Friday, June 21, 2013

Our "Arranged" Marriage (In Honor of our Five Year Anniversary)

Be fairly warned: This post has no mention of food of any kind.

Tevye and Golde sing a charming song about their arranged marriage in Fiddler on the Roof called "Do You Love Me?" in which they list all the humdrummy things they've done for one another over the years. Ultimately, they conclude that anyone who does those tasks day in and day out for 25 years must love each other. While their relationship is not my personal ideal, there are aspects of their marriage I find admirable and even inspiring. Namely, their dedication and lack of boo-hooing over what's less than optimal..

Shawn and I got married quickly. It was five months from meeting to marriage. Sometimes I like to joke about how we were out of our minds, but the truth is that we were fully aware of how speedy it was. We'd both been in long relationships and understood the benefits of a prolonged dating experience. We were under no illusion that we knew every meaningful thing about one another. We just believed we'd be really happy together and didn't want to wait.

So, if we chose each other, why am I claiming to have an arranged marriage... other than to bait you into reading this post, of course? Because we decided to get married before ever expressing love for each other.

There was definite attraction at first sight, and a LOT of laughing at first date. Our intellectual and conversational connection was powerful. It was unnaturally natural between us from the very beginning. It was easy! So easy and so normal that Shawn would begin planning future dates for us before the next already-planned one had even taken place. And then there were the unplanned ones that would pop up in between. "You're making guacamole right now? You're telling me this because you want me to come help you eat it, right?" "I know we have plans tonight, but I thought maybe we could just get ready early and make a day of it. Want to run some errands with me?" We went to the mall so he could get some new dress pants for work. I picked up a classic trench coat for myself while we were out.

People say "when you know, you know," or worse, "when you meet him/her, you'll know." I know many couples, many happy couples who did not know, but who had common ground where it counts, loved each other, felt they could make it work, and made the commitment. I also know people who have used the lack of knowing, or lack of cosmic confirmation as a scapegoat for not moving forward, instead of owning the uncomfortable reality that they were in a relationship they didn't want to last a lifetime. While there does seem to exist the rare couple that comes together in a nearly-fated way, I think the rest of us choose our soul-mate.

Some who're close to us would tell you that the circumstances of Shawn and I meeting would make us fall into that "nearly-fated" category. I had gotten to know his father long before Shawn and I met, and I had developed a special friendship with one of his cousins. Both of these family members had told me about Shawn and mentioned that we might be a good match. His mother remembers seeing me at a church function at one point and thinking, "I wish Shawn would marry someone like that." (I hope she's still happy that wish came true!) Through his cousin, I met many of his aunts, uncles, other cousins, and two of his grandparents. One of them told Shawn about me and encouraged him to seek me out when he moved to the DC area. (How lucky was I that everyone was rooting for me!) Well, call me old-fashioned, but I worried that anything that wasn't Shawn's idea could backfire, so when his dad offered to arrange a set-up, I politely declined. Crazily enough, we did meet under totally random circumstances, and, though I did recognize him from a picture I'd seen, he had no idea I was the girl he'd heard about. Thank goodness he asked me out anyway.

The fit was undeniable, but, because we had moved so quickly, the emotional bond most people feel by the time they tie the knot hadn't fully developed. Yet, here we were about to do just that. No doubt, most would consider this fact alone to be the mark of a fated-to-fail couple. Still, I knew myself and what I wanted. I knew that the things that were most important to me were also the things that were most important to him. I knew that we both had a very similar vision of and approach toward life. We communicated as easily as anyone could hope. But, it wasn't just the big, standard stuff that worked for us. We both wanted to be East-coasters for life. Like all of my favorite people, he was complicated enough that I knew I'd never become bored with him. (On one of our earlier dates, we finished the evening by watching a movie at my place, and I let him have his pick from my collection which included films such as the Indiana Jones series, Three Amigos, and The Italian Job. When he chose Memoirs of a Geisha, I knew I had a rare bird on my hands.) He made me laugh so much that I knew the chances of our relationship becoming too heavy were fairly weak. I knew he truly appreciated my mind, my feelings, my stories and my experiences. I felt the most free to be the most complete version of my truest self with him than I had in any other relationship, not because I knew he loved me, but because I knew he really liked me. And he had two of the kings of all qualities: the integrity to accept responsibility for his wrongs and motivation to become better. He still blows me away with his humility, sincerity, and quest for self-improvement. In similar ways, he knew I was good for him, too.

Even though we had so many things going for us and we knew it, we'd never really addressed the fact that our emotional bond was underdeveloped, and this became a problem in our first year of marriage. Instead of feeling free to enjoy each other and evolve as a couple, it felt as though we were trying to walk through waist-deep water with drags on our ankles. I knew that we both knew what was going on and that our best chance was to just have it out. As always, the anticipation of the task was worse than the task itself. Though difficult to admit our true feelings (or lack thereof) we left the conversation with hope in heart and plan in hand.

We were going to start dating again. Nothing major: a trip to a pumpkin patch, an ice cream cone after work, a drive into the country on the weekend; it didn't matter. The point was to keep a positive attitude and ask lots of questions. The kinds of questions you ask when you're first getting to know someone, the kinds of  questions you ask on a 5th date, and the kinds of questions you think twice about before asking even your best friend. It all mattered, and it all helped, (which is why we still ask those kinds of questions, even the first-date ones.) Asking questions is powerful. It tells someone you're interested in them. Asking follow-up questions says you want more of them. And asking questions prevents the birth of a LOT of poor assumptions. I found myself blushing the way I did on our first date, and I felt the same kind of excitement. Most importantly, I felt the same kind of connection. In time it became easier to let go of what we were "supposed" to have and simply appreciate what we did have. And I'm so glad we did, because it turned out that we had something with bells and whistles to spare.

A lot of people think that a successful marriage is one in which the feelings you have at the time of marriage or engagement are preserved throughout the rest of your time together. What a shame to set your sights so low, I say! Any experience, glorious, tragic, or mundane, especially mundane, when handled with care can add such depth and texture to the bond between two people. What a pity to merely grip your wedding day with both hands and hold on for dear life, trying to minimize the effects that a 50-hour workweek, child-rearing, an overseas assignment, a continuous avalanche of laundry, a major injury, or differing spending habits might have on your marriage. To grip anything besides each other, be it pride, fear, delusion, or greener grass, is a wasted opportunity to tighten your bond. Why so many women ache for a Romeo-and-Juliet or Cinderella-and-Prince-Charming kind of love, I'll never know. Their stories are shallow and end where things should just be starting to get good. Give me my own version of John and Abigail Adams or Julia and Paul Child any day!

I don't mean to give the false impression that Shawn and I never, ever lose our hold on one another when we slam into a rock, or that we immediately get to our feet and effortlessly wa-PING our way over it as if we were part Jack-in-the-Box. We've just learned not to pretend like the rock isn't there. We've learned to not be duped into thinking other people don't have rocks. We've learned not to underestimate the small rocks. And we've learned that the rocks aren't really the enemy. We learned to turn our self-arranged, arranged marriage into something we'd go back and choose over and over again.


  1. Thank you, Janna. This is perfect and and put a smile on my face and tear in my eye. Keep going. You CAN do it!

  2. This is the best thing I've read in a long time. Thank you for sharing!

  3. What a lovely story! I just found your blog from Barbara bakes! and, You make an adorable couple!

  4. Elizabeth Culatta7/11/2013 4:45 PM

    Beautiful story, Janna. You have given me some food for thought (har, there's food in this post after all) as I move through the transitional time of being engaged! Thank you!

  5. very well said. You are a great writer and I truly admire your honesty.