Choosing a life partner is about answering key questions
Choosing a life partner is arguably the most critical decision one takes as an adult. It is the determinant of most future happiness. You think I am exaggerating?
A study running since 1938 at Harvard backs me up. Dr. Waldinger, a clinical psychologist, has established that relationships with spouses (friends too, but spouses were emphasized) protects you against chronic disease, mental illness, and memory loss well into your 80s!
And whether you are Bill Gates or a street vendor, marital happiness can be a buffer against many of the slings and arrows of an outrageous fate. Case in point is Maharaj from Bombay. He doesn’t ask for a better job or more money despite many days when he walked home to just get his wife a Gajra. His only prayer appears to be asking for someone like Lakshmi to be his wife again!
So let us tackle the question of choosing a life partner by addressing the 5 Ws – Why, When, Where, What, and Who.
1. Why does one need a life partner?
Look around you. The best friend who is available 24X7 right now is going to move on with his/her life in the near future and you won’t be such a priority anymore? Mom and dad? Your roles will reverse in the near-to-far future with age and its host of health issues catching up with them. You will be the caregiver, not the taken-care-of.
Bottom Line: You have to start building your own little nest.
Besides, study after study establishes one thing clearly, marriage makes you happier than a 6 figure salary or a strong faith. Marriage also grants you good health. The catch is, it has to be a fairly happy marriage. Fighting is fine, maybe even great, but the connection to your spouse and trust in him/her is essential.
Surprisingly, marriage can give you wealth too. Marriage has been shown to consistently increase household income in a study conducted in the US. With both partners working, sharing housework and household expenses, this is a no-brainer.
Life is fun as a single person and free of all the complexity and the intrigue taking on another person and their family entails. But avoiding marriage to avoid these is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The complexities will simplify, intrigues will disappear over time, leaving just companionship behind. At some point, you will want someone who has shared your journey and can understand everything you want to say without a single word being said.
Quoting Rajesh Khanna in Anand, “Life should be great, not long.”
The right partner will make the life seem worthwhile even through old age and ill health. Marriage really is an excellent long term investment, if done right.
2. When is the right time?
A very succinct answer to this question is, whenever the right one shows up. But, both society and biology conspire against us, pressuring us to settle with the one available right now rather than search for the right one.
If you look around you, the optimal age for settling down seems to be 20 – 30, lower end for girls upper end for boys. God forbid if you are even approaching the upper limit! Everyone from the maid of 30 years to the distant aunt you have seen twice in your life starts suggesting someone for you. Then there is the inevitable round of temples and dargahs and prayer/fasting regimes.
Biology doesn’t help either, Indian women are advised by well-meaning relatives to finish with childbearing before 30. The biological clock ticks on for another decade at least and research supports 20 – 35 as the ideal childbearing age for women. But, even our Indian gynaecologists want us to finish up by 30!
That possibly puts an upper limit on how long you can look and the age of marriage at roughly 26 for women and 28 for men.
Then there is the herd mentality to marriage. You are determined to enjoy the joys of singlehood as long as possible, but your friends, colleagues start dropping into the marriage trap one by one. Suddenly you find yourself alone or just on the periphery of your group on weekends, holidays and get-togethers and you slowly start thinking may be the right time to choose is Now.
When is the wrong time to get married? That is very easy. It is whenever you are feeling especially low or overwhelmed by the move to a new city, the job you dislike, the promotion you didn’t get and so on and so forth. Important decisions are best made when you are at peace with yourself.
Let us say you moved to a new city and you desperately miss dad picking you from work whatever time you leave or mum having a hot meal ready for the second you step into your home. If you search for a life-partner based on your current frame of mind, you will end up with a chauffeur or a cook! Not that there is anything wrong with either profession, but does this correlate with your long term goals?
Working through a minor crisis, alone, builds character. And helps your confidence level.
3. Where to look for a life partner?
There are really two main camps for looking for a spouse, Arranged marriage and Love marriage. That is one where your parents help you in choosing a life partner and one where you are totally on your own.
Typically arranged marriages start with the rather embarrassed girl or the equally embarrassed guy dressed in their adult best, a saree for the girl, suit for the boy, walking to the local photo studio for marriage biodata photos is still very much a fact of life these days.
The pictures travel more widely than the boy/girl probably would, with pictures posted on popular matrimony websites seen everywhere from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo. They also make their way to various marriage brokers, temples where the retired aunts and uncles meet for spiritual upliftment, social connection, gossip and matching making for their infinite brood of young relatives.
Basically, at the start, finding a spouse via arranged marriage has remained the same, except for expanding the horizon to search for the right one.
But the actual marriage has modernized considerably, the days of setting sight on your spouse for the first time at the wedding ceremony are long gone. Nowadays, both the girl and boy are presented with a pool of potential candidates. Both are given an opportunity to communicate both face-to-face and by phone and email before deciding. The onus of identifying the list of potential candidates falls on the parents in an arranged marriage.
An American study by Dr Pamela Reagan, comparing arranged marriage and love marriage found the level of marital satisfaction to be exactly the same! Read this interesting post comparing love marriages with arranged marriages in India.
The world is your oyster if you choose to go the love marriage route. Dating websites, overseas assignments, vacations, the right partner could be anywhere, right? Wrong. We are built so that familiarity breeds attraction. Most of the time you fall in love with someone familiar. Familiarity changes strangers to friends and potentially something deeper.
Attraction may be magnetic, but we ourselves are not magnets. Human nature being what it is, we are frequently attracted to those similar to us. Despite the seemingly wide gulf between the approaches, the net result is the same. You end up with someone in the same socio-economic class with similar education, caste and creed.
Look at how many boys and girls from IITs or IIMs end up with a spouse from the same institute. Similarly, workplaces are popular hunting grounds for finding your life partner.
Even if you decide you are going to hunker down and focus exclusively on work and keep personal life separate, well-meaning, meddlesome co-workers will keep nudging you until you first look, then fall. That’s life.
You can take a liberal society away from an arranged marriage, but you cannot escape a quasi-arranged marriage in any society!
4. What to look for when choosing a life partner?
We are in the age of equality now, way past the time when the man provided security and woman took care of the house. Earning potential in a man should be above a baseline, but it is not the most critical trait to look for in a partner. Similarly, it is nice if the girl can cook and do household work, but it is definitely not her most important qualification.
Nowadays the girl wants a boy who is nurturing and willing to share in the household work. The boy wants a girl who is well-educated and can pitch in and help with all the dreams and aspirations of life in these modern times.
Psychologists suggest looking for a partner who is socially responsible, respectful and emotionally supportive. Someone who:
- Takes care of their parents, siblings and friends when needed.
- Is willing to help another person in need will definitely do the same for you.
- Treats people with respect is bound to treat you and your people with respect.
- Has the emotional intelligence and will be there for you through all the ups and downs.
And if the person can communicate well? Jackpot!
5. Who is the right one?
Decades-old psychologist research says the right one is someone who generates a sort of Trikonasana of the heart: Touching all three points of the love triangle:
- Intimacy: The person with whom you feel a deep connection, someone to whom you pretty feel close, regardless of how long you have known him/her. This is the someone you will gladly share your first and only cup of coffee in the morning. This is the someone whose fight with his/her boss rouses the lion in you for protection. The someone you will defend to parents, siblings, and best friend. Ultimately someone who will offer you emotional support and lean on you in a crisis.
- Passion: The person who you find attractive definitely, but also the one who shares your passions. An animal rights activist and a fur coat fashionista don’t belong together! On the other hand, someone who takes your passion and makes it their passion is a definite yes. Passion is the driving force for any romance.
- Commitment: Someone who makes a conscious decision to stay with you through good times and bad. And vice versa of course. Commitment to each other grows slowly with time, but it is essential to get past the first few fights you have.
When you are choosing a life partner, the initial drive is the passion or the chemistry that drives your attraction. This will fade over time but the intimacy will deepen. The ability to listen deeply to each other, define common values, convey and understand each others needs all are signs of deepening intimacy.
Commitment is essential to maintain the relationship. Like Michael Simmon says, marriage is hard work, the right person is the one who will inspire you to put on the hard work and energy to make it a great life.
Your friends and/or family can present you with a line of candidates with the right combination of good looks, education, socio-economic background and every other small and big trait that could go into making the right life partner for you. But, not one of them and no amount of psychology or predictive mathematical model or IBM Watson or Google’s DeepMind can correctly guess or help you in choosing a life partner!
But always remember, choosing a life partner is only the first step. Both of you will have to invest time and energy in each other to make a good life of it.
The right person also understands despite all the hype, marriage is not melding of two souls. You will always remain two individuals, but two individuals who share a deep abiding bond. To quote Gibran “Let there be spaces in your togetherness…The oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”
Choosing a life partner: Get started on your journey!
My favourite stories to teach how to choose your partner is Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and if you haven’t seen Kenneth Branaugh and Emma Thompson in the movie version, please do! Their chemistry is irresistible.
It is obvious to us viewers of the play that the sharp tongue and wit Beatrice shows can only be matched by Bernard. Though they start the play despising each other and the idea of marriage in general. His friends and her friends conspire to set them up. The time being right for them, they quickly develop such intimacy that Bernard takes her side when her friend is unjustly maligned and agrees to duel his own kinsman! Everything finally works out and they end up happy and together totally overshadowing the main romance, that of Claudio and Hero.
This also goes to show how important humour and a sense of fun is in choosing a life partner, Hero/Claudio are bound by boring things like honour and reputation while Beatrice/Bernard engage in the most delightful word duels.
Here is a simple how-to list to get you started on the journey to choosing a life partner.
First and foremost look deep within yourself and find your weakness, strength and priorities. This will give you clarity in coming up with the initial list of possibilities.Second, perform Tim Urban’s Traffic – Test on anyone who interests you. Is this person interesting enough to make you want to thank a traffic jam for allowing you to be together longer? To pass this test, the other person needs to be fun, have a great sense of humour, know and respect how your brain works and finally share a good number of your interests, activities and preferences.Third, look at the other person’s flaws and see if you find them acceptable. You may work on your flaws and eliminate them or acquire others, but, at this moment, you are defined as much by your flaws as by any of your sterling qualities. Your life partner must accept you as you are, not take you on as an improvement project. And of course, vice versa.Fourth, take your time. Don’t let the amount of time this is taking get to you. Always remember it is better to spend time choosing a life partner than wasting time regretting the one you ended up hastily choosing.Fifth, and finally, Lean-In! Take the help of your near and dear ones to decide on the one, who will, with time become nearest and dearest to you!
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