Debie Thomas tells the story in River Teeth of growing up in a conservative Indian family, one in which arranged marriages were a normal and accepted practice. She describes a discussion she had with her father at age 12 about “falling in love”:
I ask the next question fast, before my courage gives out. “Did you fall in love with her?” … I need Daddy to confess that he felt something for Mummy when he married her, and this is the only way I know to ask. But he doesn’t answer. He gives me a vocabulary lesson instead.
“Indians don’t ‘fall,’ Debie. We don’t marry by accident. We choose. Choose to marry, choose to love. We’re not powerless like Americans.”
The concept is incredibly difficult for Thomas to accept, growing up as she is in a culture saturated with more glamorous, soap-opera influenced conceptions of love. This is the love she wants as a teenager. But as she grows older, she begins to consider its pitfalls, too:
Maybe the mistake Americans make, I conclude, is that they confuse attraction for romance. They do fall, because all of us fall, but what they fall into isn’t love. … As a child, as a teenager, it doesn’t occur to me that on-screen romance is wholly filtered, polished, packaged. I don’t notice that American love stories generally end right where love—sustained love, the volitional kind—ought to begin—at the first kiss, on the wedding day, on the morning after the first heated night in bed. I never imagine Erika Kane minus her lipstick, or Victoria Newman ten years into a marriage.
The idea of attraction dissolving into marital disillusionment is nothing new: it’s a common theme, a story of discontent and temptation that threads its way through literature. It’s the downfall of Anna Karenina, the angst and unhappiness of Madame Bovary. As Bovary thinks to herself at a crucial point in the book,
Why was life so inadequate, why did the things she depended on turn immediately to dust? … Nothing, anyways, was worth looking for; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a malediction, every pleasure its own disgust, and the sweetest kisses left on your lips no more than a vain longing for a more sublime pleasure.
Madame Bovary is searching for perfection—and when she cannot find it, she succumbs to despair. It’s a rather common tale, though perhaps not so dramatic in everyday life as in Flaubert’s novel. We glamorize human connection to such a degree, we are horrified and shocked when we disappoint each other with our own fallibility. Living amongst flawed and sinful human beings, we respond with disillusionment, restlessness, dismay. Bovary seeks lover after lover, distraction after distraction. When we realize there is no perfect “soul mate,” life becomes a dreary dance of new entanglements, hopeful joys that fade fast.
Thomas is right: our society conveniently escapes these truths by cutting the ending short, by inserting the “happily ever after” where Tolstoy and Flaubert begin their novels, and where Thomas’ parents begin their love story.
But we don’t have to respond to our own flawed story lines with disillusionment. We can respond by choosing to love. As Thomas’s father puts it, we don’t have to be powerless.
This isn’t just true of romantic relationships: it is also true of everyday life in community. We can easily become irked and irritated by neighbors, town government, the flaws in our houses. No place is perfect. Like Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, we can begin to worry and wonder: what are we missing because we settled with this place? As Chris Whiley writes for Front Porch Republic,
There is a risk to staying put. We should acknowledge it. That seems odd—what could be more conservative than putting down roots? But it is wildly speculative. The risk goes by the name: “opportunity cost.” By staying put you limit yourself to what the land can yield, to what this particular place can yield. And if you’ve made Detroit your home, well, its fate is yours as well.
So why root yourself at all—in a marriage, or in a place? Why not mimic the lives of the soap opera stars, dabbling in different loves, moving from place to place, enjoying all the allure of a life without duty or responsibility?
Whiley answers this question well: “Every formula for freedom I’ve come across contains some form of dependency, usually hidden, like some secret ingredient.”
There is freedom in choice: in choosing to make permanent decisions, in choosing to bury your roots deep in a specific soil. There is freedom in choosing a life partner, someone to build an entire future with. Contrary to the narrative of society, it is after the vows, the wedding day, the house contract, the babies—when the “volitional kind” of love begins—that the real adventure can begin. Because knowing, and being known, offers us the freedom to be ourselves, to grow and change, without losing security and love. In marriage, we marry together freedom and security, forgiveness and truth. We commit to giving our partner grace, no matter the frustrating or fearsome challenges that may greet us. In committing to a place, we receive an assurance of community and rapport that will sustain us in the tribulations of life.
It isn’t perfect—but that’s not the point. It will never be perfect: but it will be good.