The recent news of Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle has got me thinking about my experiences of marriage.
Do you remember your wedding day? How did you feel? Did you cry? Did panic cause butterflies in your stomach? Were you ecstatically happy and couldn’t wait to start married life? Or was it merely a right of passage? Something that was expected of you, a filial duty?
Then again, perhaps you’re resistant to the idea of marriage. To you, it’s an anathema, an outdated and abhorrent notion that causes you to break out in hives
I’m not against marriage. I remember little flashes of my first wedding: The pungent smell of the silver glue on my green and red lehnga, smiling a little too much for an Asian bride.
I remember being nervous. I asked my brother to tell me a rude joke, a request which was caught on camera.
I couldn’t keep my eyes cast down. I wanted to look, to take it all in. Why on earth not?
And I remember when multiple aunties attempted to clip a huge nose ring on to my nostril. The operation was eye-wateringly painful. I didn’t want to wear it. And in my heart of hearts, I didn’t want this wedding.
I’m not about to enter into a debate about whether arranged marriages are better or worse than love marriages. But what I will set out are some loose guidelines for those who are thinking of tying the knot, and equally, for those who are arranging the knot-tying.
1) Do not look at other married couples and think you can emulate them
I was seven years old when my sister married. I thought the world had ended. Post nuptials, I wedged myself between the married couple, looking absolutely miserable.
Later that night, I sobbed and sobbed, utterly heartbroken, believing that I had lost my sister forever. Suffice to say I hadn’t.
She was still very much present in my life, but in a slightly different way. It’s like having your favourite pizza with an extra topping, albeit one that you don’t want, but a topping you end up liking.
Looking back, I feel for my brother-in-law who was faced with this odd little girl with a pathological love for his wife.
But to his credit he accepted me wholeheartedly and understood my need to attach myself like a leech to my sister.
Theirs is a marriage that has lasted 34 years. An arranged marriage between strangers. Two strangers that lived in two different continents, thousands of miles apart.
At the time of their wedding, my sister was 20 years old. A veritable spring chicken. My brother-in-law is a decade older. For some, that’s a generation. But it didn’t seem to have mattered. Time strengthened their bond. That, in the grand scheme of things, is quite a feat.
When it came to the prospect of my own marriage, I looked to my sister’s example. I idolised her – still do, but not in such a fanatical way – and thought that, well, if she could do it and make it work, so could I.
But there were some fundamental differences. I met the man who became my first husband, someone almost a decade older than me, at the age of 17. I was 18 and about to go off to university when we got engaged.
By 20, I was married. At that age, I had the emotional maturity of a 13-year-old.
In short, I am nothing like my sister. We’re as similar as a laddoo and samosa. A tiny little detail I should’ve recognised.
2) Do not approach marriage with an ulterior motive
I approached the prospect of an arranged marriage with a clinical rationalisation. In fact, sometimes when I look back at this time, I think I must lie somewhere on the spectrum, because I was pretty unemotional and calculated about my decision.
University loomed and even though they expected great things from me, my parents still had a whisper of doubt about letting their daughter loose.
In order to sleep easier at night, they believed it was in everyone’s best interests to attach me, their youngest and most wayward child, to a suitable boy.
And I merrily went along with the plan because I believed my life would be easier for it.
I could have the best of both worlds. If I was engaged, I could lead the life as a student without the constant interference and paranoia from my parents.
I didn’t contemplate life after university. Generally, teenagers don’t think more than a day ahead, let alone years, and to compound matters, I had no idea what married life actually entailed.
For me, the notion of marriage was like a roughly drawn sketch of something so abstract, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what it looked like.
To conclude, securing freedom is not exactly a robust reason for accepting a marriage proposal.
Wholly unsuitable reasons for marriage may also include, but are not limited to, boosting your income, securing a green card, gaining citizenship, and preventing your parents from committing suicide if you refuse to marry.
3) Do not approach an (arranged) marriage as a social experiment
This is marriage we are talking about. A union for life with one person. Read that very carefully: For. Life.
And in that regard, marriage isn’t some sort of anthropological exercise.
All those years ago, I remember thinking it would be quite interesting to go against the norms of western culture by having an arranged marriage, go to a top university, and get a top job.
Let’s show the world that arranged marriage works, people! I could have my cake and eat it too.
I think I also told myself that to gain greater conviction in my decision to go down a path less travelled.
At university, I was the strange and slightly exotic creature. But the great thing about university is that you can be more or less who you want and no one really cares.
When they learnt I was engaged, my peers looked at me with shock, but then quickly forgot about it. No one, friends included, thought I’d actually get married after my first year. But I did, partly to prove a point.
But surely, that is not the actual point of marriage, is it?
4) Actions speak louder than words
My then in-laws wanted me to go to university in the city where their son worked. In this case, London.
Now, Britain’s capital has some very fine institutions, but quite frankly, my mind was set on Oxbridge.
My parents had to argue pretty hard to reinforce that point. If their daughter had potential, then they weren’t going to let it slip away.
Had I not got into Cambridge, I would have gone to a university in London, but in all honesty, I had even greater incentive to get into my first choice because I didn’t want to live with my husband.
I should be grateful that marriage boosted my academic ambitions, but once again, that shouldn’t be the point of it.
Here are a couple of other things that were telling: I refused to change my name. And, I refused to wear a wedding ring.
On the first, many women choose not to change their names, but in my case, I didn’t want to adopt my husband’s surname because it was my way of staying in control and holding on to my identity. I couldn’t quite accept I was married and changing my name was a step too far.
On the second – not wearing a ring – that should’ve been a little more worrisome. I did wear an engagement ring, but really, that was because it was a little less final than a wedding band.
An engagement ring is like a get-out clause. A wedding ring isn’t. This reads as though I wasn’t faithful. I was. Faithfully so. I was just in permanent denial.
So, if you’re acting in a way which is a little circumspect when it comes to marriage, it’s a pretty sure sign that this person and this marriage is not right for you.
5) Have some common interests
Marriage isn’t easy. It takes effort on both sides. But it also helps if you like doing a few things together.
I’m not saying you should be bound at the hip like conjoined twins, but at least share a love of something.
It could be going out for a walk, going to the movies, to the theatre, going bird watching, train spotting, or building model aeroplanes. Whatever floats your boat.
The little experiences are the things which bind you together. Loafing about, watching television is all very well if both of you enjoy it, but when only one of you is doing that and has no inclination to lift his or her bottom off the sofa, then that’s an issue.
My first marriage was a wasteland. In fact, I preferred to spend more time at work than at home. And that’s a very sad thing indeed.
6) Forget about the L-Word
For the moment, put aside the idea of love. The key question is, do you even like one another? Could you have a lasting friendship?
Yes, love is amazing and if you are in love, that’s brilliant,it’s wonderful, and it’s a rip-roaring ride that leaves you exhilarated and exhausted at the same time.
But that love will settle. It will ebb and flow, and the true signs of something lasting is whether you have a friendship, a kinship, and a closeness that will keep you together.
As brutal as this may sound, I didn’t really like my then husband.
7) Can you assimilate?
While we didn’t live together, I had to assimilate into a new family, adapt to a different way of doing things.
I was expected to wear shalwar kameez. I was expected to speak Urdu all the time, which wasn’t exactly an asset of mine.
I was thrown into an environment where the women were not as strong and independent as the women in my own family.
I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t like being told what to do, what to wear, what to think.
I started to question religion, fast realising I was practising a faith for the sake of pleasing everyone else.
In short, I was doing many things to please others, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to fit into his family, or any kind of group for that matter.
I just wanted to just be me, to have the space to discover who I was, to figure out for myself what was important, what my values were, what my aspirations were. and what I truly believed in.
8) For the love of God, ensure you respect one another
As you read this, you may conclude that I was a bit of a brat. A little selfish. And you would be right. But, I was also a child and I had a lot of figuring out to do.
I did eventually grow up. I began to have an idea of who I was. And yet, our relationship didn’t adapt.
I never expected or asked for the things which went on behind closed doors. Actions that no one would ever contemplate happening, but they did and they left me scarred.
Irrespective of what culture or society we live in, certain acts cannot be rationalised or excused. They are wholly unforgivable. And I will never be able to forgive and forget.
Those events were the death knell in our marriage and after seven years, I summoned up the courage to leave.
9) And if you choose to leave…
Divorce is like bereavement. It’s traumatic. The guilt I carry for leaving is like a screw that twists deep inside my heart.
I turned my back on a second family. I severed many ties. I left people brokenhearted. But most importantly, my parents stood by me, recognising that if I stayed I would have been deeply unhappy.
Ultimately, it was the right thing to do. When I left, I could breathe. My wings had been unclipped and I was free.
I was the maker of my own destiny, and that was the best gift in the world.
10) Ensure you can be in it for the long haul
Irrespective of whether you have an arranged marriage or you marry out of love, irrespective of the culture you come from, marriage is a journey two people embark on together.
There has to be mutual respect and equality. You must enjoy being with one another. To laugh together, cry together.
Neither person should feel suffocated, arguments shouldn’t be swept under the carpet. And marriage certainly is not a place for subjugation and violence.
At 19, I should never have got married. That is the harsh reality. Before my father passed away, he said my marriage was one of his deepest regrets.
But I went through with it of my own accord. No one held a gun to my head. I wasn’t kidnapped, dragged to a village and forced to wed some strange, illiterate, toothless, old man.
Eventually, I did fall in love and I married for the second time. For the record, I couldn’t wait to change my name. I wear a wedding band, but not an engagement ring.
During the midst of a successful career, I decided to stay at home with my children and I am woefully financially dependent on my other half. But, I’m content and couldn’t wish for more.
Although I wouldn’t go so far as saying that this is a happy-ever-after-ending. The map of our life together is still very much in the making.
My other half and I are enjoying each day as it comes, overcoming the tribulations thrown our way, and thanking our lucky stars that we have each other and our children.
And yes, we aspire to spend the rest of our lives together, for better or for worse.
Have you had challenging relationship experiences? Share your story with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.