What My Parents' Arranged Marriage Taught Me About Romantic Relationships
Rom-com fan Priya Krishna wanted a storybook romance, not a practical one like her parents’. Until that’s what she had.
Priya Krishna's Parents
When I’m back home in Dallas, I often find myself flipping through my parents’ wedding album. It’s a regal, red, fabric-coated book filled with faded black-and-white photos overlaid with delicate tissue paper. One photo, in particular, strikes me: In it, my parents are sitting on thrones in an event hall in New Delhi, my dad in a smart-looking suit and a gold turban, my mom in a red sari and gold jewelry.
They’re looking at each other. It’s not the gaze you might find in a modern wedding album, in which the bride’s and groom’s eyes are locked in an intense, adoring gaze. The look my parents are giving each other is more unfamiliar—like two people trying to make a connection or size each other up for the first time. It’s not the gaze of a couple in love, at least not in the Western sense. At the time the photo was taken, my parents had known each other for only about two weeks.
My parents’ courtship wasn’t a whirlwind romance. It’s even hard to call it a courtship. Instead, they participated in the long-standing Indian tradition of arranged marriage, wherein parents—with input from grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—choose spouses for their children. My mom and dad had met a few other potential partners; they mutually selected each other. My mom emphasizes to me that arranged marriage was never something that was forced on them. They elected to do it. My mom was 20, had just finished college in India, and decided she was ready to take that next step. My dad had just started work at a computer software company in Massachusetts and flew back to India with the explicit purpose of finding a wife.
It’s hard to imagine that my parents—both rational, thoughtful people—decided to marry after a two-hour meeting. But they trusted their families, they told me. They didn’t see it as a rash decision. Once they decided to marry, there was no elaborate, yearlong planning process. A venue was booked. Saris and jewelry were purchased. And my mom and dad were married in a traditional Hindu ceremony, with garlands exchanged and many prayers recited, on November 18, 1980.
My parents settled down in the U.S. shortly after. They didn’t know many people, let alone each other, at first. Then, right after they had kids, my maternal grandparents—who were supposed to come to America to help our family—passed away suddenly in a car accident. My parents, who were (and still are) both driven, career-minded people, had to find a way to raise two kids with limited resources while pursuing their professional ambitions. My dad started his company out of our garage so he could take care of my sister and me during the day; my mom taught him to cook so he could prep dinner before she came home. My parents spent money they didn’t have so we could get the best possible education. These difficult choices were the foundation on which their marriage was built.
And yet, for me growing up, I felt alienated by my parents’ arranged marriage. At friends’ houses, their parents would ask me how my folks had met. When I said it was an arranged marriage, they would often recoil in horror. “They were forced to marry each other?” they’d ask. I had a spiel about how the partnership was entirely consensual; it was the way the culture was. Inevitably there were follow-up questions: “What about you? Do they have a nice Indian boy they’re planning to fix up with you?” I’d shake my head and explain that my parents wanted my sister and me to go about choosing partners however we thought best. I was mortified.
My parents’ marriage didn’t look like love to me. Love was what I had seen in romantic comedies as a kid. I still remember feeling like my heart would leap out of my body at the end of John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles when Molly Ringwald exits the church at her sister’s wedding and her crush is waiting outside for her…with a cake. When I learned the phrase “meet cute,” I asked all of my parents’ friends to tell me theirs: They were lawyers at the same firm, family friends who lived across the street from each other, students who shared a chemistry class. Why couldn’t my parents have a normal love story like everyone else?
I watched and rewatched my favorite rom-coms as if they were instruction manuals, trying to decipher the formula for what I saw as the superior version of love and marriage. There was always an instant connection, several grand gestures, an over-the-top proposal, and a splendid white-dress wedding. This was the love I wanted.
Priya Krishna Family Photo
My middle school crush, a boy named Steve, was the first person I had fairy-tale romance dreams about. We were good friends who walked to lunch together every day. But when I sent him an email telling him how I felt, the feeling was not mutual, and our friendship fell apart. This seemed to happen to me a lot as a teenager and then essentially all through college. You’d think it would have made me more jaded about love—but it didn’t. It just made me all that much more determined to find my soul mate.
Then something happened. At 23, I met a man at a bar. We didn’t lock eyes from across the room. He didn’t even see me. A friend introduced us, we discussed our mutual love of showtunes, and he asked me to dinner.
Soon after, we started dating. I made him watch the climactic scenes of every single one of my favorite rom-coms. I played “Can’t Help Falling in Love” when I told him I loved him for the first time. I brought him a sheet cake inscribed with his name when we were in a long-distance relationship, and I visited him at grad school.
He responded to my gestures with mild discomfort. Yes, he liked Nat King Cole and baked me pies. But the way he viewed our relationship was not like what I saw in my favorite movies. He didn’t wax poetic about his love for me; he preferred to spar about international politics. Before we moved in together, we made lists of what we needed the other person to do to be a good roommate. While I swooned over his parents’ storybook origin story—a nurse and a cardiologist who fell in love caring for the same patient—he told me how much he admired my parents’ relationship, that even though they didn’t always vocalize their love, he could see it in the way they raised two kids while supporting each other’s careers and embraced the unfamiliar together.
I asked my dad if he remembered the exact point he fell in love with my mom. He laughed and shook his head. “There is no Western sense like, Wow, I’ve met Prince Charming,” he said. “Love is gradual. You develop a fondness for each other as you are understanding each other’s quirks. You understand that there are some things you may not like but other things you like. You quarrel.” This kind of love, he said, was one that is sustainable—designed to withstand difficult times.
The man from the bar and I are still together. And our love, it turns out, is more like my parents’ than I ever could have thought. We disagree often. We’ve endured tests of our relationship (long distance, demanding jobs). We make compromises. It’s practical. I admit that I still create birthday treasure hunts and make him slow dance with me in the living room. But I don’t watch nearly as many rom-coms. That fluttery, home-run feeling I used to get at the end—I get it from him instead. And it’s not because of any grand gesture. It’s because of everything else.