Certain characteristics have intertwined themselves into the American dating culture – self-help books, dating blogs and columns, relationship and marriage counseling if our partnerships get rocky, and an accepting environment for divorce if the rocks turn into unmoving boulders.
However, in many cultures across the globe, divorce is socially unacceptable. If a marriage goes awry, many are frightened of the consequence as divorcees are looked down upon by conservatives, mainly elders. They may refuse to speak out in fear of bringing indignity to their families. This is mainly true in regions where arranged marriage is the norm, including Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and parts of Japan. It has been reported that 55% of marriages in the world are arranged. These marriages are subject to the matchmaking abilities of priests, mutual friends, family members, or other trusted third parties. With a divorce rate just above 1%, proponents argue arranged marriage is an effective way for young people to find a partner. Although these divorce rates are the lowest in the world, it does not indicate that people don't want to choose their own path.
So, what happens when an unhappy arranged marriage moves to a country where divorce is not frowned upon?
This American Life features the story of an Iranian couple who entered into a prearranged marriage. They were unhappily married for twenty-seven years. He had a temper. She never really loved him. Then, they moved to the United States. They split and got a divorce. Then to everybody's surprise—especially their grown children—they fell in love and married each other all over again two years later. This time, everything was different. One of their daughters, Nazanin Rafsanjani, tells the story.
The Iranian couple had met and married within three weeks. This timeframe was not out of the ordinary as their family members had pre-arranged the marriage in Iran. When asked her thoughts on her soon-to-be-husband, she responds;
Mrs. Rafsanjani: I thought, “He asked me. He’s serious. I thought I fall in love with him. I have to get married and he was right there. I liked him a lot…. I loved him I guess…. I think. I was only 19 for God’s sake.”
Interviewer: Were you in love?
Mrs. Rafsanjani: “Love is love. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Their daughter, Nazanin, describes her Dad’s situation as always being less complicated. When the interviewer asked her Dad if he was in love, it was as if this shouldn’t even be a question. He didn’t seem to second-guess anything. However, to her Mom, she didn’t know what it meant to love him. She went on to compare an Iranian marriage to buying a watermelon, “You don't know what you have until its too late.”
Her Dad’s temper began to grow worse and worse. He wouldn’t listen to her Mother’s wants or needs. However, by Iranian marriage standards, there was nothing wrong. In the 1880’s of Iranian culture, not one couple on both sides of the family had divorced in 125 years. It wasn’t socially acceptable.You stuck it out no matter how bad it became.
Then, they moved to a part of the world that was more accepting of freedom of personal choice, female independence, and divorce: they moved to America.
The family had been living in the United States for nine years. The Mother had been plotting divorce for six of those years. As she turned forty years old, she decided she could not take it anymore. She waited until her daughters left for college to spare them the sadness and distress. As if to make matters more awkward, they remained living together in the same house for six months. He was unaware that she was filing the divorce papers while living under the same roof.
He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t eat. He started drinking. He went to see the doctor. He started prozac medication. He thought, “My life is done”. He would call his daughter sobbing, saying “I can’t do this” through his tears.
For twenty seven years, she thought he was the one person holding her back. She was now free. "There was a lot of relief. There was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t have to cook all the time. I didn’t have to clean all the time.” Even though she felt free to do as she pleased, she still never dated. Things started getting harder. She would call her daughter saying how lonely she was.
She was independent when there were lots of people depending on her. However, post-divorce, there was nobody to support her or depend on her. Her coupled friends neglected her now that she was classified under being a ‘single’. Invitations to social gatherings stopped flooding in. She felt as if the only people she could rely on were her daughters, and even they didn’t have enough time to spend with their mother.
Meanwhile, their Dad was learning the key to having a successful relationship in American society: the power of communication. He was never taught the importance of communication. So, when he picked up the American bestseller, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, you could say this book changed his life. In Iran, it’s culturally embedded that men should not be second-guessed and women should always abide. He says, “You know, I was taught I’m right. Because I’m right, I don’t need to listen. This chapter of the book tells me I have to relax, listen…” He continues, “I wanted to give myself more knowledge. What did I do wrong if I want to go have another relationship with another woman?”
He started dating. However, the book didn’t tell him how not to talk about his ex-wife. He wasn’t over her and it wasn’t clear if he would ever stop loving her. Nonetheless, he wanted to be married again. He had Iranian relatives introduce him to a young lady and within months he was engaged.
Meanwhile, the mother was growing frustrated and anxious that she may never marry again. She started to yearn for her ex-husband once again. She explains, “When I’m 50, I don’t want to explain every detail of my life. I want someone to know me. Yes, he gets angry. Yes, he’s short-tempered, but I got old with him.”
Two days after her 49th birthday, she called one of her daughters to celebrate, but she was busy. Her daughter replied, “Why don’t you get a boyfriend?” and the mother came to the realization that, “I have to leave these kids alone. I need to fix this. I need to get somewhere where I don’t need her that much. Let me try that old man again.”
She called her ex-husband. He was two weeks away from getting married. He told her he still wanted to be with her. “You still are my wife,” he said. She started crying. He didn’t know what to do, but he knew that he was still in love with her.
He broke off his engagement and decided to try a second time with his ex-wife. They didn't want to move too fast, so they started “dating”. She finally poured out her thoughts, feelings, and everything she was upset about. He listened and said, “You are absolutely right. I want to fix it if you let me.”
He said, “Let's try one more time” and hugged her. She thought “Feels good”.
This time they married after six months instead of three weeks. Their marriage took place in City Hall. Their children boycotted it, rejected it, hated it, until they noticed a palpable difference in their presence. They seemed… happy.
According to their daughter, the building blocks that make up American dating culture- freedom of choice, self-help books, talking excessively about feelings, seeking couples therapy- seemed to have saved their relationship.
She says she loves him, for the first time in her life.