escaping the Myth of "the One"
Tina is a 38-year-old, L.A.-based talent agent and self-professed serial dater. With short dark hair, a deep throaty laugh, and a funky vintage style, Tina gives the impression that she's a woman confident about what she wants and pretty much used to getting it.
Except, that is, when it comes to her relationships. "I'll be honest: I've wanted a family since, like, oh, forever!" she admits. Tina is from a large, close family and she wants at least three kids. "Obviously, I'm just waiting to find the right man," she says. "Someone who'll be a good father, a best friend for me, my intellectual and professional equal, someone who'll be exciting, share my love of literature, give me a good lifestyle, get on with my sisters, and, of course, create a hot sex life!" And she adds as an afterthought, "And he'll be someone who gives me a sense of inner peace and calm."
Does it strike you that Tina is asking for a lot? Could any real human being ever measure up?
You can and I have pointed this out to her, but she is unrepentant and completely unwavering in her belief that this guy is out there waiting for her. "I feel that since I have the sort of choices that my mother never did, and since I've waited all this time and walked away from guys that were close but not quite there, I think I deserve not to settle for anything less than everything I really want. Besides, if he's the right one for me, then he'll be all these things to me anyway. And there'll be nothing to worry about."
As a result, Tina has dated everyone from a stockbroker in his fifties just coming out of a divorce, to a young graduate student, to a movie stuntman who jumps off buildings and runs through fire for a living. It's all wonderfully fun and she's had some great experiences with these guys, but her dating choices are clearly not getting her what she wants a husband.
Not only are Tina's expectations from her ideal husband incredibly high; she has another problem as well. "I feel like after the second date, I know whether he's going to be able to measure up," she tells me. So any guy who can't show that he matches all of Tina's many criteria by date number two loses his chances with her.
It's an incredibly naïve approach to love and relationships; but then, Tina suffers from a particularly modern love dilemma: she wants a man customized to her every desire and she wants him to arrive preassembled, with no work or time required on her part. Sounds a bit like a Stepford husband, doesn't it?
It may seem as if I'm criticizing Tina's desires, but I'm not. Tina's situation is so common among women today, particularly those of us in our late twenties and thirties. After all, we've dated for a long time and we're used to asking for so much from ourselves that we just don't want to settle for anything less than the perfect husband we feel we deserve.
Which brings us to the important questions that you need to ask yourself if you want to find a life partner: What do you think a husband today is for, and why do you want one? It may sound silly, but really, your answer to this question is critical to determining your dating and relationship success.
In the past well, really just a generation ago the answer to this question was relatively straightforward. You needed and wanted a husband for:
- Financial support
A husband back then was simply a necessary part of the life equation. Everyone's roles and expectations were clear: the husband was the breadwinner in the public sphere and the wife was the caretaker in the private sphere. Nothing new here, right? Well, today we don't actually need husbands to play any of these traditional roles, although many of us might still want them to (which, of course, is perfectly okay, too).
So where does this leave us? What's the point today of a boyfriend or husband? Or, as Maureen Dowd asked, in her eponymous book, are men necessary?
To me (and, I'm guessing, to you as well if you're reading this book), the answer is clearly yes! Don't get me wrong; doing away with the old utilitarian model of the cash-producing father and homemaking mother is definitely progress. The problem is that we've gone almost too far and instead replaced it with an even more onerous obligation of trying to find Mr. Perfect. It seems that since we no longer need husbands to bring home the bacon, we all want and feel entitled to nothing less than a soul mate. Unfortunately, we generally lack either a precise definition or a model of what that really means. The result is that, like Tina, we are somehow convinced that we'll just be able to recognize our soul mate when he comes along. No wonder so many women feel frustrated or unhappy with their relationships or the men they're meeting!
It may seem silly at first, but pause for a moment right now. Take out a pen and piece of paper. Answer these questions and be completely honest:
- What are you really hoping for from a long-term partner or husband?
- What roles do you want him to play?
To help make it easier, describe an average day in your life with this man:
- How does he interact with you first thing in the morning?
- How many times a day do you talk on the phone, e-mail, IM, or text-message each other?
- What do you talk about and how does he respond?
- How does he show his affection?
- How does he respond when you tell him about something that's bothering you?
- What do you do together after work?
- What do you do on weekends?
- What qualities or personality traits does he have?
- What activities does he share with you?
- How often do you socialize separately and together? Alone and with other people?
Chances are your fantasy contains a lot maybe more than you ever realized. Probably more than you expect from your best friend. Probably more than any one person can deliver. That's exactly Shannon's problem.
"I Want It All!"
Shannon is 34 years old and an editor at an interior decorating magazine. She's also in the midst of launching her own home fabrics line. Although both of these ventures are fairly time-consuming, Shannon has nevertheless created a complicated dating arrangement that is definitely worthy of Big Love. Shannon is currently living with her boyfriend, Brent, in a tall, narrow house in Astoria, Queens, but she is also dating two other men "exclusively."
"I've been seeing Jay, a twenty-seven-year-old Ph.D. student in literature, for the past year, and Tom, a furniture designer, for a few months." All three men are aware of the arrangement and fine with it. According to Shannon, she has never been in a more fulfilling situation. "In the past, I was never really completely happy with any of my relationships; I always felt like there was something missing, that would leave me feeling frustrated or like I was settling. I love Brent, but after a year I started to feel like aspects of my personality were being neglected. I didn't want to end it, but I also didn't want to be in a situation where Brent was falling short of what I needed and I was resenting him for it." The result is that on certain nights Shannon is out with either Jay or Tom, depending on their schedules.
They established that they can come back to the house only if she clears it with Brent. Despite my disbelief, Shannon assures me that all the guys are comfortable with the arrangement. "I always tell my girlfriends that I've found the way to find the perfect man: you combine three of them! Each of them brings out a different side of me." Despite her enthusiasm for her alternative arrangement, Shannon admits that she is not sure what the future will bring. "Tom is thirty-nine and keen to start a family soon, and I don't think he sees an arrangement like this as part of his plan."
At this point, and for the first time in our conversation, her relentless optimism dips. "I mean, I know it's something that I'm going to have to face as well. This isn't exactly an arrangement I want to bring kids into. And right now, it's also something that I'm hiding from my family. I don't know...hopefully, the next guy I meet will be the one who really is a combo of all three of them, my real Perfect Man."
To be honest, at first I was pretty shocked by Shannon's "solution" to finding the perfect relationship and I still don't understand how she got them all to agree to it! But then I gave it some more thought. Although most of us probably feel that we have little in common with Shannon, many women have the same unrealistic expectation that one person can satisfy our every need and desire. If a man doesn't meet all the requirements on our relationship laundry list, we feel that there's a problem that we are being denied something we are entitled to. It makes sense, then, that even three men combined can't meet all of our expectations.
What makes it worse is that most of us never realize the full extent of our own relationship expectations. Instead, we just keep wondering why no one we meet seems "just right," complain that there are "no good ones out there," or question why we feel disappointed and frustrated by the men we meet or the relationships we have.
If you stopped to make a list of everything you consciously and unconsciously expect from a boyfriend or future husband, chances are that the list would look something like this.
Love Honesty Acceptance Open communication Romance Commitment Great sex Doing things together Companionship A nice family Friendship Listening Understanding Sharing Emotional support A connection Genuine intimacy Shared personal growth Financial support Social Sense of humor Being a good father
Pretty standard? Probably for today it is. But it's unlikely that either our mothers or our grandmothers would have been looking for so much from one person. They would have been especially skeptical of ambiguous traits like having "a connection." Today, women's expectations from our lives are higher than ever. We want all the goodies that a loving, intimate relationship seems to offer, wrapped up in great packaging and on all our own terms and time lines. And while high expectations are a good thing, unrealistic expectations just set us up to feel frustrated and angry with our dates and our lives because nothing ever seems good enough.
What is it exactly that is making us both consciously and unconsciously expect so much from our men? Well, partly it's the result of all the cultural myths around what or who a husband should be. These are partly the product of the Barbie doll and Disney princess stories sold to us from childhood. And of course Hollywood, television, and magazines aren't helping. Instead, they bombard us with messages about what "real love" should be: If it's true love and he is the right one, then he should, in the words of Jerry Maguire, "complete us."
Essentially, I think all of this feeds into an ultimate female myth of rescue, in which our prince comes into our life and sweeps us off our feet, happily solving any outstanding problems, issues, or angst we may have. And along the way, he takes us into a marvelously easy future of incredible and intuitive intimacy, where he provides us with our personal version of a life of fun, fulfillment, and romance.
Because women no longer need men for survival (or even children!), there is now incredible pressure for our intimate relationships to be the primary source of strength, support, and companionship in our lives. With the decline of the extended family, a rise in dispersed communities, and the fact that we are all working longer and harder, too often our other relationships and networks fall to the side. This puts our partners under even more pressure to be the ones to fulfill all our emotional and companionship requirements expectations that no one person (or apparently even three!) could ever actually fulfill.
When 35-year-old Paula moved to Philadelphia to join her boyfriend, Marc, it put an incredible strain on their relationship. She started looking to Marc to take the place of her old colleagues and friends and her two sisters. "I was used to having a really busy social schedule, and suddenly I was stuck alone in our rented place basically all day. When I'd complain, Marc would tell me to just call my friends and talk, but I wanted someone to meet me for coffee or an afternoon of shopping. As a result, I would insist that Marc do it with me, which neither of us really wanted."
The assumption that two people are going to fulfill each other's every need can only be a setup for relationship disappointment and, ultimately, failure. Nevertheless, we continue to believe that if we are not following this magical path, something must be wrong with him, with us, or with the relationship.
Exercise: Breaking Up with Your Fantasy Man
If breaking up is hard to do, then breaking up with the fantasy man in your head is even harder. After all, this guy has never done anything wrong well, apart from never showing up, that is. But since the goal is to either meet or find happiness with a real man, it's time to let go of Prince Charming.
Go all out: make a real ritual of letting go of him so you can enjoy someone real. Here are the steps to follow.
- Take the list you made earlier with all the qualities you listed and expand on them. Write down any secret scenarios that you always pictured with him and all of your over-the-top husband fantasies. (We're talking everything here, whether it's private planes or famous names, anything and everything that you've always secretly hoped he might be, do, or say.)
- Read over your list, take a deep breath and shred it. Bye-bye, Prince Charming. Good riddance, I say!
Just like any real breakup, you're now entitled to an evening of gobbling down peanut butter cups and ice cream while lounging in bed in your favorite ratty pajamas.
The Grass Isn't Always Greener
Thirty-eight-year-old Jane is a nonprofit executive who married a technology sales rep named Andy while in her early twenties. At 31, she met another man at a fund-raising event whom she felt instantly attracted to, and who seemed able to give her "more in every way" than Andy. And so, after an agonizing three-year affair, she left her husband for the other man. A year and a half into the new relationship, they broke up.
Looking back, Jane now thinks that she made a mistake, and that her relationship with her husband was actually both solid and workable. But she admits that she didn't see that all those years ago when she left him. "There was always someone better around the corner, someone I thought would challenge or excite me more. What I was looking for wasn't fair to either him or me."
And that's part of the problem with our entire view of what husbands are for and what they are supposed to give us: we ignore the basics because we are always expecting and looking for more. According to Dr. Scott Haltzman, author of The Secrets of Happily Married Men, "If you hold to an ideal that may never be met, you lose the opportunity to appreciate the good qualities of what's already in front of you."
The trap that so many of us fall into is that, initially, it can seem like a new person is the answer, until they too let us down and we are left wanting again. It's a cycle that can continue indefinitely, although in Jane's case, she realized after the second time around that no one could give her what she was looking for. A new person was just offering the hope of perfection.
Toward the end of my interviews I would ask what advice each woman had for women like me about the way in which we approach men, dating, and marriage. Women most frequently pointed to the overemphasis placed on whether a partner was making us happy enough or how someone else could do it better.
"I really worry that my daughter will never be satisfied," confessed Rita, a sweet-faced 51-year-old woman who runs a small fabric boutique in New Hampshire. Her 33-year-old daughter Sari is single, living in New Jersey, and claims that all she wants is to meet someone "who would just make me really happy."
But, as Rita describes it, "She's never happy for long. Her last boyfriend was so good to her, but they only lasted seven months before she decided that he didn't pay enough attention to her. Sure enough, soon she was looking for the next one. She doesn't listen to me, but I tell her that no one will be able to really give her what she's looking for."
Psychologist Dennis Sugrue, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School and coauthor of Sex Matters for Women, says, "If you are looking to a partner to make you feel worthwhile, to make you feel happy, to rescue you from a boring or unhappy life, if you are seeking someone to make you feel complete or whole, well, then, you have some work to do because there are needs that are never going to be met by anyone other than yourself." Putting these demands on someone else, he says, is setting you and the relationship up for failure.
Rita's daughter Sari sounded so familiar to me. Maybe you relate to her as well. It's the situation where you meet someone and it seems like it could be good, but you keep wondering if there could be something better out there someone who understands you more, or is more exciting, or enjoys more of what you like to do. It can become difficult to know when to accept that you've found what you want or were looking for. But if you keep looking and looking, you never stop long enough to see if the person in front of you could be a great mate.
Natalie, a 32-year-old photographer, suffers from this "grass is always greener" syndrome. None of her relationships seems to go beyond the three-month mark. "One of my college professors used to always say: 'You don't know what you don't know,' " Natalie says. "I can't remember the context that he used it in, but I'm quite sure it wasn't meant for what I interpreted as my dating life!"
She explains, "Every time I start to relax a bit into a relationship and think, 'Okay, maybe this is what I need to make me happy,' I start having doubts along the lines of what else is out there that might be better. I wonder if this guy will satisfy my future needs, even if I don't know what those are yet."
The obvious problem here is that none of us can predict the future. Life happens, situations and people change, and along the way feelings ebb and flow. So how can you decide if a particular man will be the best life partner? Basically, you make an educated guess based on the information available. As unromantic as that may sound, it's true. And it works. Arranged marriages show that a man's values, family, and life goals are excellent predictors of what a future with that man will look like. And women in arranged marriages understand that 50 percent of the relationship's happiness and success is up to you.
Husbands: Life Partners, Not Life Savers
Arranged marriages are based on the belief that a strong marriage can be created by bringing together two similar and complementary people who have common goals and aspirations, as well as a shared approach to making the relationship work over the long term. It (always!) bears repeating that half of that long-term success is up to you.
Since women in arranged marriages don't expect to be marrying their soul mates, they enter into the relationships with far more manageable and realistic expectations about both their husbands and the relationship. They view their husbands not as their primary source of happiness or as a means of rescue, but instead, as life partners, friends, and men who will provide them with support, companionship, children, and a family life.
Fifty-four-year-old Taja met 57-year-old Ravi, her husband of almost twenty-eight years, over tea one afternoon in her parents' living room in India. Despite the formal setting and presence of family, she remembers that the conversation flowed easily. Like her, Ravi had also gone to graduate school in the United States so the two talked about their college experience, jobs, and travel hopes. As Taja describes it, "Because I wasn't in love with Ravi when I got married and he wasn't one of the suave James Bond types that I had always read and fantasized about, it meant that I didn't put him on a pedestal. I didn't expect him to be my soul mate, my best friend, and everything else all at the same time. Instead I expected that he would be a caring spouse, an interesting person, a good father and someone I would build my life with. And he has been."
And You Thought Your First Dates Were Hard...
Shared values and common backgrounds probably make for a strong long-term relationship, but if you've never met until after the wedding ceremony, what do you start talking about for the first time?
- "Food! We both admitted that we hadn't been able to eat anything all day (and in my case for the two days before) and we were both starving. So our first conversation was about how to order up some of the wedding leftovers." Adita, 39
- "Soccer. There had been a big match that day and he wanted to know if I knew what had happened and if I followed the game." Blossom, 41
- "I was so nervous that I just started to cry! He was wonderful, though. He just sat there, held my hand, and listened." Kirti, 53
- "He asked what I'd thought of the day and we just talked about the wedding and our guests." Sevika, 29
- "Each other. He asked me if he was what I'd been expecting. I told him how I'd saved the picture that his family had sent me, and he said that he'd done the same." Priya, 60
Since they aren't in love with their spouses when they marry, women in arranged marriages, even those who had grown up in the United States surrounded by the same cultural pressures as the rest of us, were free from all the loaded associations around what their husband should be and do with and for them. They were essentially free from all the unspoken expectations that come with the belief (or hope!) that this man would be their Mr. Right. This meant that if their husbands didn't intuit their needs, understand any personal feelings, fill their emptiness, or want to join them in their activities, then so what? They didn't interpret any of this to mean that their relationship or partner was flawed or "wrong," or that it meant they were settling and therefore wonder if someone else could do what this person couldn't or wouldn't. Realistic expectations meant that they as well as their husbands and relationships were saved from this burden.
The result is that women in arranged marriages have a much better sense of owning their own happiness which may seem surprising, since many people think of women in arranged marriages as giving up ownership of their destinies. However, what I found was that they seem to have no problem with assuming responsibility for meeting their own needs from a variety of different sources, including friends, family, or themselves. This approach made them much happier and allowed them to move on to meeting these needs without resenting their partners in the process (as often happens when you feel let down by your boyfriend or partner). Their attitude relieves both partners, and the relationship generally, from the incredible pressure that most other couples have.
These women accepted that their partners are not their "everything," and had instead found easy, workable solutions that made them both happy. For example, 45-year-old Anusha, whose husband hated the theater, joined a local group so she would have company when she went to the shows. Aleena, a 59-year-old receptionist in Miami, told me that one of the secrets to her happy thirty-two-year marriage is letting her husband have time to himself when he comes home while she calls her sisters and tells them about her day instead of trying to immediately engage him in conversation.
The seemingly effortless ability of women in arranged marriage to happily have a range of needs met by people other than their husbands was actually one of the first things that got me thinking that there might be lessons to learn from arranged marriages. It was probably about a year and a half into my interviews, when I was having dinner with two friends in Toronto. I was listening to one of them complain about how upset she was that her boyfriend never wanted to join her on her Saturday mornings jogs, no matter how much she asked him, and how it was starting to become a big issue between them since they were starting each weekend with a fight. Whereas before my research I probably would have instantly sympathized, I now found myself thinking, "I don't see what the big deal is! Just ask someone else."
While most people have the impression that arranged marriages are the epitome of old-fashioned, many of their practices and tenets are thoroughly modern. The women I met in arranged marriages take control of their own happiness and don't rely on a man to be the be-all and end-all of their lives. Why aren't women in nonarranged marriages more independent? Why do we want men to be everything to us? I think it's time we had a serious expectation makeover!
They may not be in love or know each other when they marry, but women entering into arranged marriages have realistic expectations. There is no ambiguity in terms of what is expected from either the husbands or the wives and no sense of unspoken or unacknowledged expectations.
In addition to the expectations being clear, they are also manageable and reachable. This means that there is no unrealistic pressure placed on the relationship, but instead the fulfillment and satisfaction that comes from being able to meet another person's essential needs and find happiness together. Each person also has a sense of developing outside and separate interests and support networks all of which takes the focus and burden away from their partners' having to be the primary source of both company and companionship. After all, some dependency is good, but complete dependency on a partner for all one's needs is just an invitation for both partners to end up unhappy.
The correlation between expectations and happiness has been well documented. When we expect too much, it's inevitable that we will feel let down by the reality. For instance, a study published by professors James McNutly of Ohio State University and Benjamin Karnety of the University of Florida found that the people with the highest expectations for wedded bliss set themselves up for the steepest decline in happiness after the wedding.
Experts also say that it's important for couples to maintain a life beyond their partner. It's not healthy to invest all of your time and energy in your spouse. Imogen Lloyd Webber, author of The Single Girl's Survival Guide, cautions, "It is essential to nurture your friends, to meet with them separately since the reason the person you are with was attracted to you in the first place was that you had such a life in place. If you completely give up any independence, you will become so needy that you will be less attractive and then in danger of losing [them]."
As Pooja, a woman married for fifteen years, assured me, "I don't understand this Western idea of always being or doing things together. How does that keep things interesting?" She herself plays bridge with her friends at least twice a week without her husband (who hates cards), and has no problem going to see the art films she loves without him.
It's true that bringing outside interests into a relationship can only enrich it. The problem is that from magazines to television to banner ads on our favorite websites, we are bombarded by images of couples that are always together and blissfully focused on each other. Unlike women in arranged marriages, the implicit message is that the easiest and most likely way to experience unmitigated joy and excitement in our lives involves finding the right partner who will give us that feeling every day, all day. Many women consider it a badge of honor to say, "My husband is my best friend." Single women often feel jealous when they hear such comments. Well, I invite you to question that feeling. Why should your husband be your best friend? Why can't you have a best friend and a husband? I mean, what did you do before you had this relationship? This way of living is more fun for you and it takes the pressure off the man to play both roles in your life.
Often, the excitement of a new person and the start of a relationship does make us want to spend every waking minute with the other person. There is the hope that this could be it this could be the man who will provide us with everything that has felt lacking or missing in our lives. There's nothing wrong with these romantic feelings. But all too often these initial feelings subside, only to be replaced with a familiar sense of disappointment and frustration. As a result, we move from relationship to relationship, partner to partner, looking to find those feelings again and not realizing or acknowledging that only we can satisfy those emotional needs in ourselves.
My advice from my arranged-marriage research? Do your best not to get carried away. Your partner obviously will (and should be) a key source of day-to-day happiness. But as we've seen, he or she won't (and shouldn't be expected to) provide you with happiness (that's your job). Nor can he be held responsible for solving any life issues that might be depressing or frustrating you. (Yep, that means your career and money issues too!)
This is the challenge that 33-year-old Catharine is facing. Catharine recently moved to an apartment just outside of Seattle that's much closer to the suburb where she grew up than she likes to think about. Currently working as a junior tax associate in a small law firm, Catharine admits, "I'm pretty bored with my life. Most of the time I feel like I just don't know where I'm going or what I want."
She talks about possibly changing careers since she isn't actually interested in tax law. The only problem is that she's not sure what else to do. It's the same with moving. She's sick of Seattle and can't believe she ended up back here, hanging out with the same people she grew up with. But she really isn't drawn to any other city and doesn't know where else to go.
Filled with a sense of boredom and frustration, she's convinced that meeting the right guy and falling in love will solve all of her problems. "I'd love to meet someone that would want to move with me out of city, give me a financial cushion so I wouldn't have to work, and could help me figure out what I really want to do." In addition to solving her practical problems, Catharine thinks that he (whoever and wherever he is) will be able to "take away the depression I've felt for the past few years and bring back some excitement about the future."
Catharine's story is a common one that comes in many different forms. For instance, a close friend of mine, Alice, recently dated a man she admired because he always seemed so focused about his career. At that time, Alice was trying to decide whether she should leave her current job and go back to law school, try journalism, or get certified as a yoga teacher. "I was attracted to Peter," she recalls, "because I kept hoping on some level that his confidence in what he was doing careerwise would help me. I'm not sure if I wanted him to just tell me what to do or if I wanted someone who seemed together to give me his approval." It was when Peter broke up with her that Alice was actually able to appreciate what she had been looking to him to provide and realized that, when it came to her life and career, only she had the answers regarding what would actually make her happy. (Turns out it was a mix journalism with some yoga thrown in.)
Catharine's and Alice's stories are certainly not unique. Nor are they particularly modern. Ultimately, all of the stories in this chapter about finding a soul mate, a hero, a savior the one are various versions of the age-old female myth of rescue. Too many women still believe that a prince will ride into their lives on a white horse and solve their financial problems, weight issues, career frustrations, and feelings of loneliness. But the reality is otherwise, as financial guru Barbara Stanny stated clearly in her 1999 book, Prince Charming Isn't Coming.
Exercise: The List
You don't have to be dating anyone right now to do this one. For this exercise, make a list of all the activities that you would like your partner (current or future) to do with you. Include absolutely everything that you've ever secretly wished your husband or boyfriend would do with you, whether it's watching your favorite sitcom, working out together, or just happily keeping you company while you do the week's grocery shopping. (Good luck with that one by the way!)
Once you've made your list, write down next to each activity all the other people (including just yourself) who could instead join you for that activity. Now honestly, would it really be that bad to, say, do a few of these with someone else?
The point of this exercise is to start thinking about how to start naturally looking to people other than your partner to fulfill some of your relationship requests.
Freeing yourself from the myth of "the one" that be-all and end-all guy who solves all your problems and fulfills your every need has numerous life-changing benefits. When you realize that a husband will enrich your life, but will not be the center of it, you will:
- Increase your freedom. This removes you from the passive position of believing that your happiness depends on the actions of someone else and instead enables you to take charge of your own needs.
- Decrease dating tension. Changing your expectations from the belief that your future husband should fulfill an incredible number of roles and needs takes you out of the common cycle of disappointment, frustration, and anger related to finding a lifelong mate.
- Increase your chances of meeting someone with whom you can build a long-term relationship. When what you're looking for becomes realistic, it automatically expands your pool of potentially eligible men.
Once we understand the arranged-marriage model and apply it to your life, we can see that our cultural ideal of making our husbands or boyfriends the people responsible for meeting all our needs and wants does us a great disservice. It's a fairy tale that won't ever be played out, since no one person can or even should have to be so much to someone else.
When it comes to dating or relationships, all these incredibly unrealistic expectations often cause us to overlook men (including the ones around us) with the potential to make us fulfilled and happy. Letting go of the ideas and expectations around what a husband or partner should be also frees us to let go of being angry, disappointed, or bitter throughout our dating life and ultimately our marriage relationship. And that leads to a truly happy ending.
Living This Lesson
- Be realistic about the role of a life partner. Women in arranged marriages view their husbands not as their primary source of happiness or as a means of rescue, but instead, as life partners, friends, and people who will provide them with support, companionship, children, and a family life.
- Break up with the fantasy man in your head. No man is perfect or perfectly suited to your every desire and need. Your real goal should be finding happiness and fulfillment with a real person.
- Ditch the fairy tale. Next time you're relaxing with a romantic comedy, take a second look and consider what the movie is really saying and promoting. Is it realistic? I doubt it.
- Own your own happiness. You are responsible for having your needs met from a variety of different sources, including friends, family, and yourself. Pretty empowering, don't you think?
Copyright © 2008 by Reva Seth