This piece is part of an ongoing series featuring real people's epic love stories. Each one is a poignant reminder of true love's power to conquer almost anything.
Have you ever been curious about arranged marriage? Maybe not curious enough to try it out yourself -- but it does hold a certain mystery in American culture.
We've all heard the horror stories about child brides. But for millions of middle-class people around the world, arranged marriage has far less drama. It's simply an accepted way of joining families together based on shared values and backgrounds. The success rate of arranged marriages is astounding.
Except sometimes such a union just doesn't work out. What happens then? For Pratima Aravabhoomi, a young mother who left her arranged marriage to start a new life on her own terms, the answer was anything but simple.
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A Modern Arranged Marriage Begins
Aravabhoomi was a bright-eyed college student in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad when a matchmaker introduced her to her 29-year-old future husband.
"He was eight years older than I was," she says. "And he lived in the U.S. There's no way we would have met if it weren't for the arranged marriage." But that didn't faze her at the time.
The young man and his parents expressed their interest in the match. And why wouldn't they, with Aravabhoomi's dark, lustrous hair and charming smile. "And then of course the question is, do I like him as well?"
Just a generation earlier, Aravabhoomi says, she wouldn't have had an option at all. Even so, "it's an unsaid rule that when a man decides he wants you as a bride, you're pressured to say 'yes.' But you can say 'no.'"
She agreed, but with one condition: She wanted to finish her studies and graduate first.
"At 21, I was too young to get married," Aravabhoomi says. "You don't really think about what marriage is about at that age. I just assumed he would be like me."
It was her future husband who worried about the match at first. "He met with me and wanted to make sure I wasn't pressured into marrying him, and wanted to know if I was worried about our age difference," Aravabhoomi recalls.
"I told him I just wanted to postpone the wedding for six months so I could take my exams. That was my one condition."
Her fiance agreed, and they married after she'd graduated from college. Not knowing what exactly to expect, Aravabhoomi left to begin a new life with her husband in America.
A New Life in a New Country
"It took a year to adjust to the U.S.," Aravabhoomi remembers. "I didn't know anyone else here." She was among the first of her friends to get married, and they were all back home in India.
The newlyweds couldn't have found a more different place to settle than the small town of Eufaula, Alabama. That's where Aravabhoomi's husband worked. But since her husband's friends lived in Atlanta, Georgia, they spent their weekends there.
"We were constantly commuting back and forth from Eufaula and Atlanta," she remembers. "It was exhausting!" Eventually Aravabhoomi started living in Atlanta full-time, where she began a graduate program in design.
"I came with the expectation that we would have a lot in common," she tells us. "But I tend to be more active. I always wanted to try different things and travel for our vacations. He was more laid-back. He didn't want to travel."
In 2002, the couple had a baby girl. "I wanted to get a job," Aravabhoomi says. "He wanted me to stay at home with our daughter."
More concerning, they disagreed about money. "I was frugal," she says. "He wanted to throw parties and have 35 of his friends over every weekend. There was too much friction, especially for our daughter to see. I thought it was better for her to grow up without the fighting."
So she decided they should divorce.
Like Fighting 100 People
Divorce is extremely rare in India, about one in 1,000 marriages as of 2010. It is rising, especially among the middle class, but it's still far less common than it is in the States.
When Aravabhoomi broke the news to her parents, it took them about four months to accept it.
"For them, it was all about trying to work it out no matter what because we had all these social pressures," she explains. "Marriage isn't just about the two people. You have so many people working together, making arrangements not just about the wedding, but also your lives. It's an exchange between families."
Not to mention, her parents had spent a great deal of money on her wedding. That made her feel obligated to stay in a marriage that was making her miserable.
"I think they understand now," Aravabhoomi says of her parents, "but the scar of the divorce will always be there. It goes against their belief system that as long as you're good people, you should get along."
It wasn't just Aravabhoomi's parents who objected. "Everyone back home was trying to get us back together," she recalls. "At the time of the divorce, it was crazy because I had to fight against 100 people. That's how it felt." Only a few of her cousins her age supported her decision.
So imagine trying to leave your husband while your whole family is pressuring you to stay. Then imagine what it's like for a new immigrant and single mom to start supporting herself.
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"I had no job yet, no idea what to do, no experience. What would I tell people in the working world?" she wondered. "'I'm 29 and this is my first job!'"
Aravabhoomi had left the country India behind. But after her divorce, she cut herself off from all things Indian so she could make a fresh start.
"I felt like all Indians were a certain way," she says. "Like the culture was against me and what I was trying to do. For two years, I didn't want anything to do with Indian culture. I called myself Amy. I wouldn't even eat Indian food."
When she was finally ready to start dating, she specifically avoided Indian men.
But that all changed when she met the right man -- an Indian one -- in 2009.
A Surprising Match Made on Her Own Terms
He was her age, another divorcee. "He's a very different person than me, but we have complementary skills and the same goals in life," she says. They were both older and wiser, with a clearer vision for what they wanted out of marriage. And funny enough, having a culture in common brought them closer together. They wed in 2011.
Years after her first marriage, she still has that charming smile. Now Aravabhoomi writes about "happiness hacks" -- ways to reduce stress. "I help others find their happiness by growing themselves just like I did."
Aravabhoomi marrying her second husband
Even though it was scary and difficult, Aravabhoomi learned a lot and grew stronger as a result of leaving her arranged marriage. She left behind the parts of her culture that blocked her self growth, but she also learned what makes a couple truly compatible -- and happy.
"Actually, it was our shared Indian backgrounds that brought us together," she says of her new husband.
After all, compatibility isn't just about who you are as a person. It's about that AND it's about your values, your life goals, your family, and your history -- as any matchmaker will tell you. But you don't necessarily need a matchmaker to help find your ideal mate. With enough wisdom, you can figure that out for yourself.
Do you think there might be some advantages to an arranged marriage, if it's done carefully?
Images © iStock.com/AtomicSparkle, via Pratima Aravabhoomi