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Advice: How Can I Convince My Family I Shouldn't Get Married Right Now
A young woman weathering family pressure must reformulate her relationship to her goals first
I live in Pakistan with my parents, I am financially independent and contribute to the family expenses. I haven’t been able to move out partly because some things did not work out and partly because I worry no one will be able to take care of my parents after me. In the past year, I have been accepted at a really nice funded program. I also have been trying really hard to make a career in screenwriting but I am always told there are no opportunities in Pakistan. I occasionally get gigs to work as an assistant writer. The gigs are sporadic and as of yet, I do not see how my career in this line of work can progress. Despite everything, I am considered someone my parents want to see married off. I understand they are coming from a place of love, but the friction between their ambitions and my own sense of self and direction for life is really hurting me. Right now, they are looking into a proposal for me and the family will visit soon. I have been reading "Where do I go from here?" and found a lot of solace in it. I do not want an arranged marriage, especially not now. The criteria is so different from what I want in life. I have been told the guy has a nice job, but that doesn't tell me if he is a transphobe or a homophobe (with my family, these will be seen as positive traits and I have reason to think he might be). Perhaps more importantly, there are things about myself I would like to explore. I had a really tumultuous childhood and adolescence, and I have been trying so hard to repair myself. I am trying to forgive my parents and move on from a lot of resentment. I have been made to feel really small so many times in my family and in my adolescent relationships that I want time to be, to do my own thing, to trust my gut and make decisions for myself, find my own person. I also want to explore things I like doing. I want to write, apply for things, and do all of this without the fear of failure. This has already been hard because my parents often ask what I am getting out of writing. I know an arranged marriage has very different requirements for who you are allowed to be. The guy might be nice but he is moving abroad in a couple of months and wants marriage before that. I am open to making space for another person in a companionship but not like this. These will not be considered legitimate reasons by my family. I do not even know how to articulate them to my family, I never have. Already, I have been told that I will be angering God by refusing without a solid reason. I am so scared of their disapproval. I feel like if I move ahead with this I will be resentful for the rest of my life. I will be angry even if I am a responsible wife. It's not a forced marriage situation, I have been told I can say so, but the no has to be backed by "legitimate" reasons.
I understand the anxiety you must feel. For many Pakistanis, getting married is like getting a driver’s license—a rite of passage expected at a certain age and discussed as if it’s as simple to acquire. For my parents’ generation it was. My dad’s mom saw my mom at a wedding and sent a proposal to my mom’s mom. She accepted on my mom’s behalf, because no reason not to was ever expressed by my mom. The same is true of most of their peers.
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These arrangements often work, even now, because a shared value system is a more important foundation for a relationship than say, shared tastes. But our values as modern women have evolved. And the economic dependency that bent our decision making has also, thankfully, lessened. Which makes a process that seems idyllic to our parents painfully alienating for us—as well as unurgent. And when we reject the premise entirely then—like any system when challenged—it casts us as a problem to be solved rather than a person being failed. For those who aren’t familiar with rishta culture, to call it a formal marriage proposal doesn’t quite capture the nuanced choreography of the ritual, the number of people involved, and the amount of main character syndrome rampant among them all.
The “legitimate reasons” line stood out to me because it’s one I’ve heard before myself, in the same context. My response to unwelcome (as they always are) rishtas is usually brief, I point out that it’s not a situation that could lead to a successful outcome for me. That’s the end of the matter. And it’s the truth, a process incapable of accurately communicating who I am has never, and is unlikely to ever, lead me to anyone or anything I am compatible with. The one time I was pressed to defend a refusal was by a relative in Pakistan who has since learned it’s not a topic they have any right to input on. Sometimes Pakistanis need to be reminded marriage is about the health and happiness of two individuals, it’s not just event planning.
There’s no real argument that can follow a pointed admittance that you won’t be able to have a happy life with someone. Ultimately, the person trying to argue the point is pushed to admit whether or not they value your happiness at all. And if they don’t, if they’re asking you to instead value whatever they’re manipulatively invoking (god, etc), don’t engage. Let them tire themselves out, not wear you down. Your family needs to learn to live with your refusal more so than you need to accommodate their disapproval.
The relational conflict here isn’t between you and a potential marriage, it’s the strain between you and your parents. You don’t have functional lines of communication with the people you live with. More than external pressure, you’re facing an internal lack of power that you must restore. The subject of your future and who it involves is a topic that requires vulnerability. It’s likely difficult for you to be vulnerable with people you’ve learned to be guarded around. The fear holding you back isn’t a present day fear of disapproval. It’s the childhood pain of rejection triggered whenever you need to be vulnerable with your family. Remember you’re an adult now. You’re not asking them for anything—you’re telling them. The child that once felt small in this home now has you to advocate for them.
Be honest. When the subject comes up, tell them the temporary peace of mind your acquiescence would afford them would for you permanently wreck the health and happiness you’ve worked hard to gain. You don’t need to prove it to them by allowing your health and happiness to be wrecked in the meantime. To put it in terms your parents will understand, you don’t need anyone to pay your bills so what’s the urgency? If they cite your age tell them how you could never be happy joining a family for whom a bride’s age was important. As a trump card, ask them who will take care of them once you leave? And why are they advocating so hard for some guy? Remind them they’re your parents—not his. Any temporary annoyance and frustration from your parents that you risk is completely dwarfed by what you’d risk if you entered a marriage wrong for you.
You’ve said you fear disapproval. Why—what does it risk? You won’t be forced, so why live with panic in your throat? Your parents’ disapproval amounts to nothing more than them being annoyed (and possibly annoying) in the short term because you are making the choice best for you in the longterm. That’s not me diminishing their place in your life that’s me describing reality. They’ll get over hearing “no”, could you get over the sacrifice required to say yes? Either way, this should not continue to bear on your mental health. They’re going to see you as stubborn anyway, so be stubborn. It sounds like they're keen on your answer and willing to accept it, however begrudgingly.
Since these are people you live with, you must be especially resolute and especially detached from the consequences of that resolve. How they respond may disappoint you but don’t allow it to impact you further than that. Allow me to be yet another advice columnist to confirm that we cannot change others. It’s not your responsibility to and it’s not as necessary to your well being as it may seem. Your parents’ insistence on “legitimate reasons” assumes the power to withhold the legitimacy of your already very legitimate reasons. If you’ve never shared these reasons with your family, it may also be a genuine ignorance on their part. Regardless, the only person that can speak to the legitimacy of your refusal is you.
What you lack isn’t a good counter-argument, it's confidence. Your environment sounds dismissive and invalidating, you need to preserve your health in it anyway. That’s what is at stake here. It’s not who will “win” an argument, but the toll it’s taking on you. You are clearly an intelligent and capable person in tune with her feelings.
In the way you’ve written to me, you’re making a plea for the validation unavailable in your home. You tell me all about the (very valuable) work you’ve already done towards your self development, you list your (impressive and exciting) accomplishments and (highly promising) future opportunities. You even share your awareness of the practical challenges you face. You’re trying to convince me of your sound reasoning the same way you wish your family would be convinced. I’m happy to acknowledge that you’re right to think and feel the way you do. But I’d rather you not feel pushed to explain yourself. Draw courage from your self knowledge! You know how wrong the arrangement would be for you. To live with strength you need the self assuredness that validating yourself would provide.
When you read what you’ve written to me do you not see the bright young woman with a clear understanding of, and vision for, herself? Validation is a basic human need. It’s dangerous to give others sole discretion over something you’re starved for. It’s common to grow up without having learned to recognize the validity of one’s emotional reality. It’s important to learn how to do so as an adult. Those who don’t self-validate live unsure of themselves and are likely to prioritize others’ feelings over their own. Relying on others’ to see you subjects you to the limitations of their sightline. You need to believe in your own vision.
It’s only natural this would be a fresh lesson for you given the course of your life thus far. You had to learn who you are, as many of us do, in an environment that didn’t fully see you and could not affirm all the parts of yourself that needed to be nurtured. This isn’t the malevolence of our loved ones as much as it’s the result of their own upbringing. You had to figure out what you wanted and needed, without reference points, moving blind and forming a picture through trial and error. And now, once that picture has finally begun to take shape, it feels at risk of being torn apart before you’ve even formed your grip on it. That must be immensely threatening.
Surrounded by family pressures and few models, you live life on defense mode—out of touch with how you can shelter your emotional wellbeing. You should not keep living with the level of stress you’re under. The boundaries I’m recommending aren’t protests, their safeguards around your mind and heart. What you’re experiencing right now is a potent cocktail of childhood triggers, the pain of being unseen by the people it feels most urgent to be seen by, the threat of losing access to the future you aspire to, the isolation of being your only advocate. It must be horribly discouraging, depleting the most critical element of life—a sense of possibility for one’s self. To endure draining environments we must be our own battery packs. The way you describe yourself and your life indicates a person missing a very necessary optimism about their own life. You must be vigilant about guarding it.
Your discomfort with family disapproval signals a need to develop boundaries. It also hints at something else I want to advise you on.
With “despite everything” you reveal that you see your goals and achievements as a bartering chip. And in doing so, you doom yourself to a profound sense of failure when those goals and achievements do not challenge your parents’ view of what’s best for you. You should feel proud of, and inspired by, where you’ve gotten yourself. Instead you’re expecting your goals and achievements to passively communicate on your behalf. And of course they don’t, which undermines your self worth and devalues what you’ve accomplished. When you require your achievements to be validated by a resulting transformation in others—in what they value, how they treat you, what they expect of you—you give away your power. And you lessen your ability to enjoy what you’ve achieved for what it is worth.
You may be growing attached to an idea of how things need to work out for you for your choices to be “legitimized”, a level of achievement and success that would finally win your family’s faith in you—maybe even their respect and awe. The fantasy might feel like a promising solution but I urge you to disconnect that baggage from your goals. It generates anxiety—it is not a useful propellant. And it will poison your relationship to your dreams. You need to be happy and healthy before, after, and while achieving them.
You need to be okay right now. You need to be okay while making incremental progress. You need to be okay on the days you don’t make any “progress”. You need to be okay when the progress you make isn’t measureable or externally validated through the right awards or milestones. You need to be okay if the right awards and milestones find you standing alone. You need to remember life can change in ways that take time to adjust to and you need to be able to keep going anyway. You need to not be at risk of losing your connection to your hopes and dreams because they couldn’t bear the weight of everything else they needed to be; proof of your worth to yourself, a counterweight to the pull of people’s expectations of you. You risk warping your ability to value yourself until you acquire the “right” accolades and position, and that will steal your confidence from you—confidence you need everyday in all other aspects of your life, confidence you need today as we speak. Confidence you’ll need in making, and standing by, well informed decisions from a place of security, not fear.
Your parents may wish they had reason to plan a wedding, but if they truly love you I’m sure they’d much prefer the health and happiness you can guarantee them by not betraying yourself to please others. If they aren’t mature enough to understand that, that’s unfortunate but not relevant. You need to live authentically anyway.
To effectively stand up to family and cultural pressures you must be standing in the first place—immovably rooted in your own vision for your life. What I’m describing doesn’t require delusions of grandeur. It requires something you’ve already demonstrated; a sense of self and a will to protect it.
Ayesha A. Siddiqi is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.