Photo credit: Abbey Oldham
Almost a decade ago, following my father’s third divorce, I went looking for space and some answers. I took a job as a reporter in India, where I lived with several married couples, which got me interested in why some marriages work and others fail. Back home, many women of my generation were also putting off marriage or not getting married at all, which only led me to more questions. I ended up following and interviewing three couples in India — one the product of love, two arranged in marriage — for nearly a decade.
For most of my life, I, like many Americans, had greeted the idea of an arranged marriage with a mixture of fascination and skepticism. This aversion accompanied me to Mumbai, where I chafed against a phrase I heard parents tell their children: "Marry who we have selected for you, and 'love will follow.'”
But over the years spent following these two arranged unions, my perspective shifted. Not because arranged marriages have a global divorce rate of six percent. And not because these couples seemed, from my perspective, to be relatively happy — happier, at least, than my parents were.
Rather, it was the intimacies of arranged marriage that won me over.
An older man I interviewed told me he found his wife attractive on the first meeting, “like a movie star,” because he’d been taught to like what he saw. He said this meant that even now, when she’d grown lined and soft, he still found her beautiful. Meanwhile, a younger man shared how he sought to prove himself again and again to his wife — as quick-witted and smart and a man of means — so that she didn’t long for a love marriage. Both men were surprised at how soon affection had arrived, as their parents had promised, after marriage.
And both women shared with me the details they’d come to love about their husbands: the way his glasses fogged up, the accent he put on certain words, the odd way he drank milky tea. From the beginning, they said, they’d looked for and paid attention to these things, because this was a person they knew they’d have to love.
In any marriage, it seems, love is when you keep paying attention.
Over the years, I asked these women many different times, in many different ways, if they would rather have chosen their husbands for themselves. Or whether they felt their freedom had been hemmed in. Sometimes the answer was “yes,” but just as often they pushed back when I began to ask, implying the line of questioning was ridiculous. Of course they were happy. Love had
followed. Compromise had given them a partner, and one they could steadfastly rely on.
Then there was a couple I interviewed who had married as Americans usually do, for love. Approaching middle age, both of them were deeply unhappy. Unlike the other two couples, the man and woman in this union had approached marriage with high expectations. Expectations that had been dashed not long after their wedding day. Eight years in, their attentions were now on other people.
Back in the United States, I wondered aloud to a married friend how it was possible that this love marriage was the least content of the three. She sighed and said: “But isn’t every marriage an arrangement?”
There is no denying that unhappiness — even violence — exists in some arranged marriages. Or that some arranged marriages are borne out of cruelty. And part of that six percent global divorce rate can be attributed to the powerful stigma against divorce that’s present in countries where arranged marriage is common.
And yet, what became clear to me during my reporting on marriage in India — because reporting is what it became, leading to a book — was that a marriage’s success is not predetermined by its origin.
Instead, what I discovered determined a marriage’s health was something very different: Attention.
Attention paid to the way a person stands, speaks, or moves around the room. Attention to the little details we notice about someone when we first fall in love, that become strikingly apparent when we marry them, and that sometimes, perhaps, we stop noticing along the way.
I still can’t say marriage is an institution I fully understand, but I know that I learned something important from following these unions. In any marriage, it seems, love is when you keep paying attention. In the arranged marriages I got to know, attention was built into the bargain from the beginning.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a reporter for PBS NewsHour
. She began her career at Forbes India
magazine, where she spent two years as a features reporter in Mumbai, and has worked for U.S. News and World Report
and The Washington Post
. She has also written for major outlets, including The New York Times, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Hindustan Times
, and The Hindu
. She lives in Washington, DC. The Heart Is a Shifting Sea
is her first book.