How I Found Love in an Arranged Marriage

My nontraditional romance taught me how to put myself first

Photo by Saad on Unsplash

I have always accepted that I would have an arranged marriage to preserve my Muslim faith. While Muslims are not required to have arranged marriages, Islam does mandate that we live very modest and chaste lives, and requires men and women to refrain from unnecessary contact with unrelated members of the opposite sex. Therefore, arranged marriage has become a practical custom that helps preserve Islamic values. As I said, I’ve always accepted that’s how I would meet my husband.

In November 2010, my parents invited my now-husband, Abrar, to lunch. Two months later, in January of 2011, we got engaged, and in April of that year, we got married. In the six months between that first lunch and our wedding, Abrar and I spoke on the phone a few times and exchanged lots of emails. I can count on two hands the number of times we met face to face before agreeing to take the marital plunge. And, although we lived in neighboring cities, the reason we didn’t see each other more often was that we needed to find a chaperone for each visit.

Abrar was the third guy I was seriously speaking to with the end goal of tying the knot. Our conversations were tricky, since we were sharing intimate feelings and hopes that we would generally keep safe to ourselves. We felt an unspoken sense of urgency as we tried to determine whether getting married made sense, which made our conversations more purposeful. I knew how many kids he wanted before I knew his favorite color, and he contemplated my philosophy on finances before learning how I like my coffee.

They say that partners in an arranged marriage learn to fall in love — and my marriage is proof that they can. Abrar is an awesome husband and father. But most importantly, my arranged marriage has taught me how to love and prioritize myself.

“Love yourself first, and everything else falls into line.”
— Lucille Ball

Practicing self-love is our collective struggle. As children, we’re taught to share, and as adults, we don’t know how to pull back from sacrificing all of ourselves in the service of work, family, friends, and community.

For me, as a woman whose only experience with men were ’90s rom-coms starring Drew Barrymore, I bought into the notion of “happily ever after” and the “made for each other” bit. For all my book smarts, I’ll sheepishly admit that I didn’t think about how much effort is needed to keep a relationship thriving. Relationships are volatile links, easily detached. Having children, caring for aging parents, investing in a home, juggling full-time jobs, continuing your education — responsibilities can strain a partnership. Add the complexity of an arranged marriage, and you’ve got a dormant volcano resting under those white picket fences.

In an arranged marriage, so much of what you learn about your partner happens on the fly. Your life is already entangled with someone else’s when you’ll suddenly find yourself dumbfounded by something they’ve done. A few years into my marriage, I realized that any unrest I felt was because I was putting undue expectations on Abrar. There are days when life’s stresses and messes became so overwhelming that I would look to him for a solution — the right words that would bring clarity to a situation or the right touch that would make me feel better. But looking solely to Abrar for a solution to any pain would make him my hero, and I am not a damsel in distress.

Yes, we should expect our partners to be our go-to people in times of need. But, subconsciously, I realized I was seeing Abrar as the solution to my problems and stresses, rather than as my partner who would help me discover the solution. I was expecting his every action, decision, and idea to be correct in any given moment, and if he made the “wrong” move, I would panic and worry that maybe it was a sign that we weren’t meant to be.

But looking solely to Abrar for a solution to any pain would make him my hero, and I am not a damsel in distress.

The dissatisfaction that came with not getting the results I wanted from my husband made me realize that I had unfairly placed my state of happiness on his shoulders. So I started a journey of self-discovery. When I asked myself what I wanted and began to think about what makes me happy — no surprise, I didn’t know the answer. I had spent the majority of my life fulfilling obligations and expectations (perceived, as well as real) and hadn’t taken the time to figure out what I wanted my story to be. So, despite feeling spent, I made time to hang out with myself. I stole minutes from my day to reflect and did what I could to drown out the literal noise around me, even when it was a struggle. That sometimes meant sacrificing something else — time spent with my kid, sleeping, or hanging out with a friend. I needed to put in the work to get to know myself and that work required my undivided time and attention.

What I’ve learned about putting myself first

Learning to love myself meant that I needed to find ways to be at peace with who I am and the life I had chosen, no regrets. Only by uncovering that inner peace was I going to embrace both the good and the challenging times in my life with confidence, courage, and wisdom.

So how do you practice self-love? There isn’t any right or wrong to it, but here’s what I’ve realized after giving myself some downtime:

  • Loving yourself involves silencing the constant guilt that comes from being too tired to do your best every. Single. Time.
  • You need to train your brain to speak intentionally, which means making your feelings and wants apparent to those closest to you.
  • Embrace the word “no” and use it when it feels right.
  • Permit yourself to feel angry, disappointed, frustrated, and all the other unpleasant emotions that come with living life. It’s not supposed to be rosy all the time.
  • Invest time and energy into activities and pastimes which make you feel fulfilled.
  • Stop comparing your life with others (full stop) and seek opportunities to express gratefulness outwardly.
  • Most importantly, if you’re in a relationship, share the mantle of nurturing it by placing half the responsibility on your partner and trusting that person to do their part.

I don’t think I would have learned to love myself so quickly without my arranged marriage. Abrar and I didn’t enter into our union with any sense of surety — only hope and faith that it would work out.

Therefore, I had to — and have to — love myself first, because I am my own safest bet.

As we flex and grow, the word “arranged” has disappeared from the description of our marriage.

Self-love has given me the clarity I need to focus on my future. Where do I want to go from here, professionally? As a mother? As a family member and friend? How do I become the best version of myself? What is my legacy going to be? Self-love has provided a path for me to practice forgiveness because it has made it possible for me to release the irritation or anger I typically felt when faced with even minor infractions. Instead, I can focus only on those things that affect the big picture. Self-love has also helped me accept that kindness is my greatest strength, and that showing kindness doesn’t make me weak or a pushover. Finally, it has given me the courage to accept that things will be alright so long as I strive to live my best life.

When old habits begin to gnaw at the edges of my newfound enlightenment (which they often do), I remind myself that my actions are always an earnest effort to practice my faith. This effort is not in vain. I stumble. Sometimes I forget the new person I’ve evolved into and regress to my old insecurities. But loving yourself is a 24/7 activity and, like exercise, it will become more comfortable with time, and you will become stronger and better for it.

Abrar and I are exercising our relationship together. As we flex and grow, the word “arranged” has disappeared from the description of our marriage. What remains is eight years of genuine affection and a whole lot to look forward to.

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