What an Arranged Marriage Taught My Mom About Dating

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Photo: Courtesy of Beejoli Shah

My parents have a great marriage and a terrible love story. Their union was arranged in India back in 1975, when my then-18-year-old mom agreed to marry a 26-year-old man with a mutton-chop mustache the size of Madras whom she’d known all of three weeks. Since then, they’ve developed the type of stable partnership that can only come from spending nearly four decades with someone. But romance? That always fell somewhat by the wayside.  

I used to be jealous of my American friends, with their sitcom-worthy parents who publicly kissed on the mouth. In contrast, my parents, like many Indian parents, were more restrained. My childhood rebellion was to become a super-romantic, spending much of elementary school dramatically crushing on anyone with a pulse. The second-grader who once was an extra on an episode of Power Rangers? Two diaries full of preteen pining. The class clown who kept teasing me on the playground? He was just hiding his real feelings. The quiet, brooding fifth-grade art lover who told me my arms were hairy like a monkey? Well, fuck that guy now, but damned if I wasn’t into him then. And somewhere along the way, between elementary-school swooning and post-college relationships, something unexpected happened. My apparently non-romantic mother, a woman who’s never been on a date, became the best dating guru I’ve ever met.

Her advice started out fairly unremarkable (“Yes, third-grade boys are, quite literally, immature”), but as I grew older, her wisdom proved ever more astute — even if it took me a while to appreciate it. When my high-school boyfriend broke up with me and promptly got back together with his ex-girlfriend, for example, my mom bypassed the usual reassuring clichés. Instead of saying something along the lines of “He’s a jerk, you can do so much better,” she gently suggested that while heartbreak is awful, at least now I knew myself a little better and knew more about what I wanted from the next boyfriend. At the time, I wrote her off as naïve — didn’t she understand that I was just lucky enough to get one guy to like me? Even 11 years later, each subsequent breakup still induces panic about dying alone, but damned if my mom hasn't been right so far — there is always someone new "just around the corner." And each boyfriend I’ve dated has always been a slightly better fit than the last.

For example: When I brought my college boyfriend, Neel, home for the first time, I was sure he was perfect — a smart, shiny, student government-participating Indian boyfriend, the kind of future son-in-law Indian parents dream of. My mom’s summary after the visit? “He’s incredibly nice, but he’s too conservative for you.” When I once again dismissed her, she texted back a cryptic “You’ll see.” Four months later, we had broken up over his disapproval of my love of tequila shots and wearing backless Forever 21 sequined tops to parties with other guys around. As it turned out, my mom was right. Despite having done nothing egregious in her presence, Neel’s subtly domineering manner about trivial things (like when we needed to leave and who should drive) set off alarm bells in my mom’s head. If he was controlling over the small stuff, who was to say that when it came to bigger conversations down the road, his views wouldn’t be similarly myopic? Her primary dating rule: A relationship must start on equal footing if you expect it not to topple.

A few years later, my friend Neha and I were each dating great guys with too much big, scary baggage — and we were sure that if we solved all their problems they’d have no choice but to love us. Ever pragmatic, my mom was horrified. “Your long-term goal to making this relationship work can’t be fixing his problems — they’re just going to drag you down.” Her advice was to cut bait, and quickly, because “relationships are hard enough to maintain, and even harder to walk away from, without starting off at a disadvantage.” We were both, of course, instantly unthrilled. But once again time proved her wisdom. “Your mom was totally right,” Neha said recently, looking back. “If you spend all your time worrying about how to fix him and make him happy, when are you going to find out what makes you happy?”

What I had never bothered considering when I dismissed my mom’s advice was that if making a relationship work is hard enough with someone you’re already attracted to, it’s infinitely harder with a perfect stranger. My mom had to learn how to build a relationship using things besides romance: She and my dad had to figure out together, in their early 20s, what was important to each other if they wanted to last the long haul. That grounded approach to marriage, coupled with the anecdotal anthropology of growing up outside her cultural comfort zone (as one of very few Indians in Fort Wayne, Indiana), has made her more of an expert on dating and relationships than I was ever willing to give her credit for.

While her best advice runs toward serious stuff about how to make a long-term relationship last, it’s laid the foundation for the trust I feel going to her even with definitely unserious stuff. The last 14 years of crushes and dating have involved Gchats, text messages, and phone calls aplenty about drunken nights, make-outs, arguments at crowded bars with guys I’ll never marry but keep trying to date — and through it all, my mom has never once faltered. Much to my sister’s horror, my mom was the first person I called in college to ask “Is sex always supposed to hurt?” (Prompting an immediate trip to the gynecologist.) No topic has been too real or too forward for her to offer up judgment on.

Recently, my friend Vivek and I were discussing dating in America while growing up as products of arranged marriage. “I think kids of arranged marriages are better at sorting through what's real and what's not,” he surmised. “Even when they go crazy, they know what they're supposed to want.” And that’s the gap my mother, my surprisingly liberal Indian-born, Indiana-bred mom, has bridged beautifully: the ability to relate to her daughters without ever having been in their shoes.

Neha texted me last night, talking about a guy she’d been friends with for years. She was convinced he was using her as a backup girlfriend — all the intimacy, none of the hooking up — until he found someone else. “What do you think your mom would say if I told her about this Rajiv situation?”

Giddy to be the one people now come to for advice, I tried to channel my best wise, motherly counsel. “Hard to say … I don’t want you to read too much into what could just be platonic,” I typed back.

“Never mind,” she said. “I’ll just call your mom myself.”