Figuring out Cultural Meanings of Marriage

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Reader’s Question

I am 21 years old and have a bright future ahead of me. When I was in 11th grade, I met a girl I really liked. I was so shy that I never talked to her. I was so in love with her that I started thinking about leaving everything and marrying her. However, she was of another religion, so I knew that we would never be able to live together happily. That made me depressed to the point that I considered ending my life but I pretty much got over it, even though I still have feelings for her.

My cousin looks similar to the girl I had a crush on. My cousin is 13 years old. We meet each other twice or thrice a year when our family goes on vacation together. It started four years back when I saved her from drowning. From then on, she started liking me and we would always stay close to each other. We don’t talk with each other, since she is shy and doesn’t even talk with her own father.

When we are together, we usually hold hands. I have never done anything besides hold her hand, but last time when we were together, she was constantly staring at me (like she’s really fallen for me). I felt awkward and pretended not to look at her. This last time we went on vacation, I distanced myself from my cousin. I care for her, but feel like a child molester. I am too old for her (there is an eight-year difference between us).

She has a lot to enjoy in life and would be happy with a person closer to her in age. I feel guilty because I think I manipulated her feelings for me. My mom and my aunt know about us liking each other. My aunt asks about my relationship status frequently, and my mom tells me that the larger the age gap between partners, the better the marriage (my parents have an age difference of 12 years). I am a Muslim, so marriages between cousins are normal. My mom would be more than willing to get me married to my cousin after six years if I said yes.

I don’t know how I feel about my cousin. I know that it is really bad to like her as a partner because she is so young, but I could see myself waiting for 6-7 years to be with her. I don’t know what I feel; I don’t know what to do. I feel bad about myself and depressed. I am considering finding a job overseas once I complete my studies and not returning to my country for 4-5 years. I feel like removing all the connections with my family and being alone until I get over my feelings and know what I want in life.

Psychologist’s Reply

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Figuring out marriage can be difficult because of the various cultural meanings people attach to it. For example, some families view marriage as an economic transaction, and others view it more in terms of love. That is a very big difference and I think you are wise to want some time to figure out for yourself what perspective you want to take.

When marriage is viewed economically, it seems logical that a larger age difference between partners might be helpful because one partner, usually the male partner, will be more financially stable. However, when marriage is entered into because of feelings and compatibility, then a big age difference can make things a bit tougher. There are distinctive life tasks to accomplish at various ages, physical and mental abilities can differ, and even hobbies sometimes correlate with your stage of life.

The real differences between economic and love marriages, though, are to do with expectations and communication. If you marry someone because your family thinks it’s a good match, then your expectations may focus more on coexistence. However, if you marry someone for love, then your expectations can differ significantly. We expect loved partners to value our feelings and our happiness, not because they have to but because they want to and they expect the same from us. Moreover, we enter into love marriages because specific aspects of our partners are attractive to us — because what we know of them, we like. However, in order to truly love someone, you have to know them.

True love requires deep knowledge of that person. We must know who that person is, what makes them tick, and how they treat others. In short, love requires communication and, because of your shyness, you haven’t done much of that. Of the two relationships you mentioned, neither one involved much talking or getting to know that person. It sounds like both you and your cousin (if she has indeed fallen for you), based your feelings solely on physical interactions and closeness. While many people do make relational decisions for purely physical reasons, there is danger in doing so because the physical part of any relationship is only part of it. Relationships also involve emotional components, and they are the ones that will last the longest.

As for your relationship with your cousin, it doesn’t appear that you’ve done anything wrong. You didn’t make sexual advances or make any demands on her time or affections other than during somewhat rare family vacations. All it seems like you did was help her feel safe and valued. That sounds like a huge gift and I don’t wonder that she looks upon you with great favor. However, it is important to remember that her feelings are her own, just as yours belong solely to you. As such, you can stop feeling guilty and instead concentrate on figuring out what kind of relationship — economic or love — will work best for you, and then move toward achieving that goal.

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