New Relationship Energy

Urban Dictionary has this acronym: NRE. New Relationship Energy.

It’s the molten phase, the early beginnings of a relationship. Urban Dictionary informs me that it’s used mostly for polyamorous relationships, but this seems like an unnecessary containment of an acronym which manages to articulate that languid light sea green feeling when you are just getting to know someone romantically.

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The social expressions both within dating and arranged marriage are so coded and have been on my mind for a while. Everyone in my family, both in the generation before and mine, opted for arranged marriage. I was hoping the younger folks would break the mould a bit but they have not. (Thanks, all)

In some ways, arranged marriage sandpapers the ambiguity involved with dating. Two people arrive at a crossroad with the mutual understanding that marriage is the next step. The question here is whether you choose to walk off into the sunset with the person in front of you or not. Ideally, there is no haziness about intent or the future. I say ‘ideally’ because there are scenarios where the people in question are nudged into an alliance by their family.

When people say ‘forced marriage’, the first picture that pops to mind is someone dragged to the altar kicking and screaming. But it’s a lot less dramatic than that. It’s impossible to discount the social/familial pressure which is implicit but also influences decision making resulting in marriages made from compulsion (South Asian parents are especially good with the guilt trips). Within the community I come from, marriage is seen as a natural progression of age-appropriate milestones.  Anyone who doesn’t adhere to this is viewed as an aberrant,  someone lacking a certain something. Marriage is also seen as an anodyne for problems: ailing parents, an escape hatch towards a new life etc.

The overt social engineering adds layers of complexity to arranged marriage. There are the background checks, dowry, the painfully awkward meetups, the arrangements between family, cultural baggage such as horoscope matching depending on what deity you pray to, as well as the spectre of social class (this is a big one, oof.) and compatibility which loom over arranged marriage. I feel like I’ve missed some stuff, but you get the gist.

But in other ways, arranged marriages aren’t very different from dating. Stepping into the arranged marriage arena can feel like Tinder but with your mother hovering over your shoulder, offering commentary on the profiles.

The self-mythologizing is similar. If every guy on Tinder is a CEO sapiosexual who has visited 53 countries, every guy on the arranged marriage circuit is a God fearing, pious, teetotaller devoid of all vices and who has been saving himself for marriage. The sifting through and sizing up of profiles has the same disposability of Tinder or any dating app. You are given a limited time window to size a person’s life based on a brief summary which strips the person to their age, occupation, education, family background, height, religion.

Of course, the dual anxiety and the thrill of getting to know the right person is also there with arranged marriage. If you take away the orchestrated circumstances of the meeting and if the chemistry is there, the New Relationship Energy (New Arranged Marriage Energy?) is similar.

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I’ve been speaking to my grandmother about her marriage. She was 25 when she got married – late for a Muslim woman of her time. She met my grandfather for the first time on their wedding day. Even typing that made me wince. It’s fascinating in a quietly horrifying way. She was never forced into the marriage but wasn’t exactly an active participant in the process.

There’s a Blink 182 song – Stay Together for the Kids. It starts with a guitar riff, then the drums come in, the first verse sounds like someone’s speaking over the music and then it descends into this gloriously shouty chorus with Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge. The song takes on divorce and is the narrative of a teenager, angry about his parents divorcing. The refrain “Its not right” echoes throughout most of the song.

The marriages I witnessed while growing up were a product of their time and circumstances. Many of them stayed together for their kids the way the narrator in the Blink 182 song wanted his parents to. This isn’t the most inspiring template of marriage to be familiar with; these unions had a resigned “well we’re here so let’s make the most of things because we are all we have” energy to them. Marriages were unions born of social practicalities and norms. Love (or something like it) grew as a result of building a shared life.

My grandmother is in her eighties and my grandfather has been dead for a few years now. I’ve seen the effect his death had on her. A partnership of over 50 years, no matter how nebulous its beginnings, solidifies into something you build your entire life around and his absence plucked something out of my grandmother in a way I didn’t anticipate.

“Were you happy?”

My usually garrulous grandmother is quiet as if this question had never occurred to her. As though happiness in a marriage was an unheard-of prospect.

“I don’t know.”

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NRE has antecedents: drunk in love, the honeymoon period etc. What these phrases fail to capture is that initial emotional intimacy and the tenuous process of making yourself vulnerable. Perhaps vulnerability can be thought of as an emotional muscle you need to flex regularly in any kind of relationship or friendship, or it gets rigid with disuse. It requires careful exercise, constant self-reflection, and a readiness to get bruised, hurt sometimes.

The synonyms for being vulnerable emphasize this alarmist exposure to the possibility of being harmed and aren’t the most reassuring: undefended, unshielded, unfortified, unarmed, without arms, without weapons, defenceless, easily hurt/wounded/damaged, powerless, helpless. Ok then.

This piece is floundering through multiple analogies but another way of thinking about vulnerability (and which has also been written extensively on) is to equate it with walls and boundaries. Putting up barriers gives us the illusion of control and acts as a protective mechanism. But like many have pointed out – the walls that you build to keep out pain, can also keep out joy.

Being vulnerable is hard. And messy, so messy. I know this is a very Breaking News: Water is Wet statement but some of us arrive at this realization at different points in our lives, offloading notions of intimacy we’ve grown up with and armed with our own experiences. Vulnerability takes practice, it means opening yourself to judgement and rejection and relinquishing control. If the thought of someone being intimately acquainted with your deepest hopes and fears terrifies you, well, you’re not alone. Some go through life wearing their heart on their sleeves, some arrive at social situations armed with an emotional hazmat suit – I have helpfully illustrated this below. There really is no playbook here.

Hazmat feelings////

To be vulnerable in a world which privileges coolness and nonchalance is a radical act. And it’s this openness which is so precious in the NRE phase. In the early stages of getting to know someone you often project the idealized version of yourself – the version you think you are, the aspirational self. Somewhere down the line when the contours of a relationship takes shape, you start revealing the fragments which aren’t always visible.

You quietly lay bare your foibles, your weirdness, your past, the most tender parts of your heart, saying this is me. These is what made me. This is what broke me. This is what healed me. This are my darknesses. These are my scars. Stay if you want. This is me.

And oh God, this is so scary – these moments of vulnerability, where things look like they could go either way.

But every now and then when the right person comes along, traces their fingers over your scars, slips their hand into yours and stays beside you – it’s also so very beautiful.

8 thoughts on “New Relationship Energy

  1. Brilliant post.

    Gave me a few uninvited flash backs of my own bumbling path to getting married.

    Funny thing is that the getting married part is a relatively small change compared to having offspring. I guess in the Sri Lankan context offspring is a consequence of marriage.

    That and the turbulence of extended family dynamics is the real test of the relationship. Made me think that what your grand mother felt is a sort of camaraderie. Like what solders in a fox hole share while the world is shooting at you. It’s always good to have someone provide covering fire when you have to bayonet your way through the crap life hurls. The list is too long and varied for a comment.

    Anyway I’m starting to ramble which is not nice. So I’ll blame it on your post and stop 🙂

    Like

  2. Pingback: Old relationship energy – Cerno

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