Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Foundation of Marriage?

About two weeks ago, one of my friends asked me what the foundation of marriage is. I'm better at brainstorming what it's not, such as personality, romance, and idolization of your partner. Thinking in the affirmative is a difficult task because no one aspect of our relationship proves to be the single most important piece of this complex act of loving each other on a daily basis.  Some good candidates include open communication, shared values and goals, good chemistry, and respect for each other's intellect, emotions, and spirituality.

One candidate that I believe contributes very much to the foundation of my relationship with Owen is our shared faith in God, which provides us with strong unity, life path, and common values. Yet, I do know a handful of non-religious folks with very vibrant, healthy relationships, so I can't name religious belief as the single universal answer to this question.

After further consideration, I hypothesize that the foundation of marriage lies with proper prioritization. Your partner has to be #1. Though, your partner shouldn't be the only number one. You shouldn't have to sacrifice strong spiritual beliefs, values, life goals, or family for your partner. For example, Owen is my number one priority, along with good health. Because Owen also holds good health as a high priority, they are not in competition, and together, Owen and I put the time and energy necessary into maintaining good health. Your relationship should not keep you from fulfilling your individual needs, and sacrificing too much for your partner may lead to resentment.

Another number one priority for me is writing (I have a sizable list of number one priorities). Owen encourages my desire to write in every possible way. He helped me start my blog, reads my rough drafts, and indulges my constant need to keep the writing energy going (e.g., by changing locations every hour or so), even as he attempts to focus on his own work.

Though, I want to be careful here, because I do believe that many of us hold strong values or goals that are actually harmful to us. When I first met Owen, certain religious beliefs had me chained to the idea that I needed to maintain a perfectly pious life and kept me in a mindset of guilt and fear. And when I say perfect, I mean that I was an 18 year old who had said about three swear words in my life, counting when I was a small child and didn't know what they meant. Owen helped me let go of this mindset, and I do not resent him for the loss.

Your partner should be compatible with all of your number one priorities, and simultaneously, you shouldn't hold any priorities above your partner. However, if we are being realistic here, we can admit that this isn't always easy, and may need to be worked at and learned with time. One of the priorities that Owen and I struggle with is image.

I like being real goofy. Sometimes I embarrass Owen, who is in the habit of maintaining a composed image. We've found that when I'm really upset at Owen, the quickest way for him to reconnect with me is by doing something silly that embarrasses him. When I was the angriest I've ever been with Owen, he ran into the street and yelled, "I love Summer Renee G-- D--." To me, that's not embarrassing; I'd do that for fun, but this actually made Owen shaky. This sort of act makes a difference in our relationship because I know that Owen has to push himself to put me above composure, and his desire to put me ahead of everything lets me know that he loves and values me. Composure is not in my list of number one priorities, and I wouldn't be in a relationship with someone who put it above me.

Owen and I also hold values that are unimportant to the other. One ideal that I believe in very strongly is that all of us, at some point in our lives, should hold menial, bottom of the totem pole jobs, so that we can better understand and appreciate the entire system. Owen has never held such a job. I don't know how he did it, but his very first job had to do with providing therapy to children. No one has ever paid Owen to take out the garbage, prepare food, or clean something. Though I hold this ideal, Owen is higher on my priority list, and so it doesn't cause arguments, so much as intellectual riffs. Differing values can sometimes provide interesting discussion topics.

Given what I've already said, you need to have an idea of which priorities are number one before you even enter into a romantic relationship. Entering a relationship with a partner who is incompatible with your priorities will lead to many problems in the future, including over sacrificing, resentment, and finally detachment. When you consider priorities, think outside of the box; future career goals are relatively minor compared to more personally engrained needs such as those related to image. Perhaps for you it isn't composure, but optimism. Think about it.

Do you have a different answer? Please feel free to comment what you think the foundation of marriage is!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Arranged vs. Love Marriages

Let's just throw some stereotypes out there to examine how our society has decided to understand this topic.

Arranged Marriages:
  • Marriage as a business agreement
  • Partners don't necessarily like each other
  • Young middle eastern women paired with much older middle eastern men
  • Women treated poorly, often acting as sacrifices for their families

"Love" Marriages:
  • Starts with natural enjoyment of each other
  • Full of romance and happiness
  • Love triumphs over practicality 
  • Sacrificing money or familial values for the sake of romantic love as a noble act
The comparisons begin as love vs. business, and quickly move toward us vs. them value judgments: west vs. east, Christian vs. World Religion, right vs. wrong. The stereotypes surrounding arranged marriages startle me. And seriously, I think if we take a look at the stereotypes surrounding the "love" marriages, we can see that they don't actually hold true in real life. Even the vocabulary that we assign to marriages of personal choice are biased; it reminds me of the names we use in the pro-life v. pro-choice debates, which imply that the opponents are anti-life and anti-choice. Are we to imagine that arranged marriages are void of love?

We in western culture need to take a closer look at the positive aspects of arranged marriages. For one, arranged marriages have lower divorce rates than marriages of personal choice. I can only guess here, but I suspect that the different mindsets that people carry into their marriages influence divorce rates. 

In American society, we always have divorce looming over our heads. Divorce doesn't necessarily feel like a choice that we may make, but like a punishment for if we fail to bubble in the correct answer in the multiple choice test of choosing our mates. We see many marriages begin with intense infatuation just to teeter out as reality takes it toll; this used to be known as the seven-year disillusionment phase, but marriage counselors now claim it takes place at the four year mark.

For people in arranged marriages, the partner is not a test answer, he or she is the lot that life gave, and it's up to them to make it good. With this mindset, people know that they will be with their partners for the rest of their lives, and the question of "was there a better choice out there for me?" is moot. This dedication can lead to deeper love than the infatuation or idolatry that we so often see in western romance.

Shout out to the The Wedding Planner, where in a touching scene, Maria's father reveals to her that he and her mother had an arranged marriage. In his story, they couldn't stand the sight of each other in the beginning, but when he got sick, she took care of him and he appreciated her. Over time, the appreciation grew to respect, and the respect grew to a deep love.

Okay, so maybe it's not fair of me to fight stereotypes with media portrayals, but, my point is still important: love is complicated, and for us to claim that there is a right and a wrong way to approach it is ignorant. Maybe love in an arranged marriage happens the same way that familial love happens. We don't choose our family members, they are arranged for us by the powers that be. Yet, when we spend 18 years of growing and learning with these people we call family, many of us grow attached to them, sometimes despite deep conflict.

Owen and I feel that our marriage lies somewhere in the middle of an arranged marriage and a marriage of personal choice. Obviously, we found each other, and chose to get married, but we don't feel like we chose each other. As I've alluded to before, each of us thought that the other was super weird when we first started dating. We spent over a year resisting each other, and even when we finally did decide to date we were both wary of the relationship-- when I told my parents about Owen, I said, "yeah, don't get too attached... it probably won't last more than two weeks, but we're giving it a try to see what happens."

We both believe that something beyond ourselves has drawn us together, or arranged for us to be together. Left to our own devices, we would both be with opposite gendered versions of ourselves: Owen would be with a blonde haired, blue eyed, scandinavian woman, raised Lutheran and midwestern, with low energy levels, and I would be with a blunt yet goofy, tall, dark haired man with Italian lineage. Both of us are better off with each other than with our "ideal mates," partly because we can learn so much more from each other than we could from people who conform to our individual world views.

In believing that we've been brought together by outside forces, we also believe that we do not have the right to end our union. We don't want to treat our marriage as if divorce is an option. By examining the pragmatism of arranged marriages and considering the mindset taken when entering an arranged marriage, I think that we can have a clearer understanding of how to keep ourselves grounded in reality. It's not always going to be romantic, our personalities will sometimes clash, and we will sometimes argue, but we will stay together.

More pros of arranged marriage that I found interesting according to various Wikipedia articles (also, side note, Wikipedia does not get enough credit; it is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit and the most accurate and comprehensive encyclopedia in the world, and I am in awe of it):
  • Arranged marriages allow individuals that may have difficulty finding a mate such as the socially inept, disabled, and etc. to find a mate and get married.
  • Parents can contribute to the offspring's life by utilizing the benefits of experience to choose the right mate for him/her, taking pragmatic concerns seriously.
  • Many modern arranged marriages include the couple's consent. The families are highly involved in the matchmaking process, but the individuals getting married have the last word (as a bonus, they go into the marriages already knowing that their in-laws approve of them!)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Memorable Encounter

My parents provided me with a very sheltered childhood. I can't say I ever experienced any real pain. When I left home, I headed straight to Northfield, MN for college. A common campus joke is that St. Olaf College exists in a bubble separate from the world. I'm very thankful for the security and protection that my parents gave me during childhood, but I do not want to continue leading a sheltered life. I don't want the bliss that ignorance offers.

During our first five months here, when people asked me if I liked Iowa City, I would say, "It's comfortable. I'd like a little more adventure..." Lately, however, I've had Stephen Stills' lines stuck in my head: "And if you can't be with the one you love, honey/ Love the one you're with/ You gotta love the one you're with." I'm not thinking of it in terms of lovers so much as cities; I can't be in a busy metropolis, so I have to love Iowa City. Now, I'm putting down roots. We are going to be here for a long time, and I want to do something good.

I have had very little exposure to the homeless population. Here, we encounter them on a daily basis, which, if we are being honest, often leads to embarrassment and misplaced guilt. Owen and I have talked about this extensively, and we agree that we want to make the effort to acknowledge the humanity of homeless people by having conversations with them, rather than throwing spare change at them and running away. Recently, Owen and I have started volunteering at the homeless shelter. Still, this did not prepare us for the conversation we had on our Valentine's night out.

Owen and I had dinner at home before dressing up to go out for drinks downtown. We started at a very swanky bar, with expensive house cocktails, and then continued on to something a little more affordable. We ended up at a... underrated establishment that seems to pull in a greater percentage of society's fringe characters than the average Starbucks, also known as a tobacco cafe. Well anyways, we were feeling very 1950s smoking a tiny cigar, with me dressed up in a vintage red dress and Owen in a collared shirt and slacks. Our conversation started to move toward a close at about the same time that the cigar started burning our lips, and we could see the natural end of our night nearing, until my eyes met with those of a homeless looking man outside.

He stood at the glass door watching us, which made me think that he couldn't open the door for some reason. So, I went and opened it for him, and he proceeded to sit at our table with us. Owen and I talked about this later and decided that he must have been waiting outside to see if we would invite him in, which I unknowingly did when I opened the door for him.

My heart was pounding so hard that I was afraid he might hear it. He looked very rough, and hung his head. After a few seconds, I asked him if he was okay. He looked up at us, and began rolling up his sleeves to show Owen his arms, and I though that he might be showing Owen a suicide attempt. My mind was racing; I did not know who we could contact to help a suicidal man at 11:00 on a Tuesday night. He was actually just showing Owen his tattoos, and he said, "I was a marine." We learned that he had served in Vietnam. He looked up at us very seriously and said, "I did it for you." Now usually these dramatic and clichéd statements annoy me, but that night it didn't; the marks of war and societal rejection shown so obviously in his appearance that I believed the emotions behind the words. We thanked him and he said not to worry about it.

At this point I was still on edge. As much as I do not want to be afraid of other humans, I kept thinking, "What if he has a gun? What if he has a knife? What if he is unstable?" Nonetheless I was determined to sit there with him and just listen to what he had to say. He asked us to get him a pen and paper.

Again, I had no idea what he was going to come up with. Would he draw some horrific war scene? He told us to watch him closely. At first, it was only squiggles. Every few minutes, he would stop and look up at us and say, "Come on Shaney." The squiggles became a flower, with banners on the top and bottom. Three times he asked us each our names, and eventually wrote them into the drawing. It looked like a tattoo. During this process, he told us several times to frame it and hang it on our wall. I followed his instructions, and it actually looks really cool hanging on our wall.

I don't entirely know what this story has to do with "My Modern Marriage," but I know that I am very thankful that I am with someone else who is willing to sit and wait for an ex-marine down on his luck to express his creative impulse. When he was finished with his drawing we all stood up, we gave him what little cash we had, and shook his hand. He said, "Well, at least I have some talent."

Valentine's night 2012 offered us the opportunity to let the bubble pop by allowing Shane to express his art for us. I think back to a "Confucius says..." fortune cookie phrase that I received a few years ago, "Seek not to be appreciated, but to appreciate."

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

My Valentine

Today marks Owen's and my fourth Valentine's Day together though this is only the second year that we've actually been a couple. We met within our first month of college in 2007. Though we weren't very close at the time, we shared a few close friends. In 2009, Owen and I both enrolled in a traveled abroad program entitled Historical Geography of the Bible. We traveled with a group of 23 students through Greece and Turkey. After having spent this month in close proximity we developed a friendship.

On Valentine's evening 2009, Owen and I happened to run into each other, and since neither of us had anything to do that evening, he asked if I would be interested in going to Perkins. As a lover of spontaneity, I couldn't resist the offer. He ordered a chocolate chip cookie, I ordered a hot chocolate, and we had a great conversation. I remember that he said one thing in particular that really changed how I thought of him: he said something like, "yeah, I think that spending my high school years with my grandparents made me a little socially awkward..."

For some reason, self-awareness is like a forgive-all for me; like, if a boy is a dork but thinks he's hot stuff he's annoying, but a dork who knows he's a dork is actually kind of cool. Owen's not completely socially awkward, but he has a few weird communication habits, and hearing that he had an awareness of this made me more accepting of that. After I returned to my dorm for the night, I remember texting one of my friends that I might have a crush on Owen. A few days later, I overheard one of our friends ask Owen what he had done for Valentine's Day, and his response was, "Nothing." Well, the crush ended there... for a little while.

Somewhere between Valentine's Day 2009 and Valentine's Day 2010, we had a falling out, which involved Owen rejecting me insisting that he didn't want us to mess up our friendship. Angry and embarrassed, I told him that I needed a break from his friendship. We patched things up in January 2010, so by Valentine's Day, our friendship was still fragile, but Owen was very happy to have me in his life again. When we bumped into each other on Valentine's evening 2010, he jumped on the opportunity to repeat  our friend date from the year before. This time, I could tell that he like-liked me. He spoke about providence bringing us together, and I listened without really knowing what to think about his assertion that we were somehow meant to bump into each other that night. Though maybe he knew what he was talking about because a month later we started dating.

Now, we think of Valentine's Day 2009 and 2010 as foreshadowing our relationship, and it continues to be a special day for us.

Actually, Valentine's Day has always been special for me. My parents were married on Valentine's Day, so my sister and I would often make dinner or save up money to treat them to dinner out for their anniversary. They always bought gifts for us as well, usually including dove chocolate roses. February 14 is like an echo of Christmas for us; it's another celebration of family and love. So, even when I was single, I always loved Valentine's Day. 

I say forget "Singles Awareness Day." If you can't celebrate your own romantic relationship this year, celebrate love with friends and family, and who knows, maybe the friend you celebrate with today will be your romantic love next year.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Relationships: Jail Sentence or Wings?

The first six results in the Urban Dictionary for Ball and Chain propose that significant others (especially women) will hold you back from having fun and require that you spend all of your time with them, even if you would rather be elsewhere. Supposedly, being in a relationship means that you are more trapped than free.

Aside from the stereotypical "oh no, I can't go and make out with randos at bars anymore" constraints, the wrong relationship can have deeper emotional limitations as well. Thinking back again to my relationship with Tom, even though I adored him, I felt trapped the entire time. When we were together, I couldn't express myself fully because I was afraid of loosing him. On the night that he dumped me, I realized that I felt  free to be myself, like I had come back home to my loving family after four months as a guest in someone else's house.

Yet, with Owen, I feel more free to act like myself than I did when I was single. He actually encourages me to do those things that I want to do, but hesitate to do.  As I stated in my first post, I gave up acceptance to my number one choice of graduate programs at CSU in order to follow Owen to Iowa. This particular program was for rhetoric and composition--a very marketable degree. Yet, if I could write about anything that I wanted to, it would be creative work, not persuasive work.

Now, I am in Iowa City with Owen, which happens to harbor the MIT of creative writing programs. The particular program that I would be interested in accepts approximately 25/450 applicants. Rather than jumping on the opportunity to apply to the creative writing program, I continued to seek programs that I knew had higher acceptance rates. Owen encouraged me to forget practical and submit my application to the program that I am most interested in: the Writers' Workshop Poetry MFA.

I don't know yet if I will be accepted, but I feel damn good for having submitted my work to the number one school for creative writing, and I know that I would never have done so without Owen's encouragement.

Ultimately, I think that the freedom or lack-thereof that we experience when we spend time with our partners revolves around the extent to which we can be ourselves in our relationships. Do you feel forced to act against yourself when you are with your partner, or does your partner encourage you to act out the desires that you can't face on your own? I would suggest that even the image that I initially alluded to, the young man who feels his girlfriend holds him back from the fun revolving around the party lifestyle, implies a problem with the relationship more so than the individual. If you feel that your partner holds you back from anything, that implies that you are more focused on what you are missing than on your partner, and something will have to give.

Monday, February 6, 2012

It's Not About Personality

I'm not saying that I dislike Owen's personality, I'm just saying that's not why I'm with him.

For some reason, American culture has set up an opposition between looks and personality, with the underlying assumption that a good personality match will provide lasting happiness and good looks will fade. (Google "personality vs. looks" and you will find 21,900,000 results). And I can't even count how many times I've heard people say that sense of humor is the number one thing that they look for in potential partners.

But is personality that much deeper than looks?

Around the time that I met Owen, I met another boy; we'll call him Tom. Owen's know-it-all attitude annoyed me, and I admired Tom's more modest personality. Tom and I dated for almost 4 months, and our relationship never even glimpsed depth. As I was busy adoring Tom's good sense of humor, attentiveness in conversation, and shared love of childhood emblems such as Rugrats and bubblegum Band-Aids, I failed to communicate my anxieties surrounding being in a relationship for the first time. For months after we broke up I remained certain that I would not find anyone whose personality was as compatible with mine as Tom's.

Two years later, when Owen and I started dating, all three of our personalities had changed. As my life became more and more structured around academics, Tom developed a party-boy reputation, and Owen's know-it-all mask started to fade.

Still, when Owen and I started dating, both of us lacked personality traits that the other desired. At that time, I wouldn't have called Owen funny, and he definitely talked more than he listened to me. Also, he was shocked and a little worried that I couldn't find Saudi Arabia on a map. Now, almost two years into our relationship, Owen has learned to harvest his sense of humor and to converse with me in such a way that makes me feel valued, and I have made an effort to learn my world geography.

Debates surrounding the age that our personalities stabilize still continue; I've read textbooks that claim we're stuck with our personalities from the time we reach three years old, and others that say our personalities are volatile until we reach thirty years old. Research aside, I would imagine that we probably have aspects of our personalities that change more than others and that if we want to we can learn to harvest personality traits that don't come as naturally. Whatever the case, personality just doesn't seem like a substantial enough reason to marry someone.

I like Owen's personality more and more as we continue to grow and change together, but I love our relationship. I can tell him he's annoying, and he can tell me I'm too tense about time. The openness and freedom of thought and expression allows each of us to thrive within the context of us. I may have loved Tom's personality, but that experience feels one dimensional compared to the multi-faceted love that I experience with Owen: I love him, I love me with him, I love our relationship, I love our future plans, I love our conversations, I love our teamwork, I love the life that we are building together....

Also, Owen and I share that inexplicable draw commonly known as good chemistry. Trying to explain that one might take a blog post by itself.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Married with Friends?

When I think of how being coupled affects outside friendships, I think of one particular scene in How I Met Your Mother. Ted and Robin, who have been on the verge of dating for several episodes, finally decide to make it official. A friend walks in on them lazily sitting on the couch watching a movie and instantly knows that they are dating. The gist of it is, people in relationships are more boring than single people.

When Owen and I hit a point in our relationship when we spent more time with each other than anyone else, everyone noticed, and few liked it. We stopped being fun. When we would attempt to hang out with our friends, inevitably someone would complain about our boring-couple habits. We avoided people to avoid the criticism. By taking the avoidance route, we could have ended up with no friends. Thankfully, our friendships have proved more resilient than that.

A few years ago, I read an article about love and change. I can't remember the title or the author, and I cannot find it, so I'll have to paraphrase. The author pointed out that we all change as we progress through life. Our personalities change as much as our situations. So, the person that you fall in love with will likely  change quite a bit over the course of ten years. Given this, how can love last? The author suggested that couples have to change together.

I don't remember if the author explained what "change together" actually means in any realistic sense, but I will an invent an example. In the beginning of a relationship, both partners are conservative Christians. During the course of a year, one partner becomes more involved in the church, and the other takes a secularized philosophy class. One becomes more conservative and the other becomes more liberal in theological thinking. Their relationship falls apart because they no longer share the same values. Had the couple engaged in constant conversation about their evolving values and taken time to engage in the other's activities as well, they may have changed together. I think that we can apply this point to friendships as much as to romantic love.

Owen's closest high school friend gave us a wedding card that said something like this, "at first, I wasn't so sure about Owen getting married because I was afraid that I would lose a friend, but now I realize that I'm actually gaining a friend." This note so clearly exemplifies the power of flexibility in relationships. Because this friend changed with Owen by accepting me into their relationship, their friendship remained stronger than our friendships with those who resisted the change.

So how do you get married and keep your friends? Well, first of all, don't try to continue your friendships as if nothing has changed because that will lead to strange loyalty battles between your spouse and friends. Everyone involved has to embrace the change and accept that relationships all around are going to take different shapes. For love to last, including friend-love, we have to change together.