I generally don't blog about work, for a variety of reasons. However, the recent Ask Moxie discussion on how to communicate about sex with your partner got me thinking about some conversations I've had at work recently.
And no, not that kind of conversation. I think if I mentioned anything even vaguely related to sex the (Indian) guys I work with would just pretend they went temporarily deaf, the way they did when I suggested they could teach me Hindi by starting with the swear words. They didn't miss a beat, just kept their part of the conversation going like I hadn't said a thing. Cultural strategy, expertly applied.
It was strange, and weirdly funny - I temporarily became completely invisible and inaudible. I can imagine that it can be a really horrible thing (or horrifying), under certain circumstances, too, but at least we're dealing with a modern profile of members of the culture, who are generally married to educated (often highly educated) women, and who also are dealing with the intercultural expectations adaptively. Mostly, anyway.
I have had some conversations that weren't totally in their comfort zone, though, without losing them. In particular, I have talked about arranged marriage with the guy I work with most, and in reasonable detail. (I am almost certain that they have been encouraged to Not Talk About This with Americans because of the tendency for most of the guys to suddenly dodge if the subject comes up, even if they were the ones who brought it up.)
The thing that stood out for me in the discussion I did manage to get into was that the trajectory of expectations differs vastly. My coworker said that the assumption was that your parents know you well, and understand marriage with a longer view than you are likely to have, so you're starting out with someone looking at the long view of your life, not the immediate aspect. As for love, that's the goal, not the starting place. The expectation is that after years of working together, communicating and striving and putting effort into being a team, love will grow. The goal is to end up in love with your spouse, not to start out in love with your spouse.
Not that it always works, for myriad reasons. But the idea of love as the eventual goal sets a very different pattern of intentions and behaviors from the start.
Another baseline assumption is that marriage is not going to be smooth and easy (but at least having selected a good partner for you, hopefully it won't be excessively rough). Nobody in the modern version is expected to read minds (or not any more than one would expect with a friend - birthday surprises are great, but having a wife who is straightforward about what she wants is considered good, for example). Communication is required in order to reach the point where love can and will grow.
There's no worry that if there's a rough patch, the love will go away forever, poof. Hey, you started out not feeling the love anyway! Getting through the rough patches together, still as a team, is expected to be part of what MAKES love grow. Not the other way around.
It makes for an interesting perspective.
And it does seem to work for a portion of the population. While divorce is on the rise in India, and there are a lot (!!) of social pressures against divorce (meaning by interpretation that there are people who would divorce if there was less antagonism to the idea), there are also a lot of marriages that work, where there is real love at the end of it.
The rising middle class has modified the rules about arranged marriage, as well - and that's more what I'm talking about here (there are still forced arranged marriages, but nobody wants to talk about that). For example, in the 'modern' version, there's an assumption that each party has the right to no-vote any selection made (we know one woman who only said yes to the 10th man her parents found, meanwhile her parents learned a great deal about her interests, needs, style, etc. - and both parties in the eventual match were very happy with the arrangement).
Also, because of the relatively high marriage minimum age (legally, 18 for women, 21 for men, and many college students wait until after graduation and establishment of a career to even start the process of considering a spouse), there can be years to make adult friendships that your parents may watch for potentials. My coworker had been friends with his wife for years, as well as their families being friends, before the arrangement was made. Stories abound in the young educated circles of savvy couples working their parents' expectations as hard as the other way around, setting their parents up to choose the person they want their parents to choose, and both generations thinking they have the other one completely snowed. There's a degree of puzzlement openly expressed in India that arranged marriage hasn't vanished in the middle class, but they point to the fear that if they go all the way to love-match marriage, they'll end up with a high risk of divorce. American marriage statistics are a case-in-point example, for them, of how not to approach the idea of marriage. But they are willing to borrow the idea of right-of-refusal (both parties must be willing), and they are willing to borrow the idea of the individuals meeting and being friends first as an acceptable route to an arrangement.
I can attest to the value of marrying someone you're already friends with, personally. The friendship holds us together when the more romantic form of love isn't primary. The expectations we had were in some ways similar to those of my Indian work friends - this is a partnership, it will take effort, we need to work together, and working together will build long-term love. We thought about the long view, and recognized that it wasn't going to all be easy because we already loved each other, it was going to be effort despite the fact that we loved each other.
Discussing the merits of arranged marriage is probably making my ancestors roll over in their graves, though. Miss M's middle name is Freelove, which is after her many-times-great grandmother, whose own mother was (as far as we can tell) a Radical, (she was also a Quaker, on my side of the family). As rather a number of Quakers were, she was involved in the (GASP!) Free Love Movement, which certainly doesn't fit with the idea of traditional arranged marriage... (short form is: free unions of adults are legitimate relations which should be respected by all third parties whether they are emotional or sexual relations. In addition: both men and women have equal right to sexual pleasure; everyone has a right to equal treatment within and outside legal marriage regardless of gender; love is not to be bounded by either law or tradition.) It is somewhat strange to think of using some of the mindset that comes from arranged marriage when my own family tree was kicking over those traces, and setting the stage for the idea of romantic love being a valid basis of relationship, and effectively the ONLY valid basis.
You can still see the echoes of the Free Love movement in American marriage expectations. They were a radical fringe, but they really did transform our ideas - it just took a couple centuries for us to get there. And now we're here, the 1960's having done a lot of the finishing off on that. Only, culture being what it is, we still carry a lot of the women-as-lesser inequity into the marriage process as well. It's just the entry point that was changed. But that's another post entirely.
The long-term view of what marriage is for, and where the goals are, is entangled in the culture. Indian culture takes a very long-term view in general. It's what you get 'way down the road' that is of importance, not what it is like now. American culture has a very short time horizon. Immediate is good. A few years, the time span we think we can see clearly-enough, that's where we aim. Five years is the max most people can imagine and think is at all accurate (that is also culturally set). We picture now, roll that forward five years, and the rest is an increasingly vague fog. In cultures with a long time horizon, they picture 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now, and then fill in the major steps in between, sketched out but building toward that future point. It may be a high-altitude view, without much detail, but it allows for a very different approach to the structure of marriage. It also glosses over a lot of potential misery in hopes that the route will end up at that goal anyway. Plus, minus.
Another aspect of arranged marriages that we don't have either as a positive or a negative is the coordination of relatives. Granted, coordinating the in-laws also means they can gang up on you. But if you're starting from 'the in-laws have a relationship of their own' (that is, 'marriage joins two families, not just two people'), it's possible to find other ways than the American 'ignore-or-tolerate' to manage difficult in-law relationships. Forging a relationship between the in-laws before marriage makes it less likely that you'll have the whole 'I hate who you married' thing that pops up so often in conversations about marriage and in-laws in the US. Granted, I don't know anyone who would want to try that unless they think the in-laws will get along in the first place. Those who do expect their in-laws to get along don't expect any 'I hate who you married' attitude, either. Kind of excludes the option from the American side.
Just to be clear, I am not advocating for arranged marriages. The risks are ever-present, and the abuses are rampant where it is practiced. There are definitely good versions of it, as there are also versions of by-choice love match marriages, too.
I think the major concept I'd like to add to the usual American approach is the idea that love is something that you are striving to build, something you hope to create-and-end-up-with, through years of coordinated work and communication. I like that concept better than love being something that you have at the start with but that you have to protect jealously lest it fade, shatter, or fly away. Too many people seem to spend significant time and effort trying to preserve or guard their love, rather than spending that time and effort learning to live well together, and thereby creating love as a byproduct of that effort.
Ep and I maybe got lucky on that point - we are not automatically 'in tune with each other' - we're very different personalities, and we assumed from the outset that our friendship, affection, attraction, and love were not the same as 'a perfect fit'. We grind gears, and always have. The effort to not grind gears on each other was there from the start, and the assumption was that if we coasted we'd both suffer. To keep our essential differences from interfering with our friendship and interactions, we were very direct about rules, expectations, needs, and communication. Out of that, we discovered that the more we worked on making life together function well, the better the 'fit' seemed to be, and the deeper the love seemed to go.
Is it a lot of effort? Yes. Sometimes boring effort (including both tedious and frustrating), sometimes painful effort, mostly just plain old daily effort. My mom once told me that being married is one of the hardest things you'll do (other than raising kids), it is a lot of effort, but it is worth the effort. I grew up knowing that, and knowing that even making the effort every day won't get you everything you want sometimes. But still worth the trying. No guarantees, only the suggestion that working on the grungy, boring, un-fun details leads us in the right direction, on the long time horizon.
And still just as well we weren't in an arranged-marriage culture... I doubt either of our parents would have chosen us as a match at the start. In the Indian system, I would have been the last pick on the list, for a variety of reasons (including the fact that I'd dated more, er, broadly, than ep had), and ep would never have even hit radar for my mom (she'd have picked an extrovert for me, and not an apparently quiet guy who also had an earring and wore a fair bit of leather). We'd have had to do the whole 'nope, nope, not that one either, try again' routine. I think I'd have driven my mom nuts on that.
I think I'll take my own expectations over the cultural ones, and hope we can pass those down to the kids. Love does not conquer all. Love is not proof that you don't need to put in daily effort, and happily ever after is not reality. Reality is messy, and work. (Again showing my age, and thanks to Terry for introducing me to her music:) Ferron's song about the process is valid, to my mind: Love don't travel down a straight line track, it come together and it come apart. On top of that, though, is the idea that as it starts to come apart, it can be worth the effort to put it back together with a long view to the distant horizon.
Teaching our kids about looking down the long time horizon is important. They need to know that it may be possible to bring the tracks together again when they start to come apart. That possibility makes the effort worth starting. That first step back after things come apart is often the hardest, and without a long view, it may be easier to give up than to work it through.