This essay originally appeared on Wear Your Voice Magazine.
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to get married. A huge part of this desire was most certainly Disney movies and romantic comedies, where a dorky bookworm like me takes off her glasses, becomes beautiful, and weds the hunk everyone else covets. Another part was that getting married felt like an escape from my own dysfunctional family, where I’d be whisked far away and have a chance to build a new life with someone who actually loved and respected me.
It didn’t help matters that, for the majority of my childhood, two of my dad’s favorite nicknames for me were “Spinster” and “Marian the Librarian.” Not Marian who ends up with the Music Man; the Marian from It’s a Wonderful Life in the parallel universe where George Bailey doesn’t exist: the pinched, frigid woman with glasses who is afraid of men. My desire to marry was at constant odds with the supposedly unmarryable woman looking back at me in the mirror, and the few slivers of self-esteem I managed to protect was certain one day I would meet that man who would complete me.
Next came my 20s, and the culmination of an unfortunate series of traumas, one after the other, that began to convince me I was far too damaged, far too broken for any mere mortal man. Superheroes are in drastic short supply. While I would fall deeply and madly in love and often, the feeling was never reciprocated, and the men who fell deeply in love with me lost my interest. By then I’d internalized my father’s belief that I was unlovable, and I started to come to terms with the fact that I’d be spending my life alone.
One day, while living in Spain and nursing yet another smashed heart, it occurred to me: As a half-Sri Lankan woman, I’m “eligible” for an arranged marriage. And the idea of it suddenly felt right. Okay, maybe I wouldn’t have that meet-cute from a romance movie or some bolt-from-the-sky love at first sight. But I would have the stability I craved, and I would have a partner for the long haul. It seemed like a win-win.
When I was a newborn, apparently my Sri Lankan father tried to arrange a marriage between me and a wealthy businessman’s son who was just a toddler himself. Before any formal agreements were made, my American mother threw a fit and out the window that idea went. Before getting my father’s hopes up that I might actually be a good Sri Lankan girl and have an arranged marriage, I emailed my mom asking her for more information and she called to give me the lowdown — in what would be an increasingly disturbing conversation about my potential future.
How it would work for me is this: My parents would put an ad in the top Sri Lankan newspapers with my various stats, including height, weight, fair skin, brown eyes, slim figure, glasses, a few small tattoos. But more important than my fair skin from being half-white was the feature of my American passport, which was sure to get me the attention of the cream of the wealthiest and most well-known Sri Lankan eligible bachelors.
With all the racism I’ve experienced in my life on account of my brown skin and Tamil maiden name, I couldn’t begin to wrap my brain around how my “fair” skin would be a draw to my potential husband.
But that wasn’t the end of it by far. My mother told me that because of my American passport, I’d be expected not only to live in the U.S. so he could also get a Green Card, but I would also be required to have several children — of course, preferably, boys. I would also have to tone down my outspokenness and independence, and I’d have to “behave myself,” otherwise I’d bring shame on my father’s entire family. Apparently “behaving myself” meant not arguing with my future husband, keeping the house clean and not demanding anything from him, including respect — all the qualities he would expect from a submissive Sri Lankan woman. Basically, a subservient maid-wife and light-skinned baby factory. The fact that I really didn’t want to bear or raise children was irrelevant.
As sinister as the whole thing was beginning to sound, the fact that I’d be forced to procreate with this potential husband brought home a new revelation: I would be expected to have sex with a perfect stranger. That thought alone brought my plans for an arranged marriage to a screeching halt. Maybe I would get lucky and get a decent Sri Lankan man who was gentle, patient and loving. But what if I didn’t? What if he was mean or violent — and worse, what if he had antiquated ideas about me as property he could fuck whenever he felt like, whether I want to or not. I’d already been in a relationship that involved prolonged sexual abuse. The very notion that I might risk falling into that pattern again made me feel sick to my stomach. And so, I thanked my mom for her time and the information, and hard passed on the arranged-marriage plans. I’ve never looked back once.
Just weeks after investigating my potential arranged marriage, I met a man who not only proposed 10 days later, but we were married within three months. Ironically, even though he and I both had American passports and a few superficial things in common, socially and culturally we were night and day. The first few years of our shotgun marriage felt like one long argument as we not only moved countries several times, but tried to get on the same page understanding each other. He is an American-raised Florida boy, and I’m a biracial global nomad who grew up all over the world, with a metric crap-ton’s worth of emotional baggage, trauma and acute PTSD. We might have married for love, but we were still strangers to each other. Our love marriage started to feel like what I imagined an arranged marriage would be like — uncomfortable, socio-culturally challenging and sometimes downright painful as we were forced to build bridges over canyons we didn’t even know existed between us.
By now, my husband and I have been married for more than a decade and we are finally in a groove with each other. It never feels possible, but every day I wake up to find I do, in fact, love this man more than I did the day before. He’s my lobster. We are perfect complements, and anyone who knows us marvels at how much we’ve grown — not just as a couple, but as individuals, too. How we have made it this far with so many things working against us has a foundation in two things: We don’t believe in divorce, and neither of us wants children. In the end, we didn’t need to have everything in common to make our unarranged marriage work, just those two fundamental things to build on.